The Austin Chronicle

Infinite Capacity

What I've been doing since my last album came out

By Kathy McCarty, April 29, 2005, Music

"Would you like a dinner salad? Caesar or garden? We have five different dressings for the garden salad, they're all house dressings, and they're all really good!"

It feels weird to write that down. As many times a day as I've said it, I don't think I've ever put it in writing. I mean, why would I? I'm not a playwright, drawing on life experience, but rather the musician trying to answer the question: "What have you been doing since your last record came out?" Waiting tables is only a fraction of the answer. It's the answer to the part, "What have you been doing for money since your last album came out?"

I wonder if people I wait on regularly will see this fragment of a sentence, or a photo, and recognize me? That would be ... cool ... I guess. When I first started waiting tables, shortly after the year of touring (that bankrupted me) following the release of Dead Dog's Eyeball, customers would sometimes say to me, "You look so familiar." I'd say back to them, perfectly seriously, "Well, I am a Famous Rock Star!" They'd laugh and laugh, like, "Our waitress is hilarious!" (Hey, I didn't say I was a solvent one.)

On the other hand, occasionally I've waited on my fans. That's a confusing experience. It makes you feel like – for lack of a better simile – like you're washing the feet of your disciples or something. There you are, waiting on them, refilling their tea and clearing their plates, and the whole time they're in awe of you. Obviously if I were famous, I wouldn't now have to give you a brief overview of my career.

Long ago, I was in a local all-girl band called the Buffalo Gals, and we were sorta famous. I was the dorky one. Then I was in Glass Eye, here in town, and we were quite popular. That band was together for 10 years, and we won lots of awards and drew huge crowds. We made albums and the critics loved us. We were on MTV.

Like many a critics' darling, we never hit the Big Time. Big labels considered us "Impossible to Market," and perhaps that was true – if you're a slimy piece of shit label yes-man with crispy ashes for a soul. Or something. Either way, after 10 years of superhuman striving, we got all worn out with being fucked around, and broke up. It was sad. OK, I was devastated.

For years, I'd been wanting to do a "solo project," an album of songs by our friend Daniel Johnston, so I clutched the idea like a drowning man and made Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston (see review). At the time, Daniel was languishing in a mental institution and was less famous than I was.

Today Daniel can actually be called "World Famous." I've been told that my album really helped and would like to think it's true. Dead Dog's Eyeball is an extremely good album, and I urge you to run out and buy it immediately. It was hailed in the national press as "One of the best albums of the Nineties" and locally as "One of the Best Albums to ever come out of Austin."

It was such a big hit, I felt very aware of just how good the songs on my follow-up needed to be. I had the pick of more than 100 songs by a great songwriter when I made Dead Dog's Eyeball. There are no duds. My album couldn't just be a regular album. It couldn't have any duds either. It had to be my very best material ever.

2,000 Light-Years From Home

I knew going into it that I wasn't going to be able to slap it together in six months. I figured it would take about three or four years, start to finish. By recording-industry standards that's way too long, but screw them anyway. Because you have to write a song, and then go "This sucks!" and throw it away and write another. Repeat. Otherwise you end up with a typical CD where there are like four good songs and the rest ... well, you know. I've often wondered: Can artists not tell the difference between good songs and songs that make you blush with embarrassment for them? I mean can they really not tell?

Well probably my major talent in life is being able to tell a good song from a bad one, so I put together the strongest batch of Kathy McCarty material imaginable. When people ask me to describe my album, I say, "It's all hits! Just the hits." The writing songs part of it did only take a few years, as planned. Recording it was another story! It took forever. I really apologize.

I spent a lot of time waiting (and waiting and waiting) to get studio time. Did I mention the reason I waited so long was that the studio time was, essentially, free? I could use the studio, and the engineer, for free, as long as there was nothing else going on. Since studio time can be as much as $300 an hour, it isn't difficult to see why I sat on my hands and bit my tongue. But I was too patient probably. I admit it. In my defense, I did become impatient after a while and I began paying, like Jack Benny opening his little change purse and a moth flies out, signifying how cheap he is. That's the manner in which I began paying.

There was another factor. I also got married. Did I mention that was after a day and a half of courtship? (Yes, we're still together.) I married David Thornberry, Daniel Johnston's best friend. Really, it's not as incestuous as it sounds.

When Daniel first came to Austin in 1985, he gave me a book of poetry written by David, who instantly became my hero, my idol, and the object of a major crush, even though I'd never met him. Before Daniel Johnston was discovered, he and I used to go to poetry readings. Daniel would read his own poetry, and I would read Dave's.

In my mind, David Thornberry was a famous and remote god. I planned a way to meet him when Glass Eye went on tour. He had a similar idea and made a trip to Austin to "visit Daniel," though secretly, in his heart, the trip was to meet me, because he loved my songs. (I'd sent him an album in hopes of impressing him.) You can see where this is going. He got here when I was away on tour. I didn't hear from him again for 13 years.

Naturally, when he got in touch with me again, I wasn't taking any chances. Like a rodeo cowboy, I threw him down and hog-tied him just about as fast I could, which was a day and a half. Not bad. At the time of our marriage, David had been living in (and writing about) Wyoming for approximately a decade. I felt, I think rightly, that there was no way I could deprive him of his inspiration. As soon as possible after committing the marriage deed, I joined him there.

Nothing could prepare me for the small-town Wyoming experience. Not to say that there aren't great things about living in a small town. A lot of things one associates with small or even big town life are things I like. I like knowing the names of the people I deal with regularly, and the feeling of community that engenders. A whole bunch of other stuff, too. About Wyoming, it's beautiful beyond words. But, need I even say it? No music scene. No liberals. Hell, let's be honest: No Democrats! Well, I guess there were two when we lived there. Worst of all, none of my friends lived there. I mean I knew that going in, but I really didn't get it. Also, did I mention there were no jobs?

