Dear magazine writers: Just because you love a super-cool independent musician usually isn't a very good reason to commission a profile of that super-cool independent musician to appear in your mass-market consumer magazine.
In fact, profiles of super-cool independent musicians in mass-market consumer magazines almost inevitably turn out to be cringe-inducing, forced exercises in justifying the relevance of an artist that often doesn't really care about being relevant to begin with. We've seen a rash of these labor-of-love-pieces in the last couple months: The New Yorker profiled Will Oldham in January, The New York Times Magazine devoted features to indie-darlings Neko Case and Andrew Bird, and last week New York magazine tried to hang a profile of the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle on the preposterous notion that there's something inherently interesting about Darnielle's relationship to his fans ("God & Worshipper: A Rock-and-Roll Love Story, of Sorts)."
John Darnielle is a wonderful songwriter and deserves many happy turns, but the cruel fact remains: On the scale at which New York usually operates, he is a commercially marginal musician. He is not about to blow up, nor will he soon appear in the pages of Us Weekly on the arm of Winona Ryder. He makes very, very good records that not very many people, relatively speaking, will ever hear. The same is true of Case, Oldham, and Bird. None of them feel compelled to do the things that actually famous musicians did in order to get famous, like create an appealing persona and deliver it to a fascinated reporter.
Which is why all four stories are awkward and awful in the same way, and why if you want to write about your favorite indie stars, write nice reviews of their records. Leave the extended journalistic explorations to Magnet, Paste, et. al.—publications that don't have to justify a diversion from stories about rich people and Iran and such.
1. Our indie rock star had an unusual and/or troubled childhood, which is why you should be interested in reading about them even though you will almost certainly not like them because, like almost everyone else, you have shitty taste in music:
Case left home in Tacoma when she was 15.... "There was a lot of drinking going on then," she says.... She hung out on the fringes of the Northwest's punk-rock scene...and did a lot of PCP.
He began violin lessons at age four, using the Suzuki method, which stresses learning by ear. In high school, while Bird's friends were listening to the Smiths or the Cure, he was listening to Mozart's Requiem.
He struck up a correspondence with the noisemaker and poet Lydia Lunch, after meeting her at a Sonic Youth show during a trip to New York.... He got the part of Danny [in John Sayle's Matewan], a prophetic boy preacher, which meant two months away from high school, living with actors (including Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones), the crew, and a tutor in West Virginia....
But, Darnielle says, "[my father was] a monster. He beat all of us. There was a day when I was 15 when I walked down to some train tracks and sat in a building above them for three hours, ready to jump. If a train had come, I wouldn't be here today." By the time Darnielle graduated from high school, he was using heroin and crystal meth.
2. Our hero showed early promise.
His early songs were dark and funny and already full of literary and biblical references.... He gave cassettes to friends, and one of them ended up in the hands of Dennis Callaci, the head of Shrimper Records, a small but influential California-based record label.
In his early 20s, bird got the break that every aspiring musician hopes for a young executive at Rykodisc, Andrea Troolin, dug his demo out of the slush pile and offered him a record contract.
[H]e started writing songs only because the people around him told him to. He learned his first few guitar chords about the time he went to Brown, and began experimenting with words and melodies at the insistence of Ned and the guys from Slint.... Dan Koretzky, a co-founder of Drag City, agreed to to release a two-song single.
3. Corporate rock sucks!
[W]hen it comes to business, she has insisted on complete independence. She has recently turned down major label overtures...and has never made a publishing deal.
Bird's trajectory, his gradual climb to success, is unusual for a business in which careers tend to be made on the back of a big break.... But with the precipitous drop in record sales, the major labels have lost much of their leverage, and with it, their ability to determine what records will become popular, "Andrew is worried that if he goes too mainstream, he's going to offend his hard-core fans," says...one of his publicists. "I told him the mainstream no longer exists."
4. I'm not the only person who likes this musician.
Tallahassee marked a turning point. Soon, Darnielle was appearing on National Public Radio. Where previous Mountain Goats records would be reviewed in alternative weeklies, now Darnielle was being written about reverentially in the New York Times. The New Yorker called him America's best hip-hop lyricist.
Jon Pareles, a music critic for the Times, best described the overall impression that Fox Confessor makes....
The title song has become one of his most popular; Johnny Cash sang it, on American III: Solitary Man, an album from 2000 produced by Rick Rubin, who has long been an Oldham fan.
5. They write totally crazy songs that are unlike any other songs.
Bird is essentially inverting the typical songwriting process. The classic singer-songwriter sits down with a notebook to write a song about something. Bird assembles his songs out of his mental collection of resonant words and phrases.
He had an eerie, strangulated voice, half wild and half broken. And he sang vivid and peculiar songs, which sometimes sounded like old standards rewritten as fever dreams or, occasionally, inscrutable dirty jokes.
Or take the growing eclecticism of her music and influences on and contributors to it.... [C]ase has fashioned from this assemblage of predecessors and admirations something very much her own in her songwriting and singing.
6. Their fans really like them a lot, more than just regular fans.
Rock-band worship is nothing new, of course, but the relationship between Darnielle and his fans has its own special hue.... Darnielle sings what his fans feel but can't articulate. He's their hero, but also their soulmate, the one person in the world who understands them.
Oldham must be one of the country's most celebrated singer-songwriters, and if it's a relatively small number of people doing the celebrating—well, that just shows how hard they've been working.
[A] growing cadre of intense, often lovesick fans have lionized Case's singing voice as uniquely clear and powerful.
7. But sometimes the fans are just too much!
"I want to get away from the social vampires of Tucson," she says. "The people who have no lives of their own and meet me and know who I am and feel entitled to say negative things."
Bird is something of a loner. When he's not on tour, he spends much of his time by himself in the barn on his family's farm, where he does most of his writing and composing.
The idea, all along, was to erase the person making the music so that listeners would focus on the music itself. Of course, it didn't work that way....
Darnielle has always been uneasy with the worship. He didn't understand why people wanted to meet him or share their problems with him..... [T]he more fans demanded of him, the worse he felt.
8. I totally went somewhere with this indie rock musician!
He hadn't driven more than a few blocks before a man waved him over and asked if he had a spare ticket.
One day in Chicago, I went with Bird to test out the new speakers he'll be using on his Noble Beast tour.
During my visit to Tucson, we took a trip to buy produce of integrity at a Whole Foods supermarket overlooking the city.... The cacti outside reminded me of the often thorny music Case admires and composes.
9. This next record's gonna be big!
Bird's label, Fat Possum, is expecting Noble Beast to be his breakthrough album.
In March, he plans to release "the big record," a deeply satisfying album called Beware, which conjures a mood of resolution, maybe even finality.