Nnenna and Phil Freelon were a power couple: He was the lead architect for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History & Culture, and she was a Grammy-nominated jazz singer, composer, actress and playwright. They enjoyed an exciting, full life of work, travel, friends and family.
Phil Freelon died in 2019. Now, Nneenna has started new podcast to share her grief, and recorded a new album dedicated to her late husband. She describes Time Traveler as a love letter to Phil, who she met in 1978 on a mutual friend's porch in North Carolina.
"He was my heart," she says from her home in Durham. "He was my soul mate."
After Phil was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, Nnenna paused her music career to care for him until the end. On her first album in more than a decade, she reinterprets some of the songs they enjoyed during their 40 year marriage, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Time After Time," and "I Say a Little Prayer."
"I say a little prayer for you—now, that's a ditty for when you're in one place in your life," she says. "But when you've when you've experienced the loss of your great beloved, it takes on a whole 'nother feeling."
She sings the lyrics to that song with a melancholy soulfulness: "Together, forever / That's how it must be / To live without you / Will only mean heartbreak for me..."
Freelon says music has been important for her in processing loss.
"Music is like a time traveler, taking you to the past," she says, "You can exist, like in a science fiction movie, in the past and in the present."
Freelon says before he died, she asked her husband to let her know he's ok once he left. And he did, in different ways. He left her a voice memo on his cell phone: "I love you so very much. The sound of my voice will give you fond memories of our time together."
Freelon included that voice memo on the album's title track, which she wrote in his honor. Phil also left behind little notes in random places, and more. "I was just moving things around, trying to clean, just to be doing something," she recalls. "And a picture fell out of a book, and it was a picture of him standing in front of a bridge. I had never seen that picture before. You know, little things that you just can't make it up do let you know that there is life beyond what we understand is life on this side of the veil."
After Phil died, Freelon lost her younger sister to cancer. Her dog died, too. She says singing and recording again was her way of dealing with all that grief. Living alone in the house she once shared with Phil, the pandemic lockdown gave her quiet time she needed.
"Time became both an enemy and a friend, because it was very, very lonely, and it seemed like the hours just stretched on forever. No reason to do anything, even get out of bed," she says. "And slowly, slowly, I began to look at the time that I had and try to find containers to put my grief in, and that's what this record is ultimately."
Freelon's youngest son, Pierce Freelon, included a song his mother originally wrote and recorded years ago on his new album, Black to the Future. He says he watched his mother mourn in different ways over the past 18 months.
"She's kind of gone into chrysalis and emerged this powerful butterfly warrior mom," he says. "I've heard her describe grief as a shape shifter, and I've really seen that through her. You know, some days it means just kind of sobbing into your sleeve. Some days it means 'I need to get out here and do some gardening.' Some days it means 'I'm going to write some music and poems.'"
On Great Grief, a new podcast Nnenna Freelon is producing in association with North Carolina Public Radio, the singer shares stories of her life. The weekly series launches June 4. Freelon, who views the podcast and Time Traveler as companions, says grief has made her more creative, more compassionate and more willing to take risks.
"The very fact that I can create, in this space of grief," she says, "to me, that's a superpower."