it's always winter in reds

just some disconnected thoughts on warren beatty's hot'n'horny 1981 historical epic

look, maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t. i just felt like i needed to replenish this space with something, so.

It’s always winter in Reds, even when it isn’t. It’s always winter, and someone is always arguing, someone is always plotting, someone is always unhappy—no, someone is always dissatisfied, which is not unlike unhappiness but is not the exact same—someone is always longing, someone is always toiling away against their raging discontent. It’s always winter, and everyone is always in long shirtsleeves, under a shabby jacket or sweater that looks like it could come apart at the seams at any moment or wrapped in a fur coat that has seen better days, lips chapped and eyes tired and skin pale, dull, and dead. 

Reds is, on the most basic level, a movie about history. The passion project of Warren Beatty, who co-wrote, directed, and starred, it is a historical epic about journalist and communist activist John (Jack) Reed, the radical movement in early 20th century America, and his journey to Russia to document the Bolshevik revolution. But it’s also a love story; intertwined is his affair with and marriage to Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton, who is so spectacular in the role that it is infuriating to watch with the knowledge that she is now making movies like Poms), an aspiring—floundering—artist/writer/bohemian who eventually comes to work alongside him as a fellow activist-journalist. Oh, and Jack Nicholson pops in as an incredibly, illegally, hot Eugene O’Neill, just to add a little more drama to the already overflowing pot. 

It is the I hope this email finds you well in these trying times of movies, a movie about people trying to shift the narrative in a positive direction in real time who operate in a state of idealistic denial about just how bad things really are and how much harder they will be to change. But because Reds is a movie not just about history, which is something that has already happened, it is just as much about the way history is remembered. Filtered through the lens of late-70s America where the progressive agenda had failed once again, we already know the outcome of Reds. We have lived through those trying times, have read about those trying times, and have lived through many more that followed. We know that these are real people and not just fictional characters, that the events in the film happened and aren’t just fictional plot points, and yet, we watch anyway, somehow hoping that we’ll get the Hollywood ending we want each time.

The thing about history is that everything is history in some sense, though our present lives are often split into times in which we know we are living through it—it being something big, something monumental, something we know will be chronicled and remembered and studied in the times to come—and the times in which we are willfully ignorant, the times in which we think everything is fine, uneventful, maybe even good. And, of course, this is all a lie, too. Even the perceived good times tell us something about who we are in the ways in which we decide what counts as a good time, the ways in which a good time for one group of people might not be a good time for another. The thing about history—and about Reds, too, as we learn through all the talking heads featured—is that history does not have the benefit of the present tense. It is not the act of standing next to someone and seeing the same thing happen and having a shared understanding of it. History is the past tense, history is memory and interpretation, all the ways in which what we all saw can be misremembered and misconstrued and twisted by each and every one of us, at times in a way that it no longer resembles what we once lived through at all. 

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Reds is like winter in that it is an excessively long movie, stretching across three hours, with no end in sight. We know it will end, of course we do, but we implausibly think it will go on forever. By the time it reaches intermission an hour and 45 minutes in, you wonder how it could possibly wrap up in a succinct second act.

Early in the film, there’s a brief stretch set in summer, but it comes and goes in fiction just as quickly as it does in life, and even then, their white linens aren’t sparkling and crisp so much as dingy and wilting; not even the temporary warmth can solve Jack and Louise’s problems. The little happiness they find while summering on the shore can’t last. It’s fleeting and fading, it won’t even make it through the season, threatened by Jack’s premature departure for political work and the presence of Jack Nicholson’s brooding and bitter Eugene O’Neill. There is no carefree summer fun in Reds, even when it tries at it. The discontent of winter is all consuming. Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton are almost always confined to small, muted spaces, in rooms with low ceilings and too much furniture to feel anything but cramped, working and fighting and fucking with nowhere else to go. Although it was a visual choice by production designer Richard Sylbert intended to show how big their characters were in their world, watching now, I don’t get anything out of it other than claustrophobia. I don’t get any historical symbolism from it, just the cold and unrelenting reflection of present circumstances reflected back.

When I started writing this essay, it was the dead of February, the time of year when it seems like it has always been winter and will always be winter and our bodies will never know warmth or sunlight from any source other than our SAD lamps ever again. It’s now spring, or near spring, at least. The fake March spring is just outside my window, a string of 60º days that make me believe everything is fine and normal again, even though nothing is normal right now, even though I know the warmth is just a fluke, just a tease before cooler, more seasonable temperatures yell “syke!” and make their cruel return. But even when spring comes for real, and summer after, I will still be looking over my shoulder, still reminding myself that it can’t last forever, that winter is always coming, that there’s always a catch to anything good.

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Let’s just state the obvious: Reds is, objectively speaking, the hottest movie ever made. It’s impossibly horny, absolutely saturated with desire that is only made more horny by the fact that there’s not even that much fucking in it. Really, there are only, like, two sex scenes, maybe three, and it’s a stretch to even call them that, just some dim lighting and suggestive advances before cutting away. Instead, the dial is turned up to the highest possible frequency of sexy without showing actual sex and stays there, often leaving our want completely unfulfilled. It’s the promise of fucking that makes it hot. The threat of it, even, the will-they-or-won’t-they of it all. 

All this, too, is history reimagined, history heightened for dramatic purposes. Hollywood is full of beautiful people pretending to play normal people. Virginia Woolf-ing oneself into Oscar bait wasn’t as much of a thing when Reds was produced, and Reds is full of exceedingly hot people not only portraying average-at-best looking people, but acting as though in real life they, too, were unbearably hot. Beatty once explained that he got Nicholson to play the part by first asking him for advice. “I told him I needed someone to play Eugene O’Neill, but it had to be someone who could convincingly take this woman away from me,” he said. Nicholson immediately replied, “There’s only one actor who could do that—me!” None of them look even remotely like their real life counterparts—hey, that’s showbiz, baby—but if they weren’t aggressively attractive, the love triangle would fall flat. In real life, Jack Reed possessed none of the handsome, playboy good looks of Warren Beatty, who even manages to be hot when (spoiler) dying of typhus. Beatty’s Reed may be the beta version of a Hot DSA Fuckboy, but IRL Reed looked more like Baby-faced DSA Virgin, if I’m being completely honest here. He may have, historically, been a playboy, but it’s the real life Eugene—who radiated hot professor energy—who could take me from Jack in a second. Of course they both need to be hot—ridiculously, superhuman hot—on film for any real tension to occur.

In the film, as in real life, Bryant and O’Neill have an affair when Reed leaves to cover the 1916 election, and things get complicated, as things are wont to do in films. He’s a real person, but he’s also, in the frame of the film, a plot point. It’s more appealing to remember the more salacious and exciting parts of someone’s life, but that often means bending the truth of history to fit our desired portrayal of it. In real life, Bryant and Reed considered themselves to be free love intellectuals; her affair with O’Neill was less of a high stakes love triangle and more of a, um, throuple. History is a lot more entertaining when attractive people talk like this, but it’s not actually real. 

