Premiere: Emmett McCleary Confronts Loneliness and Angst on “Secret Garden”

Originally published on Atwood Magazine.

Music can metabolize and universalize uncertainty and loneliness because it affects you as an equal. Emmett McCleary’s “Secret Garden” favors honest, simplified indie rock as its vessel, to great effect.

Emmett McCleary wants you to honor your loneliness and your anxiety. His upcoming EP, Lonely Chrome, is the product of uncertainty, but even more importantly courage and warmth in the face of uncertainty. “Secret Garden,” taken from Lonely Chrome and developed in collaboration with NYC-based Evan Lo (Fla.mingo), epitomizes McCleary’s attitude towards loneliness. The Boston-born artist makes honesty and compassion the foundation of “Secret Garden” and the tune ends up being a refreshingly earnest, lush experience.

Lonely Chrome – Emmett McCleary

Lonely Chrome – Emmett McCleary

father time, can you explain
how modest youth rolls down the drain
a secret garden in the snow

tells you all you need to know

if you are then say you’re afraid, you’re afraid
“i’m alone, and far from home”
and if i am i’ll say i’m afraid, i’m afraid
“i’m alone”

Atwood Magazine is proud to be premiering “Secret Garden,” the sophomore single off Emmett McCleary’s forthcoming EP Lonely Chrome (out this summer). You don’t need me to tell you that we live in a deeply atomised time. The thinkpiece economy produces approximately 137 op-eds in The New York Times titled “Social Media Hasn’t Brought Us Together. It’s Torn Us Apart” every calendar week. We truly do live in a society.

This isn’t to say that we’re uniquely atomised. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that epidemic loneliness was the biggest problem we face decades ago. This also isn’t to say that there isn’t value in confronting the pervasiveness of loneliness and anxiety about the future, of course, but the odd op-ed writer isn’t quite equipped to handle the emotional valence needed to tackle such an important social laceration.

Music, however, has that ability. Music can metabolize and universalize uncertainty and loneliness because it affects you as an equal, rather than a chiding voice from above. McCleary’s song also bucks a number of musical trends in favor of honest, simplified indie rock.

McCleary, on “Secret Garden,” favors open guitar tones, pastoral harmonies, and reverb heavy atmospheres. In a number of ways, the tune immediately evokes the breezy sound of artists like Mac DeMarco, trading DeMarco’s trademark jocularity for a charming earnestness and maybe a touch of compassionate melancholy.

“Secret Garden” affects none of the apathetic irony that characterizes many of McCleary’s contemporaries, whether that be the techno-dystopian misfit Poppy, the sneering arrogance of the Arctic Monkeys, or the Byzantine snobbery of a music writer saying “Byzantine.” While these attitudes certainly can (and do) make for fantastic music, their rebellion fades with market saturation. McCleary understands that in a zeitgeist of cynicism, earnest warmth offers listeners the chance for a real cathartic journey after years of picking at the scab.

“Secret Garden” carries that ethos like a precious heirloom, and it infects every element of the song. In the song, McCleary sings,

a secret garden in the snow
tells you all you need to know

if you are, then say
you’re afraid, you’re afraid

“i’m alone, and far from home”
and if i am, i’ll say i’m afraid
“‘i’m afraid i’m alone’”

The lyrics are an invitation, to the listener, to the speaker’s friend, it doesn’t really matter, to acknowledge fear and loneliness. It’s elegant in how the lyrics acknowledge pain but build a cure into accepting that pain – in taking McCleary’s invitation, the other party confronts their fear and forms a bond at once. Now, they’re more courageous and less alone, even if just by a little bit.

The imagery of snow and the titular secret garden also lands well. McCleary summons an image of an oasis, surrounded by snow, a secret garden where life can thrive in the middle of a barren landscape.

What works especially well here is the reversal of the literal temperature in McCleary’s imagery. Loneliness and fear are cold and unfeeling, reflected best in the snow of “Secret Garden” rather than the heat of an archetypal oasis. And on a more aesthetic level, a snow dappled garden is just compelling. Whether or not this subversive oasis was intentional, well that one’s up to Emmett to tell us.

a secret garden in the snow
tells you all you need to know
wasting time and wanting more

i’m looking through an open door

The experience that prompted McCleary to write the song is certainly relatable too. As he tells Atwood,

“As far as the single, I would say that it’s a song about refuge, and finding solace in unlikely places. I wrote it about a month before I graduated college, when I was feeling really uncertain about the future (a theme that looms over the whole EP) and in need of some comfort.”

The experience of college itself is much like McCleary’s secret garden – an environment built for human interaction and growth, where students always have direct access to their social circles and close friends. He continues,

“I wanted the chorus to feel like a big hug each time it came around, and the song as a whole to feel warm and inviting, even in its more chaotic moments. The lyrics are in a less literal style than what I usually write – I leave them open to interpretation. I know what they mean to me, but I would love it if listeners derived their own meanings from it.”

The song ends on an indecisive chord, succinctly summing up its major themes of uncertainty, but leaving the listener with a memory of that warm embrace, that honesty, and that invitation, however small, to form one new bond.

a secret garden in the snow
tells you all you need to know
falling silent in the snow

it’s gone so quiet in the snow

:: stream/purchase “Secret Garden” here ::