Poor Moon was born out of a time of darkness

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Poor Moon’s eponymous debut album isn’t without its sunny moments. “Holiday” was one of the first songs written for the record by frontman Christian Wargo, with the singer setting lines like “On a holiday you won’t be taking any calls/You won’t be surrounded by the same four walls” to sun-baked Afrobeat guitars and yacht-rock drums.

Overall, though, no one will mistake Poor Moon for dream-fuzzed music from a Club Med commercial. Pay attention to the lyrics, and it becomes evident that Wargo had some heavy things weighing on him, the biggest one being the subject of death. It’s there in the carnivalesque folk jam “Heaven’s Door”, where he finds himself up in the clouds with “the man with the pitchfork waiting outside”. And it’s there on the album’s wistful closer, “Birds”, which begins with the lyrics “Oh my darling don’t you cry/Just hold my hand a while before I die.”

Reached in a tour van headed to Portland, the Seattle-based Wargo acknowledges that he was working through some things while writing Poor Moon.

“There was a while there where the types of substances that I was doing led me to believe that I was nearing death,” the singer reveals candidly. “Part of me didn’t want to stop what I was doing, so I was kind of resigning myself to that reality. And part of me, obviously, did not want to die.”

With admirable forthrightness, Wargo doesn’t mind discussing his time of darkness.

“I’m comfortable talking about it,” he says simply. “When I turned 30 I got a divorce and was taking some antidepressants. I didn’t like that at all. I ended up feeling really numb and emotionless—I was doing that for about six months. Around that time, I had a whole shift in my network of friends. I was in a band called Crystal Skulls that ended, and I suddenly felt very isolated in a major way.

“My answer was to hole myself away, and that led me to some pretty heavy cocaine use,” Wargo continues. “I was working as a bartender, and every cheque was going directly to drugs. I was picking bread out of trash cans. Splurging for me was buying a 99-cent bottle of grape soda—that would be a meal. I was pushing my body to the limits.”

Sometimes, addicts are lucky enough to have a moment of clarity, when they realize that the party has stopped being fun. Wargo, who plays in Fleet Foxes as well as Poor Moon, has no problem remembering when he made the decision to go cold turkey.

“It was a moment of laying on the floor,” he says with a wry laugh, “and sweating profusely from every pore on my body. My hands looked like they were covered in little crystals and my heart was beating to where I was like, ‘You are seriously going to die.’ At that point I was starting to play in Fleet Foxes, and I realized I really had stuff to live for.”

Given the experiences that coloured Poor Moon, it’s surprising that the record didn’t end up more harrowingly depressing than, say, Alice in Chains’ Dirt. Philosophical about his past struggles, Wargo wasn’t interested in writing songs for those who enjoy wallowing in their own misery. He notes that even “Birds” is strangely upbeat, with the singer imagining his own death as something beautiful.

Given Wargo’s status as a full-time Fleet Fox, it’s no great surprise that Poor Moon’s touchstones include soft-focus folk and gold-scented Americana. But the album’s 10 tracks also position the New Jersey–raised musician as unafraid to step outside the box. Consider the blown-tire percussion in “Pulling Me Down”, the church-service harpsichord that floods “Phantom Light”, and the exotic Asian chimes that colour “Bucky Pony”.

Ultimately, Poor Moon sounds like the work of a man who is pretty much open to anything, and not just to the idea that death isn’t as scary as we might think.

Poor Moon plays the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (December 8).

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