Hello Emerson wants the world to feel a little less lonely

The experience of almost losing his father leads Sam Bodary to the career best ‘To Keep Him Here,’ a deeply personal record that reflects a larger mission to help bring comfort.
Hello Emerson
Hello EmersonFernando Rodriguez

Sam Bodary had two experiences that helped shape his understanding of mortality.

The first occurred early in childhood, when Bodary watched a man he knew as his grandfather, Bill Roland, succumb slowly to illness. In a recent interview, Bodary recalled one of his final images of the old man, who at the time was confined to a wheelchair and disinterested in eating a freshly unwrapped Dove ice cream bar, long a favorite treat. “And I was like, ‘This is what death looks like. You aren’t able to enjoy the things you love,’” Bodary said in late February, seated at Upper Cup on Parsons Avenue. 

A second experience occurred later in life, when Bodary learned that his biological grandfather – a man he never met – hung himself in a public park, a jarring reality that eventually led Bodary to a deeper understanding of who he is and how he functions, particularly as it relates to depression. 

Still, none of this could have prepared the musician for nearly losing his father to a freak accident in June 2017, the reality of which informs To Keep Him Here, the deeply felt, lovingly realized third album from Bodary’s band, Hello Emerson, due for release on March 29 via Anyway Records.

“We’re surrounded by that soup all of the time, where [death] can happen at any time and for no reason,” Bodary said. “But you never think it’s going to be you. Or you think, that could be me, but not today. No, no, no. It’s Wednesday. It can’t happen on a Wednesday.”

The record begins with a workday phone call from Bodary’s mother and then progresses through the tenuous days that followed, when Bodary’s father, David, remained hospitalized in Ann Arbor, Mich., his survival touch and go in the wake of a traumatic head injury sustained in a fall. In documenting his father’s accident and subsequent recovery, the musician tries and fails to find answers in religion (“Church”), wrangles with the temporary void created within the family’s routine amid the elder’s absence (“Dinners I”) and adjusts to a sudden role reversal when he finds himself escorting his dad to the bathroom for the first time (“To Keep Him Here”).

When he received the first call on the day of the accident, Bodary said, his mother told him to sit tight and wait for an update. In the interim, he continued with his plans, which included a rehearsal for a wedding at which he was supposed to perform a duet of the Justin Timberlake/Anna Kendrick version of “True Colors” from “Trolls.”

“And we’re recording [the rehearsal] on my phone, and I get a call from my mother, and I pretty much know what it’s going to be,” said Bodary, who will join Hello Emerson bandmates Dan Seibert and Jack Doran for a single release concert at Rambling House on Friday, Feb. 23.

The sense of fear and uncertainty that accompanied Bodary en route to the hospital the next morning informed the album-opening “Tupperware for Glass.” “I’m driving on the highway crying northward/Praying you’ll be there when I pull up,” Bodary sings. The tension intensifies as the musician makes his way through the hospital and to the door of his dad’s room, his surrounding realities gradually unspooling until all he is left with is a simple truth: “We live and we die/And in between we grow.”

But the revelations that arise throughout To Keep Him Here tend to be smaller and more intimate in scale. And even when Bodary’s father discusses the impact of his accident in one of a series of interview clips threaded throughout the LP, he refrains from any grand proclamations, saying instead that the experience left him feeling like there is little about his life that he would change, in retrospect. 

“Even when people die or come close to it … you still have to figure out what you’re going to have for lunch, and you still have to keep walking forward,” Bodary said. “And how my dad expresses, ‘Oh, I think I’m pretty happy,’ that coincides with how I feel approaching 30. I think I’m pretty happy, and I don’t know that in good conscience I could want for much more than I have right now. I get to do meaningful work at the library. …And I get time to make the kind of music I want to make and not have undue stress put on it. I could do this another 30 or 40 years. That sounds great.”

Since forming Hello Emerson in 2015, Bodary has seen his motivations continue to evolve. On the band’s 2017 debut, Above the Floorboards, he wanted to see if he could stitch enough songs together to actually make a record. With How to Cook Everything, from 2020, he hoped to expand on that vision, recording more fully fleshed out pop tunes that sounded comparatively epic in scope. 

“And then the third record is, oh shit, my dad almost died,” said Bodary, who shares some traits with his father (both have a fondness for language and a deep want to extend an instructive hand to the younger generation) but not others (the two look nothing alike and the elder is comparatively extroverted). “Now what tools do I have to unpack and understand what it’s like to try and put those pieces back together?”

For Bodary, music, and in particular songwriting, have long existed as a means of helping to make sense of his surroundings. But parts of To Keep Him Here address the limitations of his craft, particularly the staggering “In the Corner,” on which the singer frets over his inability to compose a song to ease his father’s suffering. “Can I play something soft enough to dull the pain?” he sings, going on to imagine a melody with the power to bleed from the hospital room and through the corridors, granting healing to all who hear it. “Can it lift the nurses off their knees? Can it put the surgeons all at ease? Can it cure the world of disease?”

The answer, of course, is no. But even within these obvious limitations, Bodary continues to find beauty in the simple act of creation, describing it as part of a larger vocation to which he feels drawn, and which calls him to help ease loneliness.

“It’s just representing what happens sometimes. That’s all it is. You paint a picture of your life, hold it up to somebody else, and you’re like, ‘That’s what it’s like for me.’ And that doesn’t help somebody cook dinner. That does not help the fundamental challenge of going about the world. It hardly does anything to help,” he said. “Then, on the other hand, it’s entirely helpful, in the sense it can engender some hope, ease some loneliness and maybe represent some brokenness and beautifulness in that soup in which we’re all swimming. … When you’re sitting in the hospital and there’s nothing you can do because you don’t have any medical training, sometimes all you can do is sit in a corner and use the skills you do have to take some edge off the experience or make things feel a little less lonely. And that’s what I did at the moment, and maybe that’s what the project is.”

This sense was amplified by the pandemic, which introduced itself and quickly consumed the globe as Bodary started in on these songs early in 2020. At one point, then working for Battelle, the musician found himself at a warehouse in the Port of Baltimore, where he worked 12-hour shifts for three weeks helping to construct mask-decontamination units (essentially shipping crates outfitted with hydrogen peroxide vaporizers and large fans), which were then distributed to hospitals across the country. In his downtime, Bodary would sit in the corner with his guitar, strumming chords as a means to take the edge of the endless medical beeps, an experience that helped shape the ending of “In the Corner” (“Can it cure the world of disease?”) and lends visceral communal weight to the entire record.

“I think [the pandemic] made it apparent that both that year and in the years to come, there were going to be a lot more people experiencing grief and loss, and for it to be important to pay attention to grief and loss, and to try to represent it in a beautiful way, perhaps,” Bodary said. “But that’s also great, and that gets to be what we’re here for – to react and reminisce and try to hold each other through that. And then to try to build something together out of that with whatever pieces are leftover. And that feels like a terribly important mission whose importance, maybe, was amplified at the time. I don’t know. I really have a lot gratefulness for the whole experience.”

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