WRITTEN BY JONES WILLINGHAM
PHOTO BY BRE SAXON
Good Grief, the debut album from Birmingham band Bitter Calm, is a stunning exhibition of grief, but also of the healing process that one undergoes as they make their way through the muck of life. After the dissolution of his band, the death of his father, and the end of a relationship in disturbingly quick succession, at the age of 19, lead singer, Michael Harp, rediscovered himself through familial memories and an outpouring of songs that, after four long years of tinkering and writing, made its way into an album released on AUGUST 16th.
It’s a beautiful work that immediately impacts listeners with its unique blend of orchestral instrumentation and guitars so loud you feel them in your chest. I called Michael days before the album released to talk about how Bitter Calm came to be and the power of grief in art.
I remember you playing songs from this record years ago under a different name, and most of the press on the record talks about how these songs took nearly four years to create from start to finish. Tell me the story behind that gap and how it influenced the record.
(laughs) I can try to summarize four years of my life, I guess. I’m really glad that this much time passed between the events that informed the writing to them actually coming out because I can view everything more objectively now. With most of the subject matter, it doesn’t cost me any emotional energy to listen to the songs now — I felt something, I externalized it, and there it is. And as soon as I externalize it, I don’t really have to feel it as strongly anymore. The entire process was super healing and positive because I didn’t intend on writing a record on death or grieving. I was grieving, so that’s just what I talked about. What’s cool, though, is that because I let the songs sit for so long, you kind of see the whole grieving process from front to back – you see the beginning of feeling sad and scared, but by the end it’s definitely more hopeful – like you feel some sort of relief.
There’s a line in “Outsided” (“God fill me with infinite memory”) that reflects that hopeful, reparative idea.
Grief is so different from other trauma in that way because when something traumatic happens, you typically want to forget all about it. When someone close to you dies, though, you don’t want to forget about them. I thought that was an interesting concept, especially when I look at tracks I wrote seven or eight years ago and see how I handled grief then compared to how I handle it now. It helped me thoroughly, and that was kind of my goal for the record so that it could help other people. Maybe it can make grief a little easier on them.
You did this project by yourself for a little bit, but then suddenly you threw a band together to record these songs — and a unique one, at that, featuring elaborate string arrangements with a heavier slowcore sound. What made you want to have a band again?
At first, I was solely working with drum machines and filling things out with electronics. Quite honestly, I realized that with the material and subject matter of the band, I couldn’t do it alone. I didn’t want to do it alone. Not only did I want to collaborate with these amazing bandmates, but I thought it could lighten the mood in a way — if anything, knowing that I have other people around me to support me.
A significant component of Bitter Calm is the visual experience that comes with the album. You edited a ton of personal footage for this project, what was this experience like?
Yeah, my mom and dad’s family obsessively documented everything for me growing up. Every Thanksgiving dinner, every event, every anything, someone had a camera out. And I remember a couple of months after my dad died, my mom gave me this huge box of VHS tapes and asked me to get them digitized. When I got them back, I started going through them, and I realized that there was so much there that I wanted other people to experience. It was just bizarre, and I had no context for most of it, but it’s like nostalgia for something you’ve never actually experienced. It produces a really cool feeling to spy on someone else’s life from like, 30 years ago.
And these made it to the album?
Yeah, most of the footage came from my mother’s Bat Mitzvah. Track 3 is my great-grandfather, and the song right before “Summer Camp” is my great-grandmother. All of the videos were shot by my dad, which I thought was really interesting. So much of the record is tied up in his perspective and his presence, and it was really cool for me to experience his literal point of view from the same age as me.
Does your family like the album?
My mom is my biggest fan, but I also believe she’d steer me away from something if I was sucking at it (laughs). So I think they like the album.
Listeners tend to celebrate the “sadness” of an album, oftentimes rallying behind it as you’ve mentioned earlier in the interview. Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to keep doing what you’re rewarded for, despite it possibly harming you in the process?
I remember in my first band I would get into a situation that was harming me, but I’d exit the situation slower because I was writing music. I thought that because I was writing music, that meant that something was going right. So eventually when s— hit the fan, I was just left with me. Velouria [the first band] was done, my father died, my girlfriend had dumped me, and I was back in Tuscaloosa just sitting in a dorm room wondering what happened. Something I’ve realized over the past couple of years is that I don’t have to feel bad to talk about the times in which I did; I don’t have to continue feeling bad for the sake of writing music about it. And because of that, I proudly write slow. Difficult experiences are inevitable, but you don’t have to manifest them for yourself as some kind of sacrifice to the world. I am perfectly content with writing one song in three or four months, and I’m not going to hurry that up for anyone else’s benefit. I feel like somehow I’ve pigeonholed myself as this “emotional songwriter” writing about rock bottom and grief, but I’m not going to create a problem for myself for the sake of solving it with art. Overall, I think it’s all about who you’re surrounding yourself with and who you’re collaborating with — I’m surrounded by great people, and I’m thrilled that these songs exist because I am not feeling bad.
Earth Libraries Announces AUGUST 16th Release of Bitter Calm’s Debut LP, Good Grief. Singles and pre-order available now