The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
“All the strange upheaval in the USA / makes me wanna pack it in and take you far away.”
So sings Phil Madeira at the beginning of “Immigrants,” a country song in jazz clothing from his latest album, Open Heart (Mercyland).
The line has taken on fresh relevance in the wake of George Floyd, but Madeira wrote and recorded it months before. Hence its whimsical tone: He goes on to fantasize about rediscovering his Scandinavian roots and starting from scratch as a newly minted immigrant.
Madeira is not so whimsical about what America’s warring factions might presage for the faith in which he was reared.
“Evangelicalism has been politicized,” he told me. “I feel like God has been used for political gain more than ever and that the church in America seems more interested in America than in Jesus.”
Longtime eavesdroppers on American Christianity’s conversations with itself will recognize in such comments a common complaint of the evangelical left, and, all things considered, that’s where Madeira, who admitted as much in his 2013 collection of autobiographical essays God on the Rocks, fits.
But if his book surprised those who’d known him mainly from his contributions to decades’ worth of CCM recordings (he’s currently a member of Emmylou Harris’ band), it also revealed the complicated ways in which nature, nurture, and grace can interact within the son of a (Baptist) preacher man and wash him up on once-distant shores: He has been an Episcopalian for over 20 years. “The Episcopal Church,” he says, “is the last stop for me.”
Where Madeira will end up as a jazz-trio-leading singer-songwriter, however, remains to be seen. Open Heart—which came out to deservingly positive reviews in February—steers a path between epigrammatic Mose Allison blues and folksy Randy Newman drolleries while focusing on the real-life ups and downs of a once-promising romance.
His next album, for which he is currently raising funds via Kickstarter and that he hopes to release by summer’s end, is called Hornet’s Nest. It touches on darker dynamics, mainly because seven of its 10 songs grew out of a much more emotionally combative situation.
“My partner of 10 years was succumbing to cancer,” he explains, “and the circumstances surrounding her departure were not optimum, to say the least.”
Neither were the circumstances surrounding the subject of two other songs: his relationship with his brother.
But if Hornet’s Nest is the sound of scores being settled, it’s also the sound of grudges being let go. By the time that the final track, “I’ve Made My Peace,” turns into “Down by the Riverside,” Madeira’s pledge to “study war no more” sounds like a declaration of independence.
“I would hike at a state park,” says Madeira, “which is honestly the holiest place I could be, and as I would go about in my pondering and prayers and the sort of dialogue someone like me has with God, I found my peace.
“And I found a place with God that I would never take back.”