is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Laurie Woolever and Mike Ruffino, only at Paste.
There was a day in Sri Lanka that Laurie Woolever thought she had gotten herself killed over a bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of whiskey. She was there on a shoot with Anthony Bourdain, who had asked Laurie to arrange a get-together for the weary crew of Parts Unknown. Like a lot of the people who worked with Bourdain, Laurie says she’s still processing grief and loss in the wake of his death.
“There’s a lot of transition,” Woolever says. “There’s a lot of trying to understand who we are and where we’re going without our North Star.”
Woolever worked with Bourdain for many years, and her most recent book is Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, a collection of remembrances and stories about the celebrated chef. Still, though Bourdain makes an appearance in the story she tells on SongWriter, Woolever did not want it to be about him.
“I wanted to make it more about my experience, going along for this ride,” Woolever says.
The shoot in Sri Lanka was particularly intense. The crew was filming the Madai religious festival in Jaffna, during which devout Hindus pay their spiritual debts through fasting and acts of physical suffering. Composer Mike Ruffino, who wrote the song in response to Woolever’s story, describes just how brutal these devotions appear to Western eyes.
“These guys [get] things you’d hook a swordfish on through their backs,” Ruffino says, explaining that the devotee is hung by ropes attached to the hooks from a flexible platform.
Like Woolever, Ruffino also worked with Bourdain for many years, and was the composer for both Parts Unknown and No Reservations. Because of this long history with Bourdain’s shows, Ruffino still has all of the audio recorded in Sri Lanka, and he used those samples as inspiration, instruments, and soundscapes for his song, “Devotion Cycle Part II: Climate Control.”
“The director, Tom, was always really good about collecting sounds,” Ruffino says. “The song here, the rhythm was taken from the wheels of the train, riding from Colombo to Jaffna.”
The song is a gorgeous meditation on transition and loss. It opens with a train whistle, as a Sri Lankan voice in the background announces imminent departure.
“Looking for your lotus-face,” Ruffino sings, “To tell me death is just a phase.”
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.