Will Stratton Beat Cancer and Wrote a Beautiful Record
Stream 'Gray Lodge Wisdom' in full, and read the songwriters' thoughts on facing death in the face.
Photo credit: Blair Patterson
The last time I saw Will Stratton was at toward the end of 2012, when he was lying in a hospital bed at New York City's Mt. Sinai Hospital, telling me about his next album. Will had just been diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, and was headed back to a suburb of Seattle to continue his chemotherapy, but his thoughts had already turned toward music.
Next week, Stratton will self-release that album—his fifth, which he's calling Gray Lodge Wisdom (and Noisey is streaming below)—a record that was written and recorded in his parents' basement in Tacoma while he faced down cancer.
Previously, both Will and I were residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a tiny, isolated fringe neighborhood that's drawn its share of artists in recent years. Through mutual people we knew and our proximity to the NYC folk scene, we became friends. So when I learned he had just about a 50 percent chance of survival, I knew I had to talk to him—to see how he was handling the news. He showed me that Gray Lodge Wisdom was his way of processing it all.
Will is now completely free of cancer and ready to move on with his life. But putting out Gray Lodge Wisdom feels more like a testament to the human spirit—it's an album created amid fear, pain, and suffering, but it doesn't feel dour. Instead, the gracious tone of the simple, eight-song record serves as a catharsis, helping bookend Will's personal experience in a way that becomes universal. Will and I met in a trendy restaurant in Crown Heights to discuss his recovery, the state of folk music, and what it feels like to make an album while staring death in the eye.
Noisey: The last time we met, you were in the hospital, but we talked about how you were planning to make this record.
When I first got back to Seattle to continue my treatment, I was in the middle of my second chemotherapy cycle. This is the way that it works: you have the infusion and then sort of toward the end of the infusion you start feeling terrible. Then you go home and have two weeks to recuperate, and then they do it to you all over again. So I would get home I'd be at the nadir of my white blood cell count, exhausted and really tired for the week. But then I'd come back up—that was when I'd have ideas for songs and be able to sing and record songs. My initial idea for the record was to do it all on this four-track recorder so it would all be on tape, but that four track wasn't working. I just made kind of a lot of demos on my laptop in Logic and then I built it from there.
How long was it before you had the energy to get back to making music after you had chemo? One or two days? A week?
It was about a week. Once I was feeling better, I'd have another four or five days before I'd have to go back into the hospital for the next round, and that's when I would do music. The rest of the time, I was pretty wiped out. So I went through that cycle with chemotherapy four times, and as you might expect, when you're in such a screwed up creative schedule, you come up with all these ideas that don't really cohere. Sometimes I was really focused on ambient electronic stuff, and at other times I just on straightforward folk record. I feel like that's kind of carried over to how I'm creating stuff now, I'm drawn to all of these extreme impulses. On the one hand I want to make just a really straightforward two microphone record with just voice and guitar, but on the other hand, I want to make something that wouldn't be categorized as folk music in a million years. That was how I felt then too! Anyway, by the end of my treatment, after the chemotherapy I had two pretty big surgeries, the first one was pretty big and the second one was less big. The first one, it took me probably two months to really recover to the point where I could do music again.
Do you mind elaborating on the surgery?
The surgery was 28 hours long and done in two shifts. I had a whole football team of doctors working on me. They had to remove the rest of what might be cancerous that chemo—they split open my rib cage, opened it up and took a lesion out of my lungs and removed a lot of stuff from my kidneys which wasn't cancerous, but had the potential to be. After the surgery I was in the hospital for another two weeks.
The first week I was pretty incapacitated. I was on breathing tubes and feeding tubes. I was hallucinating because of the Ketamine, which had interacted with another of the painkillers they had given me. I kind of felt like I was possessed. I was scaring my parents and scaring nurses because I was not reacting well to the medication. But that's actually a pretty common side effect. The doctors who were in charge of my procedure weren't that worried at that point. They were mainly just worried about my kidneys starting to function again. Gradually, my kidneys kicked back in. Oh yeah, the other thing was that one of my kidneys was moved to the other side, so I've got two kidneys on one side now.
Credit: Ruben Vandermeulen
Because the connective tissue, where it linked up on the other side was just eaten away by cancer. So they had to reconstruct it and they had to put it on the other side.
So this was the surgery when you were closest to dying?
When did someone communicate that to you? Or did you know that?
Oh yeah, I knew it. Nobody really communicated that to me but the gravity of the situation was very apparent. I knew from the very start, I knew what the odds were of survival when it's testicular cancer that's metastasized that far.
