Turning inside jokes into songs: a conversation with Big Thief’s Buck Meek

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Buck Meek’s album, “Two Saviors” is the album I have listened to the most so far this year. On a drive last week I hit play on the album again and wondered why I kept returning. At the end of this interview, Buck offered some insight, “I think that this album in particular is probably really valuable for this time, cause I do think it’s soft. I think it can help people right now.” “Yeah, it’s been comforting to listen to,” I say. “That makes sense because it was a comfort to make.”

As I’ve been in the throws of this album, there are a couple patterns that stuck out to me that I couldn’t wait to ask Buck. On three songs he mentions people who have two different colored eyes. I love the lyrical theme and asked him about it. “I’ve never met another human being with two different colored eyes, but every time I meet a dog with different colored eyes it reminds me of the magic within us. It feels like this impossible thing within us that can only be explained by magic.” “It also feels like the embodiment of seeing the world through a duality.”

In the song “Ham on White” he starts with the line, “Save me half of that sandwich Annie, I haven’t eaten since 1995. It’s a miracle I’m alive.” I always find it really funny, but it’s delivered so sincerely and dramatically that I’m not sure if it is a straight faced joke or a reference or metaphor that I don’t understand. “One thing that I adore in human relationships is how we rag on each other. The sass. And the hard time we give each other. And how that can be a vessel for affection. It’s this deep inside joke that we can share with our loved ones. Often it’s self deprecating and that line is me making a joke of my own hunger.” The album if full of those jokes and Buck says that he wants to put you in the middle of the relationship or scene so you have to look around and see what’s going on. Also so that you are in the middle of that intimacy too.

Buck ends talking about the beauty of Julianna Barwick’s “Nepenthe” so I want to include that here to conclude.

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The Avalanches curate a new form of The Golden Record

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The Avalanches started off as the only two weirdos in town. “We found each other in a small country town in Australia … We were both fish out of water,” explains Robbie Chater. I asked Robbie how he knew how his future bandmate Toni Di Blasi was cool. “All he had to do was look at me,” Di Blasi came from the city as well and had long hair and cool clothes. They started passing tapes and eventually formed The Avalanches.

I see The Avalanches as the ultimate curators. They pull together people’s work, through samples, and make their own works of art. It was no surprise that a big influence on their latest album, “We Will Always Love You,” was The Golden Record. Compiled in 1977, the two sides of the record were compiled and launched into outer space with The Voyager spacecraft. It’s meant to encapsulate life on earth, should it reach extra terrestrial beings. It is the ultimate work of curation.

But on their new record, instead of sampling records from dollar bins in rural Australia, they have compiled a cast of collaborators that they worked with to create the album. It’s their new form of curation. And I feel that, like The Golden Record, they have captured a vision of life on earth.

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Funny and heartfelt: An interview with The Staves

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When The Staves — Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor — were kids, they made up a fake TV sketch show called ‘The Crew.” “There were two volumes,” Jessica clarifies, “Wartime Crew and Maritime Crew.”

“Hell’s teeth,” her sister groans. They would perform it to/at their parents and there were characters. There was Marriagie Moskie, who was constantly jilted at the alter. “She was constantly just wearing a wedding dress and crying, mascara running down her cheeks at the alter. And classic character Tipsy Harry, who was the butt of all the jokes.

“That was us, trying to be funny from say one.” Jessica says.

She said she got her sense of humor from her mother, who is at the heart of this album. The sisters’ mother passed away in the middle of the recording of their new album. They’ve titled it “Good Woman.” The death had quite an impact on the group of sisters who are so close.

Another impact, strangely, for a group of sisters from England, is Wisconsin. The group spent time with Justin Vernon, staying at his place in the northern woods for a bit and working on music. At one point in the interview they even break out a pretty decent Wisconsin accent.

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Jon Batiste made a recording studio in a dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater to record his new album, “WE ARE”

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Jon Batiste is the band leader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” five nights a week, he just made the soundtrack for Pixar’s new movie “Soul,” and he is the music director for The Atlantic and the creative director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. On March 19 he’s going to be releasing a new album called “WE ARE.” My question is, when did he even have the time?

