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How songwriting is helping an Alabama vet’s PTSD

Songwriting. (Pixabay/Released)

John Schmitt has walked through hell while wearing night vision goggles and carrying a hot gun. You can imagine the rest – actually, unless you’ve seen combat you probably can’t. Compared to war, coronavirus is “Candyland.” War scars even the steely and smart who experience it. Schmitt served his country in the U.S. Army, participating in the early-2000s invasion of Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Afterwards, Schmitt, now a lieutenant colonel residing in Huntsville, was in denial about his PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition caused intense anxiety and depression.

In addition to therapy, he found a more surprising path to feeling better, songwriting. Growing up, he’d kept journals and even wrote some poetry for his own eyes only. During his San Francisco Bay Area youth, Schmitt also frequented punk shows. Later while serving in Iraq, whenever he did have a moment to listen to music, he’d plug his MP3 player loaded with Dead Kennedys, Rage Against The Machine and Green Day, into a speaker some soldiers shared. “As soon as I plugged mine into the speaker, people would walk away,” Schmitt says with a laugh now. Still, he found comfort listening to bands “that drew me back to a simpler time of high school,” he says. For soldiers at war, “nostalgia was an important fixture to stay stable,” he adds.

By Schmitt’s own admission he “can’t carry a tune” or play an instrument. We never know where life will take us though. Five years or so ago, Schmitt began cowriting songs with his friend Alan Little, a local musician, Schmitt turned his experiences and perspectives into lyrics – as well as ventilating his headspace and giving his soul a car wash. Schmitt cowrote seven songs on Little’s strong new acoustic album “While They Were Sleeping.”

After Iraq, Schmitt was teaching at West Point when he reconnected with putting words on paper. “I remember just having this moment, I need to start writing,” he says. “And I started feeling so much better. I’d be teaching class and waiting for the moment I could get off work get home, eat dinner, kiss the kids and wife and run upstairs and write. Looking back now I understand that as exposure therapy and finding meaning in moments that allow you to find joy.” Despite relief he found from journaling again, he stopped. “And I certainly wasn’t my best person,” Schmitt says. “I was pretty chronically depressed.”

Eventually, Schmitt found himself stationed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, where he met Little, after their kids became friends at school. The two men became close enough their families began vacationing together. In 2015, they launched a passion project together: Listen Local, a recurring acoustic concert series showcasing area songwriters. Listen Local has hosted acts ranging from local heroes, like Charlie Howell, to internationally touring artists from North Alabama, such as Dylan LeBlanc.

Little is a talented multi-instrumentalist who cut teenage teeth on drums with local rock bands like Plaid. Later, while attending Auburn University, he briefly was in a folk rock band called Passing Through, fronted by eventual “American Idol” star Taylor Hicks. He wrote the song “Wedding Day Blues” appearing on Hicks’ top five indie chart release, “The Distance.”

Little’s own singing voice is limber and southern-charming. For Listen Local, Little would host the show and also perform. Early on, Schmitt knew it would be a good idea for Little to write new songs to keep the series fresh. “Because if I’m up there and played that song last time,” Little says,” it’s ‘Is he going to play that song again?'”

Little and Schmitt have written at least 15 or so songs together now. New musical ideas beam into Little’s head almost daily, and like many 21st century musicians, he records those sketches on his smartphone. Schmitt similarly chronicles lyrical concepts. Sometimes they fit their ideas together. Other times a new song comes from a deep conversation they over a brew or few. Their first collaboration, “War Without End” – featured Little’s agile guitar and a buoyant melody – was birthed this way. “We started talking about John’s war experience,” Little says, “and we thought, ‘Why don’t we just put this to music?'”

Schmitt ended up cowriting seven of the 12 songs on Little’s album: “Rockets & Watercress,” “Kite Fishing,” “Choose,” “Moana Moku,” “Goodbye, WV,” “Welcome Home” and “Just The Same.” Opening cut is a woke, slide-guitar accented cut. Standout tune “Kite Fishing” is a water-refracted rumination on love and life. On Little’s instrumental track “Running With Scissors” his hands seem to transform into an entire jam-band. Album closer “Just the Same” echoes Schmitt’s frustration with prejudice.

Schmitt is partial to the song “Welcome Home,” inspired by his family’s happiness in Huntsville, after a stint in New York, which just didn’t fit them. “For me it feels timeless and bigger than us,” he says of the song. “It’s just this reminder we found home.” According to Little, it’s the only song he’s ever performed to inspired people from the audience to tell him after it brought tears to their eyes. “That’s a very relatable tune,” Little says.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Listen Local, like other live in-person events, is postpone. Little finds optimism in music’s healing powers: “It might not be healing coronavirus, but what it is healing is people’s worry” Schmitt draws from musical escape, even during mandated “stay at home” orders leaving many of us feeling like Jack Nicholson’s “The Shining” character. Whenever Listen Local boots up again, Little feels the series’ greatest legacy is making local artists feel heard. “I get a big rush, with that show, of bringing to light the talent of someone. A lot of artists, in town we go see them in a loud noisy bar, but to see them live uninterrupted is pretty powerful.” Acoustic amplification company ToneWoodAmp has even released a 10-minute mini-documentary on Listen Local and the founders’ friendship.

In addition to being an excellent soundtrack to your next porch hang, “While They Were Sleeping” is Little’s first solo album in 23 years. His debut, “Turn On A Dime,” was issued in 1997. That disc was cut in North Carolina. He tracked “While They Were Sleeping” at Startingly Fresh Studio, with producer Jim Cavender, a versatile Huntsville music mainstay. “It’s not a conventional studio,” Little says. “But it’s got a good vibe and it’s incredibly easy to create music in there. I’ve looked up to Jim for years.”

The title “While They Were Sleeping” is a reference to the hours at which they recorded. Little and a slew of guest musicians, including keyboardist Newt Johnson, bassist John Onder and singer Tara Sayre Jones, would work from around 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., while Little’s wife and daughter slumbered back home.

The music recorded there has already found a place beyond the stage or Spotify. Three of the Schmitt cowrites appear in a new indie film called “One Easy Day,” written and produced by Brett Jones, a Navy Seal now residing in Huntsville. PTSD plays a central role in the film. Since PTSD is the reason Little and Schmitt began collaborating in the first place, Little calls the song placements, “a beautiful thing, regardless of how far the album or movie goes.”

By day, Schmitt is product manager for the Army’s Chinook Helicopter Block II program. Little is a loan offer. Between work and family time, slotting time to write together can be a song in itself. For a while, they took a break and Schmitt fell back into depression. He’s since learned even outside songwriting, creative and mindful moments need to be a day-to-day priority for him. Schmitt says, “It’s kind of helped me recircuit my brain.”


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