Concussion inspires albums about the Psalms

Aaron Epp | Senior Writer
(Photo courtesy of Mike Janzen)

If Mike Janzen hadn’t been thirsty one night seven years ago, it’s possible he wouldn’t have recorded his three most recent albums.

In 2021, the Toronto singer-songwriter released the first two volumes of The Psalms Project—19 songs he composed while recovering from a debilitating concussion. Janzen got up in the middle of the night in April 2016 to get a drink of water and blacked out, falling face first onto the floor. A few moments later his wife was by his side, helping him back to bed. When he awoke the next day, he knew something was wrong.

In the weeks that followed, Janzen began to feel worse. He lay in his basement, dizzy, nauseous and unable to move. He couldn’t read, listen to podcasts or talk to people. He also couldn’t continue his work as a self-employed musician, which included fronting a jazz trio and composing orchestral scores for acclaimed singer-songwriters like Steve Bell and Sarah Slean.

One thing Janzen could do was turn to scripture. He opened the Bible app on his phone each day and, because he couldn’t look at screens for very long, read the Psalms for 30 to 60 seconds so that he would have something to think about.

“The Psalms became a real lifeline for me during those days,” the 51-year-old says by phone from his backyard studio. “[They] gave me thoughts and prayers and words to express the emotions I was feeling during those days.”

It wasn’t long before Janzen started writing melodies inspired by the words, which he would record on his iPhone. Over the next two years, he collected thousands of musical ideas. When he started feeling better, he began fleshing them out into songs. Along the way, he revisited the Psalms that had inspired the initial musical ideas.

“Before my injury I would read through the Psalms and think of other people who were going through hard times, and this time I could see myself on every page,” says Janzen, who grew up near Steinbach, Manitoba. “When it was talking about [people] going through suffering or trauma, really difficult things, suddenly that was directly spoken to me. So I found these Psalms very moving and liberating.”

Janzen started recording The Psalms Project in 2020. The first volume, The Carried Words, has a folk-pop sound, while the second volume, The Lifted Songs, is more meditative in nature and features a 14-piece string orchestra.

In early 2020, Janzen wasn’t sure how songs he had written in solitude based on his personal experience would resonate with listeners.

“[Then] the pandemic hit and the whole world was thrust into solitude, dealing with anxiety and mental health issues,” he says. “People feeling down, discouraged, depressed. Suddenly this project that came out of a lot of those things [was] being released.”

Part of what makes the Psalms amazing, Janzen says, is that all kinds of people can see their stories and experiences reflected in the words. “They remind you that you’re not forgotten, that God thinks of you, and they also remind you who God is; that he’s near to the brokenhearted and that he lifts up the fallen.”

His recovery from the concussion has been slow. “The first four years were pretty bad,” says Janzen, who is married with two daughters. “Year five I started to feel like a dad again. Year six I started to feel I could be gigging again. . . . I’m in year seven and I feel I can do everything now, but every now and then I don’t feel like I’m [completely recovered].”

Janzen is putting the finishing touches on a third volume, Songs from the Canyon, which he says is different from the first two albums. “It’s more cinematic … more muscular and big, [with] more upbeat songs as well.”

As the interview winds down, Janzen reflects on the fact that many Psalms express individual and communal lament. Lament is beautiful, he says, because it encourages people to honestly express the deep ache they feel—their disillusionment, their doubt, their anger, their frustration—to God.

“It can be completely honest,” he says. “At the same time, true lament reminds us that God is near, he can sustain us through hard times and he’s promised to be with us.”

Many churches are uncomfortable with lament, Janzen believes, likely because they are unfamiliar with it. It’s a practice he hopes more faith communities start incorporating into their worship.

“There’s something tremendously healing about articulating our pain before God,” he says. “That’s something with the Psalms we’re really encouraged to do. When we’re going through these dark valleys, he’ll restore us.” 

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This article appears in the May 19, 2023 print issue, with the headline “From the dark depths of concussion come three albums about the Psalms.”

(Photo courtesy of Mike Janzen)

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