2016: A Year’s Worth of Memories (Amar Lal)

by Steven Spoerl

Heartbreaking Bravery recently went offline but all facets of the site are back to being fully operational. Apologies for any inconveniences. All posts that were slated to run during that brief hiatus will appear with this note.

Over the past several years, the name Amar Lal has appeared on this site fairly consistently. In addition to being one of the most respected names behind the boards, Lal’s also one of the most inventive and atmospheric guitarists in music. Lal’s name seems to constantly be turning up in the production credits on great records and the work he’s done as Big Ups’ guitarist more than speaks for itself. One of the kindest people in music, it’s an honor to have him on board for this edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories. Below, he splits his year into four categories in a fascinating twist on the personal essays that typically appear in this series. Read it below.

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Stock Options

There is a Ziploc bag of vegetable scraps in my freezer that I call my “stock options.” I don’t say this out loud – the joke is mostly for myself. Whenever I cook, I collect scraps that I’d normally throw out or compost and freeze them to later use to make a basic broth (OK, technically different than stock, but still). When I finally collect enough scraps, I put them all in the slow cooker with some water and apple cider vinegar. I’m always surprised that a frozen bundle of celery greens or a bunch of mushroom-bottoms or tangles of carrot peels can actually evoke memories of the specific meals they came from. As I load everything into the pot, the memories flood in, and I actually find myself standing in my kitchen, holding a frozen bunch of food scraps and staring off into space, smiling.

The Art of

Spirituality is a funny word. Any time my mom used to tell me I needed spirituality for my life to be “harmonious,” I’d immediately and defensively brush it off as religious gobbledygook jargon that just wasn’t for me. I, presuming to be aware of the limits of my own intelligence at 25, felt I had enough of an understanding of how to live a decent vie quotidienne without all the unnecessary idol worship, parables and rituals of organized religion.

Which, of course, led to a moment in the spring when I found myself looking up books with the keyword “happiness” in the Brooklyn Public Library’s online catalogue. After some cursory browsing of online reviews, I settled on the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. I wasn’t without my doubts, between the over-simplistic title and the fact that the reviewers all referenced “spirituality” and their “practice.” Thankfully, as a conversation between a skeptical Western psychiatrist and the Dalai Lama, it was a relatively grounded and agnostic read.

In fact, a key portion of the book divorces religion from the idea of “spirituality,” instead painting it as a process of personal mental development. This idea, combined with the simple presentation of values and practices including compassion, meditation and maintaining perspective ignited a hunger for self-improvement that I’ve never felt before.

I found myself buying or borrowing mindfulness- and Buddhism-based self-improvement books any time I saw them, almost faster than I could read them. Suddenly, I had a small bookshelf of titles I would’ve previously found absurd: How to Practice, How to Sit (still lol), Living Beautifully through Uncertainty and Change, Creative Visualization…. my own little “Art of Living” shelf.

The idea of working on myself, my attitudes, my mental health and my “presentness” with the ultimate goal of being able to be better to others ended up defining my year in a way I never expected. Though still potentially placebo, and short of some “miraculous transformation,” “Zen changed my life,” “did you read that New York Times article about” type-bullshit, I’ve begun to sincerely feel that when I spend time and energy on select “spiritual” practices and make a concerted effort to be “mindful” and “present,” it does seem to have a positive effect on my conversations, creative output, relationships, and general happiness. For now, though, that’s a big “when” – I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t, and how to make time for it day-to-day.

Privilege

I read The Art of Happiness on a borrowed Kindle in the back of a Sprinter van while touring through Europe. I still feel amazed that I get to travel across countries and continents playing music. This year saw more of that, with Big Ups playing far from home in the UK and Europe (including playing in Italy for the first time!), as well as the closest we’ve ever played to my hometown in Canada. Touring is an incredible (though brutally exhausting) privilege, and the more we go out, the more strongly I feel this.

I also feel incredibly grateful to be getting to do engineering work I really love with bands and labels I admire. At least several times when asked to work on projects this year, I’ve thought, “Are you sure? Me? Really?” I’ve also had the immense pleasure of getting asked to work with a band I’d previously never heard and, upon hearing the songs, feeling like I’d somehow been let in on a well-kept secret.

Out of any year of my time playing in bands and working as an audio engineer, this past has felt the most productive and also the most fortunate. But at times, I still have moments where I’m so exhausted and burnt out that I can’t remember why I agreed to sacrifice sleep and sanity for 16 or however many days it may be at that point.

Taking Stock

Looking back at what I’ve done and where I’ve been is one of the biggest things that keeps me going. So, after a particularly tiring few weeks in December, I decided to try to recap my year. My first attempt was to make a sort of collage of the covers of all the albums I’d worked on. I felt surprised while making it – I repeatedly found myself frozen, staring at album artwork saved in my Downloads folder, half-finished Discogs credits entries, blog posts about studio days; all these scraps of creative endeavors that brought back instant memories.

Part of why I love making broth with vegetable scraps is the idea of all the metaphoric, latent memories literally stewing down into a bubbling broth to nourish my body and mind. Similarly, making time to look back and take stock of my experiences and how fortunate I’ve been to have them all gives me the drive and energy for what’s next.