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I think I saw Reds for the first time as a freshman in college. I say think because I don’t really know for certain. A combination of forces at hand—I was a film major, and had the entire campus library and independent video store’s catalogue full of films unavailable through my then-only suppliers (Blockbuster, TCM, and the county library system) that I’d been longing to see for years at my fingertips—meant I watched a lot of movies that year. So many that the ones I can only really remember truly, wholly, vividly are the films that completely bowled me over or the ones I viciously hated. If I really did see Reds then, it must have been met with too much ambivalence for it to fall clearly into either category. I don’t really know if that is the real truth, or if that narrative is what my brain wants me to believe is the truth. I am just as subjected to the failures of memory as the film itself. 

All I know for certain is that I didn’t truly see Reds until Thanksgiving two years ago, over a long weekend I spent holed up inside my apartment alone and finding that the time by myself wasn’t as relaxing as I thought it would be but was instead rather lonely, so I filled up every conscious waking hour with the television on. The longer the movie, the better; Reds seemed like an obvious choice. I was immediately, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it, obsessed. By the time the weekend ended, I had watched it two times more.

In the year 2020, when it was always winter, even when it wasn’t, and I was always in a state of discontent, I watched Reds at least eight times—or, roughly, once a month—that I logged. I’ve written about this before, but I spent more of the past year on comfort films I didn’t have to pay too much attention to than I did with “good” films in the Criterion Collection or profound new genres that would make me think. Somewhere, Reds became the perfect kind of comfort film in that it didn’t make me feel bad about watching yet another comfort film. I don’t know how anyone could call Reds comforting, least of all me. It’s long, it’s brutal, there’s death and despair and a lot of complicated intellectual and political jargon thrown around. But in between all that, there’s the foundation of a modern boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back, boy-and-girl-find-themselves-swept-up-in-the-1917-Revolution plot at play. That Reds is at once about five different movies made it the best kind of in-between film to watch during These Times; I could think or I could not, simple as that. It could be whatever I wanted it, or needed it, to be. 

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Early in Reds, there are a string of scenes in which Jack’s intellectual friends ask Louise what it is she does for a living. She’s out of place in their bohemian New York crew, no longer a big fish in a small pond like she was in Portland, no longer special, just average, mediocre, even. “I write,” she answers as they immediately turn away or dismissively say “good for you” before moving on to a new subject, only having asked her out of politeness rather than genuine interest. When people care enough to ask her more, she can’t really explain it. She writes about “everything.” What she’s working on now is “impossible to describe.” I have never so fiercely related to a character more.

I’m working on a book right now—which is why these dispatches are and will be so few and far between—that should be easy to describe, but somehow I find even that simple task a challenge. It’s a biography—but not a stuffy one, I’ve been quick to add. It’s cultural criticism. It’s a mystery and detective story. It’s a love story. It’s history. It’s history reinterpreted. It’s everything. It’s impossible to describe. Just like Reds.

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If you liked this and want to read more about Reds, I highly recommend Peter Biskind’s lengthy, juicy, delicious Vanity Fair piece on it from 2006, which I have to reread at least once a month to replenish my serotonin levels.

If you have not seen, you can stream Reds on pretty much every major platform.

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nice things

or, how high anxiety and, um, a global pandemic made me rethink my materialism

I am my father’s daughter. Which is to say, more specifically: I am the way I am, in large part, because my father played Mel Brooks movies around me a lot, maybe too much—definitely too early—growing up.

If it was a Sunday in our house, the TV remote could only be under his command, and good luck persuading him to put on something you actually wanted to watch. Sunday mornings, I learned, were not the time to invest yourself in some new story; rather, they were a time to slip into the comfort of an old, well-worn favorite. For my father, this more often than not meant something by Mel Brooks. It was rarely a well received choice. My mother always objected loudly the moment the first remotely dirty joke hit: “This is not appropriate,” she’d say, stern, shrill, exasperated, like she had acquired a fourth unruly child to parent. I didn’t always like it, either; often, I only sat down to watch because I was told gruffly that I had to. My protests weren’t so much concerned with propriety (although “why is this okay but MTV is not?” came up plenty) as they were with variety. I wanted something new, wanted one of my favorites for once instead of his. But here’s the thing: No amount of sheer stubborn will to remain unamused could keep me from at least cracking a smile. That’s the undeniable humor of Mel Brooks for you.

When I say “I am the way I am,” of course I’m being hyperbolic—but even exaggerations are rooted in truth. When I say “I am the way I am,” I mean that I can point to these Sunday morning movies as very real explanations for the person I am today: Why I lack the ability to skillfully compromise on what to watch; why I have an unhealthy knowledge of pop culture made before I was born; why I favor humor that is a little irreverent and lovingly obsessive; why I have no choice but to make fun of my own anxieties for fear that if I don’t crack a joke, someone else will do so first. 

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I am my father’s daughter, but I am also a child of the aughts, which is a way of saying I came of age in the time of The Simple Life and My Super Sweet Sixteen; of Juicy Couture tracksuits and Seven for All Mankind jeans paired with tiny rainbow monogrammed Louis Vuitton bags and heart-shaped Return to Tiffany & Co. charm necklaces; of Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada. It was a time where designer logo flaunting was considered neither garish nor camp, but stylish and trendy and, above all else, deeply aspirational. “Eat the rich” was not a common refrain back then; we still thought we could be the rich if we really worked hard enough. In the meantime, we could at least dress like them.

As a child of the aughts, there were few jokes in the entirety of Mel Brooks’ canon I loved more than the sight of Madeline Kahn’s Victoria Brisbane, dressed in a monogrammed pantsuit, emerging from a monogrammed car while carrying a monogrammed bag in High Anxiety. (Casual viewing of the film passes this off as Louis Vuitton, but upon closer inspection, the gag is even more detailed: It is not, in fact, intertwining LVs adorning her suit and car; rather, VBs.) Details aside, it’s the final escalation of a running sight gag throughout the film; Kahn’s send-up of a classic Hitchcock blonde is rarely seen without an imitation-Vuitton accessory, be it leather clutch or stuffed animal. The progression of its presence to consume not only her entire outfit, but vehicle, as well is funny in part because it goes completely unacknowledged. 

There are other films by Mel Brooks that we watched more than High Anxiety, ones that are funnier, ones that are simply better, ones that have gone into the time capsule where all great films from the past we have since categorized as classics go. Of course The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein are nearly perfect in every way—you don’t need me to tell you that. Be it an old Western or a silent film, Brooks’ satires are often created with the precise, obsessive detail of someone who is a fan first, filmmaker second, and while his best parodies stand on their own, they always hit best when the viewer has some working knowledge of the source material. High Anxiety is no exception, although it never ascended to the same status as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. Enjoyable as it is, its plot is too reliant on its source, the jokes are too inside baseball. Its attempts to satirize an already witty filmmaker—which, really, how do you do that—devolve instead into a greatest hits mashup of Hitchcock’s best bits. As a kid, I felt this acutely: Many of Brooks’ jokes went over my head, but High Anxiety’s especially so. We owned a VHS box set of Hitchcock’s 1930s films, but I certainly never touched them. I did the viewing in reverse; by the time I got around to the more iconic Hitchcock films, it felt as if I had seen them before. Only then did many of High Anxiety’s cracks really click.

