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Sam Baker: Finding Grace In The Wake Of Destruction

In 1986, a bomb planted by the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path exploded in the luggage rack above Sam Baker. Somehow, during his long recovery, songs focused on empathy started coming to him.



May 6, 2014

Guest: Sam Baker

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I was recently introduced to the music of Sam Baker, and I'm very grateful. It sounds like he was called to write these songs, and I think maybe he was. He didn't start writing music until he came very close to the other side. In 1986, when Baker was 31, he was on a train in Peru, traveling to Machu Picchu, when a bomb planted by the Peruvian terrorist group The Shining Path exploded in the luggage rack above him.

The people he was sitting with were killed. His body was torn apart. He had a brain injury, severe hearing loss, and required over 15 reconstructive surgeries. And somehow during his long recovery, songs started coming to him. Several of his songs relate directly to the attack and his near death. Many of his songs are like short stories, written in the voices of characters. Some of his most beautiful songs are like hymns.

NPR music critic Robert Christgau described Baker's music as simultaneously beautiful and broken, like cracked crockery. Baker's latest album, his fourth, is called "Say Grace." Rolling Stone named it one of the 10 best country albums of 2013. Let's start with one of his story songs. It's called "The Tattooed Woman."


SAM BAKER: (Singing) The tattooed woman, she sleeps in my bed. The ink is dry. The dogs are fed. The moon is safe. Her face is red. The tattooed woman, she sleeps in my bed. Her hair is black. Her skin is white. She's pulled the sheets around her tight. I wish I had the right to comfort her as a husband might. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Rain is coming, that's how it feels. Rain is coming, that's how it feels.

(Singing) Now I lay me down to sleep, the lord out wandering with his sheep as so many souls to keep. Now I lay me down to sleep.

GROSS: Sam Baker, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love that song. Is this a story about you or about someone else?

BAKER: It's about someone else, but the - but it was, there was a tattooed woman who was asleep in my bed, and the merge in that is, but there's an old hymn, an old Protestant hymn called "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent." And I don't know the rest of the words. I mean the rest of the words could be almost anything. But I love the title, and I love the melody, and the melody goes back to the 1600s. It's a French melody that was taken by someone who created that hymn.

So what happened was that was an amalgam of really two songs, and the hymn part, I think, sounds almost like an Algerian chant. I don't know if I can even do it. It's like...


BAKER: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...

GROSS: I didn't realize that was like an old melody that you borrowed.

BAKER: Yeah, that's probably 400 or 500 years old.

GROSS: You know, that song has such a mood to it, and it takes a really gloomy turn, to me anyways, in rain is coming, that's how it feels.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: But as you pointed out to me earlier, because it's pouring here in Philadelphia as we record this...

BAKER: Exactly, right.

GROSS: You pointed out that in Texas, where you live, it's been very dry, rain is great, where's...

BAKER: Rain is a gift, a great and wonderful gift.

GROSS: So when you sing rain is coming, that's how it feels, that's a good thing?

BAKER: Right, it's not a foreshadowing. Now, the second verse is foreshadowing: Now I lay me down to sleep, the lord out wandering with his sheep, oh so many souls to keep. Now I lay me - now, that is, Terry, that's foreshadowing. The rain is coming, it's kind of - actually in my world it's positive.


GROSS: So many of your songs are stories about other people, about other characters. Some of your songs are about your story.


GROSS: And they're just incredible songs. So I want to talk a little bit about your story and play some of those autobiographical songs.

BAKER: Sure.

GROSS: So let's talk about the terrorist explosion that blew your body up. Where were you going when you were on that train in Peru? What were you intending to do?

BAKER: I had gone to - I had gone to South America with friends, and we were young, I guess I was almost 32, and we walked around and looked. And we went to Cuzco at a time of a celebration called the (unintelligible), I think it's what it's called, where a priest cuts the heart out of a llama and holds it up and looks into the sun and is able to tell what is in store, what the future holds.

And then we got - the next day I got aboard a train for Cuzco, which is where Machu Picchu, the beautiful ruins, are. And someone put a bomb in a backpack, a red backpack, on the car that I got on. I was sitting by a German boy. His mother was across from him and his father was knee-to-knee with me.

Two people sit facing two people, and the bomb was on the luggage rack right above this poor woman's head. So the German boy and I talked for a second, and then I looked back and the bomb went off. And it was probably not that good of a bomb because so much of the blast went straight up. I think if they had been able to flatten the blast better, it would've killed a lot. I think that day it killed six or seven, different accounts say.

