Rahim AlHaj cried every time he read the letters of eight Iraqis sharing personal, harrowing tales of love, loss and hope in wartime since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Rather than retreat, the Iraqi-American composer and musician immersed himself in the stories and emerged with a collection of songs to illustrate them.
AlHaj is touring the United States in support of the resulting album, "Letters from Iraq," which is set to be officially released next month on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
The Grammy-nominated AlHaj, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says he felt "obligated to make these stories" and share what people have endured in his homeland.
He spoke to The Associated Press from the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, where he will perform Friday at the Arab American National Museum.