Moving on to something rather Alternative, we are crashing over Chicago as we team up with Cheer-Accident for the premiere of their new single “I’m Just Afraid.” The songs captures perfectly the essence of 90s Alt-Rock that fits well with the incredible falsettos and harmonies.
Most of the songs on this record were originally intended to end up on some sort of solo record of mine – I had a lot of things that I’d written that were just laying around on my computer, and I just wanted to properly record some of them and get them out into the world. I recorded demos of all of the songs at home, each with me singing syllabic, stream-of-conscious, gibberish over the melody lines. I then sent all those demos to Scott (Rutledge, who writes quite a lot of our lyrics), and he wrote words to most of the tunes on the record, including “I’m Just Afraid”.
Prior to the actual recording (at Todd Rittmann’s studio), I had lined up all or most of the additional musicians I had hoped to use on the record, with the exception of the vocalists, although at the time I had at least a vague idea of who I might want to use for at least some of the songs. There was obviously no question that I wanted Thymme to play drums on the record – I just needed to make sure that he had the time to do so, given his always-full musical plate.
After playing the demos for him, I was glad to hear that he was very into it. Around the time that these songs were first being recorded, Thymme had the notion that he didn’t want the next CHEER-ACCIDENT release to have any blatant “Jeff guitar songs” or “blatant Thymme piano songs”. When we were about a third of the way through the recording of the album (and still not completely sure whose name it was going to go under), Todd said to Thymme and me, as we sat on his couch in the living room, “this definitely isn’t going to sound like a CHEER-ACCIDENT album”. To which Thymme replied, “well, then it SHOULD be a CHEER-ACCIDENT album.” Subsequently, we decided to release it as a CHEER-ACCIDENT record rather than as a Jeff-solo-thing.
We discussed possible vocalists, and decided that Thymme would sing on some of the tunes – but we both really wanted to find a way to try and utilize the amazing talents of our pals Dawn McCarthy and Nils Frykdahl (of Faun Fables) on most of the other remaining songs – a logistical challenge since they lived 2000 miles away – and we had committed to recording everything at Todd’s. Fortune rained down upon us, as they just happened to be on tour shortly after we completed recording all the music on the record…and they just happened to have a day off while in Chicago…and we were able to coax them into stopping by Todd’s studio on their one day off to add their magical powers to three of the tunes (we had hoped for one or two more but we simply ran out of time). Extra enticement was provided via the lure of a Polish Buffet!
So we now had all the songs on the record covered vocally, with the exception of “I’m Just Afraid”. We were having a difficult time trying to determine who should (or even could) sing that particular song – we were aware that it was going to be pretty darn challenging vocally, and as a result, we needed to get someone who could not only tackle the technical aspect of the rangy melody, but also someone who could really evoke the obsessiveness and vulnerability suggested in Scott’s lyrics. Fortunately one night I went to see Lovely Little Girls perform here in Chicago, who Sacha (who I barely knew at the time) was then a member of. I witnessed him absolutely kill the complicated vocal parts during their show, which facilitated a sudden and exciting “what if” moment for me regarding “I’m Just Afraid”. Afterwards, I approached Sacha and asked him if he’d give a listen to the song and let me know if it was something that he might be interested in singing on. He rung me up a few days later, and he let me know how much he loved the song and that he was totally into doing it. During the actual recording, as soon as he started singing, I was blown away, and I knew we had the right person for that song. He obviously has a beautiful voice, but I also think that he really captured something magical in his interpretation and performance on that song.
My recollection of it is largely the same.
I had met Cheer-Ax back when I lived in Minnesota, but through weird serendipity, met them again after moving to Chicago and joining Lovely Little Girls. There was some obvious cross-over in membership and collaborators, so it was bound to happen that I’d run into C-A from time to time.
Jeff had come to a show that LLG had at a venue called the Burlington (not the Coat Factory, unfortunately), and we’d been talking. He was very complimentary to me, and he’d told me he was working on a solo record but was having some problems finding a singer. By that point, Jeff had recorded “I’m Just Afraid” with a couple of other singers, but wasn’t able to capture the performance style he needed.
Jeff asked me if I could recommend anyone that could tackle some of his music, and I asked him to send me the song, and I’d try to get my brain and my Rolodex behind it. This was presented to me without any undertone of my ever doing it, just an earnest request.
So he sends me “I’m Just Afraid”, and I’m immediately struck by the melody and the lyrics. I rattle off to him a few jazz and folk people I know, and he was like, “yeah, OK, sure, thanks buddy!”.
So then I see Jeff at another gig, and I’m gushing to him about it the song, and I guess there still wasn’t progress in the search. Somehow along the conversation, Jeff asked me since I liked the song, if I’d be willing to give it a go. I said yes, and something like, “at the very least, I could always demo it for you, so you could have someone mimic at least the idea of my performance if you don’t end up using it.” I honestly loved the song so much that any chance to sing it would be an privilege.
I love a lot of music, and certainly live for interpreting a lyric, but it takes a special kind of something to really hit me to the degree that “I’m Just Afraid” did. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was definitely subconsciously vying for the song to be absolutely mine. Scott’s words were so strong and resonant, and Jeff is a very gifted songwriter. It’s certainly a gymnastic melody, but one that more than justifies its challenge with its emotional honesty. “I’m Just Afraid” has such layers of darkness and beauty, but also enough of a wiggle room to do a sad sulky Brit-Pop dance in the corner. I’m such a sucker for those qualities that I would’ve been foolish to say no!
Cutting out a lot of unnecessary back and forth text and email exchanges, and we’re now to the studio, and I’m with Todd, Jeff, Thymme, and strings upon strings of fairy lights. I start to sing a soundcheck, and I was met with a sort of, “yep that’s it, that’s the voice” kind of vibe. So I felt emboldened beyond just session singing, and offered suggestions for how I heard the song in my head to supplement the arrangement, like the backing vocals in the middle-8, and little melodic changes I wanted to do through the verses. I remember being rather committed to the vision, so I was relieved to have been met well on most of it.
So yes, what started as a rather clinical exercise in trying to help scout a voice ended up with me as the actual singer. And frankly, I’m more than fine with that. It really is one of the most emotionally fulfilling songs I’ve ever been part of
Jeff’s solo showcase was later rebranded to a full Cheer-Accident project, and I was later brought in to sight-sing some backing vocals on a few other songs. With Cheer-Accident, we only performed “I’m Just Afraid” once, though I later recorded an acoustic version of it as a b-side, and still occasionally bring the song out in my solo sets, and the song continues to live on within me.
I think what’s really fulfilling about the whole thing is that not just that I was able to sing on something that impacted me so much, but that everyone involved was moved by the performance that they approved, — and moreover, that Jeff finally found in the song what he was looking for. What an honor!
I neglected to add that I think Jeff’s doot-doos sound straight out of k.d. lang’s “Anywhere But Here”, which is a song title I hold in my memories from its ironic placement on the Denny’s muzak disc I would mop to as a teenage waiter.
But yes. That angular melody, eh?