But it did kill the woman, this boy's mother, killed her real fast and really violent and killed his father real fast and real violent. And then it killed him, but it took a number of hours for him to die. I didn't see that. I had been - I had a cut artery, and it had blown my ears in, and I was in a bad place. I thought I had a heart attack.

And then another - an external voice, English, said you are accompanied by death. Death accompanies those around you. And at that point, I knew that they were dead or dying, and I was dying.

GROSS: But you heard a voice saying that?

BAKER: I say I heard a voice, you know, but - and my lungs had collapsed because I was so close to the blast wave of the bomb. So I panicked initially when I couldn't breathe, and then this voice was - I say it's a voice, but it was more like a cellular - something that passed through on a cellular level so that it quieted all the - you know, at that point I became, I guess, willing to die because, you know, because I said to myself, well, if this is death, let's get about it.

GROSS: I want to play the song that you wrote about the explosion. It's called "Steel," as in the passenger train.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: It's just, I don't know, the song leaves me kind of speechless. But it describes the experience in poetry. So let's hear "Steel." It's from Sam Baker's first album, "Mercy," which was released in 2004.


BAKER: (Singing) I'm sitting on a train to Machu Picchu, passenger car explodes. There's not enough time to say goodbye. There's not enough time to know. What's gone wrong? God have mercy. I believe my heart has failed. Smoke rises through a hole in the roof. The dead say fare thee well.

(Singing) I swear doctor don't you have anything like morphine for this pain? I swear Jesus take me now because I'm about to go insane. I'm looking back at the world as one who is leaving in a dream come right outta hell. Smoke rises through a hole in the roof. The dead say fare thee well.

(Singing) No one who is just an observer. The same bell tolls for the served and the server, for the strong, the weak, for the weary, for the brave, for everybody wreck on judgment day because trains explode, steel flies, and the sisters ring the Catholic bells. Smoke rises through a hole in the roof. The dead say fare thee well.

GROSS: That's "Steel" from my guest Sam Baker's first album, which was released in 2004. The album was called "Mercy." And that song describes his experience when he was on a train in Peru, and the terrorist group the Shining Path had placed a bomb in the overhead compartment and it blew up the train.

BAKER: Yeah, it was just like a luggage rack. It wasn't even a - you know, it was an old, narrow-gauge rail. So it's - and I think the rack itself, you know, that the suitcase sat on, that became the shrapnel. I don't know if they even packed the thing with shrapnel. I mean, they could have killed the whole car full of people.

GROSS: There's a like in the song, smoke rises through a hole in the roof. The dead say fare thee well. Did you see the smoke rising? Were you lying on your back at that time?

BAKER: I didn't. You know, what I did do is when I finally got to Houston after a long, complicated rescue, the U.S. Air Force came in, and when I was in Houston, I had an old, old friend come in, and he said that I told him that I saw those things, but by that time I had gangrene and renal failure and...

GROSS: So did the image come from your friend telling you that you told your friend?

BAKER: It came from my image telling me that I told him. That's where that image came from.

GROSS: That's really interesting.

BAKER: Well, and said that the dead - see I went into whatever the tunnel of light is. I actually went into that, which was an interesting - it really was a light of shades of gray, and the light at the end was a tiny light, really not very big, but it was a light that was - it was like a returning, like I was returning and becoming some sort of liquid light. It was more like an ecstatic return, but ecstasy is not the right word. It was like a cellular becoming of something more powerful and beautiful than anything I've ever experienced.

I don't think we have a word for it. We don't have a word for the - and, you know, I grew up in a small prairie town, you know, going to church every Sunday up until I was 17 or so. Part of that was the heaven, hell, heaven, hell, and this was only when I came out of it, I started thinking about, you know, it was a non-denominational dying.


BAKER: It's not like someone shows up to say, have you...?

GROSS: That's a great phrase, a non-denominational dying, which leads me to wonder, did your sense a faith or no faith or of a spiritual life or not having a spiritual life change after that experience?

BAKER: Yeah, I mean, I think the - you know, when I went into it, I was young. You know, I was a whitewater boatman, and we were climbing. It was a young person's life, full of adventure and curiosity. And after that, you know, I went through so many surgeries, and I was around so many people that were in such terrible pain and in worse shape than I was, yeah, something changed.

