St. Paul musician composes notes of healing

| July 26, 2017 | 1 Comment

Autumn Irlbeck was 9 years old, enjoying a carefree Sunday afternoon on the tire swing in the backyard of her Florida home.

In moments like this, she was able briefly to push aside a tumultuous past, bouncing from one foster home to another.

At age 5, she and her two siblings had finally landed in the home of a stable, Catholic family.

Nearby, her gentle, loving father, David, who had helped her experience God’s love for the first time, was hard at work on scaffolding, putting up new siding on an addition to their home.

By his side was Autumn’s older brother Danny. Because their biological parents struggled with drugs, she had been in 11 or 12 foster homes, and she had been physically and sexually abused.

But, her life was about to get worse — much worse. In a matter of seconds, she would lose the person who had shown her the greatest love in her young life.

“What I understand was Danny was slipping [off the scaffolding], so my dad pushed him back up, but lost his footing and fell,” Irlbeck recalled of that day in January 1995. “The scaffolding was only 12 feet high, but he landed wrong and fell on the concrete. We didn’t see him fall; we saw him after he fell. I remember my mom running and screaming [with] blood on her. So, I immediately ran over.”

She now wishes she hadn’t.

The vision of her father laying lifeless on the concrete with blood running from his nose is the last memory of him she has. But, their relationship eventually inspired the first song she wrote, launching both a passion for songwriting and path toward healing.

Now 31 and married with three children, Irlbeck, who belongs to St. Mark in St. Paul with her family, has written about 80 songs and has started performing them in local concerts, the most recent of which was at St. Joseph in West St. Paul, July 23.

In “Goodbye for Now,” the words of a troubled teenager pay tribute to a man who loved her unconditionally and embraced her entirely, raging tantrums and all.

“My dad was very, very special to me,” she said. “When I met him, he just had a gentle, quiet way of loving and affirming your existence, your good. He didn’t have to say anything. It was the way he responded to us, very level, even keeled. So, when I was 5, I attached to him right away. He was the first person I trusted, the only person I trusted.”

The tribute came to her in a burst of inspiration one day when she was 16. Her mother had declared her intention to buy a guitar, and Irlbeck proclaimed that she wanted one, too. She got her wish, along with two months of lessons. After that, she struck out on her own, quickly adding to her repertoire of chords.

Then it just happened.

“I sat down one day and a song came out, literally,” Irlbeck said. “‘Goodbye for Now’ was the name of the song. It was a song about getting older someday and recognizing that I was going to be OK. This grief doesn’t go away, but I was going to be OK. It was my way of saying goodbye. The song gave me a sense of comfort. I struggled with hope, and it gave me a sense of hope.”

Songs kept coming after that. Lyrics seemed to emerge randomly, but they all connected to how God was working to bring healing out of her troubled childhood.

There was a lot to process — and a lot of healing needed.

Autumn Irlbeck uses her music to help heal the wounds of trauma and abuse she suffered as a child. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Following love

Even though she is more than 20 years removed from the worst phase of her life, Irlbeck still has trouble talking about the abuse she suffered. Memories still terrify. And, some gaping wounds remain, in the form of self-harming behaviors she still battles.

Her journey toward healing is in its early stages. Only within the last year has she started putting words and names to her sufferings. Mostly, she labels them “really, really awful things.” And, she has become keenly aware of what those things did to the innocence of a child.

“It’s a cancer, it’s a poison that gets in and gets right to your heart, the heart of who you are, and attacks your goodness,” she said. “I had a fear of nighttime because bad things happened at night. So, I would throw tantrums, unbelievable tantrums, for hours — throw stuff off my bed, screaming, destroying stuff.”

Mostly, music is her form of expression for the hurts she has endured. The first song at 16 opened a “flood of music” that continues to this day. Singing the lyrics helps her express what spoken words cannot.

She sings with a slow, soft and throaty sound, reminiscent of the folk and country ballads of the 1960s and 70s. She closes her eyes and nods, as if the words are meant for her. They are. Long pauses and a voice that sometimes drops close to a whisper convey the intimacy of a soul pouring out its pain and longing for God to heal it.

