Michael Feuerstack Sheds His Snailhouse Shell
Published Feb 26, 2015Michael Feuerstack is on tour in Europe in support of his new record, The Forgettable Truth which Forward Music Group released on February 17. I caught up with him in Düsseldorf, Germany, looking forward to his first day off on this tour; we had a wide-ranging conversation about his music-making process.
The musician formerly known as Snailhouse only recently started putting out albums under his own name, and while The Forgettable Truth has a lot in common with his previous work, it also seems like part of an ongoing process of change. "I was aware that people would perceive it as a departure," he says, "but personally I don't think of it that way." What stayed the same was Feuerstack's approach: with Snailhouse he was at the helm of a revolving cast of musicians and this time around was no different, but he concedes that the end result on this record might be. "There's more variety; there's some tough edge stuff, some more washy, effects-laden stuff, some stylistic changes for sure."
Fans can expect more masterful songwriting from the veteran musician. The new record continues what Feuerstack does best, which is to explore big themes and questions through his lyrics. "I'm not actually trying to explain anything," he concedes, "I'm just playing around with the ideas, while still trying to create something that's ultimately likeable. I'm tackling ideas that are elusive as much for me as for the listener, those big questions that tend to be clichéd and boring to talk about in conversation, but that in lyric land are so deep and rich, like love and life, future and past, nostalgia and money, all these huge things that weave in and out of my work."
Feuerstack goes on to say, though, that talking about lyrics is difficult. In other words, the songwriter rightly resists the inclination to explain or personalize art that aspires to be universal, which was very much the goal with his previous record, Singer Songer. The collaborative record, for which he enlisted friends to sing lyrics he'd written for them, was an experiment in writing songs that didn't use his particular narrative voice or delivery. "I had to write songs that stood on their own no matter who sang them, while also trying to match them to the personalities of the people I'd chosen to sing them."
The Forgettable Truth, then, was an exercise in writing songs for himself and for this reason seems more personal, even if the musician resists the idea. The record certainly contains a broad emotional range. There are upbeat moments, introspective ones, a sense of resigned contentment at times, as well as a bit of anger. What's remarkable, though, is that despite the absence of an evident narrative thread, the songs fit together seamlessly. "They flow into one another," Feuerstack explains. "They inform one another, and some of the same images re-occur; the vibe makes sense. And I'm glad you mention the diversity of the emotional stakes, because that is an actual goal. I want to make an album that explores the breadth of our experiences. All my favourite albums are like that. You cry a little, you laugh a little, you get lost in thought, or you want to dance. All these different states of emotional music-making can co-exist on one album and I think that's a really nice goal and that's one thing I aimed for on this record."
One of Feuerstack's other goals with The Forgettable Truth, as with Tambourine Death Bed, the first of his records under his own name, was to move beyond the Snailhouse confessional singer-songwriter image, which, he confesses, is a label he doesn't particularly relate to. That makes sense when you consider Feuerstack's background — he started out in punk bands, played in arty bands like Bell Orchestre and the Luyas, and in indie rock bands like the Wooden Stars, none of which, he admits, felt like it was out of his comfort zone. "I guess I've been enjoying shattering the idea of what Snailhouse was to people. Tambourine Death Bed was very much a folky record and I wasn't trying to resist that, but I also don't want to reinforce it. So it was fun for me to do both. Yes, it's what you thought it was, but it's also all these other things."
Other artists who have shed their aliases or moved on from projects have dwelled on the process of putting out an album with their own name on it, but not Feuerstack. He simply grew tired of saying Snailhouse, tired of explaining whether he was a solo artist or a band. So he decided to pick one and run with it. "But there's also the fact that something sort of indescribable changed in my connection to my own music," he continues. "I related to it in a different way that I found really difficult to explain, but I still wanted to draw attention to it. And the easiest way to make people listen to something anew is to change the superficial signifiers of it. So I changed the name. That way, when people listened to Tambourine Death Bed, they would ask themselves how it's different from Snailhouse. So I was thoughtful about it. Mostly I just wanted to start new and break out of the typecast."
Feuerstack's European tour continues through to the end of February, before he heads back to Canada to launch the new album in Montreal, Toronto, Guelph, and Quebec City. Touring, he says, teaches him to live in the moment a little bit, which isn't his natural tendency. "Waiting for sound check or waiting for the show is a daily thing, so you have to learn to make use of the time in a way that feels good instead of just sitting around drinking or doing whatever people do that's unhealthy." Fortunately the audiences have been fantastic and for the last leg of the European tour he's teaming up with Dutch friends, a band called the Fire Harvest, who have learned his songs and will back him up as well as do their show. "The next stage is about to begin."