One thing that changed was the sense that all suffering is universal, that we suffer, you suffer, that we all do. This separation we sometimes do about whatever we do it for, about religion or whatever, I think if we can all - me, especially what I learned I think was empathy, and the faith that I got was the faith in us as a group, as humans.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Sam Baker, and you know what? I think we need to take a short break here. So let's do that, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Sam Baker. His latest album is called "Say Grace." And some of his songs are about the experience he had that changed his life forever, and it's when he was on a train in Peru and a bomb was planted by someone by the guerrilla group Shining Path. It exploded right above him, and he came very close to dying. He needed, you know, many, many surgeries after that. And it's only after that that he started writing songs. There's another song I want to play. This is a song about suffering, about things that don't heal.

BAKER: Right, right.

GROSS: The song is called "Broken Fingers." And, I mean, your fingers were broken in the explosion.

BAKER: Right. Well, what happened was shrapnel came in. You know, my hand was vertical and so shrapnel came down and cut a channel down across the top of my hand. But, you know, for the most part they just wrapped it up because, you know, I had so many other things that were life threatening, and this was not life threatening. So it was bandaged up for weeks and weeks. And when they finally unwrapped it, it was a mess. It was awful.

GROSS: So let's hear the song "Broken Fingers." Do you want to say anything to introduce it, about writing it?

BAKER: I was at a - I was stumped. I didn't know how to describe. How do you describe instant death? You know, you and I are in this beautiful quiet room, and then the world comes in, and really even now, Terry, I think I write around it. I don't know that I've ever been able to write directly into the core of it. And that's where that song - you know, I was trying to - I've never been able to get at peace with the boy that was killed. You know, the...

GROSS: The boy sitting next to you.

BAKER: The boy sitting next to me. I mean, that's when I was - and it was years after the thing happened, and then I got that. How Long? How long ago was 16 years. Every day, of course I know - and then that goes in to some things don't heal. I mean, some things we - I've had to learn to live with.

GROSS: And I love the way when you sing it, especially the second time, the emphasis is on the don't, some things don't heal.

BAKER: Don't heal, they don't, they don't, and this - and they don't close. There's no closure. There's no healing, there's no closure. It's - it stays open for forever. And I think, you know, once, you know, like somebody killing that kid, or, you know, those are things that stay open. I don't know that the universe heals those things.

GROSS: So let's hear the song. It's called "Broken Fingers," and it's on one of Sam Baker's previous albums, which is called "Pretty World."


BAKER: (Singing) Well, how Long? How long ago was 16 years? Every day, of course I know, of course I know. Forget his face? Of course I don't, etched like a crystal vase. These broken fingers, some things don't heal. I can't wake up from a dream when the dream is real. These broken fingers. Forget his eyes, his silhouette? Of course I don't. Of course I don't forget. They are blue eyes, a silhouette. There is a debt, it's a debt I don't forget. These broken fingers. Some things don't heal. I can't wake up from a dream when the dream is real. These broken fingers.

GROSS: That's Sam Baker, songwriter and singer, from his album "Pretty World." His latest album is called "Say Grace." A couple of lines in the song we just heard, I can't wake up from a dream when the dream is real. After the explosion, the Shining Path bomb was planted in the train that you were traveling on in Peru, did you think it was a dream?

BAKER: Yeah. Yeah, it was awful. It was surreal. It was - the moment it went off, from that moment forward, it was as if there was a different, alternative universe because I went from a living, connected thing, just like you and I have today, to something that was so completely inward, you know, where I couldn't breathe, and then the voice came, and then I went in and was moving down the tunnel.

And then that went black, and then I woke up and saw the - they were sewing me up, and the guy showed me the thread. It had some sort of silver like lubricant. And at that moment, I thought this is awful. I'm going to go back to being unconscious. And then the next morning when I woke up, it was a pretty gauzy world, one - I wore contacts, and they had had my contacts out, so I couldn't see anything, and I was deaf. So, you know, my ears were blown in, and I really couldn't see.

And in that last moment before I really woke up to the new world, that was when the voice came back and said you are here to do something, and...

GROSS: Tell us about that voice.

BAKER: Well, it was the same voice that told me that you are accompanied by death, that death accompanies those around you. And even then, as beat up as I was and leaking blood everywhere, you know, there was like - they had tried to stop all the blood. They had stitched everything up and stitched it up dirty, which is why I ended up with gangrene, and even then I thought, like what?

