Philly Duo's Latest LP Is A Collective Confrontation with Mortality
Photo by Amy June Breesman
“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.” – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Death has closely followed all movements of passion, rage and change, and Baldwin here is speaking to the reality of death in the Civil Rights Movement. People dying is so significant, yet we rarely find a way to talk about it that’s simultaneously personal and collective. Some, like Baldwin, successfully give voice to our grief, but often we simply lack the language to describe experiencing the death of the people closest to us. Pinkwash – made up of Joey Doubek and Ashley Arnwine – is attempting to create that space within independent music for the feeling and language of death, frustration, and coping.
The band has been laying down the foundation for this space for a while. Doubek spent 15 months taking care of his mother while see was battling cancer. When she passed away, he communicated his experience to the world on Pinkwash’s 2014 release Your Cure, Your Soil and 2015’s Cancer Money, both on Sister Polygon Records. “As far as themes go, the tape and 7” are a pure form of frustration over the Cancer Industrial Complex and anger over death and pain,” he says. Pinkwash’s newest LP Collective Sigh, to be released on Don Giovanni Records on May 14th, represents the next phase in the duo’s emotional and artistic process. “Collective Sigh has some dark material,” notes Doubek, “but in many ways it’s a record about coping and moving forward in a lot of ways. The action of a sigh is physical. How the sigh happens to you physically is related to coping process, there is a physical release, that is the sigh.”
So why a collective sigh? “For me it’s kind of a way of checking myself because the collective is a way to remember that pain is experienced by everyone and there are so many different ways that human beings experience pain and that for myself, I need to stay hooked into that,” Doubek explains. “I mean it to be a broad thing as well as feeling this very personal thing. It is a very important thing to keep that theme in my life.” Death does not have to be total synonym for goodbye, and the way we each deal with it will never look the same. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to process it together. Titles like “Cancer Money,” and “Burning Too,” are bridges into understanding the personal, social and political sides of death. And the band does not shy away from the political element of their medium. Drummer Arnwine elaborates: “When I play music and make art, I feel a sense of wanting to use that platform as a way to have a message and be inclusive.”
…the collective is a way to remember that pain is experienced by everyone and there are so many different ways that human beings experience pain and that for myself, I need to stay hooked into that.
Doubek and Arnwine playing music together is a powerful display of communication between two people. That power gets translated very well through their new album, but you need to see them live to fully witness the transfusion of pain, love, and grief between the two. “Because we have had this relationship for a long time, it feels nice when we play music together,” says Doubek. “We just get each other and we have been able to react to each other. It has helped nurture our relationship. We are both very emotional players. You feel so much when you see people put their heart into their art.” Arnwine adds, “I can’t help it, it is just natural to put that into it, you know?”
All of Pinkwash’s albums and live shows are heavy works of emotional labor. What does Pinkwash keep for themselves, and what are they comfortable with us knowing? How do they create boundaries for this emotional labor? “I feel like in some cases my emotions are just kind of turned off,” says Doubek. “When I talk about it or record the lyrics to Cancer Money, and I’m saying ‘cancer money,’ over and over again and I am talking about things that pretty grotesque in a lot of ways, but I can turn off some of my verbal and emotional brain and use that energy to push through my body and my vocal chords and not through my brain is a way to make me feel ok about it. I feel like even though I am comfortable talking about it too, I can also just turn off something.” Arnwine confirms the feeling, noting, “Doesn’t everyone have to do that? How could you get through the world without being able to do that?”
Collective Sigh is delicate and ferocious. The 10 song record is composed of songs where you hear the loudest cries and deepest silences that mortality gives to us. Songs like “Walk Forward With Your Eyes Closed,” and “Sigh,” make you feel like someone has finally lifted you off the roller coaster you have been stuck on trying to grieve. The band says the album has two love songs, four songs about the death of Joey’s mom, and two songs about coping and moving forward. The album shows us that grieving and healing does not have to be about forgetting or leaving anyone or anything behind. Instead these two best friends take all they have and bring it to everything they meet. They are, to use Baldwin’s words, “confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”