David Singer: On scoring a Steppenwolf hit and more

August 17, 2010

Here is part two of my recent chat with Chicago musician David Singer, who shares his experiences working with Steppenwolf, as well as some thoughts on indie labels vs. D.I.Y.

Singer celebrates the release of his new album “Arrows” with a show at Lincoln Hall at 8 p.m. on Thursday. (Tickets are $12, and the Interiors and Nelken open.)

Q. Let’s talk about Steppenwolf and August: Osage County. How did the scoring thing started?

A. Anna Shapiro, who is a local director of some renown, knows my music pretty well. She used songs of mine in shows of hers previously at Steppenwolf, Northwestern, and other places. She and I always talked about working together, and a show was coming up—August: Osage County –and I know [playwright] Tracy [Letts] a bit, too. They asked, “Would you be interested in doing this?” And I jumped at the chance.

The best part about it is that they gave me free reign. They said, “Here’s the show, here’s what we want to do, what do you have in mind?”  So I kind of made a pitch: “I’d like it to be like this.”  I tried to go against the grain. I said, “I don’t think it should be melodramatic; I think it should be a jazz quartet or quintet and it should sound like this.”  They told me to go ahead with it and see what I came up with. The process was really interesting. It was a long gestation. I was around for the readings before the first rehearsal started, and then working through the rehearsals. Then you go into tech week with just demos to get the timings right, and then you have two days to basically record everything to be ready for opening night. So the process was definitely different. And it turned out to be this runaway [hit]!

I’m incredibly proud of what I did, but I have no delusions about what catapulted this thing into the stratosphere. I’m glad to have been along for the ride. Tracy and Anna have been very complimentary and supportive about the music, and it was the beginning of a long relationship of me and Anna working together. I did a show with her at Steppenwolf again last year and, we’re hopefully doing one in New York in February.

Q. How is it different writing that sort of stuff versus your solo stuff?

A. First of all, with my solo stuff, there is a focus on the words. I did write a song with lyrics that made it into Osage County, and that was a big deal. There is a song on East of the Fault Line called “Little Charles,” and it was actually written for August: Osage County. The character Little Charles played and sang that on stage. That was incredibly gratifying to me, but that is an anomaly. The real difference is that you’re trying to inhabit an emotional space that the director is setting up. I’m basically working in service of someone else’s vision emotionally of what is supposed to be taking place. It also allows me to spread out even wider genre-wise than I normally would. In Osage, it was kind of bebop jazz, and then in Up, the play I did at Steppenwolf last year, I did a rinky-dink bossa nova for a lot of it. I can only imagine what the next one is; I might be working on my reggae chops!

Q. So you can become something musically that is completely different from your norm?

A. Yeah. It’s almost like an actor trying out an accent or another persona entirely. It allows me to go even farther out. I think part of the thing in pop music, for better or for worse—and the Beatles were the ones who really destroyed it for all of us—the music becomes so tied in with the persona of the person performing it. You can make an argument that part of the reason that I haven’t gone to wider acclaim is that I have been unwilling to cultivate some kind of mysterious personality as the person who makes the record. The part of scoring that is really interesting to me is that it’s completely divorced from my persona. I do it in service of something else, and the music exists on its own in the context of the show.

Q. So it’s freeing.

A. Oh, it is definitely freeing.

Q. What do you think you brought to this new album from that experience?

A. Well, I think I’m a better arranger than I used to be. Trying to arrange for different instrumentation as a composer has really taught me lessons about how to arrange stuff for a rock band in a more efficient and interesting way. For example, “The World Has Forgotten Your Name” is one of the songs on the new record. I have gotten better at taking the elements apart completely and removing the normal bass, guitar, and drums. That one, for example, is two synthesizers, an electric piano, and a giant drum kit played through a guitar amp. Instead of layering things on and removing them, you create space and mood. I’m getting better at that, and I haven’t stopped.

Q. Do you still enjoy the live performance as much?

A. I love the live performance! I just don’t love spending 23 hours a day in a van or sleeping at a Motel 6. For this record, I’ll do what I did for the last record. I’ll play in Chicago, New York, L.A., and a few shows here and there, but I’m not going out for two months. I have a one-year-old daughter at home, that’s not happening.

Q. You mentioned that you have the best group of your career. Who’s in the band now?

A. [Longtime bandmate] Howard [Windmiller] is still there; Mike Simons plays bass; Ron Kwasman, who played on the last record and is in Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s plays guitar, and Cameron McGill has been playing piano with me lately.

Q. You’ve done the hip indie label thing, and you’ve done the self-released thing. You’re back to that with “Arrows.” Why?

A. I don’t see why I would sign on with a label. If Merge wanted to put it out, that’s fine. If Gerard Cosloy [of Matador] called, that’s fine. There were some small indie labels interested in putting it out. I don’t want to be too crass about the business end of it, but the money in making records is in owning the master. No one is making money in selling records; people are making money by getting on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Why would I want to split that money with a label that is not going to do anything to get me that opportunity anyway?  Is there a promotional advantage?  Maybe; potentially. It’s the same logic as to why I refuse to hire indie publicity anymore: I’ve done it so many times with varying results. There are some people I like who do a good job, but I can’t see throwing money down the rabbit hole with a nebulous result.

I make the records myself. I have a studio, and Engine is nice to me. I can afford to make the record myself; what advantage do I get from being on a label?  I’m not going on tour; I don’t need the tour support. What I need is a champion. I need people to rally behind the record. My goal is just to make the best records you can make and the people will find out about them.