Two Cow Garage frontman embraces new creative process and strives for empathy amid division on new solo album
When writing songs for Two Cow Garage's 2016 record, Brand New Flag, singer/guitarist Micah Schnabel penned a tune called “Let the Boys Be Girls,” and the creative process he employed to do so has changed the way he has approached songwriting ever since.
“I've always written music first and then put lyrics to it. Then that one happened, where I wrote the lyrics first, and then I found a way to put it to music, and I got really excited about it,” Schnabel said recently by phone from the road, making his way through Florida en route to a tour-ending show at Little Rock on Friday, June 30. “I realized the songs I enjoy singing and performing the most are the ones where I'm excited for the next line, and there aren't weak rhymes getting me to the next line. Writing this way felt really good. I'm not sacrificing the story.”
Songs began pouring out of Schnabel, many of them in a spoken-word style reminiscent of the Hold Steady's Craig Finn or the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, and 11 of the tunes found their way onto Schnabel's excellent, just-released solo album, Your New Norman Rockwell. It's a record as personal as it is political — a series of candid internal dialogues that find Schnabel looking at America from a tour van, trying to make sense of what he sees and what it makes him feel.
On the folk-blues of “These Divided States,” Schnabel trumpets sincerity over ironic detachment and ponders the consequences of an “orange demagogue.” “There's a tension in America that's so thick, no matter what side of the line you're on. Everybody feels it. We're all just trying to handle it,” he said. “We're driving around, and you see the stickers, and you see the hate being emboldened and coming out, and it's disgusting and frustrating. I think making art is more important than ever.
“I can't honestly say I'm hopeful right now, but I'm also trying not to be bleak. I think positive things will come out of it if the king doesn't destroy us all.”
When Schnabel sings about rural America on “American Throw Away,” he does so not as an outsider, but as someone from Bucyrus, Ohio. “I had a really hard time growing up in rural Ohio. I never felt like I was supposed to be there, and the people around me made it known to me that I was not supposed to be there,” he said. “I've been trying to find empathy for rural America right now, because I grew up in it, and I hated it, and now they voted the new king in. But I know empathy is the most important thing, so I'm trying to find it. I went to school with kids who still had dirt floors. Even though I didn't grow up with a bunch of money, I grew up with way more privilege than a lot of others, so it's not right for me to punch down on them.”