GROSS: This was in Peru still?

BAKER: Yeah, still in Peru. That was in Cuzco. The military evaced us down to Lima, where we stayed, and the people in Lima were really lovely, the doctors were great, but, you know, there was not much they could do. I had - gangrene had set in, and I had renal failure. So it was, you know, a matter of time before - and gangrene is a really distasteful sort of thing. I mean, it smells bad. It's...

You know, I had gone from climbing and healthy to really being on the verge of death and death in a smelly, bloody way and surrounded by people that were beat up, too, and just having left the dead behind. We evaced out and left the dead in Cuzco.

GROSS: Sam Baker will be back in the second half of the show. His latest album is called "Say Grace." His first three albums, "Mercy," "Cotton" and "Pretty World," have been reissued. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with singer-songwriter Sam Baker. His latest album is called "Say Grace." Baker didn't get serious about making music until later in life. It was a reaction to almost dying in a terrorist attack in Peru in 1986, when he was 31. He was on a train traveling to Machu Picchu when a bomb planted by the Peruvian terrorist group the Shining Path exploded in the luggage rack above him. The people he was sitting with were killed. His body was torn apart. He had a brain injury, severe hearing loss and required over 15 reconstructive surgeries. And somehow, during his long recovery, songs started coming to him. Several of his songs relate directly to the attack and his near death. Some of his most beautiful songs are like hymns.

In one of your songs, you have the line: everyone is at the mercy of another one's dream.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: And I don't know if you intended that to be about yourself, but that's how I hear it.

BAKER: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: Like you are at the mercy, all the dead people from this bomb blast were at the mercy of this group's dream of what they were trying to accomplish.

BAKER: Exactly. Exactly. I mean the whole first record was so I could set that line up so I could say: we are all at each other's mercy. Once again, empathy, empathy, empathy. We are all at each other's mercy. And if you have this dream of destruction, it's not going to come out well for all of us. And then but see, at first when I did that and then did that because I felt like that was such an important thing to say, we followed that up with an eight minute really beautiful rondo that says, you know, this is like a reflecting pool after that one line.

GROSS: Well, the line is in your song "Angels," which is from your album "Mercy."

BAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that song? And do you want to demonstrate anything on your guitar about that song?

BAKER: Yeah. I can, you know, there were so many people that rushed in to help, you know...


BAKER: They saved me and they saved a lot of other people and was at risk to themselves. And then the, you know, the Peruvians in Lima were so unbelievable and, you know, I got blood transfusion after blood transfusion. I was, like I had holes everywhere. The back of my arm was gone, you know, my leg was open for like a foot, a foot-and-a-half. I was just - they were pouring blood in as fast as it poured out. People were so - had so little regard for their own safety or for their own well-being and that I found all the way through on the, just all the way through. The life flight - I mean the military Evac guys, the docs, I mean it was just...


BAKER: And, you know, the only way I could think of to describe how those beautiful impulses (unintelligible) angels flutter around her heart. Love can heal, they softly call. And when trouble comes to the ones she loves. where angels come. And I'm not sure what, you know, the pains of angels with links - you know, I see this more as all those incredible people that their whatever this well of goodness that's in people, it just poured out.

GROSS: So let's hear your song "Angels," from your album "Mercy." And this is the song that has the line, everyone is at the mercy of another one's dream.


BAKER: (Singing) Angels flutter around her heart. Love can heal, they softly call. When trouble comes to the ones she loves, her angels come. They ease all suffering. They heal all pain. Her angels come like healing rain. Love and angels conquer all like rain her healing angels fall. Love and angels conquer all. Her healing angels softly call, Amen.

(Singing) Call a truce, call a war. Everyone is a bastard, everyone is a whore. Everyone is a saint, everyone is redeemed. Everyone is at the mercy of another one's dream. She eases suffering. Heals the pain. Her angels come like healing rain. Love and angels conquer all. Like rain, her healing angels fall. Love and angels conquer all. Her healing angels softly call, Amen.

GROSS: That's the song "Angels" from the album "Mercy" by my guest Sam Baker. His new album is called "Say Grace." In 1986, he was one of the victims of a train bombing by the Peruvian guerrilla terrorist group the Shining Path and he barely survived that, and several of his songs are about that experience, including the one that we just heard.

