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Requiem for 2020: An Interview with Rachel Wilhelm

I’m writing this from a sunlit cafe in Providence, where the daffodils and forsythia are finally blooming and everything feels right in the world. Sure, I’ve got a mask on my face to remind me that we aren’t entirely done with this pandemic yet, but somehow this particular spring almost feels like waking up after a long, exhausting year. And yet, for so many, the losses big and small remain. The ruins of the past year are still being sorted, named, grieved.

Music can be a good friend in grief, and perhaps that’s why Rachel Wilhelm’s new album Requiem feels especially necessary right now. As a music minister in the Anglican Church, Rachel has made it her artistic mission to write the songs the church needs, specifically when it comes to lament. Her hope is that this album, created remotely in 2020 with the help of her community, will be that friend for many. Recently, I had a conversation with Rachel about the making of Requiem and the compelling power of lament. I hope these songs can be a good friend to you too when you need to grieve, and I’m grateful to introduce you to Rachel’s good work.

Before we get into talking about your new album, I realize many people in our audience might not be familiar with your music. So first of all, tell me a little bit about yourself and your art. What have you been up to?

I am primarily a minister of music and worship arts and have been pursuing my calling in that capacity for about fourteen years. I’m currently based at an Anglican parish in Knoxville, TN, and minister there. I love to see people thrive in their calling, so I love to encourage artistic gifts in others. I also lead songwriting retreats for the church as a whole through a ministry called United Adoration. I love songwriting and filling in gaps in the church’s repertoire, which led me to release my first full-length record, Songs of Lament, in 2017, and now Requiem.

Speaking of Songs of Lament, you also produced Cardiphonia’s compilation Daughter Zion’s Woe last year. So, is it safe to say lament songs are in your wheelhouse? What is it about lament that compels you as an artist?

It’s totally safe to say that lament is in my wheelhouse! Lament and minor keys are something the church is allergic to, but I have always found comfort in lament since I was very young. I spent a long time thinking that something was wrong with me, not realizing or knowing that God puts different flavors into different people for the building up of the Body of Christ. It wasn’t until I started serving in the Anglican church, where the church calendar is practiced, that I understood that there was room for me during Advent and Lent to express my art in that way. I have always written from the minor prophets, believe it or not, and found those passages the most beautiful in Scripture. God laments in the Old Testament. Jesus is the Man of Sorrows. The church forgets this and prefers to treat Sunday morning as a vacation, not a place where we can carry each other’s burdens in community and see God for who he is. So I guess the church compels me to write laments.

What is the story behind your new album Requiem?

My poet friend Kate Bluett and I were on the phone talking about the Daughter Zion’s Woe project back in March 2020 right at the start of the lockdown, and she was telling me that she was listening to requiems at night to calm herself. I think the reality of death during the pandemic was especially sobering for both of us. She asked me if I had ever thought of writing a requiem.

Death is not right. And it’s okay to say so. Rachel Wilhelm

At the time, I had only known of Rutter’s Requiem, and actually spent some time with it in high school one year when my choir and I performed it under Rutter himself at Carnegie Hall. Because of that experience, I was introduced to requiems enough to entertain the thought. I told Kate that if she wrote lyrics, I’d write the music. Directly after getting off the phone we started exchanging emails with links of requiem movements and what we needed. We brought in another friend, Amber Salladin, a seasoned choral arranger and director, to write choral arrangements for the project and guide us through what would work well. We were three women who wanted to bring healing and hope to families that lost or were about to lose loved ones to COVID-19. And as I was writing and recording Requiem, I lost a couple friends to cancer as well. 2020 was a hard year, wasn’t it?

It sure was. I think a lot about how it was one hard thing after another on a global or national scale, but then we all still have our individual challenges and losses to face. We all have something to grieve this year. I’m very interested in the idea of working in such an old format to make something new! What was writing in the traditional requiem structure like for you?

I’m used to working within structures because of the Anglican liturgical service, so I found a lot of freedom when writing Requiem. Kate, Amber, and I researched what movements we really needed (like Lux Aeterna, Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, In Paradisum, etc). Kate is a prolific writer, so she was sending me lyrics left and right. It was a whirlwind of writing and finding joy during a time of isolation. I think with the production (by Jered McKenna), it was interesting to figure out what would sound transcendent, or not dated in a few years, so that no matter what, people could have the album recommended to them when they incurred loss, or pull it out if they knew about it when the time came and they needed to process their grief.

I didn’t want to be tied to completely following the requiem rules, so I left out the Dies Irae because the song “Deliver Me” covers a lot of the wrath aspect of a requiem. The opening track, “Man That Is Born of a Woman,” is untraditional, but I wanted to pull something from the Book of Common Prayer (the Anglican missal). The Job scripture passage that the song is based from is one that jumped out from the BCP burial service. Sadly, there is no funeral mass. Because I am Anglican, I wanted to start with the Anglican song. Ha!

