A talk with David Grandouiller of Meek House about his debut album, isolation, affection, religion, and existential crises.
DT McCrea (they/she) is a trans-anarchist poet, a reader for Flypaper Lit, and Pushcart Prize nominee. They love the NBA and know the lyrics to every Saintseneca song. Her work can be found in Indianapolis Review, Gordon Square Review, Honey & Lime, mutiny!, Stone of Madness Press and others.
David Grandouiller (he/him) is a writing coach and editor by day and a singer-songwriter by night. He's been releasing music under the project Meek House since 2018, and his full-length self-titled debut has been out since April. A three-song EP called Seven Parties is coming in the fall.
Check out David's website: davidgrandouiller.com
Follow Meek House on IG: @meek_house_music
Listen to Meek House on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/0uAD5GQmz4EYCFwDqMzk3A?si=ofeTDIR2RF2omcam0TdBAQ&dl_branch=1
In April of 2021, David Grandouiller released his debut, self-titled album under the moniker Meek House. So far, its my album of the year. It’s a project that means a lot to me not just because the title and band name is taken from a house David and I shared for a year (a long with two other dear friends) on Meek Avenue in Columbus Ohio, but also because it touches on number of ideas (from isolation to affection to faith and doubt) that I wrestle with daily. I recently sat down with David to discuss the album and it’s many themes.
DT: I know that you started this project and wrote a lot of these songs before the pandemic. As
someone who was close to you when you were starting this project, I see a lot of the shared
social life we had (house parties, concerts, living with roommates, grad school, etc.). The album
also certainly speaks to isolation, though maybe a different kind than what many of us have
experienced over the last year plus. I’m wondering what it feels like to see this album that started
in what—to many people—feels like a different world, and then come to fruition in the world
we’re living in now. How did your relationship to the album change over that time?
DG: Yeah, it was a weird thing because the album took me a lot longer to finish than I thought it
would. And that mostly didn’t have to do with Covid. There just kept being new things to fix or
re-record or new things to add or whatever. But I feel like that kind of paid off in some way
because so much of the album is about like living in community or desiring community but also
about a lot of isolation and feelings of loneliness. So, when I was finishing the album during the
pandemic it felt apropos. It felt like the songs were about that time for me, even more than they
were about previous times. So, it was kind of auspicious in that way.
DT: That’s interesting too, the album not just speaking to the isolation of the pandemic, but
specifically isolation in relationship to community and the desire for community. Like, you
wrote the songs from a place of living in community but experiencing some form of emotional
isolation. And then as you finished the project it was speaking to a pretty universal experience of
a lot of people desiring community that in a number of ways had become less accessible.
DT: You’re an essayist as well as a musician, and this album has a number of literary references
on it. I bring that up because I’m interested in hearing about your musical influences, and I’m
also interested in hearing about the writers and artists outside of music who influenced this
DG: That’s a good question. I think I’m really into collage in literature, and I’ve started doing
that a lot in my songs too. I don’t know that I can point to anyone specific here, but I read a lot of
lyric essays (while making this album) and that kind of laid the foundation for me thinking about
how a song can work structurally if you have a bunch of disparate parts that you want to kind of
merge into one.
I also think, in terms of themes, I was drawing a lot from writers who are really body-focused. I
think a lot of Bernard Cooper and his book Maps to Anywhere, and when I think about that book
I think about physicality and affection. Those are a couple of the things I sort of have in the front
of my mind when I’m song-writing: How can I make this song physical, and how can I make it
in some way affectionate? Even if it’s a darker song or a sad song how can I use it to show
affection. And I feel like I draw that from Bernard Cooper a lot. And to some degree other
writers too. I don’t know what came first exactly but I think I often look for that in other writers
too. I think of Ross Gay. How he seems to often look for ways of expressing affection or joy, as
you and I have talked about.
DT: That leads really well into my next question which is; something I love about this album is
how often it portrays intimacy and tenderness. I’m particularly interested in how the album
displays intimacy between men. I’m thinking especially of the song “Survive”. You sort of just
answered this, but I’m wondering if concepts like intimacy or tenderness were consciously on
your mind when you were writing any of these songs, and how you think they relate to the
DG: Definitely. Definitely. I’m often looking for ways to put the listener into physical contact
with the character or the speaker of the song, or to put characters in the songs into physical
contact with one another in healing ways. I think I’m particularly interested in that with
masculinity. With like a tender masculinity, or like a vulnerable and physically intimate
masculinity and trying to make that concrete someway, which is focused on in the song
“Survive” more than elsewhere in the album, but I feel like it comes up in other places to
because it’s something I was thinking about a lot. Although “Survive” was one of the later songs
I wrote for the album, so maybe I was consciously thinking of it as much earlier in the process, I
can’t really remember.
DT: I mean, there’s certainly affection between the characters of the songs and an invitation for
affection to the listener in most of the album. I mean “Birthday Song” is very affectionate and
it’s, as far as I know, one of the earliest songs you wrote for the album. But yeah, I think
“Survive” stands out as a description of physical intimacy in particular.
