Fall of 2009, Jason Heminger was shoveling manure in a horse barn in Colorado when he started writing music. This was unexpected for several reasons. For one, Heminger didn’t consider himself a musician. He had never written any songs before. He could play a few chords on the guitar, but he had never been especially interested in music.
For another, though he’d long been involved in different aspects of agriculture, he’d never taken much interest in horses, which he viewed as “sort of a useless animal in today’s modern agricultural age.”
But, not long before, Heminger’s “soul-sucking” job on the waterfront in Tacoma, Washington, had prompted a breakdown of sorts. He re-examined his life and priorities and realized something had to give. So he quit his job and moved his family to a little mountain town in Colorado.
I was trying to get in touch with my intuition, trying to get to know myself again—my emotional, physical, spiritual self,”
he explains. “And I couldn’t shake this inclination to learn about horses.”
In his typical fashion, Heminger soon dove full-force into learning about horses. He joined the rodeo association, called around to horse barns, and started working in stables in exchange for the expertise of local horse trainers. It was in the stables that the songs started showing up.
“In the course of a couple days while I was working, someone turned the faucet on,” he says. “I just started writing, hearing melodies.”
In less than a week, Heminger had written somewhere close to 10 songs, which he captured on a voice recorder to work out on his old Sears classic guitar. In a few months, he had almost two dozen songs.
“I was like, ‘What the hell do I do with this now? I’m not a performer,’” he recalls. “I’d never stood on stage. I didn’t even know how to hold a guitar while standing up, nor had I ever sung into a microphone.”
Never one to give up, Heminger resolved to try out performing. He started going to open mic nights, giving himself a three-month trial period to decide whether he actually liked performing. Soon, he was playing more and more, and he wanted a different name—as he puts it, “a different identity to protect myself from the embarrassment of playing live.”
His grandmother had just sent out a digital family tree, full of anecdotes about family members. One of Heminger’s favorites was about an old relative with Alzheimer’s.
“He lost his driver’s license and became the town cycler—the old man who wore the security vest and big old pro-tec helmet and had the flag on his bike,” Heminger explains. “He would wave to people in town as he rode by, not really remembering who they were. Everyone in town called him ‘Sporty.’”
Another of Heminger’s favorite family anecdotes was that of a relative who caused so much trouble, his parents took him down to the courthouse and legally changed his last name to “Lee” so he wouldn’t disgrace the family.
Heminger combined the two stories to form his own moniker. His identity as a performer more firmly established, he eventually returned to Tacoma, where he teamed up with two old friends to record some of the songs he’d written in the horse barn.
He called Sporty Lee’s first album Allotropes.
“I liked, geologically speaking, the sort of symbolism of coal and diamonds being of the same substance but just lacking the environmental conditions that chemically change them,” he says. “It seems, oftentimes, an allegory to life, an allegory to human experiences. There are so many parallels to how adversity shapes us.”
Musically, Allotropes has an Americana, folksy-blues feel. Lyrically, the songs express many of the tensions Heminger had been feeling during his time in Colorado. He explores existential questions, calls listeners to self-awareness, and frequently references spirituality.
“A lot of that was me trying to reconcile some of the things I felt were good about organized religion and the things I thought were just ridiculous about it,” he says.
Recording Allotropes opened Heminger’s eyes to a world of music he never knew existed.
“My mind was blown,” he says. “I was feeling a whole new energy and fascination with music that I’d never experienced.”
Just as he had earlier with horse training, he dove in—consuming new and old music of different genres, tracing back music history and exploring new instruments. He started learning piano and collaborating with other musicians. This made writing Sporty Lee’s second album a much more collaborative process. Heminger worked with a handful of friends to flesh out songs he’d roughly sketched out on guitar or piano. Together, they added layers, wrote parts and created instrumental sections. The resulting album, Modern Sailing, which the band recorded with famed indie producer Phil Ek, has more of a psych-rock sound than Allotropes.
But no matter how Sporty Lee’s sound has changed, Heminger still has the same hopes for his music. Art, he says, should create a dialog and make people think.
I love visual art or music that challenges my worldview or displays a current reality of the world in a way that I either haven’t articulated yet or I just wasn’t aware of,
That’s one of the highest aims I have as an artist: to use whatever art I’m creating as a conversation piece.
But lyrics are only half of it. The real power of music, he says, is in the same thing that drew him to working with horses.
“There was something in working with horses that so much of it is intuitive,” he says. “Taking the human dynamics out of a relationship and just having one way to intuitively focus on communicating nonverbally was incredibly powerful and educational for me.
“Sometimes I view the music, the melodic element of songwriting as sort of that type of communication. In general terms, I just want people to feel something.”