A Million Shiny Things
An Interview with Sam Baker by Wanda Waterman St. Louis
Sam Baker is a Texan singer-songwriter whose first CD, Mercy, in 2004 brought him an ardent and extensive following in North America and Europe. Decades ago Sam survived a bomb blast perpetrated by Peru’s Shining Path rebels. "It was 1986, and I was in Peru with some friends. We went to Lima and from there to Cuzco to catch the train to Machu Picchu. We were going there for the Inti Rami, which is a pretty big celebration there. The bomb was on our train car. Me and my friends who were there—they were foresters, living in Columbia—the bomb went off and killed them and the German family I was sitting with, a mother, a father, and a boy. It killed them in a particularly terrible fashion.The exploding shrapnel cut the femoral artery in my leg and I should have bled out right then but for some reason didn’t. I stayed alive in spite of subdural bleeding, cranial bleeding, gangrene, and renal failure.When I was brought back to the States I started roundafter round of surgery.I think that whole experience made my writing much more empathetic toward people. You see quite a bit afterweeks when you can’t move, near death. It makes you reflective.“Broken Fingers” was written partly in memory of the German boy who died in the explosion. His parents spoke only German but he knew Spanish and pretty good English, so we talked. The way my hand is now reminds me of that; the shrapnel blew off the top of my left hand. They didn’t operate on it at first because they didn’t think I’d survive, but eventually they did operate. I later had to learn to play the guitar left-handed. There were times when I got frustrated. And then I somehow connected that to the boy. Some things are just done, and death is one of them. Some things don’t heal, some things don’t change.
"Conditions for Creativity"
Things come to me and I’m not sure where they come from or how they get to me but once they’re here I generally have to deal with them. I work with what comes and I’m not sure what I do to make it happen.I do listen to some music. I’m deaf on one side and don’t hear very well out of the other, and there’s a very loud ringing, so I’m not sure I get much out of music. I liked that whole thing Yo-Yo Ma did of Bach pieces. And then when I hear birds I don’t know that we are able to do anything much more beautiful than that.I also read. Recently it’s been Thoreau, Conrad, Faulkner, Annie Dillard. I’ll probably go to the library this afternoon and see what I can find.Lately my writing has been sporadic, but then I’ve got other projects that are taking a lot of my energy so I block out time to see what comes out. The thing is to find the balance: energy-time-time-energy-energy-time. There are a million shining things and you can’t do them all.This is a good month to see how I feel about the world. I hate to say it’s “X” or this is my expectation, because then all of a sudden that’s what I have to get out of this block of time. It’s better to let time pass and let things come to me. It’s hard to know what to focus on, to push more energy into, so I’m seeing what sort of energy comes up about different things. It’s really more of a triage.Doing nothing is good sometimes, too. I can look at the trees outside and see that something shining and beautiful is hanging from every branch.
"On Religion: Red Hats, White Hats"
You can suffer from belief in nothing. I think you can also suffer from belief in too much. We try to find differences in religions, as if that gives us some sort of edge, instead of looking for those great similarities. The great teachers are all saying, “Drop the ego; we’re all in this together.” The boat rises and falls. We all rise and fall as does the boat.In Buddhism there’s a story about the coming apart of everything, when the self dissolves. That’s not actually that far from the Christian idea of dissolving into the love of God, when ego drops away and we become whatever that is. If Christians have a problem with Buddhism, their struggle is not with Buddhism, it’s with Christianity. I think Blake would say that it’s that clash, that cracking of our universe so the light peeps out, that comes to everybody regardless of their religion.What I saw in that terrible thing in South America is that we’re all essentially connected. There’s an attitude that says, “I’ll wear this red hat or this white hat and because of that I have something that gives me access to a different spiritual realm.” I think our spiritual realms are right here with us all the time.
"The God of Rosemary"
What if everything is perfect right now? By perfect I mean whole and complete, all you need available to you at this very moment. It doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for making things better. We should all be more responsible and more compassionate, but what if it’s you in the face of God this second? You can then get outside of yourself and not say, “Oh, look at me, open the door,” or, “Look at me, do something.” This whole thing where you and I are separate and look at ourselves as if we were players on a football field—we can get past that.God is in every face we meet, and not just in every face—in every plank of cedar that’s tacked onto the outside of our houses, in the rosemary that grows in the yard. The question then becomes: How can I learn not to turn away?”
Sam Baker is a man of few words. Always beautifully chosen, and fully wrought. Words placed like plants and objects in a Zen Garden. His website is stark: white, black, sepia, and shades of gray. Baker turned inward, to relearn the use of his body and brain after a Peruvian train bombing almost killed him in 1986. It’s taken years to heal. Time to reconnect. The road back was arduous, but it opened up new vistas in art, poetry, and music.
Mercy, released in 2004, was the first in a trilogy of compelling albums with sparse instrumentation and poetic delivery. It was followed by pretty world in 2007 and cotton in 2009. Then say grace and now Land of Doubt. Each piece is imprinted with a theme: everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dreams, how beautiful are these days, talk about forgiveness, a reflection on gratitude, and now a reflection on doubt.Without dark there is no light. Without doubt there is no place for gratitude.
Baker approaches life with a positive attitude – “Life is a gift. I went through a lot of bitterness- a lot of anger. But those things are toxic. Gratitude for what remains is more helpful than resentment for what was lost. Ultimately, I came to understand that these days are wicked short and terribly beautiful.
All I’ve got—no matter what I hold in my hands, drive around in, or put in the bank,- all I’ve got is this one breath, and if I’m lucky, I get another.”