Interview: Shannon McArdle, Formerly of the Mendoza Line
Few weeks ago, I wrote about my time spent with local singer Shannon McArdle, formerly of Athens-to-Brooklyn band the Mendoza Line, a band that'd enjoyed marginal success throughout this decade by negotiating the indie-rock/alt-country Venn diagram. Years of dating founding member Tim Bracy led to marriage, but one day in February 2007, he was gone. The Mendoza Line's final release, 30 Year Low, came last summer, and although all the material was written and recorded before there were any inklings that their marriage would be striking out, it clearly presents two people who're not so happy.
Earlier this month, McArdle released her solo debut Summer of the Whore, a striking, guitar-centric, whispery debut that documents her divorce, the inevitable depression she spiraled into thereafter, her subsequent recovery process, and all the loaded, convoluted feelings you get while moving on from anything. In the time we spent together, McArdle was extremely candid with me―she spoke frankly about her divorce, the last Mendoza Line record, and Summer of the Whore. ― Michael D. Ayers
When was 30 Year Low completed?
That's a good question...
I only first listened to it for the first time this week. It's a bit depressing.
Here's the thing that you probably won't believe. It was not recorded as a divorce record, as it was marketed.
Okay, that may be true.
The record was made when Tim and I were very much together. Maybe it's because he was leaving? I don't know. It was a shock to me, when he did. There was a note when I got home from work one day, and I never saw him again. I can't explain how devastated I was. After ten years of being together―we had our problems―but I got home from work one day, and I got a note that said "I'm gone." And I never spoke to him again, I never saw him. This was February of '07.
So, it was a really tough time. Maybe I'm stupid, but it was a shock to me. After all the time we spent together, we finally got married. And the marriage didn't last. So, I didn't write any of those songs. It might be strange when you listen to "31 Candles" or whatever, but I really was writing a character. Tim and I, because of the past, we had a history, we weren't in a monogamous relationship at the beginning of our relationship ten years ago. With the Mendoza Line, I don't think I ever got out of that even after I felt very secure in our relationship, and he had asked me to marry him, and we were married. I like this conflict of a man and a woman riding in a van together, in this sort of banter, sort of arguing all the time. Which is really hard for other people to imagine, but Tim and I were never upset with each other.
I mean it makes sense. I'm trying to just imagine how someone could sit there and say these things, if they were actually true. When you're right next to the person.
If Tim would have said to me, "In sixth months, I'm going to leave you. And this is what that song is about. Will you sing on it?" I think I would have said "No!" The songs were all recorded certainly before we had separated. We owed [Seattle-based independent label] Glurp a record. . . So, when the band broke up, we had to give them what we had, and this is what we had.
It was put together and packaged without my consent. I really resented that it came out as a divorce record and was marketed as that. I think people found it interesting and that it helped sales, but this isn't a record to me. It's not one that I really felt was one done with the intention of putting together as one.
30 Year Low is like 25 minutes long. It struck me as ironic―the collapse of the band, and the name of the band.
It was destined to happen. I kind of always felt that way. I joined the band after, and there was always this sort of attitude. It never seemed quite right. I just really enjoyed making music with Tim, and I loved this idea of having an artistic endeavor with someone who I really loved. And it's really nice, and I know a lot of musicians who are away from the person they love for so many months a year. I felt like we were really lucky.
When was [Summer of the Whore] conceived, written, and recorded?
Tim left in February and I didn't do a thing. Then I had a terrible back accident. Someone tripped me going down the subway stairs, by mistake. But it was a very serious accident, involving rehabilitation. It looked like I was pregnant in my back, it was the most disgusting thing. I'll send you a picture.
Oh, you don't have to do that...
Okay [laughs]. Anyway, so I was alone, and I thought, okay, things can't get any worse for me. I basically just worked when I had to, and stayed in bed otherwise. In April, I had this idea―I had written a children's book, Mushka―that has six songs, and they're quite beautiful. I don't mean the writing, I mean the sentiment.
I called Adam [D. Gold], who recorded Summer of the Whore with me, and I said, "Look, I think I should record this. I don't know if I'm ever going to record anything ever again," and I certainly wasn't thinking about the solo record. But I was thinking, maybe it would be good for me to get out and record. So, we did the six songs for the Mushka book, which I actually found very inspiring, which seems silly. But I have a lot of friends who have babies; we're at that time where people are having babies, and it was a fun thing to do. The songs are actually sweet―there's something really sad about them.
