An Exclusive Gateway to the Secrets of Life

Carl Broemel and Chris Rush

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

After reading The Light Years by Chris Rush, musician and songwriter Carl Broemel, a member of the band My Morning Jacket, felt inspired to write the song “Face of the Earth.” The song appears on his new EP Brokenhearted Jubilee. Rush and Broemel exchanged questions about their creative influences, how Rush’s book inspired Broemel, and tarot cards.

Five questions for Chris Rush from Carl Broemel:

Carl Broemel: You have an astonishingly detailed memory. How many of your journals survived to help put together the events in The Light Years? And how did it feel to dive back into them?

Chris Rush: The notebooks from the road were lost long ago. Some disappeared in the chaos, others were sacrificed to the campfire. The only surviving materials from that time are the letters and drawings saved by my mother.

Looking through those papers, decades later, I became fascinated by my faith and foolishness, my complete lack of fear. In writing the book, I tried to stay true to that voice, that innocence. At times, some of the stories I returned to were so harrowing they almost made me ill—but there was also delight in returning to the adventures of that wild child.

Broemel: In your book, a few different groups claim to have an exclusive gateway to a secret knowledge of life. Do you search in any particular place for this now?

Rush: I used to say: “Better to believe in too much than too little.” In the forty years since the events described in The Light Years, I’ve traveled the world and investigated many ways of living, of seeing reality. I’ve decided, more or less, that everything is true, simultaneously.

At this point in my life, I am drawn to the power of Nature, where all things begin.
I am often in the desert and the mountains.

Broemel: Do you feel that a tarot deck actually has any inherent power?

Using the tarot demands one think in symbols—and this forces one to see things in a new way. Perhaps it’s this alternative way of seeing, more than anything, that gives the tarot its power.

Rush: Using the tarot demands one think in symbols—and this forces one to see things in a new way. Perhaps it’s this alternative way of seeing, more than anything, that gives the tarot its power. I should add that I find the cards quite beautiful, particularly the Ryder deck.

Broemel: The impossibly yellow lemon, the appearance of a deer, the burning “good news” bible—these are all simple yet powerful images that appear in The Light Years, each like a little moment of enlightenment. How does the new writing relate to your work in visual arts?

Rush: I’ve been a painter for a long time. I see everything as an image, a diorama, a film clip. That’s why I tend to write in fragments. First, I see a picture. Then, the picture talks.

I’ve noticed that writing a book makes me want bigger canvases.

Broemel: What is your favorite album at the moment?

Rush: Oh, I’m always at least a decade or two behind. Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois helped me start writing The Light Years. That album still makes me weepy. Now, I’m listening to the slightly more recent Everything That Happens Will Happen Today by David Byrne and Brian Eno. As my book goes out into the world, I’m playing this one a lot, and loudly. It’s my victory cheer. Happiness infused with just the right amount of melancholy.

Five questions for Carl Broemel from Chris Rush:

Chris Rush: Was there a particular passage in The Light Years that inspired you to write the song “Face of the Earth”?

Carl Broemel: There are so many memorable and powerful moments in your story, but the scene where you had your tarot reading done in the attic of your friend’s house really set off my imagination. And the description of the Fool card, how the fool is stepping off the cliff into the void but doesn’t know it yet—that is such an interesting image. Is the fool happy because he doesn’t know what’s coming? Is ignorance bliss or folly?

After I finished the book, a strange coincidence occurred. I was at a friend’s party, and after a few glasses of wine, he got out his tarot deck and began doing readings for everyone. I had brought up your book earlier and we had been talking about the Fool card. And sure enough, during my reading, The Fool came up in a prominent position in the deal! I know it is just a matter of luck and probability, how the tarot deck gets shuffled and dealt, but there’s certainly something powerful and almost magical in how we humans see and interpret patterns. It was really an uncanny feeling to have this happen.

Rush: What came to you first: the words or the music?

Usually, I catch melodies and chords first. But this time, the words came first.

Broemel: Usually, I catch melodies and chords first. But this time, the words came first. The line “falling off the face of the earth” led me to think about how a relationship can slowly and almost imperceptibly deteriorate over time . . . until one day you finally wake up and realize it’s too late. I sang some verses into my phone voice memos, then figured out what chords would work with that improvised melody.

Rush: The whistling in the song is so lovely, so full of longing—what made you you choose that sound? Who is the whistler?

Broemel: The whistler is me! I think it just came out when I was doing the vocal part. I had planned to have an instrumental section in that spot, maybe a saxophone, but the whistling seemed to work there. In my mind, the structure of “Face of the Earth” is similar to an old Mills Brothers or Ink Spots song—songs that almost always contain a spoken word verse in the middle of the song. Instead, I started whistling to fill that space, almost self-soothingly, like a character walking along alone, keeping himself company with a melody.

Rush: Novelists often use music as an inspiration. Do you, as a musician, use books as an inspiration in your own work?

Broemel: Books inspire me all the time. It can really help to take on the mask of other characters and at least get started on an idea. Lyrics are usually the most challenging part for me and the act of reading great books seems to help with being more creative, just as much as living life and getting song ideas that way. On my last album, I wrote a few songs inspired by astrophysics after reading books from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chris Impey. One of my favorite authors, Loren Eiseley, wrote books about his work as an anthropologist—those have been important to me as well. I got interested in the philosophical impact of our increasing scientific knowledge—the idea that there are these huge concepts that are almost impossible to grasp, like vast expanses of time, unseen forces we can measure but not explain. I wonder, how do we deal with this? And does this change or impact how we frame our own little lives?

Rush: Why is rock ‘n’ roll so well-suited for the expression of youthful angst and alienation like that in my memoir?

Broemel: Rock ‘n’ roll music seems to have consistently resisted institutionalization, unlike the classical music I studied in college, and even jazz to some extent. Rock ‘n’ roll just seems to soldier on, unencumbered, always changing with the times and staying current with youth culture. I don’t know how it has this power exactly, but my guess is that it’s a result of rock ‘n’ roll being the offspring of the rhythm and blues, ragtime, and western swing genres of music, which were revolutionary and anti-mainstream in their own time.

I love the scene in The Light Years when you are with your statue of Mary in the basement and the music becomes a kind of prayer. When I was growing up, I had that kind of relationship with records, too—a personal connection I sought to explore. Listening to records helped to stave off the feeling of alienation. Also very impactful was getting to choose the music that I wanted to hear, not what my parents liked! Maybe that’s one of the best things about rock ‘n’ roll—you can always use it to claim a new identity for yourself.

Chris Rush is an award-winning artist and designer whose work is held in various museum collections. The Light Years is his first book.

Years before Carl Broemel joined My Morning Jacket—the Grammy-nominated, globetrotting rock band featuring his guitar playing, saxophone solos, harmony singing, pedal steel riffs, and songwriting support—he wrote his very first songs in his Indiana bedroom. From the start, he was a multi-instrumentalist with a singer’s gift for melody. A sideman capable of handling a frontman’s job. As his guitar-playing career blossomed, Broemel continued writing songs of his own, carving out a personal, introspective sound that reached beyond My Morning Jacket’s sonic landscape. With his third solo album, Wished Out, he merged articulate, pensive songwriting—including ruminations about science, love, the passing of time, and the grind of the artistic struggle—with some of the most energetic, rock-inspired songs to date. A heavy reader, Broemel finds inspiration in the scientific writings of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and the anthropological essays of Loren Eiseley.

Broemel’s photo was taken by Jack Spencer.