Richard Edwards is a founding member of Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. His first solo album, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, is out March 2017.
(Photo credit: Bryan Sheffield)
As was the case with so much of what had transpired over the past six months, I had very little idea how I came to be fully clothed and shivering in the Pacific Ocean in April of 2016, having my photograph taken for the cover of my just-completed solo album, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset. The album had gone through several lives before finally being born on the Eastside of Los Angeles that spring, and my own life had begun to mirror its turbulence.
Six months earlier, I had taken up producer Rob Schnapf’s offer to help me get a long-gestating new album recorded at his studio in L.A.’s Glassell Park. I had spent 2015 recovering from a nearly fatal brush with C. Diff — an infection of the lower intestines generally visited upon the elderly — that had prematurely ended a tour and forced me into essential retirement. I had written an album loosely inspired by all one learns, and fails to learn, while dealing with one’s own mortality. It was written in the office of a new house I had bought with my wife in Indiana, overlooking a courtyard where I could watch our five-year-old daughter play with her neighbors, all of whom tolerated my frequent breaks to dunk on them on the Fisher Price hoop or chase them around the yard with a hose.
During that time, I put back on the forty pounds C. Diff had robbed me of. Maybe even fifty. I was riding my bike again, twenty miles per day. I could sorta play basketball, an activity I missed more than any other. On gloomy days I called this new thing I was writing The Devil is a Dog; when I was feeling sunnier, I referred to it as Beach Bum.
Never could I remember such a string of painless mornings.
There was a lot of sun these days. Never could I remember such a string of painless mornings. I practically bounded out of bed. I spent a lot of time in that office, working on the album about absence. I figured I knew a thing or two about it now. In a perverse way, I felt blessed to have seen some side of life usually reserved for those in the “on the way out” category. What potentially wonderful raw material to work with. As I’d done with every other source of discomfort in my life, I frantically attempted to mold it into some new music.
From my office window, I watched fall spread across my neighborhood, enjoying it more completely than I had since I was a child. What I didn’t know then is that in six months it would all be gone: the newly gained forty pounds, the wife, the office and the courtyard. A record would be born in its stead, although it would be a radically different one from what I envisioned that fall day. But, back then, watching my daughter play in the leaves, I was grateful that a new, healthier next life was beginning.
I had threatened to cancel the album maybe a dozen times. Eventually Rob realized I was serious and began looking for ways to fill what was shaping up to be a month-long hole in his schedule if our project was to go up in the smoke of some new and maddeningly timed gut flare-up. The week leading up to Halloween, I lost fifteen pounds. The following week it was thirty pounds, and by the end of the year it would finally stall out at around forty-two. I was having trouble catching my breath again and the pain was about as bad as it’d ever been. My wife was encouraging me to try with my new record, no doubt tired of seeing plans laid to waste by whatever this thing in me was.
At the hospital, the doctors confirmed that I was still free of the C. Diff, but didn’t have such definitive answers for what was going on now. One day I woke up and the pain wasn’t quite as bad as it had been. “If I don’t go to the studio today, I know I won’t go,” I told the wife. An hour later, I had a ticket booked to L.A. for that afternoon. There were tears on the way to the airport and hands were held a little tighter than usual, but we got there and I bid a particularly bittersweet goodbye to my girls.
It’s these records over which you obsess — they make you crazy and you develop ulcers.
Rob and the gang fashioned a little bed for me on the studio floor and I did most of my work from there over the first two weeks. We looped the vocals so we could do multiple takes live without me having to sing repetitively, an act that made me wanna hurl. It was a small room, littered with about what you’d expect: an Ampeg Gemini that I claimed as my own, a couple of walls of guitars (I chose a ’60s Telecaster) and a plethora of EarthQuaker Devices pedals, each of which held some magical and massive sound inside its tiny frame. On the wall behind the drums, Jimi Hendrix smiled down on the proceedings, nursing his cigarette. Papi the studio dog, rescued from the alley as a pup, patrolled the control room, bestowing his affections on a rotating cast of musicians and staff, except on drums days. Papi couldn’t stand to be in the studio when drums were being cut, making those days exceptionally lonely. Papi looked and smelled like a rat. He is wonderful.
There’s a dirty secret among songwriters. Some records you make because it’s been a couple of years and you have some songs that you think are pretty good. Others burn a hole inside of you so hot that you’ll do anything to get them out. It’s these records over which you obsess — they make you crazy and you develop ulcers. They kill some people. Getting them right is more important than food or air. No sacrifice is too great when it comes to their completion.
