portrait of musician Payden Widner

“Helplessness Blues” Brings Denver Musicians Together During Isolation

May 18, 2020

Coronavirus may be the greatest creative constraint of all. At least, that’s how it worked out for musician Payden Widner ’15, who decided he’d had enough isolation. “Playing music by myself in my room got old real fast,” he wrote in a document titled “Read Me” (more on that later). In his quest to connect with other musicians, Payden decided to use his sound engineering skills to create a cover of “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes—by recruiting no less than 38 Denver musicians. The result is a soulful folk-rock rendition with haunting vocals.

Released on Payden’s social media accounts on Monday, May 11, the song already got media coverage in Westword on May 15. Because it’s that good. It is a beautiful song with stunning vocals by lead singer Andrea Pares BS ’17, who has a deep enchanting voice that puts me in mind of purple velvet and velutinous leaves. Instruments include all the usual suspects, and few that show up here and there like unexpected guests: accordion, trombone, double bass, clarinet. 

But it’s the video that proves to be sublime. The musicians show up on screen when their parts play on the music track. This technique makes the process transparent and emphasizes the message of the song—and of this moment. The song begins with the narrator admitting, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique.” But by the end of the first verse, the narrator states, “And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” 

The great machinery in Payden’s song cover is made from more than 50 parts, since each musician was given the license to submit various recordings of themselves singing and/or playing an instrument. The song, and the video, begins with Payden playing the acoustic guitar, then Andrea begins to sing. Another singer appears, and the song builds and builds with more and more individuals adding to the composition. Every time you think the song can’t get any better, something (or someone) gets added to the mix—and the result is nothing short of awe-inspiring. “It’s a good little thing we’ve got going on in Denver,” Payden said.

He is referring to the city’s community of musicians, many of whom studied at CU Denver’s College of Arts & Media. In fact, most of the musicians featured in the song graduated from our music program. There are also three current students—Faith Allen, Bharat Bhargava, and Evan Lei—and one faculty member, Erik Fellenstein. They are all proof of the amazing talent coming from Music & Entertainment Industry Studies (MEIS). This includes Payden, who is not only a talented musician but also a skilled sound engineer. His time in the MEIS program gave him “hands-on experience with all the gear that I see every day,” he said.

Payden wanted to collect recordings and videos from as many people as possible. He reached out to more than 60 Denver musicians initially, and it was important to him to create an easy process so anyone with a phone or laptop could contribute. “Not everyone has a home recording studio set up,” he said. 

So Payden organized a bunch of files into a Google Drive folder (original Fleet Foxes recording, lyric sheet, sheet music, scratch tracks, recording stems, and a Pro Tools session), including simple yet eloquent instructions labeled “Read Me,” a nod to the first chapter of Alice in Wonderland, in which she encounters a bottle that says “Drink Me” and a cake that says “Eat Me.” His “Read Me” instructions are intended for “a small army of people I admire and respect from the Denver music community,” but the response “was almost overwhelming at one point,” he said.

A still photograph of some of the Denver musicians who participated in the “Helplessness Blues” project.

As audio and video files started adding up inside his online folder, Payden was amazed: “Everyone completely blew me out of the water.” Now he would need to edit all of the individual parts into one cohesive whole that encapsulated the meaning of the song and celebrated the strength of the musical community during the pandemic-enforced isolation that was keeping them from playing live music together. And he needed to create the video as well.

Payden had “never done a 38-person montage,” so he gave himself an arbitrary deadline and did what any sane person would do. “I stayed up all night and posted the video Monday morning, then I went to bed and when I got up, I saw all the responses,” he said. He did not tell the musicians involved in the project that the song had been posted. Why? “I wanted them to be surprised, for them to see what everyone else did together.”

What everyone did together-alone, actually. Every person inhabits a little box on the screen, and those boxes multiply and disappear in a cubist patchwork. Seeing the singers singing and the musicians playing their instruments while hearing all the parts come together is really moving, especially during this time of social distancing. 

“If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see / Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak”—the lyrics echo my own feelings of wonder and gratitude for this charming song and this band of talented musicians. The world is amazing, and here we have some undeniable proof.