“I set up a recording studio in my dressing room.” he smirks. “In the Ed Sullivan Theater, where we record ‘The Late Show.’ And I had a bunch of creatives come in over six days. And in between me doing the soundtrack and score for Soul, and consulting on that film, recording at ‘The Late Show,’ and doing these other things, I would come into my dressing room, basically around the clock, and we recorded the blueprint for ‘WE ARE,’ in six days.” In the nine months after that he fleshed the idea out. Of course, using his star power to tap friends like Quincy Jones, Mavis Staples and other legends.

The resulting “WE ARE” is a look at humanity through Jon Batiste’s eyes. I think it’s a special thing to heal people through music.” And heal music he does, with his joy and passion for the audience.

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Julien Baker, a faith healer, of sorts

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Some years ago, at a Christian writing conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 20 year old Julien Baker made a power point presentation about how hardcore music was an analogue to the tenets of the gospel.

While she was there, she met poet Hanif Abdurraqib. One time, I took a picture of Hanif Abdurraqib reading poetry at Eaux Claires Festival as Julien Baker played guitar in the background of that performance. I’m also a Hanif stan, and a Julien stan. After their meet up at this Christian writing conference the two kept in touch and Hanif wrote the beautiful bio to Julien’s new record, “Faith Healer.” Hanif writes:

“Put most simply, I think that “Faith Healer” is a song about vices, both the obvious and the more insidious ways that they show up in the human experience. I started writing this song two years ago and it began as a very literal examination of addiction. For awhile, I only had the first verse, which is just a really candid confrontation of the cognitive dissonance a person who struggles with substance abuse can feel — the overwhelming evidence that this substance is harming you, and the counterintuitive but very real craving for the relief it provides. When I revisited the song I started thinking about the parallels between the escapism of substance abuse and the other various means of escapism that had occupied a similar, if less easily identifiable, space in my psyche.

There are so many channels and behaviors that we use to placate discomfort unhealthily which exist outside the formal definition of addiction. I (and so many other people) are willing to believe whomever — a political pundit, a preacher, a drug dealer, an energy healer — when they promise healing, and how that willingness, however genuine, might actually impede healing.”

In our interview, Julien Baker talks about the conference, Hanif, faith, Twitter and her favorite band, mewithoutyou.

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From Obama administration press secretary to music’s newest star: the rise of Bartees Strange

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Before he was in music, Bartees Strange was in politics. He worked in the Obama administration as the press secretary for the FCC, working on Net Neutrality, HIPAA and the Fight For Fifteen. Even for the last five years he has been doing environmental justice work in the deep south and east coast. “I wanted to be Remy Danton from ‘House of Cards,’” he says. But at a certain point he looked around and realized, “I really hated it. I hated myself. I hated who I was becoming. I didn’t want to be anyone that I was around. Nothing inspired me.” Even though he loved the work and believed in what he was doing.

So he moved to Brooklyn.

He had been making music the entire time. He was inspired by Midwest emo, Bon Iver, and a gigantic swath of genres and musicians, but he didn’t see a path in music at the time. His mother had been a professional musician. She was an opera singer, but she never pushed him because, he says, she probably knew how hard it was to make it. But once he moved to Brooklyn, “It was like, ‘Oh this is how you do it.’”

He says a lot of it was being around Black people. People in the LGBT community, or just Black people doing their thing. Musically, “Every year got a little more serious, for 12 years, and it all culminated in this fall.” This fall he released “Live Forever” an album that took the critical music world by storm. By year end it was on year end lists from Pitchfork, Fader, Rolling Stone, Vice, NPR Music, The Ringer, The New Yorker, and honestly, too many to just list off here. 2020 was Bartees’ year.