You know, the song refers to healing angels. Those were people that you thought of as being your healing angels?

BAKER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I think people...

GROSS: Like the people who helped in the hospital?

BAKER: They were so amazing. Whatever goodness they brought was so powerful.

GROSS: Did you have painkillers that were healing angels too?

BAKER: Well, I did, but those particular healing angels, their wings darken pretty fast.

GROSS: How fast?

BAKER: Fast.

GROSS: Right.


GROSS: Was it hard to get off of them?

BAKER: Yes. Yeah, I had trouble. Right. I was on so many pain meds and also booze, alcohol. You know, it's the, recovery is a mix of pain, surgery and boredom and that's a terrible place when you, you know, when you have access to pain meds.

GROSS: Right. How did you start writing songs? Like, you weren't a full-time musician before the bombing. You had, like, a bank job, I think?

BAKER: I did. I had a lot of different jobs.

GROSS: A lot of different. OK.

BAKER: I worked with the bank examiners who were wonderful people who gave me a job really when I came back and could barely walk and, you know, my mind was scattered for a long time. I couldn't remember nouns. I had to work to come up with the word for chair. I would have to say, that thing you sit in, what is that called? But, yeah, I did. I had a ton of jobs and I was writing these long narrative things and it was, Terry, it was boring it was like and then this happened and then this happened, blah, blah, blah. And it was only when music came in and it really was that song, still when the music came to sitting on the train.


BAKER: When it had the color of chords then it begins to make sense to me.

GROSS: So you hadn't written in melodies before.

BAKER: I had but they were awful.

GROSS: There were awful.

BAKER: I'd written really - you know, I played in my 20s and was fine and I played with friends and we did some bar stuff and it was in - and I would do covers and I wrote really awful, dreadful stuff. I mean, I love you. Why don't you love me? Or you love me, what's wrong with you? You know, just really post coming-of-age stuff that wasn't done very well.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Baker. He's a songwriter and singer. His latest album is called "Say Grace." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Sam Baker. He has a new album called "Say Grace." Some of the songs he's written over the past few years are about the terrorist attack that he was a victim of in 1986. He was traveling on a train in Peru when a bomb went off in his passenger car killing everyone around him. He just barely survived. The bomb was placed by someone from the Shining Path, the Peru militant terrorist group, guerrilla group. I'm not sure how they describe themselves.

Because you were such a physical person before the bombing, you know, mountain climbing and...

BAKER: Yeah, carpentry. Yeah.

GROSS: ...carpentry. Yeah. You were forced to have a very un-physical life outside of pain. I guess pain was the most physical part of your life...

BAKER: Right. Right.

GROSS: But certainly no and real mobility for a while, no - so did that force you into having a more expanded interior life?

BAKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And, and spending all of the time with people that were really, you know, I spent a lot of time in ICU right at the beginning and then later on, you know, I was in recovery and then rooms. Yeah, so I went from an exterior life of a young man to the interior life of an old man. An old man who was mostly deaf, couldn't walk, with brain damage. And so the things that I could focus on where the things and the people that were close by and the people, so many of the people that were close by were really in deep trouble, some so much more trouble than I was physically. You know, there were a lot of people that would, bells would go off and, you know, they would wheel people out. So that became the interior life is how to process the new world.

GROSS: During your recovery when you were developing more of an interior life because you couldn't do much physically...

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: ...were you reading much?

BAKER: No. Not at first 'cause I really, I couldn't focus.

GROSS: Couldn't focus and couldn't process it probably.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: And what about music? Was that helpful?

BAKER: I couldn't really hear music. I mean I was so deaf...

GROSS: Oh, because you were still deaf.

BAKER: Yeah. And also, I've got a really, really loud ringing in my head. It's called tendinitis, which...

GROSS: Still have that?

BAKER: I do. It's the loudest thing in the room right now. So to listen to stuff, once they replaced my eardrums I could start listening.

GROSS: They replaced your eardrum?

BAKER: Yeah. Both. They did this one once and this one twice.

GROSS: Since you still have the tinnitus and it's still pretty loud, when music comes to you how do you hear it above the noise, or is it so interior it doesn't matter?

BAKER: It's got to be interior almost and unless I turn it up real loud. If it's just in a room like this it comes through like an old transistor radio, like a single small speaker with a lot of - you know, a long time ago TVs, when they went off the air there was a high-pitched tone. I don't know if you remember that.