There are funnier sight gags in Brooks’ oeuvre, obviously, there are; funnier gags in High Anxiety, too. But this—this was a joke I got right away without needing it explained to me (which, of course, always immediately makes a joke unfunny). I laughed because I recognized my current culture, not the culture in which it was made. It was a visual gag that has only become more relevant as time has passed and consumerism as grown. (Look no further than Dorit Kemsley wearing a similarly-inspired look on a recent episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.) But I also laughed because something told me I needed to learn how to laugh at myself so others’ laughter at the gag didn’t register so much as at me but with me. As a 12 year old, image-obsessed girl waiting impatiently for the day I could grow up and be a “fancy adult lady,” I saw Kahn’s character—who looked like so many other wealthy, glamorous women I knew growing up and wanted to emulate in spite of, or maybe because of, their oblivious privilege—and thought “that is what I’d like to be when I grow up.” But that someone was someone everyone else was laughing at—even me—though I didn’t fully understand why at the time. “Laughter is a strange response,” Madeline Kahn once said. “I mean, what is it? It’s a spasm of some kind! Is that always joy? It’s very often discomfort.” 

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I am a child of the aughts but I am also an adult of the now. And as an adult today, I am someone who likes nice things, and when I say nice things, I mean beautiful things, and when I say beautiful things, I often mean expensive things, which are not always mutually exclusive, though for a large part of my life I thought so. And although I often jokingly say it’s because I am a Taurus, the real reason is much more complicated than that. It’s more like: I am someone who likes nice things because I am a Taurus, sure, but also because, growing up, the value of well-made nice things was drilled into me and nice things were not so commonplace that I could understand why they were special; because I have learned the hard way as an adult that the not-nice things, the shortcut version of things, often end up being more expensive than nice things in the long run; because the procurement and having of nice things made—make—me feel something, some sort of pleasure that I can’t quite succinctly sum up with words.

Growing up working-middle class in an upper-middle class community—and even now, still decidedly middle class in an upper class workplace—I have known what it is like to want things. I have known the small feeling of pride that comes with buying myself nice things with money I earned, and I have known countless women like Victoria, women for whom nice things have always been and always will be a given, and thus are tossed on without a second thought and discarded just as easily. I have known what is like to assert my own worth in material goods. Never mind if I can really only afford to do so by shopping at consignment stores or the holy trinity that is TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and Century 21; having the ability to own something well made and with a “name” or a price tag that made me think long and hard or save a little before purchasing made me feel like I was someone really making it in the world. But I have also known the shame of wanting things, for I’ve never gone without. I’ve always had enough, so why do I want more?

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Every year when my mother asks for my Christmas list, after much protest—I’m an adult now, I make my own money, the things I really want make me feel like a snob—I provide her with a few items like a new pair of Lululemon leggings or a silk blouse from J. Crew, clothes that are certainly not luxury items to some, but pricey to many; nice items that are investments to me, ones I wouldn’t (couldn’t) frequently purchase myself. They are clothes meant to publicly impress, whether at work or at the gym. This year, my list is dowdy wool socks and sweatshirts and clogs. When luxury loungewear appears on one editorial gift guide after another—“Why not feel nice while you’re stuck at home?” they all croon—I put a pack of plain long sleeve Hanes tee shirts on my list instead. I know better.

Once, while standing in the front row of my kindergarten holiday concert, I became so overwhelmed with anxiety that I froze, lifted the hem of my dress—my nice dress—and proceeded to chew a hole in its hem. It’s a stress response I have never been able to shake entirely; this year it came back, violently. Entire necklines of shirts have been destroyed, chewed up beyond recognition. It would be nice to feel nice while stuck at home, but I know enough to know that nice things are only nice if they are kept that way. 

I just don’t see the point in nice things this year, I told my mother. This year I am not going anywhere. This year I have ruined things I know won’t be seen by anyone outside of my apartment. This year I have no need to impress. I don’t need $100 leggings that make my ass look great; who’s going to see it? The $12 ones from the kids’ section of Target get my workouts done just the same. This year I am content to just be alive, with a warm place to live and a body that can still go through the motions of daily life. This year I don’t need nice things. This year I have only the most basic need to survive. 

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Mel Brooks makes mocking movies, but he does not make mean movies; there’s a difference. For one, mean movies are not Sunday morning movies. In this hell year, I found myself watching more films I had already seen than not, returning repeatedly to those of the Sunday morning variety, including many of Brooks’. I wanted worn-in comfort food movies, movies that are warm and silly and feel a little stupid even though they’re often deceptively smart. In 2020, I just wanted to turn my brain off for a little bit. In 2020, I just wanted to laugh. 

Brooks never overtly judges Victoria for her materialism; aside from a subtle double take when she emerges from the car, he never even really acknowledges it. The bit itself only lasts about fifteen seconds, just barely long enough for your brain to register it. And it’s funny, the same way all seemingly throwaway bits are funny. It’s a spoof, after all, it doesn’t get that deep. What High Anxiety does is remind us that it’s okay to laugh at these aspects of human behavior, that, really, they’re not hurting anybody, even if they’re kind of silly. Sure, he’s poking fun at her, but he’s not doing so with any cruelty. If he wanted to do that, he would have made her look grotesque, and trust: she looks fucking good, the way so many young girls aspire to look: cool and collected, elegant and chic, with bouncing blonde Barbie doll hair. Maybe, at the end of the day, what Brooks reminds us of is our collective stupid humanity; we’re all just a bunch of smooth brained idiots walking around, every last one of us—no matter how good we look—deserving of some gentle mocking. 

Brooks is a master of jokes, but he doesn’t use them superfluously. If anything, he exercises constraint. Being funny is important, but serving the story comes first. (Never forget he nearly cut the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene from Young Frankenstein, concerned it wasn’t doing just this.) Maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll make us think a little too, but that isn’t always necessary. Victoria’s Vuitton-obsession is a joke, but it’s also an insight into who she is as a person, one that goes deeper than superficiality. Look at her, so together she even coordinates with her car. But she only appears to possess the same kind casual elegance and effortless-seeming confidence as Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint. Moments later, she is exasperated: “My life is just all topsy-turvy!” she cries. “I mean, how much more can a girl take? My nerves are cracking! I feel like I’m going to die! I think I am going to explode!” Each word comes out punctuated, a sharp staccato rhythm of anxiety. She takes a breath, lets out a roar. The image is just a facade; underneath her clothes, she’s a neurotic mess, full of all the same insecurities and fears as the rest of us. 

