The “Origami” Trilogy: the solitudes of John Van Deusen

Old abandoned church in Oklahoma

The truth is, that the concept of God which I had always entertained, and which I had accused Christians of teaching to the world, was a concept of a being who was simply impossible. He was infinite and yet finite; perfect and imperfect; eternal and yet changing — subject to all the variations of emotion, love, sorrow, hate, revenge, that men are prey to. How could this fatuous, emotional thing be without beginning and without end, the creator of all? I had taken the dead letter of Scripture at its very deadest, and it had killed me…

Thomas Merton, from The Seven Storey Mountain, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1948

The first solitude for every artist to explore (from Thomas Merton to John Van Deusen): find your personal mountain, and climb it.

I never pass up a used copy of The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton: thrift stores, yard sales, used bookstores, free giveaway piles of books on sidewalks. If I see a copy set adrift, I rescue it. I bring them all home. I have no idea how many copies I have now. There’s at least one in every room where I keep books. What draws me to it? It’s the passionate, universal, unquenchable, story of the quest; the attraction of living a totally committed spiritual life; the longing of youth searching for something profound to believe in and navigate by; the universal tale of the doubt in choosing the path of faith over all others. It’s also about the courageous plunge into that doubt, about giving one’s entire spirit to entering the unknown to see what’s there — the joy and the terror, in equal measure — without knowing how the story will end.

Our deepest confessions are almost always done outside the realm of popular scrutiny, outside the gaze of others. For Thomas Merton, his were done behind the secure Cistercian walls of the Abbey of Gethsemani near rural Bardston, Kentucky, and revealed, through the years, in books. For John Van Deusen, his confessions have been done in the small, public crucible of the Indie music scene in Anacortes, Washington. John has become an inspirational, leading light in this scene. Even with his pitch-perfect songwriting and commanding studio-recording confidence, nothing is simple for John, not even talking to God. In three revealing and confessional records, John has attempted to navigate his very personal journey from being the popular (and private) frontman of The Lonely Forest (currently on permanent hiatus, although so strong is the power of myth that the local newspaper reported that the band had reformed for John for a brief appearance at this year’s Anacortes Arts Festival, disappointing a few fans), to becoming a recording artist signed to Seattle’s Christian Tooth & Nail record label, with his faith (doubts, and even fears) on show for all to see (and hear). A career as an Indie recording artist isn’t a life in a cloister.

In 2017, adrift from a major record deal, John created his own label, Monopath Records, the setting and platform for the “Origami” trilogy of studio recordings: “(I am) Origami Pt. 1: The Universal Sigh” (Monopath, 2017), “(I am) Origami Pt. 2: Every Power Wide Awake” (Monopath, 2017), and just released “(I am) Origami Pt. 3: A Catacomb Hymn” (redirected from Monopath to Tooth & Nail, 2019, on blue vinyl). For some, this shift in his songwriting focus came as a surprise. The question is now what will The Lonely Forest fans make of John’s openly Christian journey up his mountain, and will they follow him there?

I battled my insecurities and fears about openly professing my faith in Jesus to my listener base. I also went back and forth with how to release all of the music…. In the end, it seems that the straightest and simplest path is the best one — be honest and don’t overextend your reach. Instead, simply walk forward with what you know to be true and don’t wait for the world to catch up.

liner notes for “(I Am) Origami Pt. 2, Every Power Wide Awake,” Monopath Records, 2017
John Van Deusen in February 2018
JVD, 2018

The journey begins gently with “(I am) Origami Pt.1: The Universal Sigh.” These ten songs, spanning just over 30 minutes, present John’s first revealing steps of leaving the security of an identity forged in his popular Indie-music beginning. The results are every bit as shimmering as anything he created with The Lonely Forest back in the day, but with new questions added. (For all three records he brought along Braydn Krueger, John’s childhood friend and the brilliant drummer from The Lonely Forest and the punk band Buffet. Both John and Braydn are members of Buffet as well, along with Nick Rennis and Dick Turner.)

Recorded at Studio X in Seattle, “The Universal Sigh” slips between metaphor and musing, with atmosphere and imagery not unlike something The Lonely Forest might have explored. Like the first chapters of Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, the full transformation still lies ahead, but the journey starts here with these songs (especially in “Mind-Reader,” “Masterworks,” and “Absentee Heartbeat”), like a chain of related metaphors, hinting at a revelation to come. Nearly every song explores mystery, heartache, longing, a greater hunger within an artist ready to let go, but not quite ready to lay bare everything. These songs are like the moments in all our lives, those moments that push the heart to change, or break.

The Universal Sigh LP cover

I think that maybe the most powerful and revealing song on this first record hides behind an almost dismissive pop title containing the name of a fictional character from “Twin Peaks”: “Forgive Me Audrey Horne.” John sings, “I’m cold I’m scared/And a little bit un-repaired/ I fall through the ice and say/ Oh, if I change my ways, commit my days/Will you try… disregard my/Impulsive running, wisdom shunning…” That’s pure confused, young Tom Merton (calling Scripture “dead” because he lacked the eyes to see it in a proper light): raw, confessing, pleading, praying for a way out, a way to stop running away from the hurt and the pain of his life, so he can run toward something better, something honest, something real and living.

