Making music about visions of the afterlife is nothing new for Joseph Lamar. Paradise — and its problems — have plagued the Denver-based musician since he was a kid growing up in the ’90s in Colorado Springs.
“I was raised Christian...Baptist,” he says. “We used to go to church three days a week. At a certain point, my grandfather was a deacon and then a pastor, and my grandmother was a church secretary.”
Lamar got his start in music in the church choir, writing gospel songs as a kid for his fellow singers to perform. But around the age of eight, he began to have doubts about God and Christianity after he saw Disney’s Hercules and fell in love with the movie, the drama of the gods, and the possibility that the Christian deity wasn't the only one. From the library, he checked out books of Greek and Roman mythology and seeped himself in the old stories.
“There were so many people who believed in Zeus and Athena and Dionysus and these other deities,” Lamar says. He started asking himself, “How do I know those aren’t the real gods? How do I know I’m not worshiping the wrong god? So I started to pray to the Christian God and Zeus. That’s how I opened the door to be something other than Christian.”
His initial concept of religion was altered by explorations of history, race, culture and power. Today, he no longer views the spread of Christianity as some sort of divine inevitability; rather, he’s nagged by knowing that the religion was forced through violence on people who believed in other gods.
“I think when you replace the gods of a people in that way...when you do it in any way, when you say, ‘Your gods are demons, our god is the real god,’ it’s an assault on the soul,” says Lamar. “It’s an assault on the way someone sees themselves.”
For years, he contemplated writing a concept album addressing these sweeping themes. But Lamar's twenties were marked by the chaos and depression that come with unrealized dreams of stardom. Early on, he moved to New York City, and when he didn't make it there, he returned to Colorado, ashamed. While he continued to pursue a music career here, he had to scrape together a living.
"I've worked a lot of jobs," he says. "Mostly restaurants and shit like that. About two years ago, music became my primary living."
His 2017 album Quarter-Life Righteous received plenty of praise for the way Lamar traversed genres, merging pop, punk and R&B sounds. But he felt that he had rushed the project, that he hadn't reached his creative or philosophical potential. Even so, by 2018, music had become his primary source of income.
Through the years, he's always wanted to write an album that would address his spiritual questions. And recently, he found a way.
“I haven’t had all the connective glue, but now I do,” he explains. “I moved into an apartment, and it was my first time living alone, ever. That just gave me a feeling of...it felt like exhaling. It felt like one big exhale, and in that, all these emotions and thoughts I had started to come out.”
When he began to write the album two years ago, Lamar was in therapy, exploring his relationship with the church, Christianity and his grandfather, as well as all of the emotional baggage and trauma that came along with his past beliefs. He explored how religion, power, family and culture were influencing his vision of God — one he used to judge and punish himself.
“All those things started coming out in journal entries and became melodies and sounds and lyrics,” he says. “I was dreaming of music as I’d wake up in the middle of the night, dreaming of some chord progression or melody.”
Now approaching thirty, he lives in an apartment with two roommates and two dogs, sequestering himself — even before the stay-at-home order went into effect — in order to create.
In March he finished a new EP, Paradise, and he's just released a music video, "Paradise 1," co-produced with Dylan Lee Lowry. Lamar also plans to release a full-length album called S.I.N. [Act 1] over the summer, which will be the first in a trilogy.
With Paradise and the forthcoming releases, Lamar continues his explorations of spiritual and philosophical systems and questions. He’s been reading deeply and mining art history for ideas, looking at works by authors including Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and George Orwell; films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Get Out; and paintings by Caravaggio and Hieronymus Bosch.
“Paradise 1” is a brutal self-portrait of a man in spiritual and cultural crisis. The music video opens with a church organ, a tambourine and Morrison, in the role of preacher, condemning the notion of Paradise as a place that is glorious simply because it is exclusive. Lamar is in a gallery, surrounded by pedestals draped in white fabric. Wearing nothing more than a loincloth, his body is on display, bent over like a subject posing for some classical Roman sculptor, yet his head is trapped, awkwardly, in a white square cube made of sticks and string.
As the organ rises, the music builds and Morrison speaks of all the aspects of Paradise: real estate and gold streets, “but more importantly, all the people who can’t get in.” The sounds pull us toward what feels like an inevitable climax, when the choir will kick in and we’ll be given joyful relief. But just as deliverance should come, the organ drops out and a guttural, demonic bass begins to pulsate irregularly instead.
Lamar snaps into standing position, eventually singing in a lilt, “Welcome to Paradise. Welcome to Hell. What’s the real difference? No one can tell.” The song goes on to indict Heaven as plastic and everything as a construction.
The song borrows from gospel, punk and pop, using these genres to express the emotions behind Lamar's questions about Paradise and identity. He sings about colonial Christianity rampaging the temples of indigenous people. A priest assaults him with a crucifix and nearly drowns him in a bathtub of blue water, at once baptizing and waterboarding him. At times he is trapped, and at other points he's liberated, singing and dancing, defying the violence of the Church. In those moments, he wears a grotesque white mask covered in safety pins; he's shredding on a guitar, and belting out words so distorted they're indecipherable.
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The song, for Lamar, upends the notion that being in Paradise is achievable...or even desirable.
“Even if you’re in this place that is supposedly perfect, you’re socialized to go along with the charade," he says. "Deep down, you know it’s not perfect. The pleasures afforded in Paradise act as a coping mechanism. If anyone dissents in any way or expresses disdain, discontent, depression, they’re treated as crazy.”
Go to Joseph Lamar's website for more of his music.
Updated, Wednesday, May 20: An earlier version of this story described a rough cut of the music video. The final cut has been drastically changed, and this version of the story reflects that.