“People have said some insane shit to me about the record I put out,” he says. I asked for an example. “They have been like, ‘What’s it like to be a black man, making rock music, with hip-hip hooks and hip-hop drums?’ and I’m like, ‘I just listen to music.’” And Bartees does listen to a lot of music. The song he said he hasn’t been able to stop listening to is “Cocaine Country Dancing” by Paul Cauthen. “You can tell he listens to a lot of music.” Bartees tells me. And you can. I listened to this song and was grinning from ear to ear, then listened to the whole album, and got just as obsessed as Bartees. I suggest you do the same.

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The Mountain Goats share a joyous performance for Radio Milwaukee

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“I promise you, no one is enjoying this more than me,” John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats says at one point during this performance. Even before we started recording, John was talking about how much he misses touring with his buddies in the band. There was  sincerity in his heart. He mentioned the straight job that he had before and how that made him appreciate how lucky he is to be a touring musician. This launched into a dissection of the worst jobs that him and Matt Douglass have had over the years.

Darnielle is a talker. He’s got a sense for story and little reflections of big ideas in any given situation. It’s what makes his songwriting incredible. I asked him about the song we are playing, “Get Famous” from their new album, “Getting Into Knives,” and he revealed its origin. He was running, something that is new to him but that he loves, and listening to the obscure Japanese metal band Baskerville, and after being impressed he mused out loud, “You should be famous.” Then he thought about what he’d just said: “You should be famous.” How fame is seen as desirable, but fame isn’t a prescription to happiness — in fact, he turned it completely around and saw it as a curse. “You Should be Famous,” the song by The Mountain Goats, is a hex, spat at an enemy. 

Darnielle is full of these little bits of observation and turns of phrase. He’s open about them too. You’ll hear plenty more in the interview. The whole thing was a pleasure for everyone. Immediately after the call, not more than 10 minutes after I hung up on the Zoom call, I bought two Mountain Goats LPs off Bandcamp. He may have said that he enjoyed this performance the most, but I have my doubts. It was a joy for us all.

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Justin Barney’s Top 25 Songs of 2020

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I can’t overstate how this list is reflective of one person. I’m Justin Barney, white guy, lifelong Milwaukeean, lives in Bay View with a cat, dad listened to a lot of David Bowie and Talking Heads. This list is subjective because we can’t leave our own story out of the music we listen to.

I was thinking about writing some kind of preamble to 2020 and how great songs were still written, but you already know. Let’s get into the list.

25. KAMAUU – “Far Rockaway”

Our editor, Evan, asked me to “Please, never play that song on the radio” after hearing it in a meeting. He was only encouraging me. It’s on some weird Sean Kingston shit and I’m here for it.

24. Wye Oak – “AEIOU”

This song is a showcase of beauty.

23. Jeff Rosenstock – “***BNB”

What I would give to be cramped in a sweaty room, wearing a beanie that is too small, holding a warm beer, and losing my voice screaming every word to this song with a bunch of people I’ve never met.

22. Holy Motors – “Country Church”

Who knew that a band from Estonia would be the torch bearers of the yee-haw agenda?

21. Young Jesus – “Root and Crown”

Young Jesus anticipate the analysis of people like me who are paid to pick apart the meaning in their work by starting this song by saying, “Every record needs a thesis, needs a crisis or campaign,” and asking “What if living wasn’t of the mind?” Somehow they made this album where the importance is the improvisation of life.

20. Joey Dosik – “Lakers Town feat. Michael Bolton”

I like a song that has a shelf life as long as the song itself. It’s like looking at a mosquito trapped in amber and reveal what life was like for Lakers fans in the offseason between the 2019 and 2020 NBA season. Which is that they were scared that they were going to be replaced by Clippers fans. In the off season the L.A. Clippers traded up for Kawhi Leonard and looked like they were going to outshine the Lakers, so Joey Dosik wrote this impassioned defense of, what he thought would be the second place Lakers. Instead, the Clippers hilariously got bounced in the second round of the bubble by the Denver Nuggets, of all teams, and the Lakers WON THE CHAMPIONSHIP. Giving this life a strange life of it’s own as it became an anthem for the winning team.

19. RMR – “Rascal”

This song also seemed unique to this time in the world. It takes what was a Rascal Flatts song and reworks it in a way that embraces the heart of country’s music while rejecting the culture it.

