Ghost Light: Alternative Healing
Tom Hamilton sees a world in recovery. The Ghost Light guitarist and singer believes that the damage caused by the pandemic alone would have been enough to inspire the title track of the group’s second album, The Healing. For Hamilton, though, the misery of the last few years also presented an unexpected opportunity—the chance to look inward, confront his turbulent, personal past and heal himself.
“I know a lot of people had it really bad during COVID. I know it was a terrible thing and really fucked up people’s lives,” Hamilton says. “It was also a blessing for me, in a way, to have time to reflect.”
Hamilton was only 12 when he played his first show. By 17, he was gigging two weekends a month in clubs around his native Philadelphia. Then, two-plus decades of continuous performing, traveling and recording—with acts like the jamtronica outfit Brothers Past, the indie-Americana project American Babies and the improvisational group Joe Russo’s Almost Dead—came to a screeching halt in March of 2020.
Struggling with chronic social anxiety and depression since he was a child, Hamilton’s obsession with music is as much a type of medicine as it is a means of expression. When COVID took the communal connection and joys of performing away from him, Hamilton suffered, and he struggled to find peace as the quarantine seemed to stretch on indefinitely.
“I ate mushrooms—micro-dosing five days a week—just to not lose my mind,” Hamilton says. “It was pretty fucking terrifying.”
Hamilton admits that music has long been a constant and calming distraction. His favorite means of therapy—when he’s lost a relative or watched a relationship end—has always been to just book another tour. It was always much easier for him to get lost in his songs than to face his personal demons.
For Hamilton, the COVID-19 lockdown came on the heels of a failed personal relationship, with a truckload of fresh trauma just waiting to be examined. Without the road as an escape, he decided it was time to start dealing with some of his long-standing issues And then he didn’t stop.
“Once you look under the hood, it’s like, ‘Let’s take a look at this childhood while we’re at it,’” Hamilton says. “It’s like you say: ‘Let’s take a look at my adolescence, and let’s take a look at my relationship with my family. If we’re going to have this reckoning, let’s have it.’ And I did.”
He studied existing patterns in his life— his personal choices, where his decisions have led him and how to change his ways for the better. He also contemplated the next Ghost Light album, working at his studio, The Ballroom—which is housed inside an old factory in north Philadelphia—and digging through dozens of song fragments, voice memos and old demos from his days with American Babies. When his Ghost Light bandmate Raina Mullen arrived with a set of introspective lyrics similar to his own, Hamilton admits, “It just all made sense.”
Ghost Light formed in 2017, when Hamilton and Mullen—herself a singer-songwriter and guitarist—decided to partner with keyboardist Holly Bowling, drummer Scotty Zwang and bassist Steve Lyons. Almost immediately, touring life didn’t agree with Lyons, and Dan Africano signed on as his replacement. Armed with Hamilton and Mullen’s nascent material, Ghost Light broke from jamband tradition and started recording their 2019 debut album, the nine-song Best Kept Secrets, before truly hitting the road.
Yet, Ghost Light quickly proved to be an improvisational force as well. Though it wasn’t surprising, given Hamilton and Bowling’s statures in the jamband world, audiences quickly embraced Ghost Light’s alt-rock songcraft and their extended grooves, which were rife with improvisation.
By early 2020, following another round of U.S. dates supporting Best Kept Secrets, the five musicians were poised for a follow-up release. However, the pandemic forced the ensemble to punt that project indefinitely. Meanwhile, Hamilton poured over a hundred-plus potential songs, meticulously writing, editing and shaping their repertoire.
“That’s a hard thing to do in a creative way,” Hamilton says. “To look at your own songs and say, ‘That sucks.’”
Mullen, too, offered material. She sang and played acoustic guitar—with Hamilton on drums—showcasing her possible song candidates. She is quick to note that she trusted Hamilton’s critiques.
“I don’t feel judgment,” Mullen says. “I always know he’s never going to bullshit me, which is very important in a musical collaborator. I don’t want to be told that everything [I write] is good because I know it’s not.”
Mullen hails from Connecticut, growing up in an 18th-century colonial fixer upper on the state’s southern shoreline. She sought creative outlets as a child, began singing at the age of seven and spent summers at YPI—a creative arts camp upstate in Suffield, Conn. She picked up the guitar at 16 and progressed from camper to counselor to guest instructor, developing her songwriting as she absorbed a number of different techniques.
“It helped me find a lot of solid ground to stand on as a writer,” Mullen says.
On “Take Some Time,” she employed a writing prompt from her YPI days, guiding her as she worked out what would become one of The Healing’s eight tracks. Others arrived in the middle of the night, like “Dig a Hole”—or from extended sessions around the table, hammering out structures and lyrics with Hamilton.
“I like having strong bones for a song. Like the house I grew up in, if the foundation is solid, there is so much more room to move,” Mullen says.
As a live ensemble, the well-buttressed Ghost Light carves out plenty of room to move. Bowling, a classically trained pianist with a flair for Phish and Dead covers, is a vibrant and exquisitely skilled improviser. Zwang’s percussive grooves are, at once, propellant and propeller— fueling and lifting the quintet to airspace high and wide enough for Hamilton’s mystical flights on the fretboard. Mullen is the fulcrum: a diminutive songbird center-stage.
