Sounds of Hope

Local band explores the healing power of music

By Jessica Laskey
January 2020

When Sohail Al-Jamea first moved to Sacramento in summer 2017, one of the first things he did was form a band.

“Forming a band is the best way to meet people,” says Al-Jamea, a video animator for McClatchy Studios who “city-hopped” from his hometown of Burlingame to San Francisco to New York City to Washington, D.C., before returning to California to be closer to family. “As soon as I get to a new city, I post an ad for bandmates on Craigslist.”

Though that may sound like a dicey way of meeting creative collaborators, Al-Jamea has had incredible luck finding like-minded musicians on Craigslist. The band he had in D.C. for three years was assembled the same way, so he was certain this one would be no different.

Guitarist Chris Gray was the first to respond and, true to form, he and Al-Jamea hit it off right away. What Al-Jamea didn’t know at the time was how much he was going to need that new musical connection.

Just two months later, Al-Jamea’s baby daughter Ivy was diagnosed with Stage 3 lymphoma. Over the next two years of treatment, Al-Jamea says his daughter experienced “every complication imaginable,” including being put on life support three times. While spending every waking moment at Ivy’s bedside alongside his wife and mother-in-law, Al-Jamea did what made the most sense—he played his daughter music.

“Ivy has always loved music,” says Al-Jamea, a guitarist since age 16. (He was hooked on the instrument during high school when his math teacher would play acoustic sets in class every Friday.) “Even when she was in a drug-induced state, I would play and sing to her.”

Though Al-Jamea’s plans for the new band had to be put on hold at the beginning of Ivy’s treatment, he eventually returned to practice with Gray. The bandmates welcomed singer Megan Wetzel the following January and bassist Tom Lazet that spring, and officially named their group Ember Valley after the California wildfires. (They’ve also worked with a revolving cast of drummers, including Jenny Klug of Clevers.)

“Music became incredibly therapeutic for me,” Al-Jamea says. “Band practice was the only time during the week when I wasn’t freaking out about my daughter. It was incredibly freeing to be there during such tough times. My bandmates were incredibly supportive, like family.”

That musical family was also incredibly helpful for Wetzel, who had survived a head-on collision with a drunk driver just two years prior and had been in a “long musical drought” before joining Ember Valley.

Out of those dark times have risen the beautifully hopeful songs collected on the band’s first EP, “Welcome Back,” which was released on all major music-streaming platforms in March. The title song is a tribute to the message hospital staff would leave on the whiteboard for Ivy whenever she returned to the hospital during her illness—a glimmer of hope and connection that meant so much to her family. Likewise, the song “Atmosphere”—which Al-Jamea started composing when Ivy was on life support for the second time—became something of a mantra, a reminder of life’s silver linings.

Ember Valley’s unique combination of heartfelt lyrics and classic alternative sound found fast success when an early demo of the first single, “Home,” was commissioned by McClatchy Studios to be the opening theme of the award-winning documentary series “Ground Game: Texas” (a real-time look at the 2018 Texas Senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz). McClatchy Studios used another Ember Valley song for the theme of its Facebook Watch series “The War Within,” which chronicles three veterans’ struggles to overcome the hidden effects of war. And last summer, the band embarked on a tour of California to celebrate the official release of its five-song EP and bring its message of hope to the masses.

“There are a lot of emotions poured into these songs,” Al-Jamea says. “Hopefully people can feel that.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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