Almost every morning, before my wife wakes up, I sit alone with black coffee and my Bible; reading and praying. These are the most precious moments of my day. This is when I feel most receptive to the voice of God. This is when I feel truly awake; open to the deeper things of the world, hovering above my busy, self-propelled lifestyle. It’s a kind of heaven.

liner notes for “(I Am) Origami Pt. 2, Every Power Wide Awake,” Monopath Records, 2017
John Van Deusen playing guitar
JVD, 2018

The story continues in a series of cabins, homes, garages, studios, and even countries, where John cobbled together the myriad pieces that create the second volume in his “Origami” series: “(I am) Origami Pt. 2: Every Power Wide Awake.” Perhaps the most varied in terms of textures, here John makes the giant public leap into Scriptural declaration. This double LP, running to almost an hour of music, is a collection of 14 songs that no longer shade their meaning in subtle metaphor. Many of these songs contain direct quotes from the Bible, direct affirmations of faith, all blended together with John’s distinctive lyrical style. The liner notes accompanying the LP are also the most disclosive about the process and purpose of this series of records. “Every Power Wide Awake” came out the same year as “The Universal Sigh,” bookmarking what must have been a tumultuous year of self-examination through the lens of his Monopath label. If fans had any doubts about John’s hidden meanings on the first album, they’re clear now.

Songs like “Every Power Wide Awake,” “Sparrow and the Seed,” and especially “Holy Mountain” evoke a connection to a songwriter like Bill Fay. There’s a surprising freshness to John’s unrestrained, unashamed expression of faith. He’s not preaching, he’s exclaiming. Some of the locations in which these songs were recorded give them the depth of feeling of reflections from a fitful hermitage, the solitary setting aside the worldly gaze of believers and critics alike, to be free to speak to his God. Like Thomas Merton, John is declaring on this record that he now belongs to God.

Every Power Wide Awake LP cover

In the end, “Every Power Wide Awake” is very much the bridge between two stylistic destinations: one the shy, testing place where ideas are forming (or hiding?) but haven’t yet reached confident expression; the other, the final record in the “Origami” trilogy, the direct freedom of exuberant spiritual expression. At times, the fragile nature of the songs on “Every Power Wide Awake” feels overpowering, but I think that’s the point. These songs aren’t about the elevation of one above another. Instead, I think they should be seen as the raw material of John’s artistic transformation from the popular songwriting pleaser into the independent, self-possessed performer with a calling. John broadly declares some of the songs on this middle record “immature” in his liner notes, which seems a bit harsh to me. Like Bill Fay’s “Time of the Last Persecution” (Deram Records, 1970), John’s intention seems to be one of removing ambiguity. Like Bill Fay, John has chosen his place.

My mind is full of spider webs
and my soul is full of grime
I aim to understand and suffer with you in kind
burn away my idols
tear away this worldly veil
purify my motives
may your perfect love prevail

from the song “Illuminate My Unknowing,” on “(I Am) Origami Pt. 2: Every Power Wide Awake” (Monopath Records, 2017)
JVD at Kennelly Keys 2018
JVD at Kennelly Keys, Anacortes, 25 March 2018

The team from the first record, mostly, reassembled in Cisco, Texas, at the state-of-the-art Ranch Land Studios, for the third and final installment of the “Origami” trilogy, with a welcome return of Braydn Krueger’s driving drum lines. This record, “(I am) Origami Pt. 3: A Catacomb Hymn,” loudly proclaims, with a confident voice, the truth of a man ready to speak for himself. Gone is all tentative reservations about motivation and effect. The interior life has become the exterior life. The seasons change, the work goes on, and peace is found in the making of these songs of solitude, songs of transformation.

There are three standout tracks on this record: “Whatever Makes You Mine,” “If All is Nothing/Nothing Must End,” and the stunning “Fly Away to Hell.” These songs confidently move into what Thomas Merton called the “mysterious interior solitude,” shaped by an artist shaped by the DIY underground Anacortes music scene. John Van Deusen’s three solitudes have become one. The transformation is complete with “A Catacomb Hymn.”

A Catacomb Hymn LP cover

As I move through these three career-changing records, I’m reminded that there are many mountains in our lives. Thomas Merton’s life behind abbey walls at Gethsemane became his only real world. Every journey away from his cloister (in the mind or for real) was a journey away from freedom. For John Van Deusen, he’s laid out his journey to his personal mountain, as well as adding a plea for finding his freedom. His journey has been laid bare for all to decide: Has he become a different recording artist from his younger days in The Lonely Forest, or has he now revealed the communicant who’s always been within, just hidden?

I suspect some fans will fall away. The Northwest is still a somewhat introverted landscape when it comes to declarations of faith. In the end though, I think most will follow John because of his sincerity, honesty, and vulnerability.

These three “Origami” records are a bold, brave, emotionally fraught statement of belief and doubt, not an appeal for others to convert. If there’s an appeal toward deeper contemplation, it’s that everyone should ask themselves more questions about what matters most to them.

In 1948, three years after the most terrible world war in history, Thomas Merton wrote: “America is discovering the contemplative life.” Year after year, trial after trial, it seems, we’re still in discovery mode. For all of us, it’s a work in progress.

Please lead me to your holy mountain, God
I long to know your glory and your peace

from the song “Holy Mountain,” on “(I Am) Origami Pt. 2: Every Power Wide Awake” (Monopath Records, 2017)
John Van Deusen in a Buffet practice session
JVD in Buffet, practice session, 2018

[Editorial note: I am not a Christian. I have many friends, but I don’t share all of their spiritual beliefs. I write about the records that interest me, the recording artists who move me. I believe the critical mind is free to wander.]