Human-built cathedrals are expansive, contemplative spaces, with sunlight slanting through stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings reaching to the heavens. But Jay William Henderson's cathedrals are much different: a brilliant blue sky replacing colored glass, the sound of wind rushing through a canyon filling his ears instead of organ music, and sagebrush scenting the air as richly as any censer filled with burning incense.
Utah's deserts, he says, are "holy" places. "There's a really massive sense of reverence out in the desert, and it's so quiet and still," he says. "There's something out there that's very godlike."
Henderson is a Utah native, but these days he lives in Nashville, Tenn. The songwriter and former Band of Annuals lead vocalist still visits plenty, though, because "Salt Lake is home and I can't stay away from the desert for too long," he says. It was during his most recent sojourn in Utah that Henderson created his second full-length album, Hymns to My Amnesia, recorded live in three days at Provo's June Audio by Scott Wiley, and released earlier this month.
A "journal" of the personal upheaval Henderson's experienced in the past two years, the Americana/folk-rock album is as thought-provoking, beautiful and occasionally melancholy as the desert it was penned in.
Before Henderson moved to Nashville for the first time in late summer 2012, he says, "everything that I knew or was comfortable with were kind of torn apart or dismantled." He broke up with his partner and sold his home and studio in Salt Lake City. With his creative space gone, he reconsidered playing music at all, asking himself, "Do I want to take [music] seriously again, or do I want to just move off to the woods somewhere and get a cabin and not think anything of it?" he says. After driving his ex-partner to New York, Henderson headed south to Nashville, to take "a stab at playing music somewhere else," he says.
That first stint in Nashville wasn't long, though. Henderson "ran out of money and needed to come back," he says. But since he didn't have any pressing responsibilities once he returned to Salt Lake City in early 2013, "I spent a lot of time in the desert, writing," he says. "You don't have to pay rent in the desert, right?"
He describes those months as a sort of "midlife crisis," when he pondered the existential question, "What are we all doing with our lives in the grand scheme of what it means to be alive?"
With only the rocks and sky for company, Henderson found the solitude and silence he needed to at least begin to find his way back to center. With the stresses of life constantly gnawing at our hearts and minds, it's easy to get one's priorities jumbled. But when he's in the desert, Henderson says, he "can sit out there and just remember, for me, the things that are important in life and not the rest of the stuff that we get so caught up in day to day." Because in the desert, he says, "you can't help but be there. ... It's easier in a place that quiet to get lost in yourself, like in really yourself, not all the things that we pretend make up ourselves, but just the essence of being. All that other shit kind of melts away."
And what remained inspired Hymns to My Amnesia, a lovingly crafted and heartbreaking collection of songs that took Henderson "deeper" lyrically than on his debut solo album, 2012's The Sun Will Burn Our Eyes. Accompanied by guitar, violin, pedal steel, mandolin and the angelic backing vocals of Marie Bradshaw, Kiki Buehner—both of classic country band The Hollering Pines—and Debra Fotheringham, he sings about longing, endings and moving on.
Although several of the songs are undeniably sad—such as "When the Smoke Clears," about Henderson having to drive past his empty Salt Lake City home before he first moved to Nashville—the often spiritual album is also hopeful, as if the worst is over and the future is looking brighter. At the album's deepest level, though, Hymns to My Amnesia is a reflection of the indescribable magic of the desert: Whatever "godlike" presence Henderson found there, it seems to have spoken through him.
"I can't claim to ever write anything," Henderson says. "Whatever happens to come through me is just handed to me. I just have my arms outstretched in the air. ... I can't ever take credit for writing these songs because I don't know where they come from."
JAY WILLIAM HENDERSON
w/Isaac Russell, Sammy Brue
135 N. University Ave., Provo
Friday, July 18, 8:30 p.m.