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It’s not bad to want nice things, of course it isn’t. But how much are nice things a constructive act towards happiness—the if you look good, you’ll feel good mentality—and how much are they flimsy scaffolding giving the appearance of real work despite just barely holding us together? It would be nice to dress up my despair in silks and cashmeres, but it would not change my mood, not really. It would just look like it. Managing your appearance is a way to exert control when it feels like everything else is spinning out, a clever illusion to convince others—and even yourself, sometimes—that you are well and good and fine, even if you aren’t. Clothes are often spoken about as art, and, by extension, a form of self-expression, but they are more than that: they’re a way to create your own narrative.

This is an increasingly visual world, and I am an active participant, posting all those ‘fit pics on Instagram and retweeting jokes about how women don’t dress for men, but for the approval of female colleagues in the work bathroom and buying new clothes I don’t really need to impress a date who I will likely never see again. For a long time, I thought that if I dressed a certain way and looked a certain way, I could change my narrative, I could erase all the feelings of unworthiness or anxiety or fear. Maybe money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you the appearance of it. 

I’m not saying it’s frivolous to want nice things, not projecting some faux-piety that I have rid myself of the desire to want more than what is necessary to have. I won’t pretend I don’t lose hours scrolling through online retail, pining for heels and dresses I can wear out one day when this is all over. You can’t erase nearly three decades of materialism that easily, and I am getting tired of the joyless act of just surviving. When we’re through with this, I will put on my most extravagant outfit, my most ridiculously nice, my most overdressed for the function attire, my most Victoria Brisbane-level of extra. I will feel joy. Of course I will feel joy. But I hopefully will have reconsidered my reliance upon nice things to deliver it.  

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things to boost your mood in the face of a global pandemic, vol. iii

no one asked for this but

*logs back on after a few months*

Um, okay, hi. I promise I have a good excuse for why these have been lacking as of late and why they will likely continue to be sent sporadically in the future but I, lol, don’t think I’m allowed to actually it until the new year. I do have at least one more of these, maybe even two planned for you, but first:

Things are getting bad again: It’s too cold to spend much time outside (in fact, it snowed, which I guess some people love, but let me ask: At what cost?); but even if it wasn’t, we shouldn’t anyway, at least in close proximity to other people, given the rapidly rising rates and all; there’s a Big Sad encroaching as many of us prepare to spend the holidays alone.

The people have been asking for it (no), so I am back once again with a list of recommendations of tried and tested, medical doctor approved cures (no) for the Winter/Christmastime/Unending Quarantine Big Sad. As always, take what you need and pass it on. (And wear a goddamn fucking mask. And by “wear a goddamn fucking mask” I mean: “Yes, wear a mask when you step out of your apartment into your building hallway to walk 12 feet to take out the garbage. Yes, put your mask on in your car before you step out into the parking lot of the grocery store. Yes, wear a mask when you’re running in a park where there are other people around because, I simply don’t understand why y’all aren’t getting this, but just being outside does not abate you from needing to wear! a! mask! Okay?) 

Woo, felt good to say that. Anyway, as always

thanks sorry love u bye,
Carrie 


Okay, look. If I’m not going home for Christmas this year and forcing my family to watch a movie I like that they have absolutely no interest in, then will at least ONE of you here oblige me? Listen: I have been watching a lot of Not Great films this year. I know some of you have been cranking through obscure Criterion, but my brain is so smooth it can only handle so much stimulation. In the spirit of the holidays, one recommendation, reconsideration, and take: Mixed Nuts (1994) is not that bad! I firmly believe that if you took out the (very 90s) transphobia, cut Adam Sandler, gave Robert Klein more scenes, and set it in New York instead of Venice Beach (Nora Ephron is always at her best when a film is set in New York and, honestly, it’s a far more appropriate setting for the black comedy), it would have been a success. Okay, I realize these seem like major structural changes but I promise you they’re really not. At the very least, this film is ENJOYABLE and a nice break from the usual holiday film suspects. It is on all the major streaming platforms, and if you send me a photo of you watching it, I will… I don’t know what I’ll do. Be happy?

If you’re still entertaining the idea of working out, might I recommend:
Isaac Boots, who is fun and funny and makes me feel like I’m back in a deliciously gossip-y bougie boutique class in Manhattan that I can only afford because I bought a package with my annual corporate health and fitness allowance. Fortunately for me, and all of us, though, these classes are free, and streaming on Instagram live every day at 11 am. (posts saved to grid to do whenever)

Also, honestly, Jane Fonda was not joking around with her Workout tapes. Doing The Workout started as a bit, but it has since become my main go-to. (The OG is on Amazon Prime. For free on YouTube, I’m not ashamed to say I have done the walking workout for seniors on days I crave steps but it is too cold to go outside; the New Workout — whatever that is — is insane, especially if you’re stupid like me and go straight to the advanced version, but it is also good.) Also recommended: My friend Emmy’s stellar deep dive into the political history of The Workout and why they really do hold up all these years later. 

I cannot in full faith recommend Cher’s Hot Dance workout, nor can I endorse Mary Tyler Moore’s Every Woman Workout (targeted “to women 35 to 60”!), as I have not yet tried either, but I am aware of their existence in my quest to try every workout made during the celebrity workout tape boom, so I think you should be, too.  

Obviously, as an Annie stan practically since birth, the sudden death of Ann Reinking had me revisiting her entire oeuvre and, unfortunately, I am still the half-assed theatre kid I was in my youth. (By which I mean: I exist on the fringes of Theatre Kids: someone who loved performing but was never actually a lead and quit after a handful of chorus parts in middle/high school musicals and plays and a pretty great, actually, performance as Harper in a college workshop of Angels In America (I went method, which is to say I was already anxious and likely depressed) because my instructors told me even though I was talented, I didn’t ~stand out.~ So, of course, performing went the way of basketball, improv, and competitive running, for I simply never grasped the concept of doing something you’re reasonably good at and enjoy if you are not (a) the best or (b) able to make a career of it. I am now learning that’s, um, not totally right, but anyway, I DIGRESS as this is becoming all about me!) This is all to say: I did what I always do when I watch great dancing that looks so effortless (I mean, come on.): I, hopelessly not a good dancer and seemingly unable to follow choreography, took to YouTube and did a slew of Fosse-inspired dance workouts before I gave up in a fit of frustration with the limitations of my own stupid brain and body (oops I have not changed as much as I thought I have!). This one, though, is fairly easy (as in, it is 13 minutes long but it took me 45 to get okay at it and the whole time I thought “oh this feels like i’m back in my high school auditorium holding the rest of the cast from moving forward because I keep getting the steps wrong and the director is clearly pissed! Love this nostalgia for me!”) and a lot of fun and, look, I don’t know. It’s yet another amusing way to pass some time in this hellscape.

Karen Allen’s Instagram account for her textiles store in the Berkshires is……..soothing. The second we get the vaccine, I WILL be road tripping there with my pals, the aforementioned Emmy, and Carrie W., and it will be wonderful. (We really gotta get her a Nancy Meyers movie, folks.)

