“It can sound like a cliché to say that creativity or art or writing or music can save your life, but in Tim’s case, I think it’s literal to the last degree.”
Author and teacher Valley Haggard doesn’t typically speak publicly about her students’ work. Her Life in 10 Minutes workshops are designed to help writers of all experience levels and ambitions dive deep into their creative consciousness, emphasizing writing by hand, sharing aloud and intentional listening. It’s a sacred space. In fact, a disclaimer is in order:
“Tim encouraged me to be very candid about my experience with his mental health and his writing,” Haggard says, “and normally I would not ever speak directly about a student or friend in this way.”
It’s not the only way Timothy Bailey, leader of Richmond-based rock group Timothy Bailey & The Humans, stands out to Haggard. Early in his time with Life in 10 Minutes, Haggard could tell something special was happening.
“At one point I remember thinking, ‘I feel like I have one of the greats — a great literary mind — in my classroom,’” she says. “He has an incredible range of skill in writing, with an endless depth of material to draw from.”
Prior to the mid-2010s, when Bailey began participating in Haggard’s workshops, he was struggling to bring the deepest-seated material, which includes early and prolonged child abuse, to the surface. He first formed The Humans in 2006, and the group released a five-song EP on Richmond-based Cherub Records that year, but Bailey hit the reset button and reformed the group following a 2009 decline in his mental health.
“Apart from [therapy], I figured that the worst stuff in me was unacceptable to talk about. The abuse, and the difficulties of it remaining in my present when I’d like it to be in the past. In Valley’s group, I would write these brutal truths, and people would just accept it.”
“He’s allowed himself to unravel these stories [where] there’s immense pain,” Haggard says. “There’s immense suffering, but the reason we’ll go anywhere with Tim is because the language is so beautiful. There’s so much humor, there’s so much tenderness, and there’s so much humanity. It’s not like he takes us into a dark pit and leaves us there. He takes us on this very, very human ride.”
With his upcoming self-titled album “Timothy Bailey & The Humans,” his first full-length effort leading the group, Bailey is giving those outside the writing workshop a seat on that ride, starting with soaring lead single “Ellington Bridge.” The album as been a lifetime in the making, though it couldn’t have been rendered so successfully at any other point.
Seeing Bailey work in the studio is like watching two frustratingly divergent timelines finally converge in the present. In one of those timelines, he’s a confident craftsman capable of charting arrangements and articulating his creative vision when it matters. Bailey was born in Virginia Beach, attended Cox High School, and went on to study music at the post-secondary level — for a short time at William Paterson University in New Jersey and later at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It’s a pretty fascinating thing for an artist to arrive on the scene fully formed,” co-producer and Creative Capital grantee Bob Massey says. “Tim has had all these years to really think through what his aesthetic values are.”
Bailey and his band, which includes guitarist Ben Nicastro, bassist Doyle Hull, drummer Go Weatherford and violinist Melissa Sunderland Jones, walked into Richmond’s Spacebomb Studios in December of 2021 exceptionally well prepared. Pre-production rehearsals paid dividends in the form of speedy guitar, bass and drum tracking that put the project ahead of schedule.
“He wrote arrangements and charts for everything,” Massey says of Bailey, who will also be credited as a co-producer on the sonically detailed album. “He worked with this band to collaborate on making this thing tight, and then they showed up in the studio and knocked out the basic tracks in the studio in two days. That’s unheard of. That’s like Muscle Shoals, or the Wrecking Crew. That thing doesn’t exist anymore.”
“We’re a sensitive group of people,” Bailey says of The Humans. “I think the thing that helps that, in addition to the sheer amount of time that you spend with someone, is spending time in a band that listens to one another. That’s not always a given. It’s been kind of astonishing.”
Bailey wasn’t just leading his own band. The album features contributions from standout Richmond-based session talent, including trumpeter Bob Miller, vocalists Liza Kate and Erin Lunsford and keyboard polymath Curt Sydnor.
Sydnor joins Bailey on the album’s emotional low point, a sparse and wrenching ballad entitled “Yours Truly.” "It’s a grim, grim, painful song, even to sing,” Bailey says. “But [Curt] has so much intelligence and horsepower under the hood, and it’s a simple song, so collaborating with him to find the perfect overlap between all of that knowledge and skill and the intention of the song was so fun.”