DT: Another thing that’s peppered throughout this album (one of the things that draws me to it
so strongly) is a number of references to the bible and Christian imagery, and also a lot of what
seems to me very earnest declarations of both faith and doubt. I was wondering if you could
speak to how those two things—faith and doubt—come into play in your music and your
DG: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there are a couple of different ways that faith comes
into the writing process. On a more surface level, in terms of imagery and theme, I find it really
interesting—and I know you do this a lot too in your poetry—to use biblical illusions as material
and kind of like twist them in interesting ways, or like retell them, or expand them, or even just
like modernize them. There are lots of different ways of riffing on familiar Christian imagery,
and I really like doing that.
On a deeper level, there’s a lot in the album that’s very personal about faith for me. Having been
raised in a very Evangelical Christian setting and having struggled with that for a long time, not
totally feeling like I belonged in that environment or aligned with that community. I’ve just spent
a long-time sort of redefining what I believe, and there’s a lot that’s disorienting or isolating
about that process and I think that comes out in a lot of the songs. Like in “What are friends
for…” there’s a line there It’s no consolation / when you tell me be at peace / I need a vacation /
put me under doctor please / I need a heavy dose of true religion
DT: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite parts of the whole album.
DG: Yeah, me too, me too. Thanks
DG: Yeah, and then I say don’t you confuse me with your good intentions. I think that
encapsulates my relationship with the Evangelical Church. I want faith, and I want religion to
some degree, if I can find it in a way that is true to my experience and is life giving. But it’s
difficult because I’ve encountered so many instances where it doesn’t do that, where it
undermines those things. So, it’s this ongoing dialogue with Christianity where I’m still open to
faith and listening, but I’m also expressing a certain amount of challenge and skepticism towards
faith communities. But that’s all over the album, like “Claustrophobe” is all about conflict with
DT: Everything you’re talking about aligns with things I got from the album and know from our
personal relationship and discussions. I think too, something I read into the album and our
conversations is a general; questioning of experience and life that plays into your wrestling with
faith and with religious communities. I’m thinking again of “Survive” a moment that strikes me
so much in this album is the final verse that features the line it’s time I stop pretending to know
anything. I guess I wonder if you could speak a little bit to a general questioning in the album.
Like what does that line mean to you, it’s time to stop pretending that I know anything?
DG: Yeah, It’s sort of like I can’t believe—or I have trouble believing—anything that my
experience hasn’t told me is true. But then that’s in tension with the fact that your experience
can’t show you everything. The majority of life and truth is beyond your experience. And if
you’re going to remain… functioning…
DG: …you have to accept a lot of things for granted that you haven’t tested. A lot of that is true
for empathy to, and just like knowing other people and caring for other people. You have to be
willing to let other people tell you what is true in their experience and just accepting that if you
haven’t entered into that kind of experience yourself. And I think all of that is really difficult for
In many ways that’s where my questioning of faith began. As I grew into adulthood, I started
encountering lots of ways in which I understood that I had an enormous lack of awareness of
things going on around me. It was challenging because it showed me how impossible it is to be
completely aware. That we’re constantly unaware of so many things, and consequently how can
we possibly have an accurate understanding of our place in the world and how we’re interacting
with our environment and how are environment is interacting with us. That can really easily
become a though spiral that’s just paralyzing. So, my crisis of faith in college really began as an
existential crisis where I felt like I couldn’t know anything. There was a period where I couldn’t
make even the most basic, daily decisions without feeling paralyzed, because I just felt like What
does it matter? I don’t have the most basic information to make this decision. I don’t have any
DT: We’ll end with a much easier subject. Well, maybe.
DT: If you could recommend one album for anyone reading this interview to listen to what
would it be?
DG: Oh man. I feel like I want to recommend several. I’ll stick with things that feel related to
the Meek house album in some way.
One of my favorite albums I’ve been listening to lately is M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent
from 2003. It does a sort of similar thing with religion as what I’m trying to do, where it engages
with religious imagery in a really honest, interesting, and fresh way. I like M. Ward a lot. His
song writing is amazing. He’s a great musician. The production is incredible on all his albums,
there’s so much rich texture. And he’s someone I really look up to because he’s doing a lot of the
things I’m trying to do in his lyrics and music. So, I guess I’ll leave it at that album. Just one.
Katharine Blair (she/her) is a queer Canadian writer, editor, and poet living in California. When she's not overthinking the words she sends and is sent, you'll mostly likely find her wrestling her own writing or elevating the works of others in her role as Chapbook Series Editor for Lupercalia. Katharine also serves as founding editor of Corporeal. She has been published in Trampset, Anti-Heroin Chic, ODD Magazine & more. Katharine tweets as @katharine_blair and fumbles the rest on Instagram @kat_harineblair.
***This piece is accompanied by a playlist: LISTEN HERE
The Lost Mixtape and the Dying Art of a Love You Can Hold
All Along The Watchtower was definitely on there. Side B, I think, but I wouldn't stake my yellow and black Walkman on it. I know there was Dylan and Mitchell and Hendrix...