Deuxmoi! Deuxmoi! Deuxmoi! Call the people behind the private Instagram account (the Facebook group is lame, I do not recommend) “curators of pop culture” (as they call themselves); call them the Louella Parsons our generation deserves. Their collected anonymous tips—sourced and reposted via Instagram stories—have become my nightly bedtime stories, ones I click click click away at in bed at 2 a.m. when I really should be asleep, the pale blue light of the screen lulling me to a state of calm. 

I am an Old Millennial and therefore don’t fully get TikTok so apparently I’m late to this BUT Lili Hayes…...I would take a bullet for this woman.

I’ve gotten very into binging forgotten late 70s-90s sitcoms from comedy stars that are not great (to varying degrees, some worse than others) but entertaining nonetheless. They’re free on YouTube, obviously. We’re talking Madeline Kahn’s short lived series Oh Madeline, her series with George C. Scott Mr. President, Gene Wilder’s Something Wilder, Bonnie Hunt’s Life With Bonnie (also recommend YouTube clips of her short lived talk show), Mary Tyler Moore’s 1985 Mary and 1988 Annie McGuire, and many more. Smooth brain city, no weinkls!

On the topic of television, are you watching the Drew Barrymore Show—a daytime talk show where Drew Barrymore does everything from making cocktails with the Shirley Temple King (a child) in studio while Zooming with a very confused Stanley Tucci to talking about her love of Lexapro and the 2009 comedy Bride Wars to booking a medium to talk to a guest’s dead husband in the A block—every morning, or do you hate yourself?  

Folks, it’s Roberto The Soup season again. (My hack is making this without sausage but double beans and sometimes chickpea pasta, though I recently made a version with double beans and carrot chonks instead of pasta and, folks, the carrots are a great addition.) If anyone has good soup recipes that are relatively simple (and, preferably, don’t require an immersion blender because I don’t want to buy yet another kitchen tool I will use precisely once before relegating it to the back of a junk drawer), you know where to send ‘em. 

While we’re on the topic of food: Did you know Food Network has a dessert competition show that is a life size version of Candy Land (aptly, it is named Candy Land) and it features something called “sugar artists” and is hosted by short legend Kristin Chenoweth?! Yes, it’s true! I watched the two hour pilot and was too overwhelmed to watch any more, but I continue, even in these times, to be a person who has a habit of reading recaps of shows I don’t feel like committing time and energy to watching but want to remain aware of because of ~the discourse.~ Lucky for me, and you, Caitlin Bower has recaps over on her Substack that are funnier and better than the show and make me snort with laughter and choke on my Twizzlers every single week. 

Did you know you can just buy Cool Whip whenever you want, just because you want it? And you can just eat it straight out of the tub with a spoon? It’s great on its own. You know this and I know this. You don’t have to save it to use as a garnish or work into a dessert or anything. (The same goes for canned frosting.) Is it kind of gross? Yes. Are we all going to die one day? Also yes. The way our own stupid inevitable mortality has been forced down our throats this year, I think we all deserve to indulge in some lowkey trash, lowkey gross food things in the privacy of our own homes while we are still living breathing flesh vessels. I don’t have a link to this or anything; the Bewitched (the movie, shh) clip I just watched after drinking two glasses of wine just reminded me that this was something I did this summer and enjoyed. So.

I, personally, would like to see a Pulitzer for Jane Fonda’s blog. That she has given us dispatches on her Christmas tree, the squirrel in her backyard, AND climate change? Hero. 

Speaking of Pulitzers, Helena Fitzgerald’s Griefbacon newsletter is back and I love to cry reading each and every essay she sends out, even the ones that aren’t explicitly sad. 

And finally: Fran Lebowitz hating things YouTube videos. You are welcome. Sometimes it’s nice to not like things. I think we should all do it more! We’re allowed!

###

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okay that's it that's the end thanks bye

song for sharon

you heard of sad girl summer now get ready for seasonally depressed girl autumn

hey hi hello, long time no see

thanks for hanging around while bed crumbs was mia (not that anyone was beating down my door for a new one but i get upset with myself when i’m not consistently productive because i have high! functioning! anxiety!). i just submitted a 50 page research-heavy book proposal, so, like, that’s my excuse. (that no one asked for!)

anyway my brain is fried but i’m back at it again with another brain dump about a favorite old song i haven’t been able to stop listening to, big walk fall, and all this ongoing *gestures wildly* shit. who knows, it might be bad but at least it’s something wooooo what a promising preface for this okay here we go!!!

okay thanks sorry love u bye,

carrie


song for sharon

I missed back-to-school season this year. For the first time in nearly a decade, I encountered no eager and anxious 18 year olds filling enormous plastic bins with mini fridges and electric fans, saw no evidence that Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Animal House posters remain laughably, improbably, ubiquitous even after all these years, had no overly helpful RA incorrectly peg me as a freshman in passing and ask if I need any help. Back to school season in the city always thrills me a little. It’s an the influx of fresh faced energy. It’s the great yawning stretch as the city wakes up and readies to roar itself back to life after a long, languid summer. It’s the first event in a season of events. 

There was none of that this year, just another destabilizing absence in a year full of destabilizing absences. There will be many more to come.

I am old enough now to recognize the ways in which nostalgia begins to creep closer as each day passes slightly colder than the last. Fall is a time for temporary regressions: to back to school shopping; to Halloween, the one time a year adults are allowed to behave like children for a day; to Thanksgiving, sleeping in our childhood bedrooms; to unwrapping gifts Christmas morning. In between, the air chills. The sun sets at dinner time. Memories, in their amber glow, are warmth to cling to.

Fall is a time of homieness and homesickness. It is a time to press shoulder to shoulder at the bar when al fresco season ends. It is a time to find yourself in a warm room full of strangers and a time to find yourself staring from the street at the yellow light spilling out of open curtained apartments, at the silhouettes of bodies illuminated in the windows, at the built-in bookshelves and framed artwork, wondering what their lives are like. This year only half of this can be true. 

Joni Mitchell makes music for fall. You can disagree with me, but you would be wrong. It is only when the leaves begin to turn that I can bear to listen to her spin tales — of yearning, of regret, of lost loves and new infatuations, of dreams, of fierce independence — through her singular open chords and multi-syllable jammed verses. If Joni makes music for fall, then it must be said that she also makes music for times of despair. “I wouldn’t have pursued music but for trouble,” she once said. Of course she could never have anticipated the kind of trouble we’re in now — could anyone? — but she’s made an antidote for it. 

Hejira is an album full of trouble, abandoned tours and addiction, suicide and affairs; troubles run from by taking to the open highways of America and the troubles stumbled upon along the way. It’s an album of restlessness and of loneliness, full of dialogues with people never met or long forgotten. Hejira takes its title from the transliteration of the Arabic word “journey.” Mitchell is said to have chosen it while looking for a word that meant “running away with honor.”

