One morning in mid-February 2016, a satirical joke that I spent a few hours working on became the most successful thing that I have ever made.
Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of far more armchair scrutiny, personal insults and bizarre career advice than I’m used to, and the inherent shelf life of Internet phenomena has rolled over and over. Content goes viral on a daily basis, but what, exactly, leads to a moment in which this happens, and how do you treat an achievement that’s akin to perishable food? As a twenty-three-year-old guy who spends most of my time writing and recording music, I’m left with far more questions than answers. But first, there’s Mark Kozelek.
Like many others, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid many times over when it comes to Kozelek and his songwriting outlet Sun Kil Moon. If nothing else, it’s hugely entertaining to follow the arc of his music, to be astonished at his revelations and to recoil at his mishaps. If you aren’t familiar with Sun Kil Moon, the project gained widespread and unexpected popularity via 2014’s colossally honest and diaristic LP Benji. Soon, all eyes were on Kozelek’s prickly behavior as much as his records, and he delivered: audience bullying, inflammatory T-shirts, the war on War on Drugs, feminist guilt, language unprintable, behavior indefensible. But what all of these points of contention have in common is that they’re inseparable from his songs, which have a fiercely, almost embarrassingly unguarded quality that looms larger and larger with each album. How far can this go?
If you’re a Sun Kil Moon fan, I figure it can go as far as having a gauge of the artist’s whole life through his lyrics — what Kozelek loves and hates, what he does on a daily basis, what pisses him off.
Driving to a show with friends the other month and listening to Sun Kil Moon’s newest — a collaborative LP with the band Jesu — I had a strange realization that felt like a finish line to all my personal observation and fandom of his work. In Kozelek’s usual rants about daily meals, rendezvouses with celebrities and phone calls with loved ones, I found predictable patterns and a light-hearted “I can do this too!” moment. So, I decided to shoot the following afternoon by recording my own three-song EP as “Sun Kil Moon” called Under the Canopy. I cracked myself up by coming up with things he might be aghast about on a daily basis and did my best to replicate his singing and guitar playing. I posted it on Bandcamp and let it be.
As Canopy’s impact naturally wound down, a queasy feeling of “what happens next?” took over.
While I’m completely grateful and flattered by the response, making a comedic piece that reaches unexpected acclaim puts you in a strange position when you’re been sincerely and prolifically making music for most of your life. It feels very weird to have a parody of someone else’s work be your first exposure to mass coverage. What about my other work had failed to grab such attention? Is it because the Internet is so saturated that merely presenting yourself as yet another artist is asking for self-fulfilled insignificance, like pouring a Dixie cup of liquid into the sea and expecting recognition? When there are too many musicians, can there only be a demand for entertainers? What am I to do with this?
Some well-intentioned people have — not unreasonably — concluded that I could just be a comedy artist now. An older friend of mine suggested I contact “Weird Al” Yankovic’s management. I checked out a few comments sections on pieces about my comedy EP, where the helpful peanut gallery told me all of my bands suck — or, in one case, that the EP was “too accurate” and I must have several undiagnosed mental illnesses. Frankly, I can’t rule out the idea that my Sun Kil Moon parody succeeded because it’s unwittingly better than any other music that I’ve written, but that feels like a cynical and unhelpful notion. Where’s the guidebook for when something like this happens?
I think the closest to getting to the bottom of this — a transitory moment in Internet time — is to understand that there are no answers. I’m really still doing the same thing, writing and making records in both my trusty vehicles Other Houses and Hollow Sunshine. Unfortunately, I don’t think a career in musical comedy is really my thing. But on this path I’m still forging for myself, I’ll always be trying new things as a songwriter, doing my best to hone my perception of myself and my creative process, and, most importantly, having a lot of fun at every turn.
And, yes, I’ll always be happy to claim Under the Canopy as that surreal first time when my interests in songwriting and satire got to collide and propel themselves to a wider audience. But, for now, there’s work to be done.