It’s not that you don’t make yourself nuts on those other kinds of records, too. You do, but there’s something different about the ones that burn in you. You don’t get many of those in a lifetime, and you’d be half crazy and a fool to not devote yourself to them completely when you start feeling that heat. Never could I have made an album with this many conflicting, often excruciatingly painful, emotions without such a skilled band to navigate them and help give them focus and shape: Margot holdovers Ron Kwasman and Tyler Watkins; Pete-fuckin’-Thomas on drums; Jerry Borge on keys; vocalists Genevieve and Jenny O; Mike Bloom on guitar.
The minute I heard playback on “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’,” a song I had written about the intersection of my failing health and my relationship with my wife, I knew this wasn’t going to be a Margot record. Despite the subject matter delving into the less-than-sunny side of life, these performances were confident — defiant even. The instruments didn’t just accompany the song, they sonically mirrored its themes. There was nothing charmingly ramshackle or innocent about this band. They played like it was life or death and created a world within which these songs could live. That’s another thing about truly good records. A world is created and you can’t imagine those particular songs living anywhere else.
I wanted it to sound like absence. Loneliness.
The only real macro direction I gave the band was, “Can we always try to make it sound more like the ocean on those morning hours before the fog burns off?” Then, somehow, they’d do just that. For the first time in my musical career, my vague, hippie descriptors took root instantly, and my beautiful band was actually recording an album that sounded like Malibu lost in the fog. I wanted it to sound like absence. Loneliness. Like spotting one lonely ship in the distance when the clouds are snuffing out the sun and there’s just a hint of pink lightning out there and no one’s on the beach but you. The way you feel as a kid when fall descends and you can open your bedroom window those precious few last days before it gets freezing. When you watch the rain, protecting a little secret of all the things you’ll do in this life you’ve been given, afraid that if you show anyone that little flame it’ll surely be blown out. Maybe secretly, somehow, knowing that someday you’ll be in Los Angeles. That you’ll be on the verge of losing the things you love, making the record you’ve been trying to make your whole life. That six months later you’ll have to return to that city to re-configure the album in the wake of an unforeseen tidal wave of destruction. That maybe this record you’ve been waiting on your whole life was waiting on something itself. One last personal pain to complete its journey from that hope-filled office in Indiana to a beach in Malibu, where one last “goodbye” was waiting to be written.
Mike Bloom and I were racing to catch the sunset in Joshua Tree. It’s silly and it’s clichéd, but I had become something of a sunset collector and I’d never caught one in the hippie mecca. We went on a whim. All of 2015 and on had pretty much gone that way. On the advice of my doctors, I’d left California just after Christmas with the album mostly finished, but I was too ill to finish up a few pesky vocals. Figured I could dart back for a couple of days and wrap those up when my weight stabilized.
Nine days after I landed in Indiana, though, my marriage ended. From that point forward, I’d live in a basement, an attic, five Airbnbs, one La Quinta, my brother’s apartment, the homes of two separate friends and an apartment shared by a pair of poor label employees. The marriage went cold very fast and I wouldn’t understand exactly why for some time. Room was needed in the house, so I left. Then, I lost my mind.
I walked the city aimlessly for days at a time. Slept in my shoes for a couple of months. I started having strange dreams. I filled notebooks with ten years of memories and wrote my daughter letters I never sent. Wrote love letters I never sent. Wrote hate letters I never sent. Just wrote, and wrote and wrote. I was very skinny — and very sick and very scared. Not knowing what else to do, the doctors sawed into my abdomen and pulled out a buncha scar tissue. I spent the subsequent weeks wandering around town with a cane, suddenly looking as lost as I felt. Then, the songs started pouring out. I couldn’t stop them.
Finishing the record was this flashing light that kept me just far enough away from some waters I was getting too close to.
I woke from a nightmare, and there was “Disappeared Planets.” “Sister Wives” came next. They fell out like forgotten pocket change. No effort, no struggle, just found money. As I limped around town, demos of these songs began mixing with the demos of the ones I’d tracked in Los Angeles; they started sounding like the same record. Maybe I’d only recorded the beginning of the story and the ending had just revealed itself? This, in and of itself, was madness.