18. BERWYN – “TRAP PHONE”

BERWYN is a poet first.

17. Genesis Owusu – “Don’t Need You”

If you need an anthem for getting out of a relationship this is it. Owusu is sassy, petty, and full of self confident in the way that you can only be if you are still pushing away from a relationship and trying to convince yourself that you did the right thing.

16. Walter Martin – “The Soldier”

Over seven minutes Walter Martin tells a meandering story of his father-in-law’s life that is full of admiration and love.

15. Dan Deacon – “Become a Mountain”

Dan Deacon builds a wall of sound that is magnificent, grandiose, flowing, but it still reminds you that it’s just him, living in the beautiful world of imagination that is now your beautiful world of imagination because you have entered through it’s magic door.

14. Austra – “Anywayz”

Austra wrote this BEFORE the pandemic: “What if we died and the world keeps turning anyways?” It came out like one week before we went into lockdown and sounded like a dance party at the end of the world and a reminder that this tiny virus that we can’t see might take us out, and if it does, the world will keep going on without us. It was comforting in its own way.

13. Fiona Apple – “Ladies”

The way you hear that note on the upright bass slide up the scale as Fiona comes in all smokey and cool. The way her voice waivers a bit when she’s really selling the point. The fact that it’s a note passed from woman to woman.

12. Perfume Genius – “On the Floor”

Let’s not overlook the contribution of Blake Mills on this track. The whir of his guitar makes this track sound like nothing else.

11. Frances Quinlan – “Rare Thing”

This song came out when we were still in the building and one time, after doubting myself out of another relationship, I put this song on and had to leave my desk because I was crying after hearing her say, “There is love that doesn’t have to do with taking something from somebody. I have to stop myself and admit you make me happy.”

I didn’t text that person again and go running back, but it was a good reminder to stop focusing on every little thing that might be wrong and recognize the positive moments when they come.

10. Little Kid – “Thief on the Cross”

There is a part of this song that sounds a lot like “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine, a song that I used to play for hours at a time on long walks through the countryside of Franklin when I was in search of something I was too young to have had or lost in high school.

This song falls apart at the end and I always like when a song falls in on itself.

9. Arlo Parks – “Eugene”

With the line, “I hold the Taco Bell and you cry over Eugene,” Arlo Parks told a whole story and became one of my favorite new songwriters.

8. 070 Shake – “Guilty Conscience”

Every once in a while there is a song that isn’t about the lyrics and just about the vibe. This song was one of 2020’s greatest vibes.

7. Waxahatchee – “Ruby Falls”

“Saint Cloud” by Waxahatchee was my favorite album released in 2020. I listened to it as an album, one song falling into the next. Katie Crutchfield, after long resisting her southern roots, finally opens up her country cry, and fully expressed her true self. No hiding the southern drawl. No guitar fuzzing over the verses. A plain note sung into space. True and clear.

My favorite part of this song is the “I tell this story every time, real love don’t follow a straight line, it breaks your neck it builds you a delicate shrine.” I love the line, but even more, the way she sings it. She reflects the sentiment of the line in her voice. Singing it with a choppy cadence that doesn’t follow a straight line either. At the end she catches it and sends the last word. That’s a master stoke right there.

6. 100 gecs, Charlie XCX, Rico Nasty and Kero Kero Bonito – “ringtone” (Remix)

100 gecs makes some of the most interesting music being made right now. Whether you like it or not, 100 gecs is not a group you can accuse of being lazy. Their goal is to keep your attention and they do that by throwing the kitchen sink at every song. In this song alone, I count eight distinct changes over three minutes and 35 seconds. In ways it’s a perfect parallel to life on the internet. It’s a Twitter feed in a song. That’s going to turn a lot of people off, and maybe it doesn’t stand the test of time, but, let me tell you, it feels good right now. The song rips from the start. It’s immediate. From there it never lets go of your attention. It twists and turns. Adds and subtracts.