I’m reconstructing a mixtape—have been reconstructing a mixtape—The Mixtape in my mind, since roughly 1995. It was a gift, as all the best ones are, from a boy who was trying to impress me. Given that twenty six years since my little sister lost it, twenty eight since he gave it, I’m still lamenting the loss, I think it’s fair to say he made good.
In the spring of 1993 we weren't dating yet, but Dave¹ was campaigning. I was fourteen and high on my first real foray into popularity. I thought myself better than his glasses, his deference to adults, and his insistence on always being the smartest one in the room. He was a pint sized Well, Actually man, and doing his bumbling teenaged best to draw my eye.
Clapton and the Stones, but those are easy. What I'm forever stuck on are the trick songs, the deep cuts you never knew you needed that really make or break an A-side. There’s a science to a good mixtape and a magic to a great one. Open with an inescapable hook, double down to prove you’re serious, then pull back a little and show some depth. Next you want to level the energy with something you both know, and then...what? This is the place my memory falls short. It's all classic rock up ‘til now. Okay, yeah, I also have a dad of a certain age, but I remember right about here is where the track list went all in and hit me with something new.
He was posturing. That's what a mixtape is. A testament to your coolness, a stand in for a bravery you’re still trying to find. The you that sits on your bedroom floor with your double deck cutting and re-cutting tracks is a version of you that believes yourself capable of greatness. This isn’t about awkward conversations in the hall or working up the nerve, between you and these ninety minutes of magnetic tape stand only the mood you're trying to set and the words you've been trying to say.
Paint it Black. He was a fourteen year old pseudointellectual, we all knew it was coming.
Long Black Veil. This wasn’t love songs, this was an education. This was Dave telling me, these are the best songs and I need you to know I know them. The hubris of thinking my father and his 500+ LPs hadn’t already done the job, but even then I knew every man thought himself the first. At least with me he was having to work.
To be a mixtape communicator in the age of cassettes and live radio was to be part artist and part god. Weeknights found you rushing through homework and chores to be ready, tape in place, record button down, setup paused. One finger hovered, ready to unpause at a moment’s notice, before the intro music had even begun to play. This is the Top Six at Six and your song, The Song, has been slipping over the last couple of days. If you don’t catch it tonight, all could be lost. The flow of the B side, the whole tape, maybe. This life and death was an accepted stake of the game.
Anyone for Tennis by Cream comes up every time I think about the missing tape, even as I remember it on the follow up; the sillier one he made that August. We were together by then and could relax, have a little fun. Dave gave me Cream and Ain’t No Sunshine—Withers, not Jagger. Ever the classicist, he would have wanted me to start at the source. I never told him that while my father had been deliberately scoring our lives with his psychedelic heroes, my stepdad was feeding us a steady stream of the gospel and rhythm & blues that had taught them all to play. That summer I knew Withers the way I knew Redding and Cooke and James and Franklin. Dave gave me Grace Slick and I gave him Joplin. This, we said. This is what it means to sing.
1993 in Toronto was the summer of silk boxers as shorts and mine were wine red and had never come within a hundred miles of a silkworm. Why silk boxers? No idea. I don’t make the rules and I’ve never pretended to understand them. What I do know is that it was sticky and sweaty as all get out on the July afternoon Dave and I met on the grounds of R. C. Harris on the shores of Lake Ontario. I was still in the screw the sun, I’ll burn if I want to phase of adolescence, and by the time we trudged back over the hill so I could grab the streetcar, I could feel the telltale itch of a burn setting in everywhere the shorts had failed to chafe. As a serially irresponsible redhead I knew the pain I’d be in later that evening, but now I had a secret boyfriend who would listen to me whine.
Yeah, secret. You didn’t think I was going to be the good guy here, did you? Sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, stick around, he’s about to break my heart.
Whiter Shade of Pale - Procol Harum. I can only think this was somehow sentimental. It was schlock to my ears then and still is today. This is my stepmom’s love for the Laura Nyro cover of Dancing in the Street and my Mom’s Lyle Lovett fascination. Some people, I’m told, come to music simply to be entertained. I’ve never understood this position. Words are electric and music is the thrum of the whole world and everything in it made manifest. The power inherent in combining the two elevates the potential of everything it touches. Or maybe that’s just me. I have, and this is both a promise and, let’s be honest, undoubtedly a threat, tried to uncover the deeper meaning of every word I’ve ever been gifted. If I’ve sent words to you, trust I’ve done the same.
Master's Song - Leonard Cohen. Just a truly bizarre choice. There is no way either of us understood even the edges of the implications of this one. But my father played Cohen all the time and I’d recently read his collected poems—my gateway to a lifetime of poetry—so I was predictably caught. After all, I'd snuck both Beautiful Losers and Go Ask Alice under the covers the winter before.
Fourteen is all about getting caught up in things you don’t quite understand and Dave and Cohen both fit the bill. I was swimming in the deep end of my emotions and these men were meeting me there.
