Image credit: Lavalée after J. Gamelin/Wikimedia Commons

Our limited time on this earth is something that connects everyone, but despite this harsh fact that binds us, much of secular Western culture shies away from the reality of death. Contrasted against traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism, where death is seen as a cyclical part of rebirth and reincarnation, or in African cultures where there is a deep and lasting connection with one’s ancestors, death in the West can feel like a lonely affair. This has culminated in a distinct sense of dread when contemplating one’s own mortality: Until you are unavoidably confronted with it, most people simply don’t like to think about death at all.

The same, however, cannot be said of Indigo de Souza, a singer-songwriter from Asheville, North Carolina. 

Death has haunted de Souza throughout her life. She has said that it “is probably the biggest inspiration for maybe all things in my life.” It is even a constant across her album covers, which depict skeleton creatures in various post-apocalyptic scenes. On the cover of her debut record, I Love My Mom (2021), two skeleton creatures (parent and child) are enmeshed in a glimmering whirlpool. With this as the backdrop, it makes sense that de Souza named the album after realizing her mother one day would die too. On the cover of Any Shape You Take (2021), the same two skeletons meander through an overgrown grocery store. The contrast is jarring but effective, as the artwork on her album covers pulls us into de Souza’s world, death begins to encroach upon even the most mundane of tasks.

But what is perhaps most interesting is the musician’s profound evolution in perspective on the theme of death over a relatively short artistic career. Despite being only 26 years old, de Souza appears to have done more spiritual work to process her own mortality than many of us. The result of this work shows in her music, something that’s important to highlight. We can all take something from the journey de Souza has so graciously shared with us.

The opening track of de Souza’s first album is titled “How I Get Myself Killed.” It’s a straightforward indie-rock cut, with a simple chord progression and cathartic release. “This is probably how I get myself killed,” she repeats in the chorus’s refrain. It’s unclear exactly what she is referring to. The threat to her life mostly feels like a nebulous entity, as if she’s gesturing vaguely at her surroundings. In a way, it’s what helps make the song so accessible. De Souza has explained that “the thing that’s probably going to get me killed is just being a person. And that’s okay. I’ve come to terms with that I think.” It’s true in a physiological sense, but what de Souza highlights is the emotional toll of being alive. Already, though, we see that glimmer of acceptance.

Beyond contemplating her own mortality, her early work often uses death to heighten the turbulent intensity of her relationships. This can be felt most acutely on her sophomore album Any Shape You Take, a record where she expands and sharpens her sound. “Darker Than Death” is a brooding progressive rock slow-burn that finds de Souza in the aftermath of some conflict. Her vocals unfurl like smoke as she recounts to a partner, “You were darker than death, when I spoke to you last.” The specifics are hazy—even she is unsure of the root of the conflict—but the emotions are potent. Death here characterizes the depths one can fall into in a relationship marred by doubt and a sense of misalignment. “Darling, you wouldn’t even look me in the eyes,” she recalls, in what feels like a final blow.

Elsewhere on the record, de Souza uses death to show the lengths she would go for a lover. On “Die/Cry,” a rambunctious punk anthem built around infectious hooks and melodies, she declares, “I’d rather die than see you cry,” confessing a self-sacrificial love. The song builds to a glorious crescendo, where de Souza admits “I want to die before you die.” It’s an obsession teetering at the abyss. Melodramatic, the way young love can be, it evokes Shakespearean tragedy. 

Album closer “Kill Me,” one of the more twisted love songs you’ll hear, follows in a similar vein. As she recounts the minute details that make up her life (dirty dishes in the sink, her favorite diner, cleaning up after a party), she calls on her lover to end her life, consumed by her dissatisfaction. She won’t be alone in her fate, though. Confident that they’ll follow suit soon after (Romeo and Juliet–style) she yelps, “I know that you’ll follow,” her vocals slowly becoming a howl as she surrenders to the darkest parts of herself. It’s unsettling, yes, but there’s a distinct sense of catharsis in the release. Death, here, is not only an escape—it’s an opportunity for salvation.

On her most recent record, released earlier this year, death plays an even more central role. Written mostly during the pandemic, alone in lockdown, the album reflects a profound evolution in de Souza’s world view: she began to recognize death as “a beautiful gift.” 

The album is titled All of This Will End. Her new songs are a balm for suffering, as well as a solemn reminder. Life is short. But in the transience, we can find meaning.

Two new themes appear in her work: a connection to nature and a commitment to forgiveness. New-wave cut “The Water” is probably the breeziest on the record. We find de Souza at her most carefree, slowly making her way down to the waterfront. As a chorus of triumphant trumpets soar across the song, we descend into a hypnotic loop of refrains, de Souza repeatedly confessing her love for the water. It’s nothing short of euphoric. 

Similarly, “Not My Body” showcases de Souza’s love for nature and the circle of life. She leans into country influences, employing tender pedal guitar to accompany her uplifting vocals. “I just wanna take my time and see what it feels like outside,” she coos, before concluding with the desire to become a redwood tree when she dies. The tree would be a place, she revealed to NPR, where “people can visit and be like, ‘This is Indigo!’,” a touching fantasy of reincarnation.

When speaking about inspiration for this album, de Souza has acknowledged that everybody’s pain is cyclical, traveling from person to person. “I started to feel a lot of forgiveness for that,” she said: “Life is just not easy … I just don’t blame people as much as I used to.” 

Forgiveness perhaps comes more easily to those who know life is both short and fragile. On the album’s title track, de Souza wrestles with anxiety and existential questions, just to find solace in the process itself: “I don’t have answers, no one does, I’ve been finding comfort in that,” she reveals. We’re limited in our capacity to understand the world and we’re limited in our capacity to change things—all we can do is try our best and move through the uncertainty. As de Souza sings in the closing verse, “Sometimes it’s not enough, but I’m still real and I forgive.” 

“Younger and Dumber,” the album’s closer and first single, is a piano-led country ballad that radiates bittersweet nostalgia. She recounts past experiences, a tumultuous childhood and painful relationships, to devastating effect. Ultimately, it’s a song about disillusionment—“I don’t feel at home in this house anymore,” she whispers as pedal guitar swells around her. 

But it’s also a song about piecing things back together after everything’s fallen apart. After an emotional climax, the instrumentation pulls away, and we find de Souza showing compassion and understanding to her younger self: “When I was younger / Younger and dumber / I didn’t know better.” This time, she extends forgiveness to herself.

De Souza has said she feels it’s her purpose in life to write music that acknowledges the importance of community, the sanctity of nature, the power of forgiveness,—and the beauty of death. Only in accepting our mortality can we begin to infuse our lives with purpose.

Robert Noble is an MA candidate in Economics at The New School for Social Research.