In a lot of ways it reminds me of K-pop. If you look at what the best groups there are doing, it follows a similar flow of a constant barrage of new elements and genres, coming together in succession, one after another.

It comes at you fast and will give you whiplash, but man, what a ride.

5. Busta Rhymes feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Look Over Your Shoulder”

Busta Rhymes has been in the game for 30 years. Chuck D actually gave Busta Rhymes his name when his group, Leaders of the New School, opened for Public Enemy.

Many people first heard Busta Rhymes on A Tribe Called Quest’s posse cut “Scenario.”  His voice comes in, instantly recognizable. His voice booms and has a low growl. He’s become known for having one of the fastest flows in hip-hop.

His voice is so distinct, it’s so hard, it booms so loud, that it’s been hard for him to have a seriously good solo album. He’s like a great character actor who has a tough time stretching that into a leading role. But because he’s so good for a fast and furious devastating verse, he’s been most successful as a feature on other people’s songs. Cause when you see that Busta is on the verse, you KNOW that’s gonna be good.

And on this track Busta gets Kendrick Lamar and plays it right. It’s Busta’s album, but even on this song, he is essentially the feature. It’s Kendrick’s song. And Kendrick does what Busta does best. He raps breathlessly. This endless attack of consonants and vowels. Unrelentingly and rhythmically.

After 30 years, Busta knows exactly what he’s doing here.

4. Bartees Strange – “Boomer”

In an interview, Bartees Strange told me that some people would ask him questions like, “Well, you’re a Black man, making music with guitar riffs, and hip-hip beats mixed with synthesizers. How do you do it?” And he said he’s stare blankly and respond, “Well, I listen to music. That’s music.” And then he told me about a country song called “Cocaine Country Dancing.”

That’s what I like about this song. It’s kind of everything.

3. Remi Wolf – “Photo ID”

I think that what Remi Wolf did in this song was capture joy. There were plenty of songs this year that sounded happy and fun, but there weren’t any that I believed like “Photo ID.” The fun is built in the song. It snaps. It’s got funk elements that are pure Parliament. She puts her voice through a vocoder so it sounds like a robot. Clearly fun is being had in the production of the song, but the selling point is Wolf’s voice. She’s got an attitude and an energy that comes through as pure joy caught in a song.

2. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”

This is a song about hating the president and refusing to give up hope, no matter how defeated he feels or how mundane his anger has become.

In it he compares managing the big problems of the world with managing his fantasy baseball team. His anger, once white hot, has faded into the underlying rhythmic fingerpicking guitar of daily life. His voice, almost defeated, reminds himself that no matter how helpless he feels, if he puts in love, and faith, that eventually, this will be over. And when it is, he will still have the little joys like fantasy baseball. 

1. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”

This song is a kernel of wisdom, at the center of a story, that is wrapped in a joke about an exploding pigeon.

The thing you hear on first listen are the jokes. The Johnny Cash gag in the first line, the pigeon bit in the second.  They provide a good reason to listen to it a second time.

On the next couple listens you get the story. A couple is in the backseat of a limo, they just got married, and Bill Callahan, our hero and narrator is their driver.

And then the kernel of wisdom hits. The center of the song. It’s a piece of wedding advice, saying that when you’re dating you date each other, and when you get married, you are married to the whole wide world and have to care for it as such.

In the song, he wonders out loud how his advice lands. I’m here to say it lands well. The message, which he worries is “preachy” is perfectly balanced with the surreal setting and charming storytelling. And, of course, the humor.

For that, it’s my favorite song of the year.  

The full list

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Songs that mention Milwaukee

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It’s hard to rhyme the word Milwaukee. It’s three syllables. Lots of mouth movement. Kinda clunky. And yet, to us, it’s the word we love hearing the most. I was listening to “Si Se Puede” by Antibalas and the lead singer says “Milwaukee!” and my reaction, as it always is when Milwaukee is mentioned in a song is, “OH HELL YEAH! MILWAUKEE REPRESENT!”

Over the years quite a few musicians have name dropped our city in their songs. So we made a list of songs that name drop Milwaukee. Here are some highlights.