So we moved back to Texas. My husband had something akin to a nervous breakdown, and we moved back to Wyoming. Our jobs ended, and we moved back to Texas. (Jobs there are seasonal because it's winter nine months a year.) All this back and forth was very time- and money-consuming. Whenever we were in Texas, I had to work a million hours a week waiting tables, and my life was just ... waiting tables. Then at night I would dream about waiting tables. I wanted to finish my record, but I was never off work, and I had no money.

Then one day I realized my mother had gotten old. It had never occurred to me that my mother, Nancy McCarty, would ever get old. How can I tell you about her? She'd always been a fountain, a river of energy. My health's always been crappy. Her health had always been ... bionic! All my life I'd been hearing, "Your 65-year-old, chain-smoking mother is in better shape than you." This from doctors, mind you. Then, all of a sudden, she was old. So I put my foot down and said to my husband, "I cannot leave my mother. As long as she lives, I will not move 2,000 miles away." So we stayed in Austin, long enough to recover financially to the point that I didn't need to work a million hours a week, and I could actually get in the studio for days at a time.

That's when I finished my album!

Another Day in the Sun

The first time I listened to Another Day in the Sun after it was done, I was amazed. "Oh my God," I thought. "This is really good. This is great. It is truly great!"

Until that time, we'd just been chipping away at each tiny increment of completion. I knew I was doing the best work I could. You have to keep your focus small at that point. When you're doing a vocal, you need to be thinking about the vocal, and when you're picking a snare drum sound, you should be concentrating on the snare drum.

Even when you're deciding the song order, you need to be thinking about how one song sounds right after another, and how much empty time you want in between songs. Everything devolves into the proverbial "infinite capacity for taking pains." When you're done, though, it's possible to step back and experience the whole as an album.

I love this album.

I can hardly believe I made it.

It's as nearly perfect a thing as I can

imagine making.

It is my gift to the world.

As I mentioned before, the overarching concept of Another Day in the Sun is very simple: my strongest material, my best songs. Perhaps I ought to talk a little about my approach to songwriting. I am one of those annoying people who listens to the same record over and over and over again. I used to make myself cassettes, back in the days of cassettes, of just one song repeating and repeating.

The only type of music that can stand up to this sort of abuse, obviously, is durable music. Not the song that enchants on first listen, that you're completely sick of by the 10th listen. You know the kind of song I am talking about! That kind of song is garbage. That kind of song will not do. "Music Box Dancer" comes to mind. "Achy Breaky Heart." "The Gambler." Songs have to be the opposite of that sort of song for me to like them. When I began to write songs, I had to be able to like my own songs, so they have to be durable. I've never regretted writing for durability; for one thing, as a musician you have to play the same damn songs night after night after night on tour. Thank God I wrote for durability! The downside to this is, only sometimes do they grab you on the first listen. In Glass Eye, we used to always beg the pundits of the day to listen to our records "at least five times." I couldn't begin to count the number of times I've been told by fans, "I didn't get it at first, but now, it's my favorite record." Glass Eye fans are amazingly loyal for this reason. They still like the songs. They still listen to the records.

Another Day in the Sun is nothing but high-quality, durable, densely crafted Kathy McCarty songs. Because of the years and years of time involved, said songs cover a lot of ground. There are songs about love and songs about pain (historically my favorite topics ... or would that be one topic?), and also songs about the Big City, and Dropping Acid, and God, and Being a Loser. My best song about Dropping Acid! My best song about Being a Loser! My best song about God!

Comparing it to Dead Dog's Eyeball, I would have to say that you can tell the same person made it, the same singer sang it, and the same producer produced it. The "pop sensibilities" are unchanged. I do think Daniel's songs are undeniably more accessible on the first listen. On the 100th listen I think I have him beat.

When I Paint My Masterwork

And so it came to pass that I made my album. And I saw that it was good. Then I mastered it. This is a process all albums undergo, where you run your master tape through special machines. The day after I mastered it, and it was ready to send off for manufacture, my mother got her diagnosis. Did you catch that chain-smoking foreshadowing? Yep. Advanced lung cancer.

Needless to say, my mother became my entire life, and the artistic-career thing was postponed indefinitely. At first, I was terrified she would die before hearing my "masterwork." Because all the time, the whole point was to make her proud of me. I had fantasized about sitting at her kitchen table, listening to it together, and in my fantasy she was transported with joy and admiration and pride. She had changed her mind and decided that I hadn't thrown my life away, playing loud music in bars for drunks and waiting tables to make ends meet. I rushed her a copy of the finished CD, but I really think she felt too terrible to really hear it. She tried though. She made me a little list of the songs she liked best. Because she was still trying to make me happy, like always.

I was fortunate I live in the same town as my mom, so that instead of thinking, "This trip home may be the last time I see my mother," the whole cancer treatment thing became a part of regular life, where you get to foster the illusion that you still have all the time in the world left to be together. We didn't have that uncomfortable thing that sometimes happens when you know someone is going to die.

I held off releasing the album until she was gone. Like many strong people, my mom didn't go to the doctor until she was almost dead. There wasn't much Western (or Eastern) medicine could do.

I like to pretend that she really does feel all the things I imagined, like that my life is worthwhile, and that she's proud of me. On the spirit plane. I like to believe that she likes my album. I put everything that I am into it. If you have read this far, it's possible you might check it out. If you do, I hope you like it, too. end story

Kathy McCarty celebrates the release of Another Day in the Sun Saturday, April 30, at the Cactus Cafe.

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