I had no money left to record, so I avoided paying rent, relying on the kindness of friends. In the early days of my surgery recovery, I began handwriting lyrics and selling them to super fans. I sold clothes, records and an amp. I was having trouble waking up in the morning. My nights were filled with awful thoughts. I spent hours repeating my daughter’s name until I fell asleep. Finishing the record was this flashing light that kept me just far enough away from some waters I was getting too close to. Rob offered me the opportunity to do that — he was generous and gave me a deal. I don’t know if he knows how grateful I am for that.
When I landed in Los Angeles, my friends descended on me and saw to it that I had a proper L.A. lost weekend. Chateau Marmot, Hotel Roosevelt, Beverly Hotel, Las Vegas, Palm Springs and, now, Joshua Tree. Many distressed expense accounts were pushed to the limit by benevolent beauties trying to show their friend how lovely the sun could look after a long season of rain.
It was as if Los Angeles had been entirely filled in on this plot. People would stop me on Hollywood Boulevard to take a picture with my cane and me. Bartenders were comping tabs and waitresses were talking about meeting their spouse at a Margot show — or how some difficult moment on their life was soundtracked by one of our records. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like a chronically gut-ill burden. I was letting some self-hatred go. I felt useful. Driving down Mulholland Drive, my friends and I would listen to rough mixes of what we’d done in December, filled with a renewed excitement for the work to come. I worked on revising what we’d already done to fit this newly revealed album concept and even wrote a new song, which is now the track song on Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset. It was about being bored, and lost, and missing my wife.
“How can you be bored? You’ve only been here a couple of days.” my friend asked when I showed him the song.
Every night without exception I walked to the park in Sherman Oaks and took a couple of laps before watching the sun melt into stars. I thought about my life, my daughter and my marriage. I thought about my record. Everything that had happened over the past year would gently pass through my mind, and I felt calm and no longer terrified by my lack of control. All the events in my life began to feel intelligently scripted, the way I’d imagine a religious person’s might.
It dawned on me that my purpose might be, if only in this moment, to be a faithful steward of this pain.
It dawned on me that my purpose might be, if only in this moment, to be a faithful steward of this pain. To turn it into something worthy of its awful power and, in the process, take back some of what had been taken from me. Those nightly sunsets were a religious experience. They were the difference between life and death. That park in Sherman Oaks is as close to holy ground as anywhere in Los Angeles for me.
Early on in that trip to Joshua Tree, Mike and I decided to ditch hippie serenity for a Palm Springs hotel that was misguided enough to give us a “writer’s rate” of nearly one fourth the normal cost of a night. After spending some time in a hot tub the size of my childhood backyard, we rehearsed “Disappeared Planets,” “Sister Wives” and this new song about bein’ bored in California with an Australian wedding party who unapologetically barged in on our work. One of them, a skinny and sweet woman we affectionately referred to as “Olive Oyl,” kissed me quick and kind before we parted ways.
“I can tell that you’re lonely,” she whispered.
I’d never wanted to do anything as badly as I wanted to go to sleep next to Olive Oyl. It howled in my brain for hours as I tossed and turned. I felt like a child. I was homesick. I slept alone on the futon that night, granting Mike the bed, and in the morning I wrote a song called “Olive Oyl” on hotel stationary.
The day before I returned to the studio to finish the record, I went to the beach in Malibu to try to finish a song called “Moonwrapped.” I had written it as a sort of wedding song for my wife. We’d gotten married at City Hall with our daughter in December of 2014. The wedding was nothing fancy, but I was happy then, even though the state of my gut had already turned toward the stormy.
In any event, I could never finish the song, and now something was nagging at me like it might need to be the last track on the record. I’ve never been much good at writing about happiness, despite feeling it much more often than my musical output would suggest. On this overcast day in Zuma, I pulled out my guitar and about five minutes later it was finished. It wasn’t a wedding present anymore. After a year of beating my head against a wall trying to find an ending for it, in five short minutes I had one, and it was “goodbye.” Goodbye to my best friend of ten years. My wife. The person for whom my love stretched back further than I had memories. A history so vast that to live outside of its shadow seemed a mandate so cruel and overwhelming that it stole my breath away and I became shaken on that beach and had to put my guitar away and be still for a long while.
Before I got in the car, I watched the ocean lap up the shore while the clouds rolled away for a moment, only to return just as quickly and gobble up the whole sky.
Goodbye’s too good of a word, babe.