The summer after Junior High is a tenuous time. There are futures to consider and a chance for reinvention. Dave was ready for that. I was set to follow the bulk of our class to the highschool closest to his house and he was, paradoxically, pulling away to start over at one closer to mine. He broke up with me in the front hall of my father’s house a week before we went back. I don’t remember what he said but I remember taking it badly. In his absence, I listened to his tapes.
I still send songs. I still write letters longhand on paper and mail them to the people I love. I still believe in the elevated meaning of the time spent and the effort made. The power of I walked this to the mailbox, I took the time to buy stamps, I penciled you into my day, my week; held you in my thoughts long enough to get this thought from me to you.
Last year my own fourteen year old asked for a tape deck and their father bought them a whole box of TDK 90 tapes of their own. They mail them across the country to a friend who had to move away. Songs and voice memos and the odd recording of one of us doing something embarrassing enough to preserve. There’s something to the physicality of it. That 2500 miles away tangible proof of their affection for each other survives. That love can be held in your hand.
My luddite heart hardly lives in a cave. I know all about the 'advancements'. Playlists exist, but I’m not ready to give this up just yet. I’m still building this mixtape, I’m still missing the weight of it in my hands. I’m still trying to pass that feeling on.
(1) I'm meant to say something about 'all names have been changed, but truthfully, if you can find him from Dave alone, I need you. I've a mixtape I'm trying to find.
Ryleigh Wann is an MFA poetry candidate at UNC Wilmington, where she interns with Lookout Books and reads poetry for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in Kissing Dynamite Poetry, Royal Rose Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, Semicolon Literary Journal, and Press Pause Press.
NEW PERSON, NO NEW MISTAKES
after Tame Impala
We’re just now getting over, the rest gets easy
The breeze off the Detroit river was salvation that night. I wore a crushed blue velvet dress with glitter smeared on my face. J wore my pashmina scarf, long hair pulled in a bun, his face red from forgotten sunscreen. We were dehydrated and quenched our thirst with tall boys and darts bummed from strangers.
Kevin Parker greeted Detroit and launched into the first track off Currents, “Let it Happen.” This nearly-eight-minute song drips with a weird mix of seduction and inspiration, urging the crowd to go berserk. The build of instrumentation at the end was enough to get J and I out of the crowd and to the back, fast—we needed space to groove like it’s a concert for just us. Our energy was so contagious that people circled us, pulling their phones out to record, whether hyping us up or dragging us on Snapchat stories—we didn't care. Our favorite album was playing live, an album that had become a soundtrack to nights in each other’s bedrooms, road trips, and parties—a precious gift for one of the last nights of our relationship together before I moved away. Someone came up to us and asked if we were selling as if we were on drugs.
’Cause what we did, one day on a whim, will slowly become all we do
Kevin Parker is a perfectionist. This is a skill sharpened during time spent alone in a studio without distractions. While Currents brought this band to fame, comparisons between Tame Impala’s albums display the broad range of sound Parker possesses. Less heavy on distortion than 2010’s InnerSpeaker, Currents shows off Parker’s production expertise and The Slow Rush remains true to that sentiment.
The latter album begins with “One More Year,” a track that feels like Parker’s attempt at cheering you on through the passage of time and the loneliness it can bring. It suggests we’re alone, but we’re alone together. There are distorted vocals which Parker describes in an interview with Apple Music as a “Gregorian choir” of some psychedelic voices chorusing the title. Gregorian, meaning Germanic Catholics, beckons the listener with this praise, curse, or blessing—all forms in which time exists. This choir feels symbolic of mythological sirens calling to you from the past. The sound evokes a feeling of nostalgia yet in such a modern way—with all of its weird, dope glory.
In the air of today is tomorrow’s dust
Dancing with J always echoed the essence of a coming-of-age movie trailer. Photographs and incense decorated his dingey futon couch bedroom while records spun and we serenaded each other. Some days I miss him so much it feels like a constant toothache and other times I go the whole weekend without remembering him. What has only been three months feels more like three years. We catch up from time to time, but the small talk is like pebbles compared to the mountains of conversations we used to climb. It’s surreal, but aren’t most things when you’re at an impressionable age and in love? Moving on and loving multiple people throughout time, just to do it all again if you’re lucky? It’s strange. I keep waiting for full force investment where no other human interests me. I have never found that infatuation like I have with myself.
I was raging, it was late
In the world my demons cultivate
I felt the strangest emotion but it wasn’t hate
I wanted to hate Wilmington, North Carolina. I visited in March for an MFA program I was accepted into. I had never been to this state and therefore it couldn’t compete with my love of the Midwest. I felt dumb jumping from undergrad to grad school, but my family’s health seemed well enough to leave home for a few years, so I applied to this program for its opportunity in publishing experience and potential inspiration for a series of poems I was writing about swamps. I hated the beach and racism associated with southern stereotypes. If I’m being honest, I searched for any reason to hate Wilmington because I wanted to keep my premature relationship pulsing, attached to an umbilical cord existing in a city where distance wouldn’t be carcinogenic.
