Alex Mussawir turns down the volume, finds Healing & Peace

Kneeling in Piss is now Healing & Peace, and the band’s new album reflects the positivity suggested by this change.
Healing & Peace
Healing & PeaceCourtesy Alex Mussawir

Songwriter and musician Alex Mussawir said he thought it was funny, the idea of changing his band’s name from Kneeling in Piss to Healing & Peace.

“It sounds like you’re saying Kneeling in Piss with an accent,” Mussawir said. “I couldn’t not do it.”

But the change is also reflective of Mussawir reaching a better place in his life, having married the songwriter and musician Madeline Mussawir. The two purchased a house together in the Kenmore Park neighborhood of Columbus, and in December the couple will welcome their first child.

“Naming the band Kneeling in Piss seemed funny to me many years ago, and at some point, it stopped being funny or exciting and I got kind of annoyed by it,” said Mussawir, who in mid-August released the self-titled debut from Healing & Peace. “So, I reduced it to saying that it was 'funny,' but that’s why it’s funny to me. Changing the project based on life circumstances or worldview, I’m attracted to that.”

It’s a spirit that carries through the five songs that populate the new Healing & Peace record, which Mussawir said are “maybe more positive at their core” than earlier tunes. Witness the fuzzy, acoustic “New Utopian Futures,” which closes with Alex and Madeline harmonizing on a couple of repeated stanzas that capture aspects of healing and peace, as on the nose as that might appear. “Come together/Thought I’d never,” the two sing, and then add, “Feet on the Earth/Touching a new world.”

On the whole, Mussawir said he’s less in thrall to vulgarity than he used to be, now wielding it “like a surgical instrument where it’s small and precise,” he explained, rather than as a dull tool that had a way of shaping everything. Take album opener “The Shopkeeper,” for instance, which unfolds as a serene series of slice-of-life observations – a shopkeeper wakes up and walks to their shop; a watchmaker falls asleep looking at the clock – interrupted only momentarily by Mussawir’s description of one character having been born into “debilitating, alienating poverty.”

While more deeply ensconced in the present, there are still references to the past scattered throughout, with the first two tracks nodding to Mussawir’s previous life as a renter. On “Into a Hole,” the musician describes a characterless apartment kitchen complete with laminate counters and walls painted “landlord white” – a line that popped immediately to mind when Mussawir shared some of the pluses of home ownership in our conversation, saying, “We can paint the walls and then we don’t even have to paint back over them.”

The ideas that informed this current evolution of Healing & Peace perhaps calcify most fully on “Into a Hole,” a song Mussawir said is rooted in “self-centeredness and pride and ego … and the idea of getting it out of your system.” As the song closes, Mussawir recalls the image of a leaking faucet, one whose drip will "continue for years," an acknowledgment that this process isn't a one-off purge but rather something enduring that necessitates continual effort and excavation.

“I think that song paired with ‘The Shopkeeper,’ my idea was to convey this message of centering the other and not the self,” said Mussawir, who recorded a bulk of Healing & Peace alongside wife Madeline, with longtime Kneeling in Piss/Future Nuns bandmates Kyle Bergamo and Aaron Miller turning up on the album-closing “Falling Down Laughing.” “And the idea that doing art for self-expression, it’s like a mirage, because it looks like something that it isn’t really. And it’s not a redeeming path, where I think love is.”

Musically, Mussawir said he took inspiration from a recent obsession with Bob Dylan – and in particular the more-spiritual albums Dylan recorded in the 1970s and ’80s. Drawing upon this influence, Mussawir built the new songs on acoustic guitar, a decision that lends the recordings an unexpected softness. “I wanted to try something different, and I like folk music because the lyrics are at the forefront and the melodies are simple,” he said. “And I thought that made sense with these songs.”

As he listened to Dylan, Mussawir said he also read everything he could get ahold of by and about Fyodor Dostoevsky. This led him to find numerous similarities between the Minnesota-born musician and the Russian author, including the fact that both experienced later-in-life spiritual conversions – Dylan following a 1966 motorcycle accident and Dostoevsky after spending time imprisoned in a labor camp.

“Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox Christian and Dylan was a little more ambiguous. But the interesting thing about them is they both had this deep, personal understanding of left-wing materialism and atheism, and they both, through love, found this next step,” Mussawir said.

Asked if the same could be said of him, and if love helped to draw him away from his earlier fascination with the grotesque, Mussawir didn’t shy from the question. “Yeah. But I still like [the grotesque],” he said, and laughed. “I think I felt attracted to the idea of writing songs that were uplifting and positive. … And again, it seemed funny to then say, 'And let's call it Healing & Peace.'”

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