Looking back, songwriter Rob Morsberger thinks his subconscious was trying to tell him something. It was the fall of 2011, and he was in the final mixing stages for his wonderful "Ghosts Before Breakfast" album - a wry, melancholy song-cycle about death, loss and mortality, and the spun-web effects of each.
After experiencing a series of severe headaches, Morsberger found himself in a hospital emergency room - and was subsequently diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma, the most severe manifestation of the worst type of brain cancer.
While he was in the hospital, coming to terms with the illness and its implications, he says the tunes from "Ghosts Before Breakfast" kept pulsing though him.
"The songs were speaking to me, and I realized they were so clearly about what was happening NOW," Morsberger says. "I think any time you're creating something there's always a connection with the subconscious. At this level, though, I can't explain whether it was spiritual or even biological, but there was some definite and hidden awareness within that I was not conscious of."
Now 52, Morsberger is an extremely versatile songwriter and composer whose tunes are at once sophisticated and literate, melodic and cleverly structured. Along with "Ghosts Before Breakfast," he's released several superb albums, including "The Chronicle of a Literal Man" and "A Periodic Rush of Waves," all of which resonate in a fashion that suggests the work of artists from Cole Porter and Randy Newman to Bruce Hornsby and Paul Simon.
Over the years, he's also appeared as a side man/arranger for such luminaries as Jules Shear, Marshall Crenshaw, Patti Smith, My Morning Jacket and the Roches.
Despite the gravity of his illness, Morsberger has no plans to slow down. He's finishing two new CDs, both of which should be ready for release by September.
"There have obviously been some changes, but I feel great, and there have been no debilitating effects from various treatments," he says. "Plus, when I'm writing or playing music, it's the best medicine. You just feel connected to a vital life force that is unstoppable. It's important for me or any artist to keep doing it." He laughs. "I'm not sure my doctors - bless 'em - get it. The science versus aesthetics thing, I guess."
In that spirit, Morberger is on the phone from his home in upstate New York, a few days before he plays a Thursday concert in the performance hall at the Olde Mistick Village Arts Cinemas. In tow, Morsberger will bring two close friends, Crenshaw and Steely Dan guitarist/solo artist Jon Herington.
The show will not only serve as a benefit for Morsberger's family - he and his wife have four children - and to help defray medical expenses. The concert also is a celebration of the release of his new song called "Mystic Redemption" - a tune he was commissioned to write by another friend, Bill Dougherty, owner of the cinemas.
"One of my favorite things about being a touring musician is meeting people," Morsberger says. "I'd done two shows at the Art Cinemas as a member of Jon's band and, loading in the first time, I met Bill and a number of lovely people who work there. I just liked Bill right away; we bonded and became friends."
When word of Morsberger's illness reached Dougherty, the theater owner didn't hesitate.
"I just thought that we as a community had to do something to help Rob," Dougherty says. "The obvious idea was to get him up here to play, and fortunately he's feeling great and wants to play."
Then a second concept hit Dougherty.
"I was looking around Rob's website and noticed that he'd accept songwriting commissions. I was trying to think of a different way to approach the benefit, and this seemed perfect. I'd get Rob to write a song about Mystic."
The theater owner's only request was that Morsberger do his own research in Mystic and come up with the song without any historical or anecdotal input from Dougherty himself.
"He's the songwriter," Dougherty laughs. "I wanted Rob to work his magic in his own way."
The result, "Mystic Redemption," is indeed a terrific song that reflects not only Morsberger's compositional strengths but also weaves together several iconic elements of the town's personality.
"I was thrilled with the idea of the commission," Morsberger says. "I love the challenge of writing songs where I'm telling someone else's story. In this case, it resonates with me that Bill took over the theater from his father, and there's a profound sense of love and legacy. Plus, I always think there's an autobiographical element in any creative progress. So, in the end, the song's got a bit of Mystic and a bit of Bill and a bit of me."
Writing as a commissioned artist is nothing new for Morsberger. In fact, it's a big part of his career. He's written numerous scores for television and film and was recently an arranger/performer on a Loudon Wainwright III track included on the Grammy award-winning "Boardwalk Empire" soundtrack.
Of course, while having someone of Morberger's skill custom-craft a song about your hometown is sublime fun, Dougherty did so with an ulterior motive - all the proceeds from the sale of "Mystic Redemption" will also go to help Morsberger in his battle against cancer.
"I told Rob, 'Your gift to our town will be this song, and our gift to you will be a chance to help you and your family,'" Dougherty. "That we're getting to do this concert is one of the most emotionally proud moments in the history of this theater. Rob deserves this - and we get to hear his music."