But I didn’t hate Wilmington. The relaxed atmosphere of a “salt life” town bewildered and attracted me with its foreign curiosities—the history of a new town I was still learning, lame beach shops selling turtle keychains and tacky shot glasses, surfboards on every other car, the sound of my name leaving the lips of someone who had a “born and raised” twang. Wilmington was a change I could handle. It presented a chance to be away from the Midwest and everything I’ve known, a chance to alter who I was becoming—less drugs, less drinking, less character traits I both loved and loathed.
Gone a little far
Gone a little far this time with something
Parker dropped “Borderline” almost a year before the album and played it at Coachella but decided it wasn’t quite right. The track on the record differs from the single by having a heavier, more apparent bassline. “Little closer, close enough” contradicts Parker in this case where the song was released yet still needed tweaking for the album in its entirety. Perfectionism is funny like that. As a writer, I often think art is used as a means to create something that will relieve me from some larger burden gripping the bones of my back, but oftentimes my writing is both pain and relief. I’ve discovered my need to perfect and polish my writing mimics the desire to do so in dating. Like the name of the city where we met, I needed a relationship as smooth as glass.
And you could store an ocean in the holes
In any of the explanations that you gave
Our relationship was eroding two months in. One night, I was sitting on the couch at my neighbor’s, laughing loudly. We had been getting friendly for months, the type where you’re both curious about each other’s potentiality but the logistics of being neighbors holds you back from intimacy. J called and I ignored it, planning to call him back when I walked home. After a text, I called him back to hear his voice absorbed with tears. His house was burning down and he could only stand and watch as firemen tossed his belongings outside of the hole where his bedroom once was, above the kitchen—the only side of the house damaged from flames. His guitar, pictures, clothes, books—one by one, raining from the orange, glowing sky at midnight. After the fire was extinguished, he was allowed to dig through the rubble for any surviving materials. A mutual friend who came to support him at the fire said some of the first things he pulled out was my perfume bottle, a framed photo of us now peeled back from heat, and a teddy bear with my favorite team’s jersey on it.
I went home and sobbed at the overwhelming guilt and shame I carried for not answering his call the first time. So consumed with my resentment and hurt from him I forgot I had been screening calls and texts, too. His records were ruined but he pulled out Currents and set it aside for me so I could make some type of art project with it. A memento for nights dancing to the beat and singing our favorite lyrics: “Wish I could turn you back into a stranger.” I decided I would make a clock with the record as a face, arms ticking slowly minute by minute, hour by hour above my desk while I write.
When we were livin’ in squalor, wasn’t it heaven?
“Lost in Yesterday” is easily a crowd favorite from this record. That bass line slaps you in the face with shag carpet hands and the music video is straight up nasty, showing the same looped wedding party through decades like a time warp. The song preaches to embrace the future when it calls because it always is, like a telemarketer with too much pride.
I met some new friends by downloading those cringeworthy dating apps a week after moving here and getting a match from someone who I thought probably wouldn’t skin me. He invited me to a party, where I was able to meet people. These new friends feel reminiscent of home, and I often wonder what it might be like if we all found each other in the same city at the same bar or house for a kick back, laughing, drinking, or singing songs around a bonfire. Nostalgia is curious that way, how meeting new people can quickly fill the void someone else created with similar plaid pants, glasses, even the way their head swings back, laughing a little too hard at a joke someone cracked.
Feel like a brand new person
(But you'll make the same old mistakes)
I don't care, I'm in love
(Stop before it's too late)
This song—“New Person, Same Old Mistakes”—is the complicated finale of Currents. It’s at odds with itself. The speaker pretends to be ready for change but deep down knows they will make the same mistakes. It acted as a metaphorical encore for my last days in that realm of life. I graduated college, was moving away from home, and encountered a ride of a relationship. I remember thinking at one point J and I might actually make it through living states away until he could move in, but this was before he got a job designing for a startup company. This meant he could be creative and had an out from the career his degree paved for him, a degree he believed would leave him unfulfilled. It was now his turn to take the offer. I’m trying to use this song as a lens through which I can remember the emotion I felt for this person and the excitement I had at the hope we were going to make it despite whatever tried to break us up, as long as this song was playing in the background.
It ended up instead representing a Banshee’s cry, warning us of the wreck to come.
As long as I can
Spend some time alone
The finale of TSR, “One More Hour,” brings the entire record full circle. It is the bookend clasping together an odyssey of the search for change and what the end goal of growth is and time’s role within it. Loud drums crashing at the end of the song emphasize the confession: “As long as I can spend some time alone.” This lyric acts as the closure of an album wishing and confessing the need for time spent alone and in that loneliness, being able to discover who you truly are. This alone time offers the promise of reflection and growth in art, the main desire throughout this record that is not as experimental as Lonerism (2012) and not transformative in sound as Currents. TSR found its sound through years spent allowing time to be alone with yourself.
