By Mark Guarino
David Singer is not just for kids anymore.
That’s the unspoken message behind the Chicago songwriter’s departure from Deep Elm, the Charlotte, N.C. indie label where his rostermates included emo friendly bands Pave the Rocket, Desert City Soundtrack and others. These days, Singer is hooked up with Engine Studios, the Chicago facility in Bucktown partially owned by Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Califone, Tortoise). The studio is in the midst of starting an internet label and Singer is their first signing.
“Deep Elm has a very loyal and very dedicated fanbase and those kids were receptive to what I do, but I feel (the label) reaches the same kids over and over again,” Singer, 34, said. “I’m looking to convert people.”
Singer is well stocked to do just that. “The Stars Burn Out” (Engine), his just-released third album with his band the Sweet Science, has a pop sophistication that can translate a scattering of emotions — dark humor to demented elation — into concise and universal language. Singer is one of Chicago’s current treasures with a consistent track record and a body of work that follows a definite arc. Starting with his days in the band Kid Million, he has developed into a pop songwriter with an eye that focuses on the more absurd details of human behavior and an ear tuned to accessibility. Like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, Singer is inspired by life’s souring truths and creates novelistic portraits — a bored and drunk babysitter (“Bad Babysitter”), childhood bullying (“They Called Her Styrene”), a nation numbing (“Is There Anyone Out There?), music club poseurs (“Thanks For Nothing”) — that has its pessimism bottled, released only with humor packaged with a bruising vulnerability.
“My number one criteria for any song is sincerity. If you can make it sincere without being too esoteric or narrow at the same time, you know you’re on to something. I know some people who asked to use one of my songs at their wedding. The song they picked was incredibly dark, one of those songs that if they actually thought about the lyrics, they would have never chosen it,” he said. “You try to leave a little vagary.”
Singer grew up “worshipping at the altar of Elvis Costello and the Beatles” — his father had an enticing record collection and took Singer to see Costello’s “Punch the Clock” tour when he was just 13. The bright lights were not too far removed from his childhood. His father ran an advertising agency downtown and his mother was a talent agent for child stars. She represented Bonnie Hunt and Chris O’Donnell in their youth and won her son an audition for the film “Kramer vs. Kramer.” A Life cereal box, with Singer’s face on the front, is evidence remaining from those days. “It’ll end up on eBay some day,” he promised.
Starting a year and a half ago, his family fractured horribly. His father died of cancer two weeks before Singer’s wedding. The day after the ceremony, his mother checked into the hospital. She later died of the West Nile Virus, the disease transmitted through mosquito bites.
“A random act of cruelty,” Singer said. “The universe is chaos in my opinion.”
After the losses, Singer said he “shut down for awhile.” “I played Grand Theft Auto for a couple of months at home. I checked out.”
He picked up writing songs late last year. The emptiness he felt coincided with headlines coming at him from the Iraq war. “I started feeling an overwhelming feeling of alienation. I didn’t feel I had a lot in common with the average person on the street. I started to wonder how they got through their everyday lives,” he said.
“Stars” uses that curiosity as a starting point. “Have you ever noticed the way that some people act when there’s no one watching?” Singer sings, opening the album (the incessantly catchy “Social Studies”). “Or wondered how strangers acquired their scars? I think I can learn the ropes if I manage to just keep my mouth shut.”
The music — lushly arranged piano pop with bursts of driving guitar — offers deliverance even if the lyrics are skewered with tension. “When I get locked in the jaws of a scream/will you wake me up from this terrible dream?” he sings (“Will You Be Waiting There For Me?”) as his band comes crashing down around him.
Early this year, Singer and his wife, a Chicago actress, considering a move to L.A. They decided to stay after realizing struggling in an industry town would be counterproductive to making music. Engine will release the album in stores next year after having it up on the internet for download (“We’re trying to find a different way to connect with people directly,” he said.). He and his band, the Sweet Science (which includes his brother Luke, a keyboardist), are scheduled for U.S. dates this fall before embarking on their first European tour in November.
Despite the push, he said he is well aware expert popcraft is not entirely in vogue these days.
“It still exists, but it’s fallen out of fashion. Radio has gotten so clinical,” he said. “The way I do it, you have to be oblivious to careerism. The financial reward, for me, has yet to be shown, but to devote yourself to something so unpopular, it has to be a reward in and of itself.”