I didn't actually shop it around; I was in no sort of position to do work like that. So, that sort of got me writing songs again, but I stopped after that. I guess it was July of last year, I just suddenly had this feeling, that "I want to write again." So, in a day, I wrote about three of the songs. And I called Adam, and I said, "I don't have any money for you, but I'll buy you dinner, or lunch, do you want to do this with me?" And he said, "Absolutely." We did a bulk of the recording in two or three weeks. I wrote the songs like that. And then there were songs that dragged out, because we knew we wanted to revisit them, so we really weren't finished with the record, until gosh, maybe November. But the bulk of it was done within a month. And it was Adam and me most of the time. I was playing guitar, and he was on drum and bass. We got some other people, too. My twin brother Philip, he's a guitar player, and he came up and played on it. But it was not a big production at all. And Adam is just magical―it captured the summer. The summer I hope to never revisit again [laughs]. But it was a very special summer.
When you finished it, you said "Bar/None, do you want this?"
Yeah. I wanted to put it out, and I wanted to do the least stressful thing. I didn't feel like I could do anything that would cause me to be stressed.
You said, "Here's what I have, but I'm not going to do anything for it."
Well, yes. Here's what I said. "I want you to put this out, but it's finished, just so you know, and the name of it is Summer of the Whore, and that's non-negotiable, and I thought....Glenn's [Morrow] known me for ten years―he put out "We're All In This Alone," and sees me as a daughter, in a way, so I knew he might think "I don't want to do that." Glenn is a very optimistic fellow, and he'd liked to see a more happier ending―and sure enough, he said "Do you think you can give a song that is a bit more cheery?" But in the end, he said he wanted to put it out and said he wanted to see me successful.
People are going to be drawn to this title, as was I, when I got this.
That's the idea. . .
A friend of mine would hear this, and be like "Yes, this is my anthem. Except change the word "summer" to "decade."
Well, yeah. It was just a time of feeling lost, lonely, confused. It started as a joke, but then turned into a song, and then turned into the title of a record. And then I just thought, 'How could it not be called that?' It's such a great name.
Its good...I say great, Mike says good.
It's definitely ....it is good. And I've listened to it maybe five or six times now. And it doesn't stagnate.
I'm all about the short songs and the short record. I loved Elvis Costello, and I loved on Get Happy!!, there's two minute songs and you never feel cheated on anything. But basically, I've always felt, even with the Mendoza Line―if a song's finished, it's finished. I have a lot of songs around the two-minute mark. That's sort of my trademark. For awhile, I thought I must not be that bright and I must not be that good, because my songs are short. But then I thought, 'No, the song's just done.' The last song I wrote for the record was "He Was Gone," the seventh track on the record. When I finished that, I knew the story of the record was finished. I didn't know how short was, but I'm kind of proud at how short it came out.
In the Mendoza Line, did you all write lyrics together?
We never touched each other's things. I think often he wrote songs with me in mind to sing them. I actually wrote songs with him in mind to sing them too. But no, it was very much if I wrote it, I sing it. We didn't really share a lot before we went to record.
Well I ask, because the lyrics, what struck me about this, is the wordplay is really clever and intricate throughout.
I think the Mendoza Line, there's a lot of wordplay. I think with this record, it wasn't about being clever, and if it was clever, it just came out. I have all these feelings, but I don't know if I'm going to let people listen to this song or not.
It's the infliction of your voice at times, that says maybe you're saying this at times, and maybe at others....
There was a lot of hurt there, Mike.
Yeah. In terms of pop culture, [what happened to you] was an episode of Sex and the City. So you don't really think of that happening. . . that's HBO/Sarah Jessica Parker world.
I know. It was so dramatic. Things were so volatile at the beginning of our relationship, but when I was 28 he asked me to marry him, and for two or three years before that, we had committed to a monogamous relationship. So, I got very secure in it, and I thought, "Well, marriage. Now I've sealed the deal." It was just so shocking to me. Part of me thinks. . . the biggest resentment is that he asked me to marry him. I mean, relationships end, but this is bringing families in, this is changing my name. But I haven't had the opportunity to ask him, because we haven't been in touch.
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