And that’s what I need, too, and that’s what it all boils down to. What person we are when we are alone, behind closed doors with only one seat on the bench, fully emerged in our passions—whatever those may be. I like to think I’m the kind of person who can listen to an old record on my Crosley and groove around in pearl white socks to memories of days with someone who knew which steps I was going to take next. I can look back at those nights in a college house with posters on the wall and smile because I was happy to be alive and grateful for my pulse. Nothing poetic about it, just pure ecstasy at standing in awe of another person who yearns for your mutual attention and rhythm. I occasionally find myself daydreaming the ways in which J might return to me, but I don’t think that’s fair to either of us. Of course I still love him, but he deserves his change, too, and I’m stoked for him. TSR leaves the listener alone to sit and stir with that small, softer sentiment that to be happy with someone else, you need happiness in alone time. I suppose I’m still looking for mine, but damn, I’d say I’m about one song away.
The 90’s was one of the most creative decades for Black American cultural expression
for TV and film, but especially music. While hip hop came to the public eye in the 80’s, the
1990’s is arguably when hip hop exploded into mainstream popularity. This is why this decade is
often referred to as the golden era of hip hop. 1994 in particular was one of the best years for the
genre. The music industry saw debut albums from Nas, OutKast, and the Notorious B.I.G, plus a
sophomore project from UGK. But one group from the 90’s that often gets overlooked is the hip
hop super duo, Gang Starr. Gang Starr consists of the hip hop producer DJ Premier, and the
rapper MC Guru. One song in particular that I’ve always loved by Gang Starr is “Mass Appeal,”
one of the singles from their ‘94 classic Hard to Earn.
“Mass Appeal” is a prophetic warning for rappers, but truthfully it can be extended
beyond that. It is a message that is not only transferable to musicians and writers (rappers are
writers), but artists in general. Reflective of his time, Guru was a rapper who used the art of
storytelling to provide a narrative around the concept of “selling out.” As I grow as a person and
a writer, this song becomes more important to me. But what exactly does it mean to “sell out”?
What did Guru mean when he said, “and you’d be happy to get a record deal, maybe you’d sell
your soul to have mass appeal”?
Since the beginning of time, art, writing in particular has been driven by authenticity.
People who become a fan of a writer typically do so because of the author's ability to connect
with the reader. When I read someone’s writing, I want to hear their voice, I want to read them,
hopefully to relate to the story in some way. That is what the reader is saying when engaging
with a piece, whether they are conscious of it or not. They are electing to hear that artist’s
creative voice, a glimpse of their soul on that topic. As writers, when you receive an acceptance
for publication, that is validation from the magazine that your authenticity is a good fit for that
issue. That is the editor reinforcing to the writer that they have mass appeal, at least for this
particular piece, in that particular moment. In other words, don’t sell out, because there is a
literary magazine that your rejected works are a good fit for. Many times I doubted my craft,
when truthfully my piece just wasn’t a good fit for that magazine at that time. You don’t need to
change your style or who you are to fit a literary magazine, a publisher, a record label, an art
school, etc. Being your true self will get you much further in the end.
“Mass Appeal,” is not a song I listened to when it first came out. In fact, I was five years
old when it was released. But it is a song I discovered a few years later when I was a bit older. At
the time, I mostly enjoyed the song for the beat, and I’ll be honest I didn’t pay much attention to
the lyrics. It takes me back to middle school, when I would spend hours on crappy internet that
screeched before it loaded anything, much less streamed music. But as I matured, this song
became more important for me not only for nostalgia’s sake, but also contemporarily. For me, it
has become timeless. Quite frankly if you ask a hip hop fan aged 40+ it already was.
Gang Starr’s song is a declaration for artists to “keep it real,” to stay the course,
ultimately not “selling out.” MC Guru tells of how despite all of the hurdles, challenges, and
setbacks, staying true to who you are as a creative is most important. Being an artist is a journey,
and Guru conveys this for all 3 minutes, and 42 seconds. He notes that while some have instant
success, at what cost? Others may gain success at a slower pace, but in the end most likely
haven’t lost who they are or why they began to create in the first place. We live in a world where
people put on a show to be someone else every day. Now that the world will never be the same
again, the least we can do as writers is be authentic. Genuine artistry is all we have left after all.
As long as you are not harming others with your voice, there is a space for you to tell your story.
After all, Guru concludes with that on this masterpiece when he says, “I be kickin the real, while
they be losin’ the race tryna chase mass appeal.”
Author’s Note: R.I.P Keith Edward Elam, AKA MC Guru, 1961-2010
Chris L. Butler is an African American and Dutch poet, essayist, and historian from Philadelphia, PA. His work has been featured in Lucky Jefferson Literary Journal, The Lumiere Review, The Daily Drunk Mag, Versification Magazine, Trampset Magazine, Medium, The Journal of International Relations and Diplomacy, and others.
Kurt Cobain died in April of 1994 twenty-one days before I was born. We look for patterns
everywhere. When he died it sparked a conversation about his age, twenty-seven, because fans
noticed it was the same age that Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were
when they all died within two years of each other over two decades earlier.
