KEXP deejay John Richards curates and hosts the annual “Death & Music,” a night dedicated to songs and stories about grief and loss.
Everyone dies. But no one seems to know of a foolproof balm for the shock, the sense of loss and the specific strain of quiet that comes after a death, whether sudden or expected.
Except for music. Music always helps. A love song. A show tune. An acoustic wandering. A rageful rocker that releases a fury of hurt and confusion.
Few know this better than KEXP deejay John Richards, who answered his own grief over the death of his mother 13 years ago by creating and hosting “The Mom Show,” an annual, four-hour tribute to her and to all those whom listeners have lost. The show will air from 6 to 10 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9.
The night before, Richards will host “Death & Music” at the KEXP Gathering Space. The event, filled with songs and stories built around grief and loss, is basically a live version of “The Mom Show.”
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“Death & Music” sells out every year (as it has this year), and “The Mom Show” gets high listenership because people need them, Richards said. They need each other.
“When people enter this room and see others …,” he said the other day as we sat in the Gathering Space. “They don’t know each other, but they’re having a shared experience. That’s what radio does, too.”
The concept has become Richards’ mantra: “You are not alone.”
At “Death & Music,” now in its fourth year, the KEXP crew sets up a bar, lights candles and leaves boxes of Kleenex all over the place. Richards creates a soundtrack that is played as people settle in.
“Some people walk in and start crying,” he said. “You immediately remember the person who died. They open the door to this safe place and it hits them.”
Richards is ready with the right songs. Some Tom Petty, some Soundgarden. Leonard Cohen. There’s a moment of silence during which people meditate about the person — or people — they have lost.
This year, local artists Damien Jurado, Tomo Nakayama, Ian Moore, Star Anna and Daniel Blue of Motopony will perform live. Musician and writer Sean Nelson will talk about his own experiences with loss and grief. And Colleen Robertson of the nonprofit Safe Crossings Foundation will speak about the work it does helping children deal with grief.
“For many, it’s the first time people have faced their own grief, and it’s hard,” Richards said. “We try to encourage people to come when they sit with other people’s stories. It’s not us telling you this is the answer to feeling better. But there are stories and songs that fill in the blank.”
It’s draining for Richards, whose father died in 2000, his mother four years later, both of cancer, and for his wife, Amy, who has spoken publicly about the loss of her brother in an avalanche and her sister to murder at the hands of her husband.
But it’s cathartic enough that the very next morning, Richards is ready to reach even more people with “The Mom Show.”
When he first started it in 2004, it wasn’t long after his mother’s death. He told listeners what she — and he — had been through, interspersed with some of her favorite songs. Simon & Garfunkel. The Jayhawks.
Listeners responded in a big way. It got to them. It opened them up.
And it soothed Richards. Putting together the playlist and engaging with listeners “kept me alive,” he said. “They kept me sane. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am as a person, or who I am on the air.”
Last year’s 37-song playlist was carefully crafted, opening with tender and hesitant Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “Distant Sky” and moving on to bluesier fare like Shawn Smith’s “Wrapped in My Memory,” powerful songs like U2’s “With or Without You,” and gentle taps on the shoulder like “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.
The show ended with Sigur Rós’ “Med Sud I Eyrum,” a haunting yet hopeful piece of music that sounds like stepping into daylight.
It’s all covered — bathed — in music: The shock, the sadness, the loneliness, the disbelief, the hole that you sometimes walk around, sometimes fall into, and somehow manage to crawl out of.
“Music heals,” he said. “It may not cure cancer, but it sure helps with the process of it.”
The two shows have inspired Richards to plan shows for other areas that need soothing: cancer, depression, anxiety and addiction.
“We push very hard not to give out advice,” he said, but offered things that he and his wife have learned from their own experiences.
“People need you to say, ‘Tell me more,’ ” Richards said. “They need a meal, a beer, a check-in. Don’t pester them. People just need to know that you’re out there.”
It makes for a draining week for Richards, but it’s worth it.
“When I get done, I feel really good,” he said. “Amy and I walk out of here and it’s one of the better moments of the year. We’ve done something. We’ve helped people.”