Tuesday, March 17, 2009

As the Intercom Crackles with Love: Songwriters, Career Arcs, and the End of Love (with digressions)

I love music. When I find an artist that I like, one that I champion, one that I listen to for years, I stay loyal. I'll often stick by these bands as their critical acclaim wanes, as their record labels abandon them, as they move to Broadway, as they begin to over-experiment, as they sell out, as they fail to sell, as their career arcs are dismantled.

I'm particularly enamored with underappreciated, quirky, smart, singer-songwriters. In my lifetime I have:

- Written two (of my best) short stories about past-their-prime singer-songwriters
- Written several others that you have not yet read
- Written a seven-part poetry series about the post-fame lives of Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe
- Written a screenplay about a Leonard Cohen-inspired poet-in-hiding who is stalked/worshipped by two escaped convicts, one of whom is named after a toothbrush
- Attempted to write a novel with main characters that (very loosely) combine the most interesting elements of this guy

and this guy

and her

This is why I found this interview with Clem Snide lead singer Eef Barzelay fascinating - he (and the band is essentially him, with a rotating set of bandmates) has been through a lot this past decade - failed marketing experiments, faint critical acclaim, big critical acclaim, TV theme song acclaim replaced by TV theme song abandonment, etc. In the interview he talks about much of this and throws in a mid-life crisis, a possible change of career from music to teaching, concern over mortgage payments, and puzzlement over a swirly career arc. He frets about his mortgage payments. He insults his former rhythm section. He moves from grandiosity to regret and back. He talks about a visit to a college. It's all pretty damn readable.

Let me get this out of the way: I think Eef Barzelay is one of the greatest lyricists working today. And despite the presence of a guitar in his hands onstage and a band behind him, it's his words that take center stage. He's the modern-day heir to Leonard Cohen - he loves his words (enough to repeat his climactic lines twice, a habit that annoys some people), he loves his songs, and he will never stop writing words and setting them to songs.

He might disappear for years (like Leonard Cohen when he succumbed to drugs in the seventies and the monastery in the nineties). He might play maudlin sets to a few dozen people on a wintery West Bank Minneapolis night, like he did in 2002. He might weird people out with paranoia (from the interview - "I think shit is about to go down"). He might write at least one cringe-inducing song per album (e.g., African Friend, Chinese Baby) and toss off a queasiness-creating line here and there ("roads paved with liver and onions") but he won't stop writing songs and I won't stop listening to them.

You see, Eef wrote Joan Jett of Arc. In it, he wrote this verse:

And the birds that were crushed
Once had air in their bones
As oil was refined in her honor

This followed verses with good/bad puns about Joan Jett, Hall and Oat(e)s, and John Cougar Mellencamp. It's the prettiest tribute to an eighties road trip that's ever put to song.

And Eef Barzelay wrote two of the sweetest love songs ever - Bread and Exercise - which really are about bread and exercise, respectively, but mostly about love. He wrote a song sung from the perspective of a female dancer in a Ludacris video struggling to finish nursing school, a conceit that could easily embarass the hell out of the best songwriters out there but he pulled it off (The Ballad of Bitter Honey).

And this song (and video) from his recent solo album are pretty cool and perfect for the recession/depression/impatience/patience era we live in. Plus it's a good introduction to Eef's white suit which he seems to like to wear:

The Barzelay interview is a reminder of how just how tenuous art can sometimes be. The new album is the one his band tried to make in 2006 but it became too much and someone else's vision clashed with Barzelay's. He retreated to solo work, releasing two albums as bleak as this decade deserves. Then he recorded the new album again, with a new-ish Clem Snide, and it's almost perfect.

(Small-type digression:

About 10 years ago I read an interview with the lead singer of a local Minneapolis band, one whose glory had been 10 years gone at the time the interview was published in the local alternative weekly paper. I remember being distraught at the notion of one of my favorite singer-songwriters not being able to write like he used to, to singing to audiences of a couple dozen people who only wanted to hear the old songs that didn't make him any money anyway. The singer didn't really know what to do with his life. He worked at a Starbucks in Minneapolis while his brother (who was in the long-lost band with him) went on to form a new band that made more money with one song that the first band made with 50. It all made me kind of sad - especially that he had to work at Starbucks and not one one of the many independent coffee shops (though I'm sure Starbucks had/has better benefits).

(Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong about working at Starbucks or any other coffee establishment. It was just the juxtaposition of power-pop-rock-god (in my eyes) and somber barista that got to me.)

Which brings me to my oft-told story about
another Minneapolis singer-songwriter, from the era that fell in between when the Starbucks guy had some success and the Starbucks guy had to work at Starbucks. (I know - I could have just said "the mid-90s".) The story about standing next to him at an Of Montreal / Ladybug Transistor show a few years after he stopped recording/performing music and he asked me if the discarded French fries by my feet belonged to me. Because he was hungry. And being big in precisely two places (Minneapolis and Japan) in the mid-90s was not a recipe for certain fame. The fries weren't mine. He ate them.)

Eef Barzelay isn't from Minneapolis. He lives in Nashville where, presumably, you can last a bit longer without having to eat cold soggy discarded fried food. In the Eef Barzelay interview, there's some of that same career angst and confusion but at least he's still getting his music out there. In this MySpace/iTunes/mp3-era, it's harder for a musician to make a living but easier to stay in the collective conscious. Career arcs and record sales aren't as important. Good art gets out there a little easier and I sleep better.

On the new Clem Snide album Hungry Bird (out now! on tour now! Minneapolis on the 25th, Madison on the 26th, L.A. on April 7), there's an amazing song called Hum which drones on for five-plus beautiful minutes. It starts with a lie - "I know that not everyone will die" - and moves on to making the lie into truth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Busy," huh?