We were driven to this really cool looking recording studio, where we were thoroughly inspected for weapons before entering the building. Someone… oh, I think it was a reporter who was going to sit in on the interview, who was not wearing a mennat got past the front desk without being touched. I’d be lying to say that didn’t sting a little. We were taken into the studio where we met the two DJs, Matt and Cori. They seemed pretty nice; I think Cori was a bit star-struck. The nine of us were given chairs, mics, water, and headphones, and then the recording light came on.
“Hello everyone and welcome back to 81.5’s special Friday segment of OnKey. We have in the studio with us right now, the band which some are calling an “overnight sensation.” We’ll get to you guys in a second, but first, we need to introduce ourselves! I’m Matt and as usual we have Cori here in the studio,” the heavyset man turned to the Asian woman next to him, “How are you today, Cori?”
“Fantastic, and you know, I won’t lie, it’s mostly because of our guests.”
“Can’t argue with you there. After everything these kids have been through, and the fact that they still decide to make music, to continue living out their passions is so inspiring.”
“It is. Should we get started?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Alright! Ladies and gentlemen, the entire band and editing crew of Smallpox is here with us in the studio, and you know I don’t think we’ve ever had this many people in the studio with us at once.”
Everyone laughed a little at this.
“So, from left to right we’ve got Buck Meltsner, Trent DeWhite, Mandy Straussberg? Am I pronouncing that correctly?”
“Yep! It’s weird, I know.”
“Oh, I love it. It’s original. Next, we have Marvin Washington, Vance King, Tamika Washington, Jules Kendall, and at the end of our table here we have Grady and Dion. Now we know Grady’s last name is McKay but is this true of you changing your last name, Dion?”
“Well, yeah. Last week I was officially made a Whitaker. My foster parent, Jason Whitaker, wanted it to be official, so he’s now my permanent guardian.”
“That’s fantastic, and I think I speak for a lot of the fans when I say, you and Grady make an adorable couple.”
“And you’re not the only one with a new family situation,” she said cheerfully, making eye-contact with me, and then Jules, “Jules. You look amazing for having given birth just over a month ago. I mean you really look stunning.”
“Oh, well, thanks.”
“Let’s talk about this new album!” Matt suggested a bit more enthusiastically than what was needed.
“So, all of you are singing on this one?”
“Trent and I aren’t much,” Marvin explained, “Everyone else is though!”
“Now I got to listen to your fourteen-song album yesterday, and the opposing styles caught me off guard, but in a good way. Where did the idea to bring so many genes together come from?”
“I think it was just how things turned out,” Tamika started, we nodded in agreement, “We all wrote different songs, and those songs reflect who we are, and we’re all different. Honestly, I love it that way.”
We agreed again.
“When examining the sudden mood change, and even morality changes your songs go through, many fans have sensed a storyline. Is there truth to this?”
“You want to take this one?” Jules asked me.
“I’ll try to explain,” I sighed, “These songs were built over several years, and experiences, but basically what we managed to do, is exactly what fans think, which is, yeah it’s a story. We wanted this album to reflect what our emotional state was like over the last year.”
“Would you be willing to go over these songs, and maybe explain the meaning behind them?”
“Absolutely. Um, the first song was Buck’s.”
“Yeah. After Jay passed away, I went through a very long process of trying to get a song out, and Even When it Hurts is kind of the result of that. It was one of those projects that turned out better than I expected it to because I only worked on when I needed to vent or remind myself of God’s faithfulness.”
“To add to that, I think we put it at the beginning because it really held this heart-wrenching theme of always falling before God,” Mandy said, emotion clinging to her voice, “I thought it was important to sort of say from the get-go, this is a story, and it’s a tragic, difficult to listen to story, but we have and had this anchor through it. Want to add anything to that, Tamika?”
“Hm. That’s well said. Getting to record and get to know this song was a true honor. It was easily my favorite to record.”
“Yeah if you guys haven’t heard it, seriously, go listen right now because Tamika, and I’ve always thought this, she, first of all, is a stunning singer, but then the deep understanding and experience she brings to it is just gorgeous.”
Tamika put her hand on her heart and mouthed a thank you to the friend next to her.
“Our second song is defender,” Mandy sighed. “Honestly this has become an anthem for me personally. I wrote this one reflecting on my time in the hospital after the shooting. While my life was on the line, this phrase kept coming to mind. I would pray every night, just begging God for answers. It was so beyond what I could understand. I mean, why had He let me get shot, why were my friends killed, why didn’t I die instantly if I was going to die anyway. Once I was ‘out of the woods’ so to speak, I was able to write again, and as I did, I began to understand. I didn’t have answers, but I knew God’s character, and I knew I was supposed to praise him. So, I think my hope for anyone listening is that they would find rest in this idea of God’s way is better, all we have to do sometimes is worship.”
