In advance of the release show for new album 'How to Cook Everything,' Sam Bodary reflects on neo-Nazi protests in Germany, what it means to be Midwestern and one woman's courageous airplane trip

On a 2018 tour of Germany, Hello Emerson frontman Sam Bodary and his bandmates were listening to talk radio in a rental van on the way to their next gig in the city of Chemnitz. Bodary couldn’t translate much of what was being said, but two paired words kept jumping out: “Chemnitz” and “neo-Nazi.”

After arriving at the cafe, Bodary discovered that an anti-immigrant protest was planned for the same night as Hello Emerson’s gig. “The venue is a kilometer walk down the main street from the center of town, where there's a big Karl Marx [monument]. The town used to be called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And that's where the center of the protest happened. So it was several thousand alt-right and neo-Nazi people, and then we're down the street. They kept the venue open so that people had a safe place to be,” Bodary said. “News reports said that if you were a person of color, there were instances of people being chased down the street.”

Hello Emerson played the show as planned, performing to a few dozen people while the din of protests echoed in the streets. Two days later in Berlin, Bodary was interviewed on German radio, and the host asked him about the experience in Chemnitz while drawing connections between President Trump and far-right German party AfD.

“I grew up in Dayton, and they had a KKK rally last year. So that interview was difficult because I felt an immense amount of shame in being from Ohio, and I also felt strangely defensive because I know so many good people here who are fighting against that and doing a lot to support their community,” Bodary said. “But she also asked me, ‘What’s Midwestern culture like?’ And it's a very difficult question to answer. … So I said, ‘We sometimes talk to each other in the grocery store about things that aren't groceries. And then when we bump into each other, we say, "Ope!"'”

All of those experiences and questions prompted Bodary to write the song “Am I the Midwest?” from Hello Emerson’s excellent new album, How to Cook Everything (Anyway Records), which singer/guitarist Bodary, drummer/arranger Daniel Seibert, keys player Jack Doran and lots of other guest musicians will celebrate with a release show at Ace of Cups tonight (Friday, Feb. 21); the event doubles as a benefit for Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS).

“Am I the Midwest?/The one we blame/The one we castigate/The one we shame/The one that shows up/On time at 8/The one we love/The one we hate,” Bodary sings over folksy acoustic guitar, with strings, pedal steel, piano, organ and more slowly making their way into the plaintive, gorgeous tune.

“That song is written in a way so that it doesn't let the singer off the hook. If I sing it right, it does not absolve me of any guilt,” Bodary said. “In what ways am I doing enough? In what ways am I not doing enough, and am I part of the problem? Am I contributing enough to the solution?”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Bodary is clear that How to Cook Everything is “not a Trump record,” but one of his strengths is viewing national issues through a hometown lens, as the songwriter does on “Another War,” which began taking shape in response to controversial police actions in Columbus.

“I remember a show that we played at Brothers Drake that was around when the Masonique Saunders [protests] were in full swing. That was initially what that song was about: Let's look at overuses of force, both domestically and internationally, and how it feels when people that you love say, ‘Well, it's probably for the good of our security.’ You hear a lot of passive acceptance of, ‘Yeah, that was probably a legitimate use of force.’ And that can be pretty heartbreaking,” said Bodary, who ping-pongs between acts of aggression locally and abroad in the song (“Afghanistan to Baltimore, we’re gonna fight another war,” he sings). “Most of my life we've been in some sort of war, so at some point, people saying this is for the good of the country or of the community, it feels a little tired.”

Not every song on How to Cook Everything takes on such sociopolitical weight; Bodary has a knack for isolating tiny droplets from life’s gushing firehose, zooming in on them until they clarify and reflect something larger. “We Lost” recounts a broken nose while playing goalkeeper on an indoor soccer team. “Kyle Kerley” is a voicemail-turned-song that explains to a recently relocated friend that Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is really not that good. Lead-off track “Last Dinner” details a final date night with a partner before the breakup becomes official (“We’re picking out my outfit/So we look good when we end it,” Bodary sings).

But closing track “Seat 16B” is probably the best example of a scene that a casual observer might notice and soon discard, yet Bodary uses it as the springboard for a song that ends in a triumphant 30-person choir, aka “the Emersingers.” The song tells the story of a nervous woman whom Bodary and his seatmates met on an airplane. She’d previously never left her home state, but after her first marriage ended, she struck up a long-distance relationship with an old high school boyfriend she was traveling to see for the first time in 15 years.

“We tell her good luck, but it’s not guaranteed/And we look at each other, and we want to believe,” Bodary sings. Soon after the woman deboards the plane in the song, Bodary begins singing the same line over and over — “There’s a first time for everything” — with more and more vocalists joining him until the Emersingers are belting out the sentiment in full-throated unison atop triumphant strings and horns.

“I don't know if this worked out well for this lady. It could have ended terribly, and nobody will know. She'll never find out about this, and I'll never find out about her. But me and a few people on that plane know that she made this huge, grand, vulnerable gesture, and that's the most inspiring bit,” Bodary said. “The whole point is just trying. Everything else is a crapshoot.”