There are songs Mike Shinoda can't sing. One More Light, for example.
The ballad, from Linkin Park's 2017 album of the same name, was already deeply personal when Shinoda wrote it in tribute to a friend who died from cancer. But after last year's death by suicide of co-lead singer Chester Bennington, it became an anthem of mourning for fans worldwide. Fifteen months later, Shinoda still can't bring himself to go there.
"It really is a hard song to sing, emotionally," said Shinoda, the 41-year-old singer and driving creative force of Linkin Park. "More importantly, though, it would pull the set down in a way that I don't know if - it would be like a black hole. I don't know if we'd be able to recover from the emotional weight of that song."
And at this emotionally precarious moment in time, recovery is of paramount importance to Shinoda. His new solo tour, which stops at Tampa's Ritz Ybor on Friday, has so far played out like grief therapy for Linkin Park's still shell-shocked fans. And it is up to Shinoda to guide them through it together.
"That's really my responsibility in the context of the show," he said, "is directing traffic, being the emcee, reading the crowd, leading our emotional journey and figuring out where to go next."
A restless creative force - in addition to writing, singing and rapping with Linkin Park, he's a graphic designer and illustrator who was heavily involved in non-musical aspects of the band - he holed up after Bennington's death writing songs about loss and healing for what would become his first solo album, Post Traumatic.
The album is heavy, but over 16 songs, it progresses toward a place of more lightness and hope. Shinoda knew he had to plan his tours that way, too. He knew they would be a place where fans could commingle and grieve together; that much was inevitable. But he wanted them to deliver something more.
"Going into it, the last thing I wanted was to have a sad show," he said. "I don't want to go to a sad show, and I don't think most of our fans would want to feel that way for 90 minutes. There are definitely moments of tribute and moments that will hit different people in different emotional ways - like, you'll have one fan smiling and screaming and dancing a couple feet away from a fan who's crying. And that's life."
Shinoda's first solo shows were truly solo, just him and a piano and the freedom to play whatever he wanted. He's now joined by two other musicians, but the slate is still relatively blank. He's gotten good at figuring out which crowds want to hear more Linkin Park songs, which crowds can handle the deeper cuts, which crowds might be more into his solo career and side band Fort Minor. He's trying to facilitate a feeling - he just needs to figure out what that feeling needs to be on any given night.
"What we've all been through as a community around Linkin Park is not all about me, and it's not even about the band," he said. "The fans are a community. And the thing they feel, the thing they're experiencing, happens whether I'm there or not."
He recalled one recent show in China where he was instructed to leave the venue immediately after stepping off stage, lest he be stuck in traffic for an hour.
"The band was still finishing the last note of the song when I was in the car driving out," he said. "I got a text 15 minutes later from our production manager who said, 'The show's over, but a good third of the venue is still here singing Linkin Park songs.' They weren't demanding an encore; it wasn't directed at me. They were doing it for themselves."
To an extent, Shinoda's shows are helping him figure out the "emotional evolution" of Linkin Park going forward. The band must obviously rethink how to replicate or replace Bennington's flame-throated vocals. Some songs, like In the End, Numb and Heavy, Shinoda feels comfortable carrying on his own, or with the crowd singing Bennington's parts. Others, like One Step Closer, "would be absurd." Even One More Light - on which he originally sang lead vocals, until the band went with Bennington's version right before the album was completed - "I don't know if I'll do that on this tour at all."
The healing is an ongoing process, but the shows have helped. On stage, facing the future together with his fans, is where he needs to be.
"There's nothing that can replace that," he said. "I don't know where it all leads, but it's a very fruitful and prolific period for me."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.