“I’m small in stature. My guitar looks really big on me. I can be quite timid in real life,” Mullen says. “Music, to me, is super primal. That’s how I feel it should be. You’re tapping into a human instinct—people gathering in a room to experience one thing at the same time. When I get onstage, I sort of explode in a way I can’t control.”
As a teenager, Mullen says that she was inspired by the Paramore music videos that she would watch on Fuse TV. And, in Ghost Light, she shares a comforting sisterhood with Bowling on the road; she’s never the only woman in the van or onstage. Together, the pair are ready to challenge perceptions about women in the jamband scene.
“Women do have to prove themselves. That’s just the state of the world, unfortunately,” Mullen says. “I like changing people’s expectations of what women in music can be. I feel like I can kick ass.”
Hamilton, on the other hand, was surrounded by music from a young age. His father played in a band and his older brother, Jim later joined their dad’s group and, eventually, took part in an early version of Brothers Past.
“It wasn’t like, ‘I want to play guitar and be a famous musician.’ It was just, ‘This is what you do. You play music,’” Hamilton says. “You get some buds, and you play gigs on the weekend. That’s the happiness you have in your life. Whatever happened beyond that was dumb luck.”
That’s not to say that the road can’t be grueling. A touring musician’s typical workday begins in late afternoon with soundcheck and ends sometime in the early hours of the next morning. Then, it’s a fight to quell the adrenaline of performing and fall asleep to the hum of the highway.
Hamilton admits that he grew accustomed to that schedule even before his job description required it and has long slept better during the daytime. Routinely battling depression, he often wakes up in a cold sweat, paralyzed from anxiety.
“It’s not easy. It’s not fun. I’m 43. It’s certainly fucking exhausting to be having the same feelings, the same obstacles you’ve had since you were a kid. It makes you feel like you’re going fucking insane,” Hamilton says.
He started working on the music for The Healing’s titular track in 2015, when the singer-songwrtier was still primarily focused on American Babies. He knew that the song was strong, but he wasn’t ready to tackle its lyrical subject matter. Half-a-decade later, the tune finally started to feel therapeutic.
“The manic mind in the morning light leaves room for me under the sheets,” Hamilton sings in the song’s third verse. “The night is known to lie, in voices unified/ I can’t hear myself over the screams.”
Cathartic and revealing, the stanzas peel back Hamilton’s psyche, exposing deep vulnerabilities. As the cut reaches its conclusion, he arrives at one of his own: “There’s only one word I really believe in/It’s the healing.”
One of the marks of Ghost Light’s debut, Best Kept Secrets and its collaborative process was anything but a secret. Hamilton and Mullen consumed copious amounts of LSD during the writing sessions for the record, embracing a kaleidoscopic array of influences. The resulting album announced the band with plenty of what Mullen calls “bells and whistles.”
These days, Hamilton refers to his use of psychedelics, both creatively and therapeutically, with candor and caution.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘Everybody go out and do these things.’ Also, I wouldn’t say necessarily that eating mushrooms by the bag or acid by the strip only had positive effects on me when I was younger. That probably wasn’t smart. I would venture to say that years of doing intense amounts of psychedelics probably contributed to my anxiety,” Hamilton admits.
Yet, given his mental-health challenges, he also sees the benefits. “Yes, these things do help in small, controlled doses,” Hamilton says. “A little dab will do ya.”
Hamilton serves as Ghost Light’s creative director and produced The Healing. He also composed the lion’s share of the arrangements, molding the eight tracks into fully formed demos to present to the band. It’s crucial, he says, to explain the emotional intent informing the music, then let his bandmates work through the material in a trial-and-error manner—encouraging their reactions and opinions.
“It’s best-ball golf,” Hamilton says. “The better idea wins.”
During sessions for The Healing, Ghost Light set up as a band and tracked live in the studio. This time, Hamilton kept the overdubbing and added instrumentation to a minimum. Without any illusions of achieving pop or chart success, they improvised as freely and expansively as they pleased.
“We said, ‘Let’s just make the art we want to make—that’s cool and good,’” Hamilton says. “Do you think Zeppelin was worried about how long ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was? I’m not saying we’re Led Zeppelin. I’m saying, ‘Don’t pander to the audience. Don’t pander to the execs. Don’t pander to anything.’”
Mullen adds: “I go see pop shows. And I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t like playing the same thing every time. I like having it be roller-coaster. I love what we do. And with this record, I think we can reach a different audience than our first album did.”
In March, Ghost Light also introduced their audiences to a new bass player, Taylor Shell, who had previous played in Turkuaz. (Africano—who appears on the album—left to join Thievery Corporation prior to The Healing’s finalized artwork and does not appear on the LP’s cover.) Both Hamilton and Mullen are thrilled with the new addition, calling Shell a natural fit for their “five-headed beast.”
Looking ahead, Hamilton insists on pushing into unchartered territory. He likens playing Jerry Garcia licks to method acting; he’s happier evoking Randy Rhoads. He’s not done healing, he says, but he sees a path for Ghost Light, and for himself.
“The mission is to do what we do using other resources than the same bullshit everyone has used since the word ‘jamband’ came out in 1998,” Hamilton says. “You can write songs that don’t come from those places, and you can jam the ever-loving fuck out of them just as much as anything else. That’s the point. We can put new information into this machine and get new outcomes.”