Mumford & Sons would go on, Mumford said, as a trio: He was excited to see what the change might unlock for them. But first, Mumford left his family in Devon and flew to Los Angeles to make the solo record his bandmates had encouraged him to make. He enlisted the veteran producer Blake Mills and some of the greatest session musicians of all time—Jim Keltner, Steve Ferrone, Pino Palladino—and together they set up at Sound City, the legendary studio in the Valley where Tom Petty and Nirvana used to record. Lots of people came by, some of whom never ended up on the record, like Finneas and Ezra Koenig and Cass McCombs, and many of whom did: Phoebe Bridgers, Brandi Carlile, Clairo, Monica Martin.
The third song on the record is called “Prior Warning,” and it’s about an unhappy conversation—a reckoning, even:
Each word is a cut that I see coming
I clench my fists as I’m inflicting them
And now I’m running out of parts that I can play
Not the hero, not the dodger, not the preachers’ son
You ask me why I’d want to break the very thing I love the most
You knew I couldn’t answer plainly
Then you knelt down on the ground
Like you were drawing in the sand
And I surrender
I surrender now
It is a song about shame: about doing something you’ve regretted, that you can’t explain or take back. I told Mumford that sometimes, as I drove around listening to it, that the directness of the sadness and the self-loathing was hard to bear.
He said he understood. “You know, I’ve realized I’ve written a lot about shame in my songs, historically. And that one I think I’ve done it best in. Because it makes you feel like that.” He may not have wanted shame to be his great subject, he said, but it was so much a part of the fabric of his life for so long that, in retrospect, it’s no surprise he kept writing about it. “I lived most of my adult life up until just really recently in, like, layers of shame. And it probably started there when I was six, but I just got kind of addicted to shame, layers and layers of shame, which is why I feel now like I’ve done lots of figuring that out. And some of the areas in which I was trying to make that shame go away just led to more shame for me. And now being able to pick those apart a little bit and, like, chip away at the layers of it is why I feel kind of free, more free than I have in a long time.”
What does it mean to be addicted to shame? As in, you were seeking out that feeling?
“No, more like…existing with that feeling at a level of normality which is not right.” Holding himself to an impossible standard. “Having unreasonable expectations and getting used to hiding things, which is certainly a behavior I picked up as a young kid. And that just being kind of normal. And, in a strange way, comfortable. But I also really believe in and strive for honesty. So that creates a conflict in itself. It’s where I’ve spent a lot of my adult life. Until recently. And I think that’s part of the reason why, like, I’m not second-guessing my conversation with you. I haven’t got anything to hide from you.”