What are they? I remember you telling me something like, "I'm going to make a new record and I'm going to be back?" So at first I didn't realize the gravity.
Well, I wasn't delusional! On the inside I felt like I was being realistic about the situation. Which was that my odds were good, my odds were above 50 percent. And I had a lot of really good people taking care of me. It's kind of a cliché, the overly positive cancer patient. I think Joan Didion wrote this really great article about the power of being negative too, when you have to be negative, and there was a lot of that too. But when you're going into a surgery like that, you don't want to take the Joan Didion route. After my surgery, I basically had to learn how to walk again because my muscles were so degenerated—a lot of physical therapy. When I got home I started to really work at the music again.
I had my guitar at the hospital and I could kind of like, strum at it with my hand, but my fingers were too weak to actually pick. I had enough dexterity to be able to tune the guitar to a chord that I could play, so I would kind of just sit with it on my lap in the hospital bed and wail away at it. That was good. When you're living in your parent's basement with a serious illness and you're living in a part of the country where you don't really have any friends, you're kind of left to your own devices. So if this is what you do, if making music is what you do, that's what you're going to want to do. It is really funny! That wasn't lost on me, the ridiculousness of the situation. Or, the extremity of it wasn't lost on me. What can you do but laugh and create and feel sorry for yourself really.
You named the record Gray Lodge Wisdom, how does that play into things?
I was re-watching Twin Peaks with my mom a lot, and then I re-watched some more by myself. In Twin Peaks there's the Black Lodge and the White Lodge. The Black Lodge is about evil and the White Lodge is about goodness. I think it had something to do with the way I felt on the anti-anxiety medication and the anti-depressants and the pain medication. I had to kind of mythologize what was going on for myself, to be able to get through it. I was trying to fictionalize it in a way. The Grey Lodge could be the house where I lived or it could be the hospital where I spent just as much time. I think I spent a total of three and a half or four months in the hospital. When you spend so much time in a hospital, as much as you hate it, and as much as it feels like a prison, you kind of get into this preserve routine.
The title track "Gray Lodge Wisdom" is my favorite one on the album.
You get used to the unpleasant things. That is what I was trying to convey I think in the title track, there was just so much unpleasantness, but when you're going through it, and when you're immediately on the other side of it, there's this immense relief. And you feel like you're stronger, you feel like you're tougher. And that's a really good feeling. It's like running a marathon.
As far as the culture of "folk music," how do you see this album fitting into the larger context of the genre?
I'm kind of exhausted by that conversation. I've thought about it so much and the more I think about it and the more I've written about it, the less connected to folk music I feel. It was the last thing on my mind when I made this record. The only time I was really thinking about folk music was when I was playing my guitar and trying to come up with parts for the songs because in the back of my head. When I'm actually playing the physical instrument I'm constantly trying to prevent myself from just replicating what I've heard other people that I admire do, like William Tyler and Leo Kottke. But I think superficially the record is very much apiece with a lot of other folk music that's going on right now. But I don't think that it's as open to interpretation or as open to the listener. I think it's pretty private music. And, it doesn't call out for attention so much.
So much of folk music that we latch onto and idealize was born out of pain and super intense hardship. It's interesting for you, who made folk music before, to be making music literally to keep yourself alive—to have something to do while you face down death.
I think it's so far removed from what I see going on in folk music at large. Which is not to put my album on a pedestal, but so much of the folk-pop thing is so extroverted and so about celebration. It's not really very introspective. Whereas, everything from Robert Johnson to John Fahey was nothing but introspective.
I know it's always weird for artists to listen to their own albums, but how does it feel in comparison to your other albums?
This is my fifth album. The early ones feel young and this one and Post Empire feel like they're really things I need to get past and move on from. New Vanguard Blues feels more nostalgic because I made it right when I first came to New York and first started living in the city. So, that's one where it's from an idealized time. The rest of them, I'm just kind of happy to be done with. That's true of this one too, it's not because I don't like the music on it or anything—I'm kind of ambivalent about all my music. But when it's so closely associated with a really painful year—even with all the positivity that went into it and that came out of it—I just kind of want to be able to do something as a healthy person.
Do you have a favorite song?
"The Arrow Darkens" is my favorite, it's got my favorite lyrics: "the arrow darkens / and recalibrates its aim." That's how it felt, when I was getting better. Darkens in the sense that I have become bolder and more like myself.
Caitlin White, too, wants to be herself. She's on Twitter — @harmonicait