“On Christmas Day of 2017, my oldest friend died of complications from mental illness,” recalls singer/songwriter Sweetlove about her friend Matt Linder, the subject of her new single “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
“Matt and I met when we were less than a year old.”
It’s a sobering memory that pauses the conversation. With the pandemic raging across the world and infection potentially a mere six feet away, mourning and bereavement has become far more universal and ubiquitous than it should be. Death should never be this common.
For Sweetlove, death wasn’t common until she was hit with a trio of deaths spanning just one year’s time. From the tail end of 2017 to the handful of months that followed in 2018, she was confronted with mortality in quick succession. Her sorrow needed an outlet. So, like many musicians, she turned to music.
Her new EP Goodnight, Lover explores her emotions of personal loss and the devastation it brings, its dark pall coloring her lyrics and music. Relying on the help of her musician friends, she was able to put together the heart wrenching collection that brought together these benevolent ghosts and send them off to the netherworld. “I love that we’ve wrapped all of these beautiful musicians around the songs, and all this talent came in and lifted them to a place I never could have taken them alone,” Sweetlove says. “But… it started with the stories.”
Alongside the tragic story of Matt on Goodnight, Lover are stories of David, a medic who served in Iraq who committed suicide and Teddy, her cousin who died of alcoholism. All three sadly passed within months of each other.
Circling back to Matt’s story in “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead,” Sweetlove recalls writing the song, a mere months after his untimely death that Christmas in 2017. “I went to New York and sat down with Zach Berkman [a.k.a. The Heart Of who co-wrote and is featured on the song] to write together. He asked me what was on my mind and told him about my friend. I told him how much felt like I had lost a part of me, how much it felt like a part of my childhood was missing… how I had found some old, sweet letters that he had written me in high school that brought those memories back in a very visceral way, and how I tried to take comfort in the fact that I knew he was at peace and that his mind wasn’t his enemy anymore.”
The result of that soul-searching session was a touching and lilting ballad whose aching emotions are amplified a thousandfold through the mournful steel guitar of bandmate Scotty Murry. “I think that steel guitar by Scotty is gorgeous,” she says. “I loved that we were able to get those warm vocals from Zach on it. I think it’s a pleasure to listen to. I still listen to it all the time because I think it’s so pretty.”
The gorgeous acoustic lushness of the track is the perfect accompaniment for the poignancy of song’s subject matter. “For the first 18 years of my life, until I went away to college, I spent just about every day with [Matt],” she reflects fondly. “He was my first friend, my first crush, my first kiss. He was the most beautiful boy I ever saw, and I loved him dearly. Later in his life, he had trouble with mental illness and getting proper treatment, and he passed away from not having good medical care.”
While heartbreak is often a direct catalyst for songwriting, Sweetlove’s mourning for Matt offered a of bit finality to his storyline and a good means for her to find closure. “I felt really unraveled, like a piece of me had died too,” she says of the grief. “We had a memorial service for him in our old high school, and I walked the hallways thinking about what I wanted to say to him and how I could honor his life.”
Lyrically, she captures that loss perfectly: “Haven’t seen your face in far too long / Where are you, where’d you go, where have you gone / Sending you across the river, or wherever you have fled / And I hope you find your way before the devil knows you’re dead.”
The poignant single offers more hope than gloom, opting to transform that pain into a familiar Celtic toast for the dearly departed. “I wanted to write a song like that old Irish blessing, ‘May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead,’” she explains. “It’s such a bittersweet sentiment, wishing someone the best afterlife they could have.”
A loving tribute, “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” is a graceful sendoff to her lost friend, hoping the wind to be forever at his back. “I’m hoping that people will be able to relate to the bittersweet feeling of this song. Sometimes, I think everything in life that’s meaningful is truly bittersweet because loving anything or anyone means they can break your heart. The longer you live, the more you learn how to lose with grace,” she concludes, finding solace for Matt in providing comfort to those who hear her song.
“Maybe they will be reminded of something sweet from their childhood, or think fondly of someone that has slipped away from them,” she says, pausing the conversation once again. “I like to think about this song bringing a measure of peace or moment of joy to people. What more could you ask for?”
Album drops 3/26, but you can pre-order “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” here.
Photos by Anna Azarov