Eighteen years ago this week, singer-songwriter Ken Stringfellow released a melancholy little record called “Touched.” He never intended for the 11-song collection, a very personal meditation on loss and redemption, which stretches over an economical 45 minutes, to become a 9/11 survival guide.
But for a lot of people — myself included — “Touched” has become an avatar of that troubled, tragic, and oddly hopeful time, when it was so quiet that even the cars driving over the Harvey Taylor bridge seemed to not make any noise, as if a blanket had been thrown over the whole world; as if in the midst of immeasurable sadness and loss, we were reluctant to raise our voices to a level louder than a prayer.
The minimalist songs on “Touched,” which boast little ornamentation apart from guitars, drums, and keyboards, reflect that silence.
And to listen to the songs now is to be taken back to a time, which now seems impossibly far away, when I went to work in the state Capitol every morning, slid the CD into my laptop, put on headphones, and let the songs act as a balm against a sadness that still feels impossible to quantify all these years later.
Over the phone from his home in Paris where he now lives with his wife and daughter, Stringfellow laughs slightly when he starts talking about the record that, at the time, seemed like “an extinction-level event for my solo career,” but has now become something very different and gained its own kind of immortality.
“‘Touched’ has the dubious distinction to have a Sept. 11, 2001 release date,” he deadpanned. “It’s not great if I’m thinking in terms of my career.”
Through the prism of two decades, however, the record has “from a spiritual level … a lot of meaning for me,” said Stringfellow, who gained fame during the 1990s alt.rock boom as co-frontman of Seattle-based power-poppers The Posies.
“What I discovered was that the album was speaking to me in fundamental and strange ways,” he said. “There are songs about cultural and religious divisions — how they’re played against each other and played against your own instincts as a human. And general things about grief and healing come up quite a few times on the record.”
That sentiment is evidenced in such songs as the album opening “Down Like Me,” a song written, at the time, about a loved one lost to suicide.
But the couplet, “We’ll keep an empty place at dinner forever. And I’ll maintain an empty chair and wait for rigor mortis to set in and we’ll never grow old together,” can now just as easily be read as a lament for all those thousands who never made it home from Lower Manhattan, suburban Virginia, and rural Pennsylvania.
Other songs, like “Sparrow,” feel now like a tribute to the unbreakable nature of the human spirit and the (ultimately short-lived) feeling of national unity that emerged in the weeks after the attacks:
“Despite what you have heard, you cannot cage this bird,” Stringfellow sings over a spare bed of guitars, drums, and organ. “The sparrow on the wing wants to hear you sing. Once you have opened your heart to its church, you’ll find that this sparrow won’t come to its perch.”
Stringfellow embarked on an American tour not long after the release of “Touched,” traveling alone with just a guitar. Unusual for the time, he skipped using in-house PA systems, instead opting to sing without amplification. One of those shows, at New York’s Mercury Lounge, just nine days after the attacks, has acquired a “Where were you when?” sort of mystique.
“As soon as I could get on a plane, I flew on the Friday of that week to play in Philadelphia,” he recalled. “It blossomed into something quite beautiful that only a few people saw. I played in New York on Sept. 20, when people were ready to venture outside, and people were shell-shocked, and they were ready to have something else.
“It led to a very emotional evening,” he continued. “That tour was when I started to gain confidence in playing absolutely solo, that it had merit without a band. That big, empty space allowed for a lot of impact. Everything from that tour onward, it’s been leading me the way I function now. Now I eschew the PA and get into the audience.”
On Sept. 18, at a private home in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, outside Harrisburg, Stringfellow will put that approach into action, playing “Touched” from beginning to end, as well as a collection of other solo songs and tunes from The Posies’ extensive catalogue.
“When it’s me, 50 to 100 people max, or less, then I think some really cool things can happen. You can really work each person and see their eyes,” he said.
“It’s an indie rock recital, more than a concert,” he quipped. It’s also a kind of return. The Posies played one of their earliest shows at a now-shuttered bar in Lower Allen Township, Cumberland County. And they returned to the area last year to play a show in Midtown Harrisburg.
While he’s toured the world with such bands as R.E.M, played with such legends as the reconstituted Big Star, and headlined countless shows with The Posies, Stringfellow seems at home with the special place that his underlooked gem of a solo record has come to occupy in the pop landscape.
“I’ve made four albums that people enjoy. But people speak about this album with a very different vocabulary,” he said. “I think the timing of its release has something to do with it. Some kind of cosmic chicken and egg thing. This album needed to happen then. It’s gentle and not as overtly brainy as my next two albums. It’s more about the raw emotions.”
Ultimately, he concluded, “music can heal.”
And it can happen in the most unexpected of ways.