As big walk summer transitions into big walk fall, with no car available, I soundtracked my long walks — the only way I know how to run away from this all, at least for a little — with “Song For Sharon” on repeat. (From here on out, I will refer to the song without quotes in the interest of not driving myself crazy in the process of writing this.) A sprawling, wistful epic that comes halfway through the album, Song For Sharon is both open letter and a travelogue, finding Joni high on coke and nostalgia in New York City, meandering from Staten Island to Greenwich Village to Central Park while having a one-sided conversation with her childhood friend that traverses its own geography, from Saskatchewan’s small towns to its sprawling green farms. This fall, it feels like so many of us are Joni, unable to leave on any kind of real hejira and instead wandering the cold city alone and reminiscing about better times with others we are now missing. And there are so many people to miss: people who are both here and not; people who are both far and nearby; people we talk to everyday and people with whom we’ve long been out of touch, the fuzzy etchings of their faces suddenly appearing in our minds out of nowhere. Fall has always felt like the beginnings of a very long lonely season, but this year, with its forced, unending isolation, it is even lonelier. This year we are all singing our own songs for our own Sharons. 

+

well i do accept the changes, at least better than i used to do

Nostalgia is a dangerous state to find yourself tangled within at any time, but especially now. These days I find myself longing for the “normal” days, but the “normal” days I long for are not the normal days, not really, rather the idealized special rarities. Before all this, I wasn’t an extroverted social butterfly. I didn’t really go out or date or travel all that much, not nearly to the extent my mind seems to think I did now that the occurrence of all these things is pretty much set to zero. Things weren’t really drastically better six months ago, but my mind is tricking me to believe it was.

Sometime this summer my therapist said I was one of her better-adjusted patients when it came to quarantine. I don’t know if she meant it as a compliment or praise; the unspoken backhandedness of it hung in the air. But it made me laugh for a moment, recalling how riddled with panic attacks I was at the beginning of this, how I feared that going outside at all was dangerous, as if the virus had just saturated the air completely. At a certain point, the benefits of not having to go through the exhausting daily slog — waking up at 5 a.m. and being on the go, not just doing my job but interacting with people in a place where appearance is everything while doing it, until I’d get home at 8 — seemed to outweigh the cons. I still have dips into the hellscape where all I can do is stare at the wall and cry, but maybe, for the most part, I had a better time adjusting to social distancing because I was never extremely social to begin with. Or maybe the grand, unending nature of this wore me down, too overwhelming in size and scope to face now. I’ll compartmentalize, save it all for later. 

+

in this vigorous anonymity, a blank face at the window stares and stares and stares and stares and stares

Brain fog is real, but in between the misplaced glasses and questions of when and what I last ate and what day I need to pick up my laundry is the resurrection of old memories I forgot I even had. With more time on my hands and fewer moments to live in, I’ve started taking stock of my life. (Maybe this is also just what the final year of your twenties is like?) There are moments where I find myself thinking for a moment about the conventional things — a suburban home, a regular office job, a husband, children on purpose, home cooked meals every night, tailgates on weekends — I had long ago rejected in favor of a life more bohemian than those I had grown up with. I wanted to be in the city, surrounded by culture, living in a small rented apartment, writing and burning the candle at both ends, single by choice, doing whatever I want whenever I wanted to. The joke, of course, is that I am more of a creative slave to capitalism and I play it too safe to be a true bohemian (as Jo March once said, “Money is the means and the ends of my mercenary existence”), but still. Domesticity has never particularly interested me. I am happier this way, I know, and yet, lately it seems like I’m inundated by images of all these traditional things I don’t have and suddenly wondering what I’m doing “wrong” by not wanting them.

Like many people, the longer this stretches on, the higher my already embarrassingly excessive screentime climbs. The lives of people I grew up with, all those pursuing the road laid out plainly and predictably in front of them, are right there on social media for my prying eyes to devour with equal parts fascination and horror. Thinking about my hometown and my youth is about going back; for many of them, it’s all still right there, still present. What is there to be nostalgic for if you’ve never left something behind?

+

I hate to be one of those “this song couldn’t be written now” people, but I really don’t know if it could, not really. It’d be different, let’s just say that. Song For Sharon is a collection of specific images communicated in real time to a person far away. There are those current — the long white dress in the window of a Staten Island storefront; the skyline of Manhattan from the ferry; the gypsy on Bleecker Street; the 29 skaters on Wollman Rink circling in singles and in pairs — and those from long ago — the North Dakota junction; the Maidstone weddings; the railroad tracks and playground swings; the little girl cowgirl jeans.

What is Instagram if not the same kind of visual open letter to people we have long been out of touch with? In photos and videos, throwback scans and shared posts and screenshots, we document the daily mundanities and the adventures and the warm, fuzzy memories alike. Instagram is where we thirst trap, but also where we experience trap, where we glamour trap, where we nostalgia trap — presenting a version of our lives sometimes meant for only a few people but seen by many, meant to communicate who we are and who we once were, meant to inspire jealousy and admiration and empathy and camaraderie all at once. On one recent walk while listening to the song, I thought of how Song For Sharon might be told now, in a series of Stories, opening with a shot of the churning Hudson waters from the bow of the ferry, “omw to buy a mandolin brb” overlaid in large sans serif font. It was then I realized how truly broken my brain has become. 

+

It goes without saying, but I’ll do it anyway: every line of this song is perfect, a rich triumph of language. There’s a version of Song For Sharon I’ve found myself watching lately in my one-song obsession, one taken from a 1998 concert Painting With Words + Music. (Filmed in front of an intimate audience, staged as if they’re in a lounge complete with candlelit tables and cushy couches, it seems a lot like a direct rip of VH1’s Storytellers.) About two minutes in, Joni forgets the words. With all those songs over all those years (some 268 — that were recorded — per rough estimate), how could she not slip from time to time? She calls out to her audience to tell her the next verse and someone shouts out a hint: “I can keep my cool at poker!” She riffs on for a couple of bars, racking her brain, the look on her face asking “how does that one go again,” like her mind is a salad bowl stuffed to the point of overflowing with words. Then she continues with a wink and a smile, grabbing it out of thin air, almost entertained with her own quick recovery. I don’t know how to describe it as anything other charming and utterly endearing.

Watching it again, I find myself entranced by the way it plays with my perception of time, the space between Joni’s ‘70s heyday (I don’t want to say peak because she still made excellent records in the ‘90s, but her perceived height of popularity and subsequent legacy seem to stay frozen in the ‘70s) and the late ‘90s film seems to both collapse and expand. It seems to me implausible that she could have been 55 at the time of its filming, so much younger than I thought, too young to have lived so many lives. And yet her voice, by then worn and raspy from a lifelong smoking habit, serves as her tell. It’s a voice marked by the knowledge that comes from living through the years that would follow that song, good and bad. It all passes, of course it does, hejira or not. Twenty-two years from now (if we’re lucky and the world isn’t an apocalyptic hellscape and modern western democracy hasn’t entirely collapsed), we’ll probably need to be reminded of the way this went, too.


LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

WATCH
Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks is out in theaters now if that’s something open near you slash you actually feel cool with……but it is otherwise coming to AppleTV+ next weekend. I am an impatient fool and spent maybe too much money to jump the gun and rent a New York Film Festival screener but, look, it was worth it. I just……I want you all to know that I would lie down in traffic for Bill Murray.