Nelly – “Pimp Juice”

Definitely one of the most high profile Milwaukee name drops of all time. Line:

“Treat you like you’re from Milwaukee, send you Green Bay Packin”

We appreciate that Nelly understands the Packers influence across the state. This song also falls in the broader category of Milwaukee name drops in songs: sports. Other musicians are quick to put together the double meaning of a Milwaukee Buck. Migos drop “You know I got bucks but not from Milwaukee” in “Wrist Game.” Migos actually rep the city almost more than anyone, mentioning us in “Walk It Talk It (feat. Drake)” in the line “Watch it buck, no Milwaukee” and in “Came from Nothing” with the DEEP MKE Bucks bench reference to O.J. Mayo, saying “I’m getting Milwaukee Bucks, O.J.Mayo.” Bucks also get the nod from Anderson .Paak in “Chosen One“: “Who gon’ Keep it buck like Milwaukee.”

Jamila Woods feat. Chance the Rapper – “LSD”

Line: (Chance the Rapper) “I got family in Gary and STL, I got cousins in Milwaukee.”

Who are these cousins? If you are cousins with Chance, let us know. This song also falls into the larger category of Milwaukee name drops: people. The line in this song could also be a reference to the Ella Fitzgerald song “My Cousin in Milwaukee” in which an influential cousin in Milwaukee, USA, is a “positive sensation” on the stage and off. This cousin serves as an inspiration for what would become Ella’s style and grace. The song was written by Ira Gershwin, so it’s unlikely that this is a reference to a particular person although the sentiment is wonderful and we will take it. Other singers mention people they met in Milwaukee. In Jen’s Lekman’s “Forever Young, Forever Beautiful,” he starts “In Milwaukee, I met a mountaineer who told me…” and then the whole song is basically this wonderful story from this man in Milwaukee about how he has guided a woman to the top of a mountain where her husband had perished but was preserved, forever young and forever beautiful by the permanent cold of the mountain top and the relationship that they had had together.

John Prine

Although Tom Petty claims to be “the King of Milwaukee” in his song “Honey Bee,” I think we should give that title to John Prine. The singing postman, who walked the streets of Chicago also had a soft spot for Cream City. He mentions Milwaukee in three songs at least. One example is “Milwaukee Here I Come,” which was written by Lee Fikes and performed frequently by country duos Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner AND George Jones and Tammy Wynette. However Prine recorded it and performed it frequently, I like to think, likely out of his fondness for our home. Prine also uses Milwaukee’s pointy syllables and it’s similarity to the Hawaiian alphabet to use it in a verse where it actually feels like it fits in his song “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” saying, “Aloha Old Milwaukee, hello Waikiki” but Prine’s most famous ode to Milwaukee is in one of his all-time great songs, “Please Don’t Bury Me.” In the song he dies and instead of being buried in the cold cold ground, he wants to give his body away, bequeathing Milwaukee his stomach, in case we run out of beer. It’s not a line that should have me crying, but Prine died this year, and here I am.

This song falls into the larger category of Milwaukee name drops: beer. If there is one thing Milwaukee is famous for world wide, it’s brew. Most famously remembered in Jerry Lee Lewis’s song “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me.)” It’s a song that has been covered far and wide by the likes of Rod Stewart, Eric Church and others. But my favorite song about beer and Milwaukee is David Allan Coe’s “Juanita.”

Apparently, the story is that David Allan Coe had a spot that he liked to hang out in the Florida Keys. At this spot he would drink and play music and, occasionally, invite some friends over. David Allan Coe was in the outlaw country crowd, and, weirdly, children’s poet Shel Silverstein was part of this crowd. He wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash and “The Taker” for Waylon Jennings, among others, and on the beach in the Florida Keys Shel Silverstein played this song for Coe as a joke but Coe loved it so much that he put it on his album, “Tennessee Whiskey” and later on his “Greatest Hits.” It’s a song about a man who is on the lam and is trying to convince his sweetheart, Juanita, that they should move from Mexico to Milwaukee. To persuade her he tells here that Lake Michigan tastes like tequila frijoles. And all of Milwaukee speaks Spanish. He really sells it.