While Bailey’s charts provided instructions for each session player, he was taken aback seeing those parts come to life. Erin Lunsford’s singing on “Unseen Ocean” was especially powerful. “She sang the part more or less as written,” Bailey remembers, “but with such skill and with such finesse, I just started weeping. At the end of the take, she turns over to say, ‘Was that okay?’ and she looks at me and I have tears streaming down my face, and she was kind of like, ‘Aw buddy, it’s okay.’It was unreal.”
It’s in reactions like that one that the second timeline becomes visible: that of an artist who has experienced setback after setback, and who, as a result, is uniquely positioned to soak in the joys of making a proper debut LP. “I’m 49 years old,” he notes, “and the experience of making this record — I am not exaggerating — is the first time I ever felt like I did my own meaningful work.”
“That’s what makes this record unique,” says Chad Clark, who co-produced and mixed the album, and who releases critically acclaimed music under the name Beauty Pill. “In a way, he’s kind of a kid, but in a way he’s definitely not a kid at all … I think those are the traits that people will fall in love with, all of those contradictions about him.”
Bailey created extensive demo tracks with synthesized MIDI instrumentation, which any arranger will tell you pales in comparison to the real thing. The first player outside the band to contribute in the studio was French horn player Amanda Burton. “It just gave me goosebumps,” Bailey says. “When those overdubs started happening, it was spine-tingling a lot of the time.”
“He's a middle aged guy, and he’s not made an album before,” Clark says. “He gets very excited in ways that someone who’s 21 gets excited, and he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he sounds young sometimes.”
There’s a downside to that newness, though, and Clark witnessed that as well during his time at Spacebomb. Clark describes a session in which Bailey, whom Clark praises for high-level artistry, expert musical communication and compositional knowledge that exceeds his own, was thrown off by the precise, clean sound of the studio’s piano.
“It was something that he was having trouble adjusting to,” Clark says. “It was a moment where he had to reckon with, ‘This is not what I envisioned. It’s different from what I hoped.’ It was definitely a very dramatic moment, and everybody that was in the room at that moment kind of held their breath. None of us want to upset him, but it’s really important to keep going.”
Bailey’s is not merely a story of resilience — of diligently fighting through obstacles. There have been periods of his life when he could not keep going, and as a result, Bailey has lost time, both in his music career and in a more literal sense. He describes not remembering “huge swaths” of his childhood, and he’s experienced multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. He’s carried his therapist’s phone number on a piece of paper in his pocket, using it more than once upon finding himself walking in Washington, D.C., not knowing who he was.
Producer Bob Massey has seen those struggles up close. They were both living in Washington in the early 2000s, and Massey asked Bailey for help with demos for a recording project. The results were both impressive and alarming.
“I described the thing I wanted,” Massey remembers, “which was this languid guitar solo, and he proceeded to shred like Eddie Van Halen and couldn’t stop. It was the most tangible view of mental illness that I’d seen. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s kind of here and kind of not here.’ But it was amazing to watch the fireworks at the same time.”
Massey and Bailey first met in the mid-1990s as two musicians aiming to launch careers out of Richmond’s indie scene — Bailey with his group Schwa and Massey with his group Jettison Charlie. The two became creative confidants, sharing songs with one another, and sharing frustrations around trying to break through. “Life for young artists is hard, and so it helps to have someone you can complain to and get recommendations from, and get support,” Massey says.
They’ve maintained a connection in the years since, through relocations — Massey moved to Los Angeles after living in Washington, while Bailey moved back to Richmond — and through times in which Bailey was struggling. Through Bailey’s work in multiple bands, his enrollment and exit from a University of Maryland counseling psychology PhD program, and the rise and fall of a woodworking business.
“It’s just crushing to see a guy that is clearly brilliant across a spectrum of idioms unable to close the deal on anything because he’s constantly being kneecapped by his own brain chemistry,” Massey concludes. “At a certain point you just go, ‘This guy needs a f—ing break. How do we engineer this?’”
Timothy Bailey, meet Chad Clark. Massey and Clark first crossed paths a couple of decades ago, during the time Massey was active in the district’s music scene. Massey’s own discography includes Clark’s production work, and with since-confessed ulterior motives in mind, Massey recommended Bailey and Clark get together so the former could pick the latter’s brain about how to reconcile recording plans with the available resources.
“There’s a joke in Hollywood that if you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money,” Massey says. “I was like, ‘Why don’t I put you in touch with Chad, and you ask him for advice about how to do an ambitious recording on the cheap, because he excels at that.’”