READ
Going Sohla - E. Alex Jung, New York.
I’m just going to leave this profile of the former Bon Appétit chef who left this summer and is now thriving here and not say anything else because I don’t want to get fired and/or sued.

LISTEN
Haunted Painting - Sad13
Deeply obsessed with pretty much anything Sadie Dupuis creates, whether it’s through her published poetry or Speedy Ortiz, and her latest album from her Sad13 solo project falls right in line. Full of vivid lyrics about mental health, misogyny, grief, and encroaching adulthood juxtaposed against layers of upbeat pop music, it’s (a) very good and (b) extremely my shit!

###

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subscribe and tell ur friends!

okay that's it that's the end thanks bye

an interview with emma swift

about bob dylan, creating in quarantine, and the problem with big streaming

hey hi hello, and welcome to a special edition of bed crumbs!!

today’s newsletter is not an essay (sorry) but an interview (you’re welcome) with one of my favorite independent artists, emma swift. i followed emma — the only songwriting swift i choose to recognize, thank you! — on twitter sometime around [checks notes] 2015 and have been a huge fan of her music ever since.

one of my favorite types of music is that of the “put a record on, turn off the lights, lie on the floor (cocktail or glass of wine optional), and make yourself sad on purpose” variety, and emma’s spin on the style of old school country greats absolutely fits into that category. her lyrics are emotional and incisive, and every note comes out saturated with heartbreak, disillusionment, and longing. in short: it’s extremely my shit.

emma’s latest release is the stunning blonde on the tracks, a collection of dylan covers filtered through her own unique lens. i’m a huge fan, and hopped on the phone with her last week to talk all about it, which you can read below.

okay thanks sorry love u bye,
carrie


Emma Swift wasn’t really setting out to release a quarantine record when she made Blonde on the Tracks. Actually, she wasn’t really in any hurry to release it at all. Recorded mostly in 2017, the Bob Dylan cover album was primarily meant to be an exercise to work through depression and writer’s block; when Swift’s own songs came back to her, she put it away. 

Two things changed that: The pandemic hit, and Swift needed something to keep her going. “I'm so used to a life where I'm on tour,” she explained from her Nashville home, “that if I didn't put the record out, by now, it would have been the longest period of unemployment that I've ever had in my adult life. So, it's totally been a sanity saver for me.” What’s more, Dylan began releasing new music, most notably “I Contain Multitudes,” inspiring a sense of urgency in Swift to record the first cover of the track — and release the shelved album. 

It’s been said of Emmylou Harris’s voice that “under every note seems to be a well of homesickness so deep you can’t see to the bottom of it,” a description that often bubbles up in the back of my mind whenever I listen to Swift. The Nashville by-way-of-Sydney native strikes that same nerve; she deals in rich, graceful longing and heartache of the slowed down, hushed and haunting variety, the kind of melancholy that seeps into your bloodstream with as little resistance and as much warmth as a shot of whiskey. It’s this wistfulness she brings to Bob Dylan’s catalogue, making each of the eight tracks — which cover his catalog from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited to his latest release, this year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways — her own with lived-in reflection, as if they were experiences once had in another life on another plane. Under her tender stewardship, Dylan’s bite is softened on tracks like “Queen Jane Approximately,” with its jangly, Byrds-like arrangement and mellowed delivery; “I Contain Multitudes” takes on an old souled, meditative glow; and “You’re A Big Girl Now,” sung with a distinctly personal, female perspective, expands to elegiac depths.  

I caught up with Swift over the phone last week to talk about her gem of an album, out this week exclusively on Bandcamp, creating in the midst of a global pandemic, and the current state of streaming.

You’ve been working on this for a few years before deciding to release it now. How did that come about?

Yeah, I had kind of put it away and thought, “Oh, that was a nice exercise in singing some someone else's songs.” I did it and then I left it and started working on my own material, because it was recorded when I was pretty depressed, and once my depression lifted, I was able to write my own songs. Even though I write sad songs, I can't really write them in the moment of feeling grim; I have to have some kind of step back. So I started writing my own songs again and really threw myself into that project and I've been making this other record. But when the pandemic hit, I couldn't go into the studio anymore and I couldn't be near the band.

I had Blonde On The Tracks just sitting in my Dropbox and then Dylan started releasing new songs, and I think that kind of got me excited about Dylan again. He recorded “I Contain Multitudes,” which I put out then, as well; I just love that song. Music in this particular year, it’s one of the few things that feels right and comforting. I definitely felt inspired when Dylan put out [new] music — it was one of the few things that I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is great! 2020 is not a total waste of time!”

You turned around your cover so quickly. You were the first person to officially cover it, right?

Yeah. I think I was the first person to do it, which is so weird because I'm such a huge procrastinator. I'm generally pretty slow-moving, when you think about the rest of this record kind of being around for three years before I put it out. It's kind of wild, but it was that magic moment of seeing an opportunity and loving the song and going: “If I don't put this out, someone else is going to cover it before me.” It was like having a strange deadline. I've never recorded at home before this; I'm not a very technically proficient person. But I had bought a Zoom H6 recorder, and I've got a really basic microphone, so suddenly my lounge room became a studio and away we went.

Aside from recording yourself, how did the rest of that song build?

Robyn [Hitchcock, Swift’s partner] and I played it in the lounge room, and we just landed on a take that we were happy with, which took a fair bit of work. That took about three or four days of more or less playing it non stop, because to me, at least, if you're singing someone else’s song, I don’t really want to be looking at the lyric sheet. You’ve got to be inside the song. You have to spend some time with it. So we played it non stop and recorded it and were happy with the version and I emailed it to my producer, Patrick Sansone. He only lives two miles away, but we haven't been hanging out, obviously, in this pandemic, but he’s got his basement studio with a pretty nice set-up. He has a mellotron and some bass guitars and keyboards, and he was able to build the rest of the track around the acoustic, folkie recording that I sent him.

It's incredible how music is being made remotely now without sounding like it was made remotely, at least to listeners like me who aren’t technically proficient enough to tell.

Yeah, I think it's really exciting because it's also a pretty cheap way to record. A friend of mine told me at the beginning of the pandemic, “Fionna Apple did that whole record on GarageBand.” And that kind of blew my mind because I listen to so many old school records like Rumours or Wildflowers and I'll think about the iconic recording studios those albums have been made in. There's a place for that, too, but we're in this moment of experimentation because we're all in our homes, and that can be fun.

On the note of forced experimentation, this also seems to be a hard or weird time to be making things at all as we collectively go through a traumatic experience. How are you handling creating in the midst of a pandemic?

