"Singing Our Way Through": A daughter's cancer inspires a masterpiece

Songwriter Alastair Moock on his daughter's leukemia and the groundbreaking new record it inspired

Published July 6, 2013 9:30PM (EDT)

 Alastair Moock with his daughter Clio.    (Matt Dorris)
Alastair Moock with his daughter Clio. (Matt Dorris)

Fourteen months ago, songwriter Alastair Moock started noticing that one of his twin 5-year-old girls, Clio, was showing strange symptoms, which ranged from bellyaches to pain in her legs to sudden fevers. By the end of June, Moock and his wife, writer Jane Roper, had received the diagnosis every parent dreads: cancer. Specifically, childhood leukemia.

The family, who live outside Boston, has spent the past year shuttling in and out of hospitals, as Clio receives intensive chemotherapy. She’s responded well to the treatments, though the experience has been terrifying for all involved.

As longtime fans of Moock, my wife and I responded to the news of Clio’s illness with shock, and that strange wave of guilt that arrives when you’re forced to reckon with how lucky you’ve been.

A few months ago, we were surprised to learn that Moock was preparing to release a new record about his daughter’s illness. More surprising still: It was, like his past two records, aimed at both kids and parents. To be perfectly honest, I feared the worst—that the record would be one of those inspirational odes to kiddie courage.

Over the past month, I’ve listened to "Singing Our Way Through" perhaps a hundred times. Not out of loyalty to Moock, or sympathy with his plight. It’s simply one of the best records I’ve heard in the past decade.

For those unfamiliar with his music, Moock’s basic template is simple: lush melodies, rootsy arrangements and sly verbal wordplay. Think two parts Woody Guthrie, one part Dan Zanes, with just a dash of Muddy Waters.

Like his other records, "SOWT" is musically promiscuous in the best possible way, ranging from straight-ahead folk (“Take a Little Walk With Me”) to country swing (“I’m a Little Monkey”) to gospel (“Joy Comes Back”) and R&B (“Walk On”). There are duets with luminaries such as Elizabeth Mitchell, a giant in the world of all-ages music, and blues legend Chris Smither.

But the most exciting collaboration for Moock is the one that gave rise to the album in the first place: his decision to write songs with Clio herself.

What’s most impressive about the record is its ability to portray cancer for what it is: a complex human process full of fear and pain, but also moments of great intimacy and even joy. It’s an unsentimental album that happens to be deeply moving.

I sat down with Moock last week, on the eve of "SOWT’s "release, to discuss the logistics of co-writing with a 5-year-old, and what he hopes the new album might provide for other families whose children have cancer.

I know both your daughters love music. But I’ve got to imagine it took a backseat after Clio’s diagnosis.

Yeah, there was no thought of anything for a while. That first week was devastating. We basically moved into the hospital. But at a certain point, several weeks in, you just realize that there’s a lot of sitting around. So I went home and got the guitar. Because Clio especially loves to sing and to write songs, that’s always been a way for us to commune. Those first couple of days I played all her favorite songs. I remember I played “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You,” the Woody Guthrie song about the Great Depression, and Clio would announce to anyone who came into the room, “That’s a true song! That song is about a big dust storm that actually happened!” I’m sure the nurses were like, ‘What are they singing in there?’

They weren’t used to having music in the hospital?

Actually, at that time we were at Tufts Medical Center and I think the music therapist was on vacation. Which was fine. Because, you know, in our family, I’m kind of the music therapist. At a certain point, when Clio was feeling better, I asked her if she wanted to write some songs.

What was that like?

Honestly, even though I write music for parents and kids, I haven’t done a lot of co-writing with kids.

Five-year-olds can be temperamental.

Yeah, they’re difficult. They’re always whining. (Laughs) But the thing is — I know this is going to sound parental — but Clio really does have a gift for lyrics. She got rhyme at a very young age. Which I’m sure is because we all walk around the house making up little ditties.

So how does it actually work when you write a song with her?

The first song we wrote was “I’m a Little Monkey” and it was really just a matter of me playing a little riff and saying, “What should we sing about?” and she said “a monkey” and I said, “OK, what do monkeys do?” and she said, “They hang on vines. They eat bananas.” It was really just about being playful. Because that’s a big part of this: How do you hold on to being a kid at the same time you’re a patient?

What I can see in retrospect is that all the songs we wrote together were, on some level, really about what was going on with Clio. When we wrote “Take a Little Walk With Me,” I mean, she’d been on lockdown on a cancer ward for weeks, so of course we were thinking about getting out of there, being able to go somewhere else.

The record has a lot of songs about the impact of cancer on the whole family. I’m thinking of a track like “Have You Ever Been Jealous?”

Yeah, the jealousy thing is a huge issue among families with a sick kid, which is something we didn’t ever think about. And with a twin it’s magnified. Mentally, I think in some ways that summer was tougher on Elsa, because we were so completely focused on Clio.

There’s also “Take Care of Your Grownups.”

I wrote that four or five months in, when it became obvious that we needed to take better care of ourselves. Jane was having these scary panic attacks. We were both pretty run down. And it’s this reminder to kids, you know, that parents are vulnerable too. They get scared just like kids. But that it’s possible to be brave and scared at the same time. That’s pretty much the theme of the entire experience.

At what point did it switch from writing some songs with your daughter to wanting to make an album?

The songs kept coming in a very organic way. And I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, which was to create an album that dealt with cancer as an experience. When I looked around at what else was out there musically speaking, there was a lot of “You can do it, you’re a hero” type stuff. But I couldn’t really find anything that was trying to get at the meat and bones of the experience.

The real challenge for me was how to open the album. I didn’t want to start with a song about a monkey. I needed to acknowledge the core of the experience. So I finally wrote this prose poem, which became the song “I Am the Light.”

It’s such a ballsy thing to start an album with the line, “C is for the cancer that’s growing in me.”

I guess. I struggled with putting it first right until the end. Because for me, the point is always to create community. I want to make music that parents and kids can enjoy. And with this album especially, that any family could enjoy. At the same time, I wanted this album to be a resource for families going through what we have. The challenge was how to confront cancer as a topic directly without mentioning death, but also without giving false comfort. I kept wanting to say, “It’ll be all right. You’ll be OK.” My first draft of the poem basically said that. But I knew it was wrong. The fact is that there will be kids who listen to this album who won’t be OK. That’s a hell of a reality to try to be hopeful in the face of. And of course it’s something we struggle with ourselves.

Finding hope and even joy in uncertainty is a big part of living with this thing. So the goal of the poem, really the whole album, and also of our parenting this past year, has been to stay more in the moment, look more closely at small things, and to take pride in the tenacious vitality of people, especially little people.

It must be exciting to be able to perform these songs in concert.

Oh yeah. When I think about where we were a year ago, and now being able to see Clio get up onstage. We do “When I Get Bald” together and she sings it all the way through. It’s amazing to see her do that, because this is a kid who’s always been really shy. She’s come into her own as a performer.

By Steve Almond

Steve Almond's new book is "Against Football." Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.

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