My favorite picture of Kurt Cobain is one of him wearing a crown of pink roses. For some this
might signal some spiritual connection to that earlier age in rock history when hippies adorned in
flower crowns could be found at festivals like Woodstock. For me though it’s a reminder of how
Cobain was vocal through his whole career in his support of the queer community—going so far
as to tell any potential homophobes who bought his album that he hated them if even they liked
him in the liner notes. And a reminder of how Cobain spoke openly about questioning his own
sexuality in adolescence and used to go around Aberdeen, Washington spray painting God is
When Amy Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 it brought back public interest in the
supposed twenty-seven club. Since then the club has been expanded to include not just
musicians but actors and other celebrities who also died at that age. This expansion really serves
to undermine the idea that there’s some tragic cosmic force at play here. What started as an
observation about a coincidence among the age of musicians whose lives were cut short then
expanded to include other famous figures in order to create more data points to point to and say
see, there’s really something to this. It’s motivated by a desire to make meaning out of events
that we can’t understand or accept. But I’m not really interested in patterns or how are brains are
trained to look for them. I’m interested in the same thing as everyone else I guess, death.
I used to sit in my room as a teenager and scream along with Kurt as he’d yelp out You Know
you’re right over and over. For sure there was some over dramatic teen angst in this picture of
me in my room, feeling overwhelmed by things I’d be able to see in a few years as trivial. But
there was more that made me feel connected to Cobain then other angry singers I’d scream along
with. I didn’t know I was queer yet, and didn’t know about Cobain’s defense of the queer
community, but I could sense in his voice and his lyrics a kind of softness made jagged by a
harsh and hateful world. There was something else I felt in him too.
The reason twenty-seven seems so significant isn’t just because of the coincidence of multiple
public figures dying at that age—if someone noticed a bunch of musicians all died when they
were eighty-one nobody would talk about an eighty-one club—twenty-seven is young, to many
people it’s incredibly, tragically young. But when I would sit and listen to Cobain’s pained voice
as a teenager, knowing he died in his twenties, I would wonder if he too spent his whole life with
this sense that he wasn’t gonna be around for long. I wonder now about all the members of the
twenty-seven club—whether they took their own lives like Cobain, or died from overdose, or
even sudden accidents—if they struggled to imagine themselves as old or even middle-aged. I
wonder if twenty-seven ever sounded very young to them at all.
In a bit of serendipity, as I approach my twenty sixth birthday in two months, I’ve just recently
discovered a song that was written over three years ago. Anymore by THICK. Lately I’ve been
singing along to it every day I’m twenty-six / so sick of this / I’m not a kid / anymore.
DT McCrea is a trans anarchist poet living in Akron Ohio. Their work can be found at Honey and Lime and Taco Bell Quarterly. In their free time DT enjoys contemplating the nature of the universe and plotting the downfall of capitalism.
"Likewise" by Francis Quinlan
2020--Saddle Creek Records
For anyone who was eagerly awaiting more work from the Philadelphia-based indie rock band Hop Along, it was a pleasant surprise to learn of the release, last October, of the single “Rare Thing” by frontperson and songwriter Frances Quinlan, and the recent release, late in January, of her debut album Likewise. Throughout the album, fans will find a familiar lyrical elegance and the same incredible vocal gymnastics characteristic of Quinlan’s previous work, but it’s almost as if the constraint of being (essentially) briefly bandless has brought Quinlan to new heights of writing. She’s doubled-down on techniques we’ve seen before and broken through to bold new material.
Already a masterful storyteller used to combining the allegorical with references and anecdotes (Hop Along’s song “No Good Al Joad” comes to mind), Quinlan’s new stories “struggle for air”—words she sings herself in “Lean”—fighting as they do for a privacy of their own yet also yearning for intimacy. This conflict is at the heart of songs such as “Piltdown Man,” which opens with a contemplation of the likely fraud Charles Dawson, who may have falsely presented bone fragments as paleoanthropological evidence in 1953. “Why would he do such a thing?” Quinlan asks, singing. Then, immediately, as if a private revelation occurred, “Of course. What a stupid question.” That’s such a hilarious offhanded remark that we quickly forgive that she doesn’t bother to share her thought with us. What happens next is mysterious and beautiful: as if in explanation, or perhaps getting lost in her own private train of thought, she moves to describe a memory with the refrain, “Outside our little tent your dog must have caught something. I followed you both and then I screamed to be let in.” What prompts this anecdote is hidden from us throughout the song, yet we share these details with her and are, in fact, a crucial aspect to the story, considering she addresses the listener as “you.”
