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Waiting actively

Harrison Lemke (Matt Seal)

Music

Waiting actively

Austin musician redeems the time while singing of Christ’s return

At 27, the Austin, Texas–based singer-songwriter Harrison Lemke is too young to have experienced firsthand the rapture fanaticism of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, as the titles of his 2013 single “We Wait” and his 2015 EP Sound Check at the Eschaton imply, hopes and fears associated with the Second Coming haunt the 93 observant and soul-searching lo-fi folk (and sometimes rock) songs that he has recorded and released on six albums, four EPs, and two singles over the last six years.

It’s an impressive output by any standard.

“I’m just hounded by a sense, instilled from childhood, that I need to make good use of the time I’m given,” Lemke told me. “That, and I don’t have a lot of patience for polishing things. The fact that I record on four-track tape was a conscious choice made pretty early on to give me some creative limitations and to check any perfectionist impulse I might have.”

He understands, in other words, Paul’s command to “redeem the time,” an injunction—it’s sometimes easy to forget—issued in expectation of Christ’s imminent return.

Lemke’s latest eschatological song, “Tired, Waiting,” can be found on his new album, Thy Tender Care. “The end’s been near for quite some time, for my whole life,” he sings in a yearning, sandpapery tenor, giving fresh voice to an ancient Christian complaint. But there’s a twist. After the final go-round of the refrain—“I am tired of waiting for You”—he asks, “Are You tired of waiting for me too?” Call it 2 Peter 3:9 for Modern Man.

Lemke draws inspiration from the waiting associated with the First Coming too. He released the full-length Some More Advent Songs on Christmas Day, 2017, and concludes Thy Tender Care with “Leaving Midnight Mass,” a song that, in typical Lemke fashion, casually interweaves the ordinary and the transcendent.

“There’s something terribly compelling to me about a season of waiting for God,” he says, “of waiting for this bizarre moment, the Incarnation, in which the whole creation mysteriously meets its purpose. What was the point of all the time that came before? What’s the point of all this waiting now? It feels like another way of asking: What’s the point of life itself?”

Lemke has been asking that question for a long time. Reared in what he describes as a “an evangelical sort of environment” that was “pretty sheltered” and included “a lot of Bible reading,” he attended a Christian school through eighth grade and had “a strong sense of being set apart, of being marked or chosen.”

At times, he recalls, he took that chosenness very seriously. “I felt the weight of it: that I belonged to God, that I owed Him a response, whether I wanted to or not. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that this sense—of being saved, but not quite sure what one has been saved from, of an expectation of gratitude and an uncertainty about how to express it with any kind of sincerity—probably hangs over many evangelical kids.”

That uncertainty and Lemke’s honesty in addressing it make many of his songs seem more like questions than declarations. “Feeling lost, longing for a purpose—this feels like the common experience of my generation,” he says, “and that’s a lot of what I write about.”

And, as already stated, he writes a lot about it.

“I like to be prolific,” he admits. “But I also try to tell the difference between what’s worth releasing and what isn’t.

“Whether I succeed there is for others to judge.”