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

BAKER: If you combine two or three of those tones in an atonal fashion, that's what the tinnitus is. So I don't really take pleasure in the beauty of sound right now, you know, like the sound of a cello or, you know, I don't there was a time where I think I really loved just the quality of sound. And now I don't really hear the quality of sound that much. There has to be something in it that I feel, something that pulls me in.

GROSS: But when you're hearing music that you're writing, when a song is coming to you, does it matter that you have the tinnitus?

BAKER: No. Because...

GROSS: Does the volume of that affect...

BAKER: No. Because it comes from a different place. It's sound coming inward out as opposed to sound coming outward in.

GROSS: Right. You grew up in Texas?

BAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: In a small town.

BAKER: Small town.

GROSS: Your mother played organ at the church.


GROSS: So I assume you heard a lot of church music when you were growing up.

BAKER: I did. A lot. A lot.

GROSS: And there's still a lot of, you know, references to hallelujah and mercy and grace...

BAKER: And grace. Right.

GROSS: your songs and some of your songs sound like hymns.

BAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So there's a song on a new album called "Go in Peace."

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: That's inspired by a 19th century hymn.

BAKER: Right. "Come Thou Fount."

GROSS: Yeah. So I really love the song and I was wondering if you actually remember the hymn that it's based on.

BAKER: See, I don't. I know that I remember that I love that line safely to arrive at home. And the melody is...


BAKER: And, you know, I changed it more as a, like a little thing that says, be careful when you go out into the night, you know, there's...


BAKER: Go in peace. Go in kindness. Go in love. You know, I don't co-write much, but that was with a friend of mine, Liz Rose, we, you know, we started that it was just a, you know, it was like one minute that says, be careful as you go into the night, you know, take care of yourself. Watch the road.

GROSS: I want to play that 'cause it's really so beautiful. So this is Sam Baker from his latest album "Say Grace."


BAKER: (Singing) Go in peace, go in kindness, go in love, go in faith. Leave the day, the day behind us. Day is done. Go in grace. Let us go into the dark, not afraid, not alone. Let us hope by some good pleasure safely to arrive at home. Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

GROSS: That's Sam Baker from his latest album "Say Grace." And, Sam, so that line: Safely to arrive at home, that's...

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: That's borrowed from the old hymn.

BAKER: That's borrowed from the old hymn. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

BAKER: Well, the whole - I think the vibe, the feel of it, is borrowed from it. I mean, I love the feel of the hymn even if I don't know it.

GROSS: You know, but this is reminding me when you were nearly killed in the bomb blast in Peru on the passenger train and you were in that, like, tunnel of death you saw the light.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: And you described what you were experiencing as an ecumenical death. It wasn't, like...

BAKER: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...a god or an individual religion...

BAKER: In fact, it was - right, right.

GROSS: the other end of the tunnel.

BAKER: It was like howdy, everybody.

GROSS: But that reminds me of the kind of hymns that you write like what we just heard. There's no particular god. There's no particular religion...

BAKER: Yeah. I don't...

GROSS: ...that it's singing about.

BAKER: That doesn't feel right to me. It feels right that there's a great welcome. You know, when I was in that place that's what it seemed to me, was a great welcome. And it was not just restricted to me. I thought it was a great welcoming that would quite likely be provided to everybody.

GROSS: Did you feel that way before the bomb?

BAKER: Oh, Terry, before the bombing I don't know that I took the time to think through much. You know, it was a very physical life. And I think that my world was so engrossing just on a physical level I don't know that I thought about religion or faith really that much. I mean, it was fun. It was fun to run rivers and climb mountains.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Sam Baker. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Sam Baker. His latest album is called "Say Grace." Some of his songs are about being a victim of a terrorist attack in 1986. In Peru he was on a train there heading toward Machu Picchu when a bomb planted in the luggage rack by the extremist group the Shining Path exploded, killing everyone around him.

Because the bomb blast radically altered all your senses...

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: ...but probably most especially your hearing, but also your ability to think. I mean, you said you couldn't think of the names...

BAKER: Nouns.

GROSS: You couldn't think of nouns. So this has to affect, like, your ability to write.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: And I think one of the things that's very outstanding about your songs is that, you know, as a singer you have a limited range. You don't have, like, two octaves that you can do.

BAKER: Right. Right.

GROSS: Or three octaves.

