The Song's The Thing

January 31, 2003




As many of us know, marriage is one of the most difficult but rewarding tasks we will ever pursue, and this is inevitably learned the hard way.

They don’t give you a manual when you venture down to City Hall to get a marriage license. But indie-rock fans could do far worse than investing in “The Civil Wars,” the second solo album by Chicago singer and songwriter David Singer.

“The record is about something specific,” the always articulate Singer says. “I was married in September. I went through my parents brutal nine-year divorce, and for me this record was about figuring out what it means to be married, to make a commitment to something like that, and how much of your identity you surrender when you commit.

“I’ve been living with the woman I married for six and a half years, so I know what I’m getting into on some level,” Singer continues. “But at the same time, when I had to make the decision, it was like, ‘What’s the difference between what I have now and having this ceremony and being married, and what does it mean?’ Thematically for me the record was kind of an examination of that, like, ‘What goes wrong in relationships? What’s right in relationships? What does being married mean to me?’

“The conclusion that I came to was that you have to be willing to accept someone for who they are wholly and harbor no illusions that you’re going to be able to change somebody over the course of years—you’re not going to wear them down or shape them into something—and there’s no other person out there that’s going to meet every single need and every single whim that you ever have and that you find someone with whom you’re going to create a partnership and a home and be willing to ride it out together.”

And what does the new Mrs. Singer think of “The Civil Wars”?

“My wife likes this record,” Singer says, laughing. “I think there are some things about it that are sometimes difficult to hear, because you can hear the ambivalence that I had to shake off, but I take that as a high compliment. There’s that song on there, ‘The Only One,’ that was specifically about when someone’s nurturing you on some level, when you surrender to being nurtured and taken care of, it’s almost an admission of, ‘I can’t do it alone,’ and that was one of the demons that I had to exorcise. But I feel like I did it: I went into getting married with an open mind and I feel good about it.”

As the leader of Fix Your Wagon (which made one excellent indie album) and Kid Million (which has released two strong discs), Singer has long been one of the Chicago music scene’s brightest but least heralded talents. Though the band is still a going concern, the 32-year-old artist has finally begun to win a measure of the recognition he deserves as a solo performer, releasing “The Cost of Living” (1999) and “The Civil Wars” on the much-respected Deep Elm Records, a label best known for its adventurous and heartfelt emo bands.

Singer has never been an emo-punk, though his work has always been emotional. Exceptionally literate and poetic lyrically and adventurous musically, it draws sonic inspiration and a working method from Brian Eno’s classic ’70s psychedelic pop albums.

“Eno is the godhead for me,” Singer says. “’Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy),’ ‘Before and After Science,’ ‘Here Come the Warm Jets,’ and ‘Another Green World’—I feel like the thing about that stuff that doesn’t get noticed as people talk about it being forward-thinking in terms of instrumentation and arrangements is that it’s so utterly song-based. For me everything has to work backward from the song. If I were to point at what I think is the problem with popular music it’s that it’s entirely personality-driven, and ultimately the song has become just another accessory to sell the person. I could never operate that way; for me it’s the song itself.”

While Singer has compiled a talented band called the Sweet Science to tour in support of his solo efforts, his closest ally has been Mark Schwartz, co-owner of Chicago’s Uberstudio. Schwartz plays bass in the band and helps Singer realize his ambitious visions in the studio, incorporating everything from acoustic guitar and grand piano to exotic electronic textures, marimba, and horns.

Tireless in all of his endeavors, Singer is gearing up to perform solo on piano and guitar as part of a 30-city Deep Elm package tour to support suicide prevention. (The jaunt kicks off at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, TX, in March.) Kid Million is preparing to start its next album in April, and Singer is already looking forward to his third solo disc.

What’s the difference between a Kid Million song and a David Singer song?

“The difference is that as Kid Million made more records, it became much more of a collaborative process—which is great for what it is, but at the same time I had certain ideas that I wanted to just kind of follow the way I thought they should be followed. A David Singer song is one that comes out of me fully formed. The way that Kid Million was writing songs around the time of ‘American Tabloid’ is that it came out of jamming together and coming up with ideas together and literally building the individual parts as a band. Whereas the David Singer stuff is more tightly scripted by me to begin with. I go into it with a complete song and arrangement in my head, and people take it in different directions, but ultimately I have my hands on the reigns. When we do stuff with Kid Million now, I think it will give me an outlet to kind of rock a little bit, which is nice. I think ultimately that will be what the dichotomy is—the band will be more of a kind of rock, free-form concern, and my stuff will be more tightly scripted.”

As for any concerns about whether the emo crowd will embrace him, Singer is optimistic. “I was a little skeptical going into it, because I’m definitely an anomaly on the label in terms of sound,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that all their bands sound alike, but I would say that they don’t really sound much like me. The thing about it that sold me from the outset was that they said, ‘The kids who buy our records pay very close attention to the lyrics, and these are the kind of people who buy records so they can take them personally, listen to them closely and scrutinize them.’ And that’s the way I envision my music being heard. I don’t envision it as background music for shopping at Marshall Fields; I envision a kid with his headphones on in his bedroom.”

Not to mention the fact that everyone can use a smart and passionate manual from time to time.