When Alethea Leventhal was a child, she’d sit for hours at the piano in her mother’s Charlottesville home, singing, playing chords and experimenting with sounds. She remembers obsessively listening to songs like Jimmy Ruffin’s 1966 Motown hit “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” pressing play over and over again and using that piano to figure out how and why exactly the melody in a chorus gave her goosebumps, or why a bridge’s chord progression wrenched her heart just so.
All of that practice examining the emotional quality of music would come in handy years later, when Leventhal, who records and performs music under the moniker Ships in the Night, was having what she describes as “a really hard night.” It was 5am and she couldn’t sleep. But she had a refrain in her head and she went to her synthesizer to work it out. “It ended up being a lullaby to myself, what I wanted someone to say to me at five o’clock in the morning when I couldn’t sleep,” says Leventhal.
That song, “Deathless,” is the first single off of the first full-length Ships in the Night record, Myriologues, to be released on Friday.
Ships in the Night album release party
The Southern Café and Music Hall
“You’re going through hell / You’ve got to keep going / There is more than this” Leventhal opens the first verse, her ethereal voice drifting over softly driving, catchy synths and drum machines. “We don’t get to choose / Who lives and who dies. / But while we’re alive, I’m here beside you,” she sings. “Sleep now, darling, can you sleep? / Another day will come. / You’re still the one you were born to be.”
By the end of the song, as the sun begins to rise, Leventhal drifts, triumphantly, toward sleep: “When I rise from the ashes, when I rise from the grave, / I will be strong, I will be deathless.”
Like all Ships in the Night songs, the nine tracks on Myriologues are heavy in their subject matter: death, dark dreams, trauma, loss, sadness and “where people are left after trauma,” Leventhal says. In conversation, she remains largely private about her own struggles—“I deal with some topics in my music that are so hard, things that I don’t even talk about in my life very much, but in my music, they’re there and I just let it go.”
Leventhal wrote the closing track, “Across the Line,” a song about all the ways you can feel far from someone, for her sister who’s lived in Germany for 10 years. Their relationship exists largely through Skype and sporadic phone calls. They’ll be talking and the phone line will pick up another conversation, or the screen will freeze and Leventhal will be left looking at a pixelated, fragmented version of her sister’s face.
“We’ve had an interesting and complicated relationship over the years,” Leventhal says, so she can’t help but feel like these communications are about more than tech glitches and poor Internet connections—it sometimes seems like a breakdown of their relationship.
Once Leventhal started performing and recording as Ships in the Night back in 2014, sharing her songs with others who have experienced tragedy, sadness and darkness of their own, she began to heal. “Without the music, I probably would have let go a long time ago; I’ll be straight-up about that,” Leventhal says. “It’s not just about getting it out, it’s about recognizing that you’ve been trying and you’re working on it and you’re holding on.
“For me, [performing] is my way of standing there and completely baring my soul for everyone to see. Because what is the point of not doing that?” she asks in earnest. “It’s so easy to not share yourself. It’s so easy to not let people in, and that’s a shame, because there’s so much to see and know with people.”
“I deal with some topics in my music that are so hard, things that I don’t even talk about in my life very much, but in my music, they’re there and I just let it go.” Alethea Leventhal
What’s more, “we focus way too much on how to be happy, and not enough on how to be sad, on how to be sad and okay; on how to feel sadness and hold sadness and pain in front of you and not collapse under it,” Leventhal says. “If I can do anything with music, it’s helping people know that they’re not the only ones who feel that way.”
Maybe you’ve just been dumped, and you get into the car, turn on the radio and hear a song about heartbreak; maybe a family member has died and a catchy chorus makes you happy for the first time in days; maybe you’ve experienced horrible trauma, but you go to a live show and hear a melody that soothes you a bit—sometimes a song is exactly what you need, says Leventhal, and that’s powerful.
For all of its darkness, all of its weight, Myriologues is extraordinarily light. “It feels bright to me, hopeful,” says Leventhal. It’s an album about loss, but even more, it’s an album about how to not lose yourself amid that loss and remembering that no matter what, you’re still the one you were born to be.