For our readers who aren’t familiar with a traditional requiem, could you give us some background and walk us through the liturgy a little bit?

Since this was Kate’s suggestion and more from her Catholic tradition, I emailed her and asked her to answer that question! Here’s what she had to say:

The Requiem comes out of the medieval practice of praying for the dead. This was considered an act of mercy, praying for the salvation of the soul of the person who had died. In the old form of this liturgy, the emphasis was on judgment, and on the fear of damnation. “Deliver Me (Libera Me)” reflects this focus. But in the modern form of the funeral service, the emphasis is on asking for mercy for the departed. In the end, that’s what all of us are counting on, and the songs based on the Pie Jesu and Lux Aeterna show this. Those prayers are interspersed with the ordinary parts of a service: the Lamb of God, the Kyrie, and the Holy, Holy, Holy. Because death and our need to process it aren’t separate from the rest of our lives, but bound up in them. In a way, this is music for a regular Sunday, but it looks forward to the end of all our Sundays. —Kate Bluett

That’s beautiful… thanks Kate! Something about the way you and Kate bring your Anglican and Catholic traditions to this project really delights me. Could you say more about how your respective faith traditions supported the creation of these songs?

It delights me too! Anglicans and Catholics have a rough history for sure, and I love that the two of us can work together as sisters in Christ and create something beautiful for the Church universal. We frequently write together anyway since my hard leaning is melody. Collaborating is such a gift because the songs, especially if they have very well-crafted lyrics, beg to have a great melody, and it’s a good challenge.

For a good number of the songs, I wrote three to four different melodies to each of them to be sure to give it my best effort. Something I really love about Kate is that she writes poems or lyrics each week based on the readings for each Sunday at her parish and posts them on her blog. She has hundreds. That girl knows her Scripture, too. She has to! I can tell her what Scriptures I want, the idea I want to be conveyed, and she says, “Got it!” and comes back to me with a jewel of a lyric. Since we wanted to be both Catholic and Protestant in this requiem, we were especially sensitive to each other’s traditions and were careful to find that middle ground where not one or the other would raise an eyebrow.

It occurs to me that grieving and music-making can be both solitary and communal. Like grief is something you navigate on your own, but a community can come together to care for you. And you can write a song by yourself (or maybe with another person) but to make a record you need a community of musicians and producers. Could you speak to the role of community, especially when it comes to making a record in the middle of a pandemic?

I could say so much about this. And that observation is thrilling and brilliant. Community is everything. I found that if I talked about Requiem even during its infancy, it helped me to keep going. Sort of an accountability. I love people. I just delight in watching them, being with them, and collaborating with them. I love seeing people flourish, I love promoting other people’s projects, I love understanding that people are experts at only a few things, and we should honor that.

In making music, or a project like Requiem, I had to remember those people that I knew well enough who could pour their gifts into it to give it the best chance. What is interesting about your question is that every person who was involved in this project is from a Facebook group that I help lead called Liturgy Fellowship. It’s the only reason to be on Facebook! We are a tight online community sort of like Rabbit Room, but we (a mix of pastors and musicians) talk liturgy and worship stuff. And my community of women—Kate, Amber, and Keiko, who played cello. The second track, “Lord Have Mercy” features all my friends half-way through the song, my supportive musical community, who remotely provided their voices to form a choir. Yeah, I wrote the songs sitting on my bed during isolation and ordering Amazon Fresh. But the record wouldn’t be here without my community. 

It’s true that we all have something to grieve after this hard year, and I join you in hoping for this music to do something healing and beautiful for many people. How did God meet you through making this record when it comes to your own 2020 grief?

That’s a great question. Grief is a funny thing. At first, it hits you hard like planes flying overhead dropping bombs on you every minute, then after awhile, an hour, then a week, then a year, then every couple of years or so until it lessens into a faded painful memory. Life halted completely for everyone in 2020. For me, too. I had work trips planned, my son was graduating from language school (and I missed it), and many other things. But new grief brings out old grief a lot of times, and creating has a way of working out the grief you still had left from an old wound.

My sister died of anorexia in 2010 at the age of 33. She had no community and she died alone. She isolated herself from everyone because of her mental illness. It crushed me when she died. We grew up like twins, and she even isolated herself from me. A letter I had written her was sitting in her mailbox while she was on her deathbed. I found out when that letter returned to me with the word “deceased” on it.

When Kate sent me the lyrics to “Martha’s Song,” I felt like my heart stopped. The lyric retells Martha’s perspective on her encounter with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus before Jesus raises him from the dead. When I went to record the vocals of that song (in my closet!), I couldn’t stop crying. I probably did a thousand takes. I cried every time. It took me a week to get through it. I cried for my sister, but then I was also crying for others who would lose a loved one. The reality of the pandemic really hit me. Death is not right. And it’s okay to say so.


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