Finally, one of my favorite Milwaukee references in song was inspired by true events. In GG Allin’s “Shove that warrant Up Your Ass,” he yells that “Milwaukee, Wisconsin” can, well, you guessed it, “shove that warrant up your ass.” The song is surprisingly melodic, landing somewhere in between The Ramones and Misfits. When the Murder Junkies come in for the backing vocals, you want to raise your fists right with them and complete the call and response by yelling “shove that warrant up your ass!”

The incident in question: Allin’s 1989 show at Odd Rock Café where he took a shit on stage and then threw that shit at the audience. This was a pretty standard stage move for Allin at the time, nonetheless, it must have been pretty shocking for the audience and the owner, Jack Koshik, who came in and stopped the show. Later Allin was charged with disorderly conduct and public indecency and was sentenced to 90 days in prison, a $1,000 fine, and a warrant for his arrest.

There are many MANY other songs that mention Milwaukee, including some of the best by Bon Iver, Freddie Gibbs and tons of others. I made a playlist here with a lot of them. It is by no means exhaustive and I’m sorry if I missed your favorite, but hopefully you can listen along and when Milwaukee is referenced, put your fist up and yell, “OH HELL YEAH! MILWAUKEE REPRESENT!”

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Arlo Parks is an elite songwriter. This is what inspires her

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“I hold the Taco Bell and you cry over Eugene,” Arlo Parks croons in her song “Eugene.” And right there, you know what’s going on. It’s like you’re standing next to her watching the scene.

Every once in a while an elite songwriter emerges. Songwriters have staying power. Beats and melodies change with trends and time but a good songwriter can hold their own over a lifetime because good songwriting never goes out of fashion. Alro Parks is a great song writer. She’s here to stay. So we wanted to know what’s behind that songwriting.

Interview with Arlo Parks
Alex Kurunis Arlo Parks | Photo credit: Alex Kurunis

What are you reading?

Right now, I’m just finishing “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion. It’s a really good one. I’m really, really enjoying it– especially the personal essays at the end. I’m probably going to start reading “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf afterward.

I read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” last year when I went to L.A. I felt like I needed to read some classic Joan Didion while going to California. It is a great book. This is kind of what I wanted to talk about, because the thing that sticks out to me about your music, as a fan, is the writing. You’re an incredible songwriter. When did you start to realize the beauty of words?

It felt like it was embedded in my DNA. From the age of 7 or 8, I was writing short stories, and I just never really stopped. When I was a teenager, I would write plays, and I’ve always just been completely mesmerized. I come from a family of readers, but I don’t really know where this came from because it’s not to the same extent that I obsessed over books and poems. It came from within.

I would love to hear about a story that you wrote when you were 7 or 8. Do you remember the title of one?

I can’t remember what it was called, but I do vividly remember writing this story that was almost a “Bonnie and Clyde” rip off. Two kids ran away from home and were trying to find treasure in some kind of desert. My imagination was quite wild. It wasn’t based on anything that I was living. I just liked telling stories.

How did it end?

My attention span is not great, and I can’t even remember if I saw this story through fully. But, I do remember this scene where one of the kids got on this train, and the other one was running after him and couldn’t quite get on. I think that’s how it ended. Oh God, that’s quite bleak.

What do you write about when you’re 7 or 8? Running away. What else is there? Staying at home? Who are some of your favorite poets?

I really like Audre Lorde and Gary Snyder. The first poets that I got into were the beats, which I think is quite a teenage thing in general. I was reading “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg, and was like, “wow.” I had a period of time where I was reading a lot of romantic poetry, and then I kind of fell out of love with that a little bit. I would say what I read was mainly American, like Frank O’Hara, Diane di Prima and Sylvia Plath.

You fell out of love with romantic poetry… There is something romantic about that, you know?

Yeah. I think I started gravitating toward poems that felt more visceral and almost brutally emotional. I was reading things like Byron or Wordsworth, and it just felt a bit too flowery for me. I wanted something that had a little bit more muscle to it, you know?