BAKER: Three notes. A little bit closer.

GROSS: You know, you have a relatively small range but like Leonard Cohen who has a relatively small range, like, every note that you write you get something - you get meaning from. Or emotion from. And so you use each of those notes to great affect. The language is spare too.

BAKER: Right.

GROSS: It's not, like, overly wordy and descriptive. It's not dense in the way, say, that a Bob Dylan lyric is very dense. And I'm wondering if you think any of that relates to the way your thought processes work since the blast. That everything maybe needs to be...

BAKER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...pared down and simplified.

BAKER: Right. It does.

GROSS: Take out the noise.

BAKER: It does.

GROSS: Take out what's extraneous.

BAKER: It does. It has to be - I have to do things as simple as I can do them. And I have to find, you know, that chair. I have to look for words and I have to spin through a ton of words. And I go through, sometimes still, a descriptive process. And that exercise takes a lot of time to really winnow all the words out till I can find a word that I think works.

GROSS: If it's that difficult, why do you want to do it?

BAKER: I have to. I don't have a choice.

GROSS: Why don't you have a choice?

BAKER: I don't. I mean, I think once the voice came back and said do something I think I feel compelled to do something. Even if I don't know to what end, I think that my job is to reveal as much as I know and hope that it's helpful to somebody.

GROSS: Did you feel like you had any sense of purpose like that before the blast?

BAKER: No. Not at all.

GROSS: A lot of veterans have gone through versions of what you went through.

BAKER: Right. Right.

GROSS: Veterans who were victims of, you know, land mines or IEDs. Yours was a bombing on a passenger train. But, you know, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a big problem for veterans. Have you had that yourself?

BAKER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I've had treatment for post traumatic stress. When I first came back I didn't understand post traumatic. And I moved a lot. I mean, it wasn't a conscious decision. It was a subconscious thing that said if I keep moving, it will be harder for them to set a bomb off that, you know, blows the windows in and kills me. So I moved a lot and I was always watchful.

GROSS: You mean moved...

BAKER: Physically moved. I physically moved houses, physically moved apartments. And then when I'd move through any public space, I would look for any car that looked out of place and I would also know where, you know, where blast shields are. I would wonder about, like, looking out the window right now, is that a façade steel or is that real steel? I mean who can hide behind, you know, where is a blast shield? Where is the safe place?

GROSS: What's your life like now, your daily life?

BAKER: Simple. I live a pretty simple life. I try to live as regimented as I can live. You know, there are certain rituals I do. I get up and meditate at first. I try to eat as simple as I can eat, whether I'm on the road or not. I try to live a pretty simple structured life where I can help people. Where I can help them and maybe be of service at times. Not all the time. And hope for the best.

GROSS: Is your income from music?

BAKER: Um-hum.

GROSS: And you make enough at music to get by?

BAKER: It's enough. I mean, I don't live - you know, I don't live an extravagant life.

GROSS: We should play another song. And this is another one that I think is just kind of like a poem that's a hymn. Or a hymn that's a poem.


GROSS: Totally non-denominational but just about being in the moment and seeing the beauty of the moment. It's called "Pretty World."

BAKER: Oh, right. Yeah.

GROSS: It's a great song.

BAKER: It's a lovely song.

GROSS: Did you want to say anything about writing it?

BAKER: In those days of, you know, once I was kind of getting through the worst parts of the surgeries and stuff, there were moments that were exquisitely beautiful. One of the things about seeing so much sorrow and so much suffering is that when there is an absence of suffering - you know, sunlight off a rose is incredible.

GROSS: Sam Baker, I just am so happy I know your music now.

BAKER: Wonderful.

GROSS: You know, I found out about it pretty recently and I'm so glad that it's part of what I know. It's so good. Thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR.

BAKER: Terry, thank you. This has been - it's been a pleasure.

GROSS: So let's hear your song, "Pretty World."


BAKER: (Singing) Before the sun, before the heat, before we untangle from our sheets, before the summer day unfurls, pretty world. Before the paper is dropped at the gate, before our coffee, before we are late, before dreams are lost like midnight pearls, pretty world. Pretty world. Pretty roses. Pretty smile, morning light. Pretty eyes, lazy curls. Pretty world.

GROSS: The song we're listening to is the title track of Sam Baker's album "Pretty World," which has been reissued along with his albums "Mercy" and "Cotton." His latest album is called "Say Grace."

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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