Novelist Stephen King describes the benefits of collaboration in his book ‘On Writing’. When he begins a new novel he writes the first draft with the ‘door closed’, in other words, he writes alone with as little interruption as possible. The second time around he opens the door and invites criticism and opinion from those he trusts. This is the purest form of collaboration. In the past when I’ve written either music or prose, my door was barricaded. I struggle with criticism, which I’ve always perceived as rejection.
In the last few years I’ve learned to collaborate. The songs on this ‘Lonely a la Mode’ wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the input and patience of Scott Kitchen and his upstanding bass, Sarah’s exquisite harmony, Melissa’s avant garde accordion riffs, and JJ with his solid backbeat and — as the recording got underway — his suggestions about the guitar parts. And of course my oldest friend, Matthew Dennis, who made this record sound so sweet. Hey, it’s no democracy, they’ll tell you that, but this music only shines because of them (and many other talented bangers and twangers, shouters and blowers… you know who you are!).
I always imagined the easiest part of making ‘Lonely à la Mode’ would be the final stage: shooting the photograph for the album. Early on in the crowd-funding campaign, I planned to use a photo I took in Galveston, Texas in 2006 of horses tied to palm trees in an alley. But as we recorded the album and the songs took shape, I realized the album art would need something else, something bolder and darker so I turned to artist Molly Rapp.
In photography and video, Molly’s Instagram is a keyhole into the persona of a young woman defiant in her own misery.
“I want to honor the sadness,” she told me when we met to discuss shooting the cover.“It’s such an important part of the emotional spectrum, we don’t need any more clowns in our lives, telling us it’s going to be OK.”
Molly is influenced by artist Audrey Wollen’s development of ‘sad girl theory’. Sad girl theory is the belief that girlhood goes hand-in-hand with sadness and that women should be allowed to express themselves without shame whether through at or just walking down the street. 150 years before Instagram, Victorian photographers like Lady Clementina Hawarden, covered the same ground. Molly bridges the gap between hashtag photography and the Victorians by shooting with one of the very first photographic process: Tintype. Now being revived in New York City at Penumbra Foundation.
To make a tintype, photosensitive chemicals are poured onto an enameled sheet of metal and then exposed through a lens, the image appears immediately. It was the Instagram of the 19th century.
“I was drawn to the tactile qualities of making [tintype],” says Molly, “hand brushing and chemistry was so much more satisfying. And it took me out of myself. [Lonely à la Mode] is very layered, I guess I felt the tintype related to it.”
Despite being a ‘sad girl’, in conversation Molly’s more likely to laugh than cry.
“Of course my great fear is that I’ll be taken too seriously,” she says, “well that’s not quite accurate… let’s laugh together, I don’t want to be laughed at!”
‘Lonely à la Mode’ is peppered with humor, from a silly joke about the end of British Colonialism in China in the 1990’s in ‘When Will We Be Lovers?’ To the gallows humor of ‘Will There be Women at my Funeral?’ But I play it straight most of the time. For example, I didn’t want to defuse the tension and pathos of ‘Bad Timing’ with gags and jokes.
“The first time I heard your music,” Molly says, “I felt I was to navigating something foreign, yet I had a guide — someone holding my hand.”
As a one shot deal tintype made me nervous; I had no idea what Molly was going to do. She was very gracious and offered to send me a text of the image when it was done to allay my fears, but if she was only making one image it seemed like a moot point. I was going to have to let go and trust her.
The image that arrived via email a week later was perfect. A close up of a woman’s face, partially obscured by her hand.
“A kind of sweeping gesture,’ Molly says, “It could be her hand, but it might not be her hand.”
The mouth is full and sensuous and there’s a sadness and a sensuality in the image that’s bolder than many of Molly’s self-portraits. There’s no fragility here. As much as the woman could be hiding she could be preparing to reveal herself too.
It still seems strange that someone else’s art is leading my music, but when I look at the cover now, in it’s freshly printed CD cover, I’m happy; I couldn’t have done a better job myself.
Neville Elder Brooklyn August 2016.
Thee Shambels new album ‘Lonely à la Mode’ is available here.