Here comes David Baerwald: Songwriter finds voice again after nine years

By Mark Guarino

David Baerwald takes my notebook and draws his single obsession after he stopped making records: an elaborate outdoor wind organ he designed to randomly make music using wind, water, but no people.

“You’re completely freeing it from humans. It’s absolutely driven by chaos. That’s where my head was at,” he said.

We are in his van, parked outside the Abbey Pub in late June. It is less than an hour before Baerwald steps onstage for his first show in Chicago in about ten years. When he last played here, he was starting down the path of a solo career, after putting in time as one-half of David+David, the songwriting duo that yielded the hit “Welcome to the Boomtown” in 1986. But since then he veered off course, wounded by personal tragedies, professional betrayals and self-admitted complacency. That night, when he plays “Swallowed by the Cracks,” David+David’s signature song about losing your way, he turns it on himself, updating a lyric so that he calls himself a “Hollywood whore.”

Long before he got to West Coast though, Baerwald had a childhood in Oxford, Ohio, where he was born in 1960. His family moved west when he was a teenager. After high school, a series of odd jobs and the occasional run-in with the law, he hooked up with childhood friend David Ricketts and the two began writing songs together and recorded them using home equipment. The songs defined his work ever since. Just as Baerwald’s songwriting hero Lou Reed characterized the dangerous edge of life lived on the streets of New York, Baerwald did the same with underground L.A. The characters inhabiting his tuneful songs always started out with big dreams but once on their way, they got snagged.

What makes Baerwald an exciting songwriter is his steadfast eye on his character’s humanity. His songs feed on the fine line between cynicism and sentimentality, where nobility means simply surviving.

Sixteen years later, Baerwald agrees that songwriters still need to “demand that people ask questions that they don’t want to ask.” “That’s the nature of the job,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything negative about seeing the whole picture. Most of life has difficulties attached to it.”

After their star-making debut, he and Ricketts continued to write songs off and on during the following years. Baerwald follow-up their project with two consecutive solo albums that were critically acclaimed, but increasingly dark. His second album featured the band that would be informally tagged the Tuesday Night Music Club —producer Bill Bottrell, drummer Kevin Gilbert and bassist Dan Schwartz. They soon were joined by a budding songwriter and former back-up singer named Sheryl Crow.

The group began collaborating in Bottrell’s Pasadena studio. The result of those sessions was “Tuesday Night Music Club” (A&M), Crow’s 1993 debut. Baerwald co-wrote seven of the 11 songs, including “Leaving Las Vegas,” a song inspired by his friend John O’Brien, a then-unknown novelist whose book of the same name would later be made into the Oscar-winning film starring Nicholas Cage.

Although the album was collaborative, Crow fired the entire band when it was time to tour. When debuting on David Letterman’s show the following year, she performed “Leaving Las Vegas” and afterwards, when asked by Letterman if the song was autobiographical, she answered it was.

That, Baerwald said, started the “chain of deaths.” O’Brien fatally shot himself in 1996 and three months later, Gilbert choked himself to death. For Crow, it created the erroneous belief she was somehow responsible. For Baerwald, the deaths didn’t stop. Seven months after Gilbert’s death, Baerwald’s brother-in-law died and a year later, in 1998, he was told Bottrell’s seven-year-old son William died by falling off a cliff.

In that span of time, Baerwald hit the brakes and stopped performing live or recording. “One of the weird side affects of the Tuesday Night Music Club deaths is it made me want to distance myself from (playing live). I went completely in the other direction. And I became a studio (expletive)-head. It was almost like I was smiting myself. Like it was some kind of penance I had to do,” he says.

Baerwald ended up a craftsman for movies, providing songs and scores for “Clueless,” “Grace of My Heart,” “Reality Bites,” “Hurly Burly” and others. He had gotten so far from his own music that the love song, “Come What May,” from “Moulin Rouge,” sounded completely alien to anything he had written before. It was nominated for a Golden Globe.

“I had come to see the production of making music as a matter of pure ego. So much of it was going around and so much of it was coming from me,” he says.

Things changed after Bottrell’s son died. In conversation, Baerwald takes a long time to think when asked how it hit him. “I was really (expletive) up. I was really devastated. I was crying all the time,” he says. He returned home after the funeral and sat in his studio and realized he needed to make his own music. After a few phone calls, he was joined by his current band, including Austin guitarist Will Sexton. For six weeks the musicians worked out songs in the studio, finding the right music for the lyrics he had written. The first song on the first day became the kick-off track on “Here Comes the New Folk Underground” (Lost Highway), Baerwald’s first album in nine years.

“We’ve been living here like exiles/we’ve been out here way too long/watching goodness die/a thousand deaths/we just keep moving on,” he sings (“Why”).

Early this year, Baerwald quit moonlighting for movies and moved his family to Austin so he could re-enter his career, but also because he wanted the refuge of a smaller city after Sept. 11. He was writing songs for Stuart Little to sing the day the planes hit. “I realized there was no (expletive) way I could sit around and write songs for cartoon characters,” he says.

The long-awaited new album came about when the songs he and the band recorded were initially sold over a fan site in a limited edition. That brought it to the attention of Lost Highway, the Universal subsidiary that is home to roots rock newcomers and veterans Ryan Adams, Kim Richey and Willie Nelson among others.

The collection is his most varied to date. The songs share a tough and tender vision, ebullient with pop hooks but also with perspective. In the ‘90s, it would have been difficult to hear Baerwald sing, “sometimes it gets so ugly/all you can do is crack sick jokes/a little cyanide humor/about lampshades and soap/me I’m pretty sick of that/how ‘bout faith, even hope,” (“Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down”). With humor, soul-styled horns and choruses that ring “sha-la-la,” Baerwald sounds reborn.

At the Abbey Pub, he also gives new birth to “Come What May.” For his second encore, he returns to play the song solo, giving the song a fragile intimacy the Ewan McGregor-Nicole Kidman version bullied out of it in the film.

As for his wind organ, that’s history too. “It’s a beautiful idea,” he says now. “But it’s totally insane.”

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