HuDost Makes Music for the Sacred and the Profane
How the Kentucky duo is using social activism and interfaith messaging to forge a new path for independent rock on its latest album Of Water + Mercy
It almost didn’t happen. The album Moksha Sommer and Jemal Wade Hines had been working on for four years (their seventh under the moniker HuDost) was nearly derailed by 2018’s Pledge Music breakdown. Billboard reported that the couple received only one initial payout from the fan pledges it raised for production costs on the troubled crowdfunding platform. HuDost is just one of dozens of groups, from Fastball to Jesus Jones and L7, who say they’ve been short-changed by Pledge. Unlike many songwriters who were locked out of access to their recordings in the record label consolidations of the 1990s, the upside to the digital-era Pledge debacle is that HuDost owns its work. So the duo decided to ready Of Water + Mercy for an April 5, 2019 release in spite of the pitfall, sending a strong signal to fans that the show must go on.
Of Water + Mercy is here, and it’s a quintessentially 21st century American product: a collection of songs by young parents inspired by real life in their rural Kentucky town where the most recent census reported a population of 2500, yet somehow there is yoga, a Montessori school, WiFi, and sense of real community in spite of the political division and hardships in a region of the country known for scraped-top coal mountains and the creeping devastation of the opioid crisis. Set to rock, Americana, and Eastern textures, the eight songs on the album describe personal experiences (such as parenting a “Red Haired Son” and the death of a brother from “Arrhythmia”) as well as a broader longing for communal spiritual reckoning (“Burning Church,” “Benevolence Day”).
Musician Dan Haseltine, a cofounder of seminal Christian alternative rock group Jars of Clay and the Blood: Water Mission charity has been critical of exclusivity and hypocrisy in the evangelical sphere. He teamed up with Sommer and Hines to perform on three tracks on Of Water + Mercy and co-wrote the rousing “Rise Together,” a classic rock anthem with a call for unity across religions and belief systems. HuDost believes Haseltine helped “mature” their songwriting process by viewing faith through an internal lens. “It made me realize that most divine awakenings happen through pain, whether through physical pain or everyday pain in actual relationships,” Sommer says. The album grew organically through a point of view that allowed for the songs to be about faith and religious experiences so long as they remained “open-ended, like the work of the mystics Rumi and Hafiz,” she says.
Sommer describes herself as a transplanted Canadian who attends a Christian church yet identifies as an “interfaith agnostic” influenced equally by Sufi teachings and Brené Brown. Hines is a well-connected Southern session player who grew up listening to Kiss and was interested in Eastern philosophies but had never heard of Jars of Clay until Haseltine handed him a CD at a 2015 advocacy conference hosted by Bono’s ONE Campaign. He and Sommer donate their time to the organization and educate their neighbors about the movement to end global poverty and preventable diseases, and the work has seeped into the duo’s recordings and concerts.
Driven by Sommer’s lush expressive alto and Hines’ skilled strumming and electric guitar licks, HuDost’s live performances feel as sacred as a church service, without the identifiers which can separate and shame non-believers. This intentional blurring of what traditional faith-based music can be is what makes Of Water + Mercy such a trailblazing experiment. Although much of the album was written before the 2016 election, its themes mirror pop cultural metaphors for the current rise of racism, sexism, and nationalism in the United States, Europe, and beyond. HuDost’s video for “Burning Church” contains the same visual cues as Hulu’s popular reimagining of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with women dressed in red blindfolds. Sommer says the imagery is aimed at busting groupthink. “We need to see ourselves not as a block, but as individual selves banding together to create change.” Hines notes that the band’s advocacy work ties into the same principal as the music: the greater good begins with one person’s desire to make a difference.
“‘No matter which faith we’re talking about, the doctrine and dogma must be burned down in order to return to the core teachings and build again.”
Photo by Michael Ingram.