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Songs From The Obituaries Are 'The Afterneath'


Inspiration can come in many forms, and it can strike at some unexpected moments. That was the case for the musician Jascha Hoffman. Hoffman writes "The Scan." It's a monthly science and culture column for the New York Times. And he was a freelance obituary writer for the paper. While researching the famous and sometimes not so famous lives of those who passed away, Hoffman found himself wanting to put some of these life stories to music.


JASCHA HOFFMAN: (Singing) Oh, my doctor. Oh, my doctor. Am I ready to go?

MARTIN: He wrote this song about Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who died in 2011. And then there's this song about someone perhaps less well-known. Maynard Hill was the first to fly a model airplane across the Atlantic.


HOFFMAN: (Singing) How many years in the wood shop with the circuits and the superglue? Now the big time's coming for you. Oh.

MARTIN: Jascha Hoffman has a new album. It is called "The Afterneath." He joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

HOFFMAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So how did this happen for you? When did it occur to you that there was some musical inspiration in what you were doing?

HOFFMAN: Well, I didn't go out looking to write songs from obituaries. I was casting around to find a way to get some really credible characters and stories in my songs. Some of the songwriters I admire the most like Paul Simon or Steely Dan seem to have this knack for just implying a whole screenplay worth of story in just a couple lines. So I was looking at short stories and poems and screenplays. And I was also writing obituaries of scientists for the New York Times at the time. And my editor there sent me a collection of the year's best obituaries. And I opened it up and I was just like, this is the material.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a song from the album. This is called "The Atom Bomb." It is about an American physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project.


HOFFMAN: (Singing) As the sky guy pulled up inward, she was pressed to the sand like an ocean above her or God’s left hand. When it hit Hiroshima, she was out of her heart. So she boarded a steamer, the red, red star.

MARTIN: This is about Joan Hinton.

HOFFMAN: I was just taken by her story. I mean, she was really young when she went to work for the Manhattan Project. She was in her twenties. She was one of the only women there. She was involved in making the bomb. And then when it was dropped, she was so disillusioned with the fruits of her labor that she fled to China and lived for the rest of her life there. She died, I think, in 2010. And she really settled into this communal farm. Her husband was there. Her brother came and joined her for a time. And she was often touted by Mao as a proof that there are some reasonable Americans out there. And it just seemed like the sweep of her life included this sweep of an American century.


HOFFMAN: (Singing) You're still burning and I'm still breathing. We're alone now, alone believing.

MARTIN: You know, this is probably an issue that faces obit writers, as well, but how you keep the song from being just a litany of events, a resume or a thumbnail biography set to music?

HOFFMAN: That's a really good question. I think there's a sense in what's your first priority as a writer of an obituary is to be faithful to the world as it exists. With a song, there's a sort of internal coherence that requires an almost more stringent attention to detail. But it's a different kind of detail. And sometimes you have to peel away a little bit from the world of facts and events in order to get the song off the ground. Other times it seems like the obituary would deliver to me these details that were so strange and so specific that they were just this incredible gift for the song. I would never have imagined my way into them.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example? I know that's a big question. But one strange detail that has made its way into a song for yours.

HOFFMAN: Well, there's a song called "The Freezer" which tells the life of a survivor of one of the Cambodian prison camps. And there's a line in that song.


HOFFMAN: (Singing) If you slip me your supper.

If you slip me your supper.


HOFFMAN: (Singing) I will draw you an empty bowl.

I will draw you an empty bowl. See the insects humming. We could steam, eat them whole.

I would never have been bold enough to come up with something like that.


HOFFMAN: But I think there was a line - if I'm not mistaken, there was a line in the obituary about eating insects. And I just felt like there was something so perfect about that image.

MARTIN: The last song on the album is not based on an obituary but let's listen to a little bit of this. This is called "The Shepherd."



HOFFMAN: (Singing) So I loved a Montana man in the shade of the redwoods. Gouged our bodies instead of the world. He lit up such a tiny place.

MARTIN: This is inspired by a poem by D. A. Powell. Why did this song round out the collection for you?

HOFFMAN: The song is kind of an elegy for a love that was lost. It was based on a poem that's inspired by a Greek myth about a pair of shepherds who kind of lose each other's love. But it just felt like it fit. And in a way, I don't know, I was actually just listening to that song this morning and the chorus came back to me in a new way. Did he go back to his fields and caves? Yes, but they all were gone. I think it has something to do with the idea of maybe when one dies, one returns but the place one returns to isn't there anymore. I don't know. I have to think that through a little more.

MARTIN: Jascha Hoffman. His new album is called "The Afterneath." He joined us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me.


HOFFMAN: (Singing) After the day was done. Did he go back to his fields and caves? Yes, but they all were gone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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