And the healing has begun. A powerful moment came on Good Friday 2016 when she experienced God’s love during the liturgy.

“In a very quiet way, I venerated the cross,” she said, during a 2017 video interview with Ascension Press that was posted online. “I came to know [at that moment] the love of Jesus, the personal love of Jesus. … I came to life [after that]. I hadn’t written music in six years, and then it just poured out of my soul ever since.”

The songs keep coming, and she now understands that performing them is a mission in her life, running alongside her role as wife and mother. Those callings are intertwined, with her oldest child, daughter Camilla, 7, often singing with her, both in the living room of their St. Paul home and occasionally at concerts. Camilla even tries to strum the guitar Irlbeck got when she was 16, which she still plays.

The children get to hear every day the messages Irlbeck now is trying to deliver to larger audiences. A lifetime of suffering and a deepened faith have inspired in her music an overall theme of God’s love and mercy.

“I followed the Gospel for a long time,” she said. “[Now] I’m following love for the first time. That’s what I sing about, that’s what I write about, that’s what I want to share, because he [Jesus] is real, he’s tangibly real. And, I fiercely, fiercely want others to know they’re not alone. I want them to know that brokenness is beautiful, and that it’s actually what the Lord uses.”

That simple, three-word phrase — “brokenness is beautiful” — has become her personal mantra. It emerged when a friend shared with her a poem she had written called “Broken.”

Autumn Irlbeck plays a song with her daughter, Camilla, in the living room of their
St. Paul home. The two sing together regularly at home and sometimes at concerts Autumn performs locally. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“There was a line in it to the effect that broken pieces of glass can be shaped together and form a stained glass window that is incredibly beautiful,” Irlbeck said. “I may be in pieces, but the Lord is using these pieces to fashion something new and beautiful. He is fashioning a song from the broken pieces of my heart and revealing his love and truth. All I have to do is be willing.”

Observing that willingness and cheering her on is her husband, Jeremy, who has watched her transformation since they were married in 2009. He fell in love with her while serving in St. Paul’s Outreach with her while he was attending the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 2006. While studying in Greece and Turkey, Jeremy felt compelled by his affection for her to collect wildflowers, which he pressed and framed when he got home. More than a year later, he took Autumn on their first date, and six months after that, Jeremy gave her those flowers.

Those flowers are a tangible reminder of the goodness her husband sees in her, which can appear clouded by the pain of her past.

“It’s kind of overwhelming sometimes,” Jeremy said, of hearing her pour out the painful memories of her childhood. “I’m a prairie German who is simple. I had a fairly stable family life. So, some of it [her trauma] is foreign and just hard. I want to understand, I want to enter in, and it’s hard to know where she’s coming from. … Sometimes, it’s felt very lonely.”

But, that feeling never lasts. It melts away as he watches a woman face her past with courage and conquer it with music.

“In the midst of everything that Autumn has been through, I see her resilience and the ways that her trials and challenges have shaped her in a beautiful way,” Jeremy said, “especially now as she’s been sharing her music and finding people that are hurting that can identify with her story, identify with her songs, and just the realness of that and the beauty that comes from that.”

And, Autumn knows the fullest beauty comes from revealing everything inside of her — the pain as well as the joy. That, to her, is the story of Easter, the road to which begins on Good Friday.

“I feel messed up. I can’t hide that I have wounds,” she said. “That’s where the glory of the resurrection comes from. It’s a full acceptance and receiving both the good and the bad. Good Friday had to happen for Easter to happen. So, in me, the brokenness — not that we want it — if I can accept it, if I can embrace it, this is part of my story. The best stories are the ones that people own, the ones where you look at life as it is — and it’s ugly sometimes. But, when you do that, something so beautiful can come from it.”

She hopes her audience hears that in her songs.

“The way that I write music now as opposed to the way I wrote music when I began writing is so different, in the best way possible. I’m finally able to craft a gift, make something beautiful from it because I’m accepting that some really, really terrible things have happened. This is what happened, this is what it’s done to me. And, this is who I’ve become. And, who I’ve become is actually pretty good.”






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