Shortly after that initial meeting, which took place in January of 2020, Bailey asked Clark to produce the album. In addition to his Beauty Pill bona fides, Clark brings to the table era-spanning production and mixing experience, including work with legendary Washington, D.C.-based bands Fugazi and the Dismemberment Plan. “Chad is, I think it’s fair to say, a kind of genius,” Bailey notes. “He’s recognized as such in certain quarters of post-rock music production — the kind of guy who other engineers and producers look up to.”
“It’s such a massive privilege to have him involved because of his skill,” Bailey adds, “and the collaborative vibe has been so cool. We’re working from sympathetic but different aesthetic concerns.”
That sympathetic connection goes beyond music. In 2007, Clark was stricken with a viral heart infection that’s often fatal, and while emergency open-heart surgery saved his life, his health requires ongoing monitoring. (Another infection landed him in the hospital in March.) “I honestly don’t know how long my life will be,” he says. “I hope I live a long life, but it wouldn’t be shocking for me to die young.”
“He’s dealing with a health issue that is ongoing, and so am I,” Bailey says of Clark. “Mine is a mental health issue, but he and I have something in common — being someone whose health is not a given. It’s a part of the work we each do.”
Clark agrees. “I think it means we can’t f— around, basically. It’s not light what we’re doing.”
Bailey cites a lengthy hospitalization of his own, a psychiatric one in 2013, as a pivotal moment. It was around that time that he read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Road,” which chronicles a father and son’s grueling fight to survive after an extinction event. “It’s such a fearless work of art,” Bailey says. “It paints a portrait of what it really is to be without hope — to be in genuine despair. And then it gets worse.”
But Bailey was struck at how hope begins to shine through near the novel’s conclusion. “That’s what it felt like to me,” he says. “Because after that hospitalization in 2013, I just was beginning to glimpse the idea that maybe — maybe — it could improve.”
Bailey has turned that glimmer into an animating idea he calls the credible message of hope, and his rich baritone is a sublime vehicle for hard-earned optimism. The narratives on “Timothy Bailey & The Humans” are undeniably weighty, from the damaging sexual relationship in “Weird Animal” (“You can never ride me hard enough with your sensitive soul”) to the insidious charisma of the title character in “Great Man Singing” (“You give the guy a pass when he’s good at playing creepy”). Still, the possibility of triumph emerges, even in bleak circumstances. As the conclusion of “Ellington Bridge” puts it, “Maybe we’ll rise beyond this night.”
“My answer to ‘Can it get better?’ is never ‘Absolutely. You’re gonna be fine. You can go through these extreme moments of human despair and it’s gonna be fine,’” Bailey says. “It’s more like, ‘With imagination and with connection, maybe it really can.’”
By setting these traumas to song, Bailey is charting a daring path forward. Chad Clark sees it as transformative. “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic,” Clark says, “but I hope Tim becomes an important figure. I think that the record could be very important. I think that there are people who are going to latch onto Tim as someone who has spoken for them in a pretty bold and good way.”
Bob Massey also sees significance in the timing of this step in Bailey’s creative life. “The culture values prodigies but discounts late-bloomers,” he says. “But I think the late-bloomer often has a lot more to offer than the prodigy. In this case, it’s an entire lifetime of experience, wisdom, skills and musicality, and it’s music for grown-ups. It’s music for people who have suffered and who have loved and who have come through the other side, or maybe are still not there yet.”
Valley Haggard has seen Bailey’s impact on an audience firsthand.
“We were mesmerized,” she says of a 2019 Timothy Bailey & The Humans performance at Gallery5 that was part of a fundraiser for Life in 10 Minutes. The first set featured Haggard’s students reading their work, and Bailey’s band followed, pairing the writing that happens in the workshop with one illustration of artistry that has blossomed from it.
“The music is this one beautiful thing unto itself,” Haggard says, "but the way that he incorporated storytelling in between the songs, and the persona of Timothy Bailey that he created to create this narrative, it just amplified the experience of the music.”
While firm plans aren’t yet in place, there’s likely to be an in-town show in conjunction with the full album’s release, which is projected for mid-July. It promises to be a rewarding milestone for Bailey — “Seeing [the album] come to fruition is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” he says — and for Haggard as well.
“What I feel is joy,” she says. “I feel pride. I feel triumph to see somebody who has suffered from severe, debilitating mental illness for most of his life -- to the point of being incapacitated-- be able to realize this dream. It’s just incredible to watch. It’s literally watching a dream come true.”
To hear “Ellington Bridge,” visit timothybaileyandthehumans.bandcamp.com. For more information about the upcoming self-titled Timothy Bailey & The Humans album, visit timothybaileyandthehumans.com.