“The Whaleship Essex” is the latest track from the National Lights, a band founded in Poughkeepsie, New York but scattered to various corners of the country now. Culled from the outfit’s upcoming Whom the Sea Will Keep, the song is one that eludes easy comparisons. It’s in keeping with the quiet folk music that a handful of bands have taken up as their charge in recent years, yet it sounds nothing like any of those acts. The song retains a distinct mainstream pop sensibility yet it lives at the fringes of the mainstream. It’s delicate yet incredibly resilient. In essence, then, “The Whaleship Essex” and the National Lights must be doing something right to escape easy designations and descriptions, carving out their niche in an impossibly crowded musical landscape.
The group was formed in 2004 as a vehicle for singer-songwriter Thomas Berns who was joined by fellow singer-songwriters Chris Kiehne and Sonya Cotton. With an appreciation for Southern Gothic literature and maritime lore, the trio began blazing their own trail. For Whom the Sea Will Keep, the trio turns its attention to the sea ballad, incorporating elements of percussion, accordion, and vocal rounds. The material took shape over a decade, amid trips to graduate school, cross-country moves and the high tides of life.
Speaking of “The Whaleship Essex” the band says, “the song is from the perspective of the ill-fated ship’s captain. The first verse describes the voyage ahead, the second the tragedy of what entailed: the ship sunk by a whale, the few survivors stranded hundreds of miles from shore and forced to draw lots. While the chorus is identical, it takes on a different meaning depending on which verse it follows. Often cited as the inspiration for Moby Dick, the story of the Essex proves that life is far more harrowing than any fiction. This was one of the first songs written for what had originally been a full-length, and the last song to make the cut on the EP. It took a couple of tacks to find the right way to give this song flesh, but we can’t imagine the album without ‘The Whaleship Essex’ at its center.”