There’s an unknown intimacy between narrator and listener. Though we’re kept at arm’s length, both the listener and narrator share the details presented in the song: “Six AM so loud your mom had to kick us out. We ran the wheelbarrow around and around.” With interspersed sounds of children playing in the distance alternating with her singing, she continues, finally singing, “In the afternoon you both fell asleep still knowing more than me.” In a compelling reversal, the narrator believes the “you” listening knew more than her. This subtly poignant and nostalgic song exemplifies the refusal of Quinlan to allow her characters to be fully known or understood. Perhaps Quinlan is driven by a sense that such complete knowledge of another is impossible, but, of course, I would only have my best guess. After all, we can never fully “know” a person, or their motives (e.g., Charles Dawson), despite sharing life details (or details of a song) with them, can we?
Likewise proves a fitting name for this album. Like the Dawson reference and the anecdote that follows it, disparate images, anecdotes, and references relate to, describe, and expand upon one another in oblique and shifting ways. With Quinlan, all you get are bits and pieces. There’s a playful absurdity in her transitions from “documentarians throwing lemmings…over the edge” to “wartime juveniles shot and martyred for the crime of stealing eggs” to finally letting the listener know, “dinner, by the way, was divine,” in the song “Your Reply”. I encourage you to experience the joys of such writing yourself by listening through the whole album, out now with the record label Saddle Creek.
"Juliet" by Juliet
2019 Cellar Records--10 Tracks
Someday we’ll wake up and collectively want to be here. Someday sadness won’t be so temperamental or pervasive. I guess you can call it luck—making it through the day. Or maybe grace. Or the parachute’s deployment. Or the assumption our sun’s gonna come up tomorrow—whatever it is, we’ve got a gimmick to stick between our sock and the sole of our left shoe. Believe this, that when Otis Redding sang try a little tenderness he probably meant something about the failure of a hard heart to do anything but rot. We’ve all been missing someone for years; drunk in a bar never sounds the same as the music saved me ten thousand nights in a row.
I get it, I really do—the propellers stuck to your moon-boots, the way it feels to take your collar off at night. Freedom smells like the first time your mother made apple pie. I wouldn’t mind getting lost with you sings Juliet, in her self-titled debut album, we’ve already missed the exit you and me, we got lost in the song we were singing (“Lost”). Freedom asks of us sacrifice, and perhaps, we’ve been hacking away at parts of ourselves for a future all along. Check the lifeboats, there’s music playing from every boom-box and we’re all singing there’s an endless moment of silence…what will you do if your performance brings you no fame, we have different darknesses but they all haunt us the same (“Silence”). So let’s invite the monsters under our beds onto it and make friends with them, it’s been so long since anyone has loved them—yes, as much as Juliet’s debut album is about growing up and finding your place in the world post-adolescence, it is equally so considering the implications of loving yourself.
Let’s pretend we made Lucy Dacus drink sunshine for a year, this is how we’d go about manufacturing Juliet McCowin, the artist behind the Juliet moniker. A twenty year old from Youngstown, she fronted the Basement Society, a folk group from the same area, before going solo and signing to The Cellar Records, a small production studio and record label based in the region. Vocally reminiscent of the sonic overlap and controlled tremble of a young Taylor Swift, her range and technique closely resemble that of Maggie Rogers, all the while reaching for moments in the lyrics that sound like if Julien Baker wrote happy songs. While a little green and inconsistent on certain tracks, Juliet has moments of closeted intensity aching to edge their way into the music—her timbre and vocal register shine in both “Silence” and “Lost.” She possesses an endearing and genuine vocal quality urging you towards laying back with your feet up or taking a lengthy drive on a backroad at night. When she sings, it feels as if you’ve made a new friend.
While an overall sound project, at times the writing will border on cliché, I’m an open book but you’re illiterate (“Me and You“), I cut off all my hair and you never even noticed (“Me and You”), you unexpectedly came in my life, a different kind of different (“Different”). But these moments are overwhelmed by pointed lyrics overly familiar with grief, like we both know self-pity isn’t a party for long (“Elephants”) or I came in with presuppositions, the scars that you didn’t cause (“Different”), your entire life doesn’t have to be proving a point (“Anymore”).
The album serves as a treatise on growing up and love, but doesn’t shy away from heftier moments—“Elephants,” the best written song on the album, negotiates the relationship with a family member who has just attempted suicide, while other tracks address the singer’s struggles with a brain tumor. Juliet’s songs have solid narrative structure and a meandering eye that finds its way back to the point. Her voice shines on “Silence” and left me wanting more moments like that peppered throughout the project, where her voice rollercoasters between notes with accuracy and tackles more difficult maneuvers. I think Juliet would do well to go for broke and generate larger vocal presentations that elevate before sliding down into a comfortable vocal pocket, these would serve her content well. Yes, there are a few skippable songs, but in its entirety the album is cohesive and impressive for such a young musician’s debut, something to be proud of. I have “Anymore,” “Silence,” and “Elephants” added to my library for perpetuity. What these tracks share is that they stumble upon the fact that what we do on accident hurts. At this age, we’re all learning as young adults to carry conditionality while discovering that the self is a moment-to-moment negotiation we’re unable to run from. Juliet gives us the choice—face the reckoning of self, heart-breaks and all; or start trying to escape.
malady and melody
features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.