Musician and author leads with empathy both on record and on the page
Micah Schnabel wrote his 2018 debut novel, Hello, My Name Is Henry, on a typewriter, starting out on a manual Brother before upgrading to an electric Smith Corona partway through. He'd generally begin work early in the morning, writing throughout the day while seated at the kitchen table. Each time he finished a page, he would stand up and tape it to the wall, which served two purposes: It presented an immediate visual representation of the work he'd accomplished, and it aided with the revision process.
“Around 11 [p.m.], I'd relax for the night and go through with a Sharpie marker and start editing right on the wall,” Schnabel said. “That way I could pace around the kitchen and look at it, and then read [passages] into my phone to listen back and hear what sounded clunky.”
Prior to starting the book, Schnabel, who has long fronted local act Two Cow Garage, in addition to a flourishing career as a solo musician, didn't believe himself capable of being an author. In conversation, Schnabel playfully jabs at his educational background, claiming he barely graduated from Bucyrus High School and noting he only recently signed up for his first college course — sort of, anyway. (His friend is a professor in Wisconsin, and Schnabel will be auditing his course remotely; for the first assignment, he'll be reading David Foster Wallace's short story “Incarnations of Burned Children.”)
This idea started to change five or six years back, when Schnabel was approached by Michael Baron, the founder of White Gorilla Press, who was a fan of Two Cow and envisioned Schnabel's words crackling on the page in a similar manner as they do in song. For several years, Schnabel submitted short stories that Baron would critique and return, until the pair finally hit on an idea worth expanding in Henry, which started its life as a song of the same name on Schnabel's 2017 solo album, Your New Norman Rockwell, and chronicled the overlooked small-town life of a 28-year-old convenience store clerk.
“That was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, I can see where this goes.' It felt like an idea that could be developed. This has an arc, and it was in my voice,” Schnabel said. “I grew up and spent 18 years in that town. I know how every single person in this story talks, and I don't have to think about it.”
Schnabel's initial manuscript logged in at an excess of 80,000 words. But, being a self-described “brutal self-editor,” he gradually stripped it back to 25,000 words before rebuilding it into its finished form, heeding a bit of advice he absorbed reading interviews with David Foster Wallace.
“He was talking about teaching [at university] and how these kids were brilliant, but he'd get 10 pages of them trying to be clever, and it was just brutal and unreadable,” Schnabel said. “And that helped me find my voice, I think, getting rid of that smart, quippy thing. When you get rid of that, in the next layer is where that meat is, where it means something.”
Gradually, these literary designs have spilled over into Schnabel's music. Though he's been largely lyrics-driven since he first picked up a guitar at age 15, Schnabel has steadily watched his songs become even more syllable thick, often spilling over into descriptive, spoken-word passages, which he delivers urgently over raw, buzzing acoustic chords. Witness “Love Is a Funny Thing,” the opening track on a new, four-song EP, Winter, which he released quietly in late November.
“I come from small Midwestern towns and their never-ending winters/Sleeping in the backseats of cars watching the snow fall through the fogged glass,” he recites. “Tracing my hand with my finger against the window/We were hungry/We were always hungry.”
“I feel like I'm finding the things I'm good at, and I've learned I'm at my best when I'm excited about the next words that are coming out of my mouth,” said Schnabel, who will join his partner, Vanessa Jean Speckman, in hosting the couple's annual holiday party at Rumba Cafe on Thursday, Dec. 13. “My biggest strength isn't writing melodies or super clever guitar parts. I'm good with words, I think.”
Yet Winter is anchored by a pair of more lyrically restrained tracks directed toward Schnabel's sister, who is in the midst of struggles with addiction and mental health, a situation that pushed the musician to choose his words carefully. “Am I talking to you or am I talking to the drugs?” he repeats plaintively amid the intervention of “Little Sister.” “I can't sit by and watch you die.”
“I didn't even want to write the songs, but I had them in my head. So I pushed it off and pushed it off, and then I was like, ‘I at least have to write these down,' and I thought they came out really well,” said Schnabel, adding that, to his knowledge, his sister has yet to hear either song. “I went back and forth as to whether I should release them, and after a final listen I was like, ‘I think this stands up.' So on a Wednesday morning, I gently pushed [the EP] out into the world to let it live, so that I could move past it.”
As with everything in Schnabel's catalog, he approaches the subject with empathy intact — a characteristic evident in his writing, whether he's addressing family or confronting the sometimes-closed minds of many of those who populate his Bucyrus hometown and now make up the much-discussed Trump voter block.
“I have this bone to pick with rural America because I hated it so much growing up there, but I know I have to find empathy for those people. … I've written songs against people and it's cheap and plastic and it's not going to stand the test of time. When you write with empathy, that work can stand up taller,” said Schnabel, who is set to record a new, politically charged solo record later this month with an eye on a 2019 release. “Working on the book, I would sometimes write these diatribes against something, and when I'd get done and read it, it just felt kind of trashy. It didn't say anything, and it felt like I was being a little bit of a bully. And that's not the type of art I want to make. That's not the type of person I want to be. For me, it's empathy always. Be gentle always. As hard as that is, at times.”