Have you read any Hanif Abdurraqib?

Oh my God, you just threw me right back. I was obsessed. I loved him. I have his book actually.

Poetry can be a tough thing to find, especially when you want it to reflect reality, because poetry is kind of inherently romantic. As the culture has seen that romance doesn’t really work like it does in poems, to find someone who reflects reality and still carries that romance in their heart through their words, I think is really difficult. Abdurraqib does it, and you do it in your songs. What appeals to me in the songs are those details that paint a picture and put you in the space that tells a story. It can be a tragic story or a happy story, but there still is a romance in your heart.

Oh, I definitely agree. A lot of the reason why I write is to paint a picture and attribute a sense of beauty to realism. I’ve always been quite an observant human being. I’ve always been somebody who picked details out of situations, whether it was the way that someone’s hand moved or the print on somebody’s shirt. I’ve always gravitated toward it in other people’s writing as well. I think that’s why I love artists like Phoebe Bridgers. They seem to have that inclination toward being hyper-specific and making it feel universal.

A detailed observance is some of my favorite poetry. Who are some other songwriters that you think embody that writing in their music?

I think I saw it in Patti Smith. I saw it in Frank Ocean. I saw it in Elliott Smith. When I was younger, I gravitated toward a lot of guitar-based things. You know, “In Rainbows” by Radiohead was one of those records for me that conveyed detail in different ways. I always gravitated toward artists with a simplicity, but an underlying complexity to the way that they wrote. I think that’s why I love songs like “House of Cards” or “Nude” by Radiohead, where it’s so stripped back, but the emotion is so raw. You can see it as if you’re looking down the lens of a camera.

What is your favorite song from “In Rainbows?”

I think it has to be “House of Cards.” It’s the warmth. I think even just that opening line, “I don’t want to be your friend. I just want to be a lover, no matter how it ends, no matter how it starts,” there’s something so pure about that sentiment. I’ve always loved those warm, gooey guitars. I always feel so held when I listen to that song. 

I love your focus on words and how you write. It’s the more difficult thing to do. You have to like the sound of a song first, otherwise you’re never going to penetrate into the lyrics. The people I want to have a relationship with, as a fan, are those that continually talk to me.

I agree. For me, there are those songs where the lyrics will strike you in a certain way the first time you listen to them. Then as you grow older and grow up with the songs, the meanings morph and warp into something else. But they are always important and relevant. Like with “For Emma, Forever Ago,” that Bon Iver record, I don’t remember when I first heard it. I was young, but all of it just rings so true to me now in a different way. That’s hard to do as well.

Was it natural for you to take that? It’s hard to turn that corner from respecting and loving art so much to decide to be an artist and join that company. Was it easy for you, or hard?

I think I just slipped into it, because I never really called myself an artist. I just started writing and making songs. It was never really conscious. I would start jotting things down, and then I would start making beats on GarageBand, and then I’d be like, “Oh, I might try and sing over this.” I never really thought it through too much. I think the fact that I didn’t overthink it meant that it was quite a fluid process for me.

That must be a key. You can’t get inside your head too much. What was a song on the record that you really enjoyed writing?

I think it was this song called “Caroline.” It just came flowing out so fluidly. The way that it came together was so organic. “Caroline” and “For Violet” were made in the same 24 hours. It was one of those days where it was a spike of inspiration. There was no kind of doubt clouding my process. I sang the melody straight into my voice notes and opened up my book of poems. It happened so quickly. A lot of the songs on the record, because they are so close to the bone for me personally, make the process of writing them quite painful. But then at the end, there’s that sense of contentment being like, okay, I’ve managed to encapsulate the feeling.

What is the feeling that you’re trying to convey? What do you think you were trying to do on this record?

I think it’s a sense of nostalgia. I think it’s exploring the idea of processing trauma, exploring the idea of healing and the idea of adolescence. Things burn brightly when you’re younger. It’s just a time capsule. It’s talking about the situations that have shaped me.

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