“Well said. What’s the one after that?” Dion looked over the table.
“Oh, it’s mine,” Vance laughed, “I wrote No Fear in Love while grieving our loss of Jay. It was a way to confess and realign my desires for true love. There’s a verse, First John four: eighteen, that says ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’ While Jay and I were dating, I often told him I loved him. It wasn’t until I surrendered to Jesus that I realized how afraid he’d become of me, and rightfully so, and this verse convicted me. So, I wrote about it. I think it also helped me understand my loss.”
“So, it sounds like for most of you, songwriting is a therapy,” Matt said, his chin on his knuckles.
“Absolutely,” I nodded. “Demons is next, right?” I laughed a little, “Jules, you wanna explain?”
“Gladly. So, this is the first time our album takes a drastic turn, which is fitting because, for me, that’s how my life felt. I wanted Demons to have this deviant, rebellious, haunted, upbeat feeling. I was in a pit of depression, which led to bad decisions, as Buck will attest to. The lyrics ‘Please forgive me, I’ve got demons in my head,’ are honestly a plea for understanding. From God, from my sister, from Buck, whoever didn’t understand at the time. I needed a rhythm to almost justify my actions while keeping this awareness that I was in the wrong, if that makes sense.”
“Yeah it actually does, and I think a lot of your listeners can relate.”
I didn’t notice the fish on her forehead before she said that.
“Scared is the next song, again, a change in mood,” Vance began, “I wrote this as sort of a sequel to No Fear in Love, and it’s a love song to Tamika. I wrote this one when we got to come together as a band again. That’s actually when a lot of these were written. So, this song is a steady sort of promise. It’s saying, I know there’s fear around you, but I will never be the cause of it. And then I got to sing it, so that was cool.”
“I cried so much the first time I heard it,” Tamika giggled. “Is High on Humans next?”
“Yes!” Dion answered.
“Ugh, this is my favorite song in the entire album. It was so much fun to record and produce,” Mandy reflected.
Dion nodded, “This song came out of me in probably half an hour. For the first few weeks after the shooting, I was actually emotionally stable, and this song wrote itself. My pain killer infused mind found a lot of enjoyment in conversating with people, and High on Humans was the result of that. Buck, tell us about Youngblood.”
“Oof,” I cringed. “So, I like this song, because deep down I know it sounds good, but at the same time, it’s so overdramatic that I can never listen to it. I wrote it after Jules briefly broke up with me.”
“Well, that’s probably why it feels dramatic because at the time you thought you’d lost me forever, when we were back together in like three weeks.”
“Right. So, Vance does a fantastic job on the vocals, and I hate every second of the song.”
They laughed with me at this, and Jules picked up the conversation.
“I like this one,” Dion gushed.
“I wrote it while Dion was in the hospital. I didn’t know what to do for him. I don’t think any of us did, so I wrote out my feelings. This one is fun because originally I had it as a much slower ballad sort of song, and Mandy suggested picking up the tempo, giving it a hopeful twist, and as always, she was right. So thank you, dear!” My girlfriend blew our friend a kiss from across the table.
“Cry Today, Smile Tomorrow is next, right Dion?” I asked.
“Yeah. I really can’t take any credit for this one. Jay wrote the whole thing. After he died, his parents let me really go through any of his stuff. On his phone, and then what I found later in a notebook was this song that somehow perfectly defined not only the type of person my boyfriend was, but exactly how I was feeling at the time, and continue to often. It’s just such a good reminder, and a treasure to remember him by. My favorite line is ‘Don’t fill my mind with petty lies. Let that go.’ That was just such a raw, true statement. I needed it to be repeated. So just like everyone’s been saying, it was my therapy.”
“Maniac is next!” Vance laughed out loud, “I love this one so much. Another one written by Jay that Grady and I had the privilege of recording. Any comments, Grady?”
“It was a lot of fun. We kind of unanimously decided he wrote it about Vance, so I think for you, it was kind of a way to move on and face your damage. I don’t want to assume though-”
“No, you’re absolutely right. It made me need to recount my actions. Now it’s one of my favorites to sing.”
“So Come out of Hiding is Next. Performed and written by the incredible Tamika Washington,” Trent complimented.
“Thank you,” she laughed, “I love this one. Writing was such a God thing. I mean, the words just ran onto the page. I wrote it just recounting my journey of faith, how much I ran away from Jesus. It’s a reminder that we can always return to him. I needed to hear that, so I assumed other people did too.”
“From personal experience, you’re correct,” Jules nodded. “Jay wrote Alabaster Heart. I think this was the only worship song he composed?”
