Mishka Shubaly’s How to Make a Bad Situation Worse is a dark gem packed with alcohol-guzzling rants, paralyzing depression, and sinister humor (often taking the form of bodily functions). The sardonic Brooklynite’s ominous, rumbling baritone frames his discouraging diatribes with a solemn grace, backed by cohorts who effortlessly shift between post-rock squall and hushed folk acoustics. In person, though, Shubaly’s strictly a solo act: just voice and guitar. “I don’t like people,” he states bluntly. “I have a hard time putting up with other people’s bullshit. I have enough of my own.”
Bad Situation‘s grim tales (sample song title: “The Only One Drinking Tonight”) are usually thinly veiled autobiographical sketches—he comes to his dour worldview honestly. “My dad left us when I was in high school, and my mom lost our house,” Shubaly explains. “We had to sell off our possessions to get the money to move. I lived in the unheated basement of our new house and spent years on alcohol and cough medicine, although I did finish school and manage to get into college.” Eventually, he snagged a degree in fiction from the University of Colorado at Boulder, despite his snowballing melancholy: “I don’t know if I’m clinically depressed. I may have huge mood swings, but I hold myself together enough to keep a job and play music.”
From there, he moved to New York, got a master’s degree at Columbia, and played bass in a crappy rock band until he decided to strike out on his own. “I had no musical or lyrical confidence,” he recalls. “I can’t sing or play guitar well. But I couldn’t stay in a band where the lyrics of every song made me cringe.” While working a day job, he recorded and self-released his debut, Thanks for Letting Me Crash, in late 2000. The album’s grim humor and primal croak struck a chord—Shubaly jumped into a van to support it. “People love me or hate me,” he boasts. “They run out the door or buy drinks for all their friends and move up close to the stage. In Georgia one time, someone slashed the van’s tires during a gig, but that just makes me want to do it harder.”
Bad Situation‘s lyrics (e.g. “I don’t want to cry/Don’t want to weep/I want to die/But I’ll settle for sleep”) suggest their author is a defeated, barely functional wreck, but Shubaly is musically ambitious, at least: He assembled a large supporting cast to ensure that each track mirrored the hopeless sound he had in his head. “I rounded up all my musician friends, borrowed lots of money, went to a studio, and used every production idea I had,” he says. “It almost killed me. During the recording I broke up with my girlfriend, got kicked out of my house, and lost my job. I was sleeping in the stairwell of the studio while I was making it.”
His aversion to other people’s bullshit notwithstanding, Shubaly is also a valued sideman: Many New Yorkers know him best for his work in Beat the Devil, a guitarless band that includes drummer Mitchell King and singer-songwriter Shilpa Ray, who plays harmonium and wields a voice described as a cross between Billie Holiday and an air-raid siren. “I get introduced to people as Mishka from Beat the Devil,” Shubaly says. “Shilpa writes incredible lyrics, as dark as mine. We often bounce ideas for songs off of each other.” Next, though, is another solo album, Wrong Heaven, which will not be particularly uplifting. “My songs are pretty dark,” he admits. “When I’m happy, I don’t feel the need to write. When I’m suicidal, it makes me feel better to get it off my chest. In our society, we get programmed to laugh at the misery of other people, but in my case, things have been so wrong for so long, it’s actually funny. I think people get enjoyment out of my bleak tales. Nietzsche once said, ‘It’s good to have a friend, even in hell.’ I hope I can be that friend.”
Mishka Shubaly plays for free at Piano’s January 9, pianosnyc.com.