A dear, late friend of mine once said, “Sometimes you just get the measure of somebody online. A consistent vibe that “this is a good person”…
That is precisely how I feel about Jesse Mercury. We started following each other summer of 2015. I had visited his website and youtube channel and when I saw that his songs were 1) science fiction in theme, and 2) synthpop, I was enthralled.
The first one I listened to was “Elliott“, and I swear (and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’) I don’t recall a song ever having an effect on me like that one – ever. You can read about that mind-blowing experience here, if you’d like.
Jesse is not only an incredible musician and synthpop artist, but he’s also one of the most interesting SciFi fans I’ve ever met and someone I’ve come to consider a friend. He lives and breathes science fiction. The way he’s incorporated the genre into his music is simply amazing. His songs run the gamut from humor to pain, from loss to love.
So, with no further ado, here he is… the man from the year 3000, trapped in ‘modern day’. Making SciFi Synthpop and hosting podcasts to pass the time until holodecks are real and he can finally find a way back home…
Finding Hope on a Cold, Dead World
I was young when I started writing songs. It was an unintentional byproduct of teaching myself guitar and having no idea what to play. I made up three chords and felt a moment of pure rightness as I began to weave word and tune together. My burgeoning repertoire began to grow, and I realized how much there was to say about the seemingly insurmountable troubles one might experience as a suburban teenage boy. Growing pains, crises of self, and the myriad Shakespearean tragedies of my first breakups. Songwriting was my therapy, and the music reflected that. I found perfection in the process, the crafting of a simple phrase to encapsulate the powerful emotions I was growing into, learning to handle them as I matured. It was a blissful exercise in creativity, vital to my emotional development. The results were varied in listenability, but invariably personal. From the outside it must have seemed like listening to a diary made audible, which in retrospect may have been uncomfortable to anyone who knew me personally.
Then something truly difficult happened. My health mysteriously and violently vanished shortly after my 24th birthday. One day I was biking across my native San Diego, jogging and playing racquetball to my heart’s content, the next I was in the emergency room with inexplicable muscle spasms, cognitive issues, intense body weakness, and vision flashes. It seemed like i had dived into a strange alternate reality nightmare, in which my worst fears regarding degenerative health were coming true. My symptoms were so strange that the doctors thought I was having a stroke or manifesting some auto-immune disorder, or just faking for pills. For the next year I lived on the couch, sustained on a steady diet of science fiction television as I visited countless doctors in search of that elusive diagnosis.
My symptoms were myriad, but it was the cognitive issues and muscle spasms that were the most frightening. There were days I couldn’t walk down the hall on my own because my legs would be shaking so bad, or even worse were the days where I couldn’t get my brain to convince my legs to move at all. I vanished from my job, my social circles, and the life I had built for myself after college came to an end. My doctors casually dropped small terrors such as viral brain infection, multiple sclerosis, guillaine barre, and a multitude of other horrifying conditions that could be causing my bizarre physical manifestations. Perhaps most frightening of all were the doctors who threw up their hands in exasperation, proclaiming that their inability to come up with answers could only mean one thing: that I was making the whole thing up.
Songwriting had been my greatest outlet up until that point, and one day in the middle of this confusion and pain I decided to write. For the first time I had something truly terrifying to write about, something that had shaken me to my core and upset the balance of my existence. I sat down at my workstation with my close friend Dan manning the bass, whipped together some drum samples and digital synthesizers, and started a song about a time travelling hero who came from the past to end a future war. The first movement of Gustav Holst’s seminal work The Planets thundered in my ears, “Mars, The Bringer of War”. Suddenly I was outside of my body, flying through the cosmos in a universe full of possibilities. A new sonic landscape presented itself to me, one in which my deep need to create music and my lifelong obsession with science fiction converged into a tangible soundscape of synthesizers and dance beats. My imagination was captivated by cosmic potential, all thoughts far removed from earthbound ailments. The song became “Timechild,” and the SciFi Project was born.
Eventually I would discover mold in my house, and my doctors suspected mold poisoning. The only real way to test environmental factors is to change environments, and a few short months later I found myself living in Seattle. My health improved to a degree when my environment changed, which felt like swimming up from a great depth but not quite reaching the surface. I was still hindered by constant pressure in my head and occasional relapses of my more violent symptoms. I continued to pursue an explanation, and was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia and chronic ocular migraines triggered by mold overexposure. While that diagnosis seemed anti-climactic and left many questions unanswered, it also prompted behavioral changes in diet and exercise that brought my health most of the way back. In many ways I was lucky, I gained an intensely valuable perspective on the relationship between health and happiness. My understanding of self bottomed out, and a new awareness started to form in its wake.