“Yeah,” Dion clarified, “He wrote quite a few pieces of worship songs and mentioned his faith in other songs, but this one is one of the few we can call complete and worship. I think he wrote this when he came back from the camp, he became a Christian at.”
“Yeah, the dates line up with that,” Grady confirmed. “I just really enjoy singing this one, knowing who it came from, knowing how true it is. I liked the word treasure. This is another one. Every complete song we have from him has become a dedication to him. It’s unifying and I think a good reminder.”
“I agree,” Dion said.
“Oh, can we talk about My Friends now?” Mandy begged.
“Yes! Such a good one. Jay was a genius.”
“I think that was my favorite song from your album,” Matt said, “Who sings it?”
“Jules and I,” Vance answered.
“Hm. Well, your voices sound beautiful together.”
“Thank you,” they said at once.
“Can we play a sample of that song for the air?”
We sat and listened as the soft, simple tune filled the recording area. I was so proud to be apart of the project we called Smallpox. That family. Those beautiful people.
Cori pushed away a few tears as the song ended.
“Um. Sorry. That’s really beautiful,” she sniffed, “Why did you choose to put Hallelujah at the end of the album instead of ending it with My Friends?”
“I think I can answer that,” Mandy said, having finished a drink of water, “We wanted to leave our listener with hope, and promise of more to come. And Marvin wrote this one actually.”
“I did! It was a lot of fun, but very difficult at the same time, because I only know drums. I also never write songs, so this was a whole new ballpark for me.”
“Yet you fooled all of us. Well done. You’re teenagers, but I mean you’ve done things with your lives! Let’s talk about your album cover. You’ve got this amazing collage of the eight of you, with Jay in the middle. The cover has a green outline, and underneath reads, the album title, Israel. Where did this name come from?”
“Dion, Vance, and Mandy came up with it all,” Tamika said.
“Yeah, Dion chose the name,” Mandy nodded.
“Right, so this came from a couple of things. There’s a Bible story where Jacob wrestles with an angel. Yes, this is a real story, go look it up. It’s a strange one, but short story shorter, Jacob and this angel wrestle, and then Jacob asks the angel to bless him, so the angel does and I think the quote is, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.’ So there are three meanings hear, the first is that Jay’s name was Jacob. Secondly, the verse I just quoted really depicts how we’ve felt for the last year. We did struggle with God and the people around us, but we overcame. We got through that darkness. The third reason, um, the Hebrew nation is sometimes referred to as Israel, and honestly, as Christians, we often feel like we’re foreigners on earth, like we have another home, because we do.”
“Fascinating. What about the album art, who’s responsible for that?”
“That was Mandy and Vance.”
“Um, yeah. I honestly don’t remember where the picture idea came from,” she giggled, “I like the way it turned out though. If anyone can’t tell, it’s from left to right, Marvin, Buck, Jules, Me, Jay, Trent, Vance, Tamika, and Dion.”
“Wow, that’s exactly right from memory. Who thought of the color?”
“I think that was me,” Vance laughed, “I don’t have a heavy reason for making it that greenish color other than it looked good.”
“Well that’s good enough for me, this does look fantastic, guys. I had no idea members of the band designed it. Who was your photographer?”
“Again, I’m shocked because they look amazing.”
“So go check out Smallpox album ‘Israel.’ It’s on… Spotify, Apple Music, all that good stuff?”
“Yep. Pretty much anywhere you listen to music.”
“Awesome. Cori, you wanna take this next piece?”
“Happy to. So, we get a good glimpse of what your lives became after the shooting through your album, what have they settled into?”
We didn’t answer right away. It wasn’t a question any of us had considered. What was our life like now? I figured I had a substantial answer but didn’t really want to talk about it on air. I tried anyway:
“I mean, Jules and I… we get up every morning, I usually go to work around nine, she stays home with Levi, and it’s honestly, it’s been hard. I’m exhausted.”
“Do you wish now that you would have given Levi up for adoption, or gotten an abortion?”
The fact that she could mention that possibility was sickening.
“No. Absolutely ot. I know what it’s like to be abandoned. No way in hell could I do that to my son. He makes it all worth it.”
“How’s it been for you, Jules?”
“Pretty much what he said. I adore my baby, more than I could have imagined, and the work we have to put in ends up irrelevant.”
We were both lying a little, but we couldn’t let on how worn out we were, how honestly, mentally unstable we were.
“Most of us are still in school,” Grady said, “Vance graduated early, but we’re in online school and I think that’s been going well for everyone.”
“That’s pretty much it,” Dion said, his voice low.
Cori picked up his cue.
“Alright, well thank you all for coming in to do this. Go listen to Israel, and I hope you got tickets to their concert tonight because it is completely sold out. Stunning work you guys. Thanks again.”
We thanked her and then the recording light clicked off.