Brennan Strawn has an affinity for the epic. The young Pennsylvania musician records under the name "Monarch" and gives his albums titles like The Grandeur That Was Rome. His latest album is filled with references to kings, Philistines, and other mighty men. But its simpler, humbler title-Lowly-was born out of a season of pain and conviction.
An unexpected injury-a band member fell asleep at the wheel, and the resulting accident sent Strawn in and out of hospitals for a year-launched Monarch into a period of brokenness.
"I couldn't forgive," Strawn tells WORLD. "He never meant to hurt me, and I wish things were different between us, but I was young and stubborn. Anytime we performed after the accident, it was too hard for me to play. So I found an excuse and moved on."
He moved to New York after his manager informed him that several major labels were interested in his work. None bit, and Strawn careened toward depression.
"When I wrote Lowly, I had just been rejected by everyone I thought would get me where I needed to be in the music business," Strawn says. "I was alone in a tiny apartment in Queens barely making enough money to eat. The lyrics like, 'will I die in this room alone / will I vanish behind my door?' and 'so I will hide, count to ten / If I'm gone, I'm sure you will win' were all written while I was barely able to find a reason to go on with my life. It was out of total desperation and solitude. I arranged the songs the way I heard them in my head."
The result is a bleak, visceral album on which Strawn confesses his sins without reserve against a lush, weepy backdrop of emotional instrumentation. Like its predecessor, Lowly unfurls a soaring but fragile sound, composed of haunting vocal melodies, delicate piano lines, and waves of synthesizers. But unlike his previous album, this time Strawn has something serious to say. The beauty of his arrangements often belies the dark subject matter and deeply personal origins of his lyrics.
"If You Dance" is about a girl who repeatedly insisted Strawn "wasn't a man" because he wouldn't have sex with her. Strawn regretfully recalls his philandering in New York, where he says he often used his "virginity" to escape relationships, regardless of how far they had progressed. When he was tired of one girl, he'd blame the breakup on his supposed moral convictions. "It's pretty hard to admit some of these things," he says. "How awful can a person get? Using Christ as a way of getting sex? That was me, and knowing that, how could I ever find favor again?"
That, he explains, is the origin of the term lowly, and the catalyst of his rare willingness to openly share his sexual failures. "I know it sounds graphic, but these are things that were going on every day with me and people my age. Especially in New York, which can be very dark at times. Men and women that I grew up with that slowly broke down their sexual standard were having the same kind of despair. So I knew I had to write about it."
While Strawn says he doesn't like listening to the album because of the sad memories that inspired it, he sees Lowly as a cathartic, hopeful work. His suffering drove him to write more specific lyrics-from sexual incidents to soul-baring prayers for help. The final track, which shares the album's title, promises surrender and pleads, "Father, heal your son, for I am overwhelmed."
Strawn refuses to categorize himself as a "Christian" musician, but can't imagine separating faith from his music. "As long as I expose myself and stay as honest as I can, the Christian themes will always be there," Strawn says.