An experience like that marks a person. The things I cared about, (and perhaps more importantly, the things I didn’t) shifted dramatically. I used to be obsessed with being the best at whatever I was engaged in, be it songwriting, performing, recording, mixing, mastering, all of it. That’s too damn much for one person, and it was fueled by ego as much as passion. Now I’m obsessed with happiness and fulfillment. I want to spread joy and an ethos of compassionate acceptance through my art. I want to be the ultimate expression of myself, and take each moment of health as a gift to be treasured. I want to take what I’ve learned and apply it as a positive vision of the future towards which I can strive. Luckily, I already found the avenue to accomplish all of those goals: The SciFi Project.
In my estimation, those to whom science fiction speaks the loudest are the dreamers and thinkers that are capable of shaping a better future. SciFi captures our collective imagination, and drives us to reevaluate our own existence through the lens of alternate technology, time, science and culture. By writing songs in the SciFi genre I strive to participate in that noble pursuit, but I’ve also discovered an incredibly powerful form of self expression.
My song, “Elliott,” is a great example, and the reason I’m writing this piece for Evan’s blog. I wanted to retell the story of ET: The Extra Terrestrial through song, finding a way to encapsulate the powerful feelings of friendship and acceptance that I am overtaken with everytime I watch that film. As I worked on the song I realized I was singing about my own desire to be heard and accepted, as well as the powerful bond I share with my dog Miles (a creature as alien to me as ET to Elliott).
Evan and I started chatting on Twitter when our mutual interest in science fiction brought us together, and this song came on his radar. His reaction to it was the first time I have ever experienced the closing of an artistic loop, where a stranger discovered my work and related to it on the level through which it was intended. He posted on this very blog about what the song made him feel, saying, “I have spent this entire weekend listening to this song. It brings a tear to my eye every time. It awakens the child in me. It brings a smile to my face and lets me become that child again, waiting for a stranger from the stars to come down and become my friend…”
Reading those words touches me every time, because it marks my first true success at reaching out through music to positively affect the life of someone I’ve never met. If the destruction of my old life is what it took to get there, maybe it was all worth it.
The SciFi Project now includes my continually growing collection of music, videos, and podcasts. I’ve started to amass a body of work that not only delights me, but seems to speak to people without the prerequisite of knowing me personally. I’ve started to tell my own SciFi stories through music, in the hopes that I can deliver emotional messages of similar impact through original content. I believe my first true success in this is my as-yet unreleased song, a post-apocalyptic journey through the wasteland called “Cold, Dead World.”
My songs often germinate deep in my subconscious, developing into fully fleshed out ideas before I ever attempt to sing or play them. Sometimes, entire backstories will present themselves as I weave a lyrical narrative. “Cold, Dead World” started in my imagination with a hazy vision of a single individual wandering through the bones of a dead planet, sole witness to the destruction of an alien civilization. I started crafting a backstory in which a human on Earth experiences bizarre visions of this dead planet as electronic alien organisms flood his body during a moment of accidental electrocution. Conveying the extreme emotional desolation of being sole witness to a post-apocalyptic wasteland was my goal as I wrote this song, but I soon realized this was born from my need to process my medical breakdown.
Being trapped in a body that has ceased to function correctly is an incredibly lonely and frightening experience. It manifested in violent ways that were readily visible to an outside observer, especially the muscle spasms and inability to process information normally. There was a sort of stripping away of my humanity, to be forced to jerk and spasm in front of someone against my will, having my weakness revealed indiscriminately. Before I was diagnosed I wondered daily if my issues were progressive, if eventually I would become trapped in my own body indefinitely. I don’t know how to express that emotion through simple words, but I believe I had done it through song. Although this song is not yet released, initial reactions from the work in progress have been emotional and extremely encouraging. It makes me feel heard and understood in an intensely powerful way, and my own burden of memory lessens.
We’ve all heard the old adage that artists need pain in order to create. As a youth my pain was personal, and in a way I needed drama and conflict to maintain a creative output. Now I experience a small degree of physical pain every day, but I have started to view it as a gift. It fuels my creative output, and channels itself into the bizarre and fantastic. It gives me a deep well to pull from, to fuel my passion and give meaning to my work. I’ll always have something to sing about. Maybe I’m lucky in ways I’m only beginning to understand.
If you’d like to support Jesse Mercury and his SciFi Project, you can visit his Patreon page.
When he’s not riding the pulse of a quasar, you might run into Jesse at the following coordinates…