I think that we are collectively grieving a world that is never going to be the same as it was before. The trauma that people are experiencing is real and valid and pervasive, and it's one of those strange moments in time where everyone is having in variation on this sadness. Everyone will go through tough moments in their life as a human being, but usually that's more on an individual case by case basis, like, your husband died or your mother has cancer or you were assaulted. Everybody has horrific individual moments, but right now we're having this collective what the fuck, and every response to that is different. To me, because I’ve experienced anxiety and depression in my life and I have found ways to cope with it, like therapy and meditation, in some ways, this experience might not be as bad for me as it is for some other people. I’ve got a few systems in place for when things turn to shit. Like, last year, I found this incredible therapist who is in L.A.; I don't live in LA, but I talk to her on the phone every two weeks. So we've had a correspondence relationship for the entire time that I've been working with her; it’s not like anything about my therapy sessions changed when this happened. I'm really grateful that I have had her, rather than the pandemic hitting and going, “Oh shit, I think I need help again.” 

I have been having a very creative time, but I also am aware that might not last, so I'm just kind of making art while I can. I do wonder: “Am I writing songs right now and putting out records because I'm afraid of death?” I definitely think that there is something in me that my more apocalyptic sub-personality is kind of thinking: “If not now, when? If I don't do this now, I might never make it.” That has given me some kind of creative momentum.

Right, there’s this sense of urgency to do something with this free time because, like you said, there's a fear that whatever spark you get might not last or strike again. I'm curious, too, going back to when you started this project and and using it as a tool of creative momentum to work through depression, what gave you the idea of recording Bob Dylan's songs in particular to cope with having a hard time writing yourself? 

I basically wanted to book some studio time to go into a recording studio and sing with a band and see what would happen, but I knew that my songs that I had been writing were pretty workman-like. They really weren't very good. I can be a little bit OCD, so it was definitely easier to just do the songs of one artist rather than, say, one Dylan song and a Bryan Ferry song and then a Talking Heads song. It made more sense to me to just do Bob Dylan songs. Also, I'm not just slip streaming his songs. He’d recorded Triplicate and he released the final of his great American Songbook records. So, he just made three albums, all on the one theme, so I was, “Yeah, Bob Dylan! That idea is cool!” Then I think one of the things that stopped me from putting it out, was, you know, I'm not the only person to release it a whole record of Bob Dylan songs. I put myself down a bit. I was like, “Oh, yeah, nice idea. I bet a zillion other people have done that. Good job. You learned a bit. Time to move on.” I can be very critical of my own ideas and my own things, especially when I'm not very happy in life. I had to work through some stuff in order to have the confidence to put it out. 

This is such an eclectic group of of his tracks. What led to the selection of those specific songs?

I really wanted to make selections of songs that resonated with me and my life so that I could see him with heart and your purpose. But I also really wanted to explore some of Dylan's songs that aren't covered so much. There's a bunch of different versions of “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Low Lands,” to me, is the Dylan song that I go back to again and again. I'm just obsessed with it. But not that many people have recorded that because it's not very radio friendly, so I totally wanted to do that. And then there's songs like “The Man in Me,” which I definitely chose because I wanted to fuck with gender norms. I was very interested in not changing any of the pronouns on the record and singing things as that were. I'm really interested in exploring ideas of the masculine and the feminine within and trying to have an even balance of both of those energies for myself. Songs like “Going, Going Gone” and “You're a Big Girl Now,” though I didn't think about it at the time, I think were, within the context of me being clinically depressed, were a reflection of that period of my life. Like, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” when sung by a woman, it feels like — I've had times where I’ve woken up and I've had particular experiences, and then I've gone, “Oh, gosh, I am a grown up now. I am an adult.” I'm 38, and I don't think I really felt like an adult until I was maybe 35. I spent most of my twenties and early thirties feeling like a kid. 

With these covers, you remain really true to the original versions, but you make each your own. How do you find your way into a song you're covering and finding your own interpretation of it?

Well, mostly, I was just singing along with the record and see how it feels when I tried the song on. Sometimes the song doesn't fit. There are Dylan songs that I absolutely adore that I just didn't sing well, for whatever reason. I definitely chose his more personal sounding songs on this record. I didn't go for his narrative storytelling or protest songs. They’re definitely on the more emotional level, which is how I am as a songwriter and and how I am as a singer. I've got this really sad timbre to my voice, so it doesn't make sense for me to do “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” even though I like it and I love Traveling Wilburys. So it's kind of having an awareness of how my voice sounds and and sometimes it's just what would sound good to sing? I think you can hear when people don't feel the song they're covering. To me, one of the best covers of all time is Sinead O'Connor doing “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Her version of it is very, very like the Prince version. They're not that different. It's just that she brings this heartbreak to her performance, and that's what makes it special.

You've been so outspoken about the streaming industry and you're putting this record out on your own and withholding it from the big streaming platforms. What has that experience been like, eschewing the norm — even though we all know the norm is exploitive and problematic?

It’s being really challenging. It's been a huge learning experience. It was absolutely born out of necessity, rather than any advice that I was given. I think if the pandemic didn't exist, what I'm doing, in terms of walking away from streaming services, would be career suicide. They’re so insidious within the music industry. It's how you get tours — people go, “Oh, you got this many streams; you can open for Phoebe Bridgers or Nick Cave.” But with no touring around, the whole industry is ripe for changing and ripe for upheaval. It's funny because old white guys in the music business will tell me, “You really should stream for the exposure!” as though streaming has existed for the last 60 years of recorded music, and as though the music industry doesn't revolutionize itself all the time. So, on one level, it's been really hard, and then on another level, it's been really rewarding. I'm starting to see loads of musicians speak out about exploitation through these services because everybody is suddenly not on tour.

And, further, creating an industry that relies on people to go on tour all the time because streaming doesn't pay well enough — it's a really sinister way to keep women and primary careers out of the business. It's very, very hard to go on tour once you have kids, or if you have anybody that you have to look after. So while streaming exploits everyone, there’s also a whole feminist angle of streaming being particularly exploitative to women and primary carers. 

Absolutely. And like you said, people talk about streaming platforms as if they’re great for exposure, but you look at these playlists that they make for the purpose of discovery, it’s so…non-inclusive. You have a Best New Rock playlist or something like that with only, like, three women on it.

Right, and I think the other thing, too, is that this idea that people are going to discover your music is relying an awful lot on people to have an innate curiosity that I actually think most music consumers don't have. I used to laugh because there was the same Yo La Tango song on all of my Spotify playlists because the algorithm had just been like, “You like indie rock!” but they couldn't even feed me two Yo La Tango songs. I only ever got “Autumn Sweater.” And it's so, yes, this is a great song and this is a great band, but feed me something different. I don’t really expect or anticipate streaming services to change or pay a better rate. I think the only thing that artists can do is educate people on the ways in which streaming is not beneficial for music makers, which is deeply challenging because Spotify pays for shit for other people. Spotify paid for Lori McKenna to have a billboard downtown; Margo Price has an Amazon billboard. Lots of artists agree with the premise that streaming is exploitive, but they’re also in record label deals that mean that they could very well lose their deal if they speak out. It’s the worst. Musicians really need to unionize, but it's very, very hard to get millions of people who all have small businesses to band together.

Blonde on the Tracks is available to purchase on digital, vinyl, or cassette (just from my own experience, this sounds even more divine on vinyl, so!) August 14 on Bandcamp

Follow Emma on Twitter and Instagram for more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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