Even for those with a lower profile, seeing a favorite artist move into another area can be nerve wracking. This new book doesn’t mean we’ll hear less music, does it? No fear of that, according to Joe Pernice, the latest artist to make the successful crossover from one discipline to the other. Though the success of It Feels So Good When I Stop will surely raise his profile as a fiction writer, he assures us that he plans to continue making music for a long time.
That’s a good thing, for Pernice is one of the country’s best songwriters. He began in a country vein with the Scud Mountain Boys. Seeming to chafe at the limitations of the genre, he left after three albums, forming the Pernice Brothers, a name under which he has issued five albums of intricately arranged pop songs.
It Feels So Good When I Stop is his first novel, but not his first book. He put his UMass MFA in poetry to work with his first, the 2001 poetry collection Two Blind Pigeons, and was among the first to pen a book in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about albums, with the 2003 novella related to the Smith’s Meat is Murder. The success of the latter led to his contract for the new novel.
The book is set in Cape Cod in 1996, and follows the exploits (though that’s really too strong a word) of the unnamed narrator, an unsuccessful musician/waiter who bolts from his day-old marriage and heads to the home his sister abandoned when she left her own marriage. There, he interacts with his strange brother-in-law, his two-year-old nephew and a handful of other colorful characters.
He agrees to take care of his nephew, Roy, and that coupled with his attempts to bring a bit of order to his life and the home (which has been stripped of anything of value by his brother-in-law), give him some perspective on his life and what he has done with it. Pernice has created a clutch of damaged, often off-putting characters, but writes them with such a deft touch that you still care about what happens to them. The wit and eye for detail found in his songs is here in spades, along with a real knack for drawing the reader in.
He recorded a soundtrack of sorts for the book that includes covers of songs mentioned in the book, including work from Plush, the Dream Syndicate, Sebadoh and Del Shannon. He also has a new Pernice Brothers album in the offing, which means it’s an awfully good time to be a Pernice fan. The
TIRBD: You have an MFA in poetry, but beyond your song lyrics and the Two Blind Pigeons collection, you haven’t published much poetry. Does it feel odd to have published a novella (Meat is Murder) and this new novel given what you trained for at school?
Not at all. It’s been over 10 years since I took my MFA, and in those years I have written very little poetry. (Songwriting was just too much fun and I was making a little bread.) Graduate school was a lot less about “training” than it was just affording me time and a small amount of money to do little else than write poetry. Once I stopped doing it (writing poetry all day) it kind of left my system. I got out of shape, so to speak.
Was there an aspect of confidence building from the success of Meat is Murder that played into your decision to write the novel?
Sure. After I wrote the novella, I had a much stronger belief that I could actually pull it (a novel) off. If I had in the past ever thought of writing a novel, the size of the endeavor scared me off.
Do you have a drawer full of other attempted novels, or was this your first?
This was my first.
Will there be others?
I hope so. I’m sure going to give it a go. I really loved writing this book, and I plan on starting another this fall.
Songwriting and novel writing are obviously two very different things. That said, do they intersect at all for you?
Not a lot. As you can imagine, the processes and the time it takes to do each are vary greatly. But momentary flashes of inspiration happen (hopefully) when I’m doing both things. So in that way they are similar. Songwriting has an almost immediate payoff because I respond positively to the sound of music. Holding an acoustic guitar and bashing out a G chord simply feels great. Tapping a computer keyboard does not.
For me, writing a book is to sustain a glow whereas writing a song is like watching a quick, hot-burning fire.
You recorded an album of covers to accompany the book, your first covers, if I recall correctly, since the Scud Mountain Boys’ Pine Box. (Ed note: I did not recall correctly. Dance The Night Away does as well) Do you enjoy putting your stamp on the songs of others, and if so, why haven’t you done more of that before now?
I do enjoy playing covers while sitting around at home. I never thought about doing a covers album because I always — right or wrong — looked at artists who did covers albums a bit negatively. Releasing a covers record always said to me, “Okay, I need some money and I’ve run out of ideas.” A silly assumption? Maybe yes, maybe no.
I do know that if I hadn’t written this novel, there’s no way this covers record would have come to light. Also, if I did not have a new album of original tunes just about finished, I never would have released a cover record. It’s like I’m smothering it (the cover record) with original work. Not saying that’s right or even healthy….
You left Sub Pop several years ago and have been releasing your own music for longer than you were associated with a label. I know you don’t do it alone, but how is it different being
more intimately familiar with and involved in the business side of things?
Well, even when I wasn’t involved in the business side of things (because Sub Pop did all the business), I wanted to be. It interested me. I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, but I sure like to know how my stuff is being handled and sold. I also knew I wanted to make records for a long, long time. I knew doing that would require me to start a label and be intimately involved in its machinations.
I don’t think being a “record company guy” affects the art. I think I’m pretty good at separating the art from the commerce. If anything, owning my label has been liberating for me as an artist. When you sell records or license a song to a TV show or something, and you own your own publishing rights and your master recordings, putting that bread in your own bank account instead of some other label’s sure makes you feel good about your future as an artist. If you make eight-to-10 times as much per record sold, you feel that much more okay about your artistic freedom and smaller sales numbers.
Has becoming a family man had any affect on your songwriting?
It might actually be a bit darker, I’m afraid to say. Babies break much more easily than adult men.
I definitely have to be more disciplined with my time. And luckily I have been able to rise to the occasion. I think I’m actually doing more work than when I had zero responsibility and all the time in the world. There’s an expression: The goldfish grows to the size of the bowl.
Is it a coincidence that you’ve shifted into books, a vocation that requires much less time away from home?
It is a coincidence, but it’s a nice one. I’m certainly not quitting music, but I sure enjoyed being home every day. My wife and my son are my two favorite people, so…