Jake Hemming is a big man. But he is not self-conscious about his bigness. He wears it like a stylish hat.
Hemming is often the tallest man at the show and he is also, often, the one doling out hugs that engulf the musicians who make up the area’s young roots music scene. He leads his own band, a folk quintet called, appropriately, Big Sur. Despite playing together for more than five years, the band doesn’t have much recorded music to its name. But it does have something of a theme song, a funny, light and sweet number called “Big Sexy Man.”
“There’s more of me to love than you’re ever gonna know,” Hemming sings, his raspy voice warbling slightly while he strums his guitar. “There’s a rhythm to my walk even if it is a bit slow.”
Hemming is also an unusually gentle man. The 32-year-old musician peppers his speech with the words “thankful” and “kindness” and he uses the phrase “dear human being” to describe a friend. He is generous with smiles and, again, liberal with hugs. And he is embarrassed when that kindness is reflected back to him.
“I don’t exactly feel comfortable talking about a benefit for me,” he tells me as we sit down in a Fremont coffee shop. He’s talking about the show this Saturday at the Columbia City Theatre, during which a number of Hemming’s musical friends will play songs to help raise money to pay off his medical bills. So we don’t talk about that. Instead, we talk about his surgery.
He shows me the three-inch scar on the front of his neck, the result of a procedure three months ago that temporarily displaced his larynx while successfully replacing a ruptured disc. Then he puts out his left hand, balls his fist and then spreads out his fingers. This is his fretting hand. “I’ve been slowly getting feeling back in my arm,” he says, motioning from his left shoulder down to his wrist. “And now I’ve got it back in all my fingers except my index finger and most of my hand. It’s very slow; it can take a year or two for all the nerve endings to heal. But I’m very thankful.”
Since picking up his father’s guitar at age seven, Hemming had not gone a day without playing the instrument. But in the beginning of September that streak ended. The morning after his 32nd birthday, Hemming woke up in the greatest pain of his life. He had no feeling in his left arm and hand. He was subjected to unpredictable muscles spasms and shooting pains. He went to the doctor, demanded an MRI and received the news that he would need surgery. For two weeks Hemming kept the pain to himself, sharing it only with his wife. When he did finally tell his friends, he was apologetic.
“It's been a rough couple weeks, and I apologize that I've been isolating myself and not sharing much with loved ones,” he wrote on Facebook. “For the first time in more years than I can count we've had to cancel shows (I sincerely apologize to those who planned on seeing us play).”
The injury wasn’t exactly a surprise, Hemming says. His bigness was somewhat to blame.
See, Hemming’s imposing figure has done more than inspire his songs. It has shaped his life in other ways, providing him with opportunities and hobbies that he doesn’t share with many of his fellow artists. In high school Hemming excelled at athletics. He threw discuss and shotput in the spring and was a bruising offensive lineman on the gridiron in the fall. He was well on his way to a college scholarship until he dislocated his knee six times his senior season. His future as a football player expired, but Hemming’s life in the athletic arena continued. For some time he coached track. He got a job working at a GNC store and, for fun, he lifted weights, competitively, through USA Powerlifting.
Three years ago he was attempting to lift 633 pounds. He was practicing the dead lift, his favorite exercise and one in which he was hoping to capture a national record by hoisting the equivalent of a small cow a few feet off the ground. Despite his large size and an uncompromising work ethic, Hemming says now that he was probably over-extending himself.
“Though I’m a big person, I don’t think I was set up to do the amount of lifting I had been doing,” Hemming says. “I have narrow hips.”
He lifted the weight once with ease, but on his second repetition, he stalled. While bringing the weight to his knees, Hemming felt a muscle spasm in his back. He lurched forward and the 633 pounds, usually supported by his lower body, was now weighing heavily on his neck. Pain shot through his left shoulder and arm. He didn’t complete the lift. He went to the doctor, received some pain medication, a physical therapy regimen and assurance that it would get better. After six months, the pain went away. But unbeknownst to Hemming, he had likely herniated the disc that two and a half years later would rupture, threatening to end his days playing guitar.
Hemming didn't continue lifting competitively, but he did keep playing music and building a community of friends.
One of those friends was a musician, Anna-Lynne Williams, who last year ruptured a tendon in her wrist, forever changing the way she plays music. After hearing of Hemming's troubles, she reached out. “There is a sense of community and true sympathy, and good advice to be had,” she says. “And just acceptance of the fact that you might not feel like doing something or might need to rant a bit.”
Hemming is able to play guitar now, and has even had a couple successful public performances. But like Williams, Hemming is unable to play his instrument for long stretches. Instead of picking up his guitar whenever he likes, he needs to be deliberate in his songwriting.
“It’s like Christmas shopping,” he says. “Instead of going out and wandering around and trying to figure out what you’re going to buy by being inspired by the things around you, you kind of have a list and you go and do it.”
Hemming isn’t simplifying his songs to accomodate his injury. Rather, he's writing more complex melodies and arrangements. He does this by first humming them into a recorder and worrying about whether or not he can recreate them later. So far he's written three new songs this way.
It’s a method he learned from Kevin Sur, another musician, owner of the Artist Home management company and the recipient of many of Hemming’s hugs. Sur says he was just returning the favor. When Sur broke his hand playing flag football last winter, Hemming was there.
“When I couldn’t play my guitar, Jake said, ‘I will be your hands,’” Sur recalls. “And I remember when I did come back and play for the first time. I didn’t have much strength in my hand, but Jake was there and he helped play my part. It’s a testament to the kind of guy he is.”
Big Sexy Man: A Jake Hemming Celebration and Benefit Show, featuring Elk and Boar, Kevin Long, Whitney Ballen and many more, takes place Saturday, January 19, at Columbia City Theatre. Get tickets here. Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email email@example.com and tell him about it.