Sometimes I wish my songs were happier, but even though I’m a happy person, often what comes out in my music is the struggle and difficulty and heartbreak. I think maybe that’s okay — music is for not feeling alone.Merry Ellen Kirk, from a recent post on Instagram
So I’m trying, as I write this, to remember how I found Merry Ellen Kirk. It was a thousand years ago, so my memory isn’t totally clear about this. It was when I was starting my own record label, Untide Records (distributed by The Business), and wanted to sign artists. (I had big plans for my label, signed several recording artists and projects beyond what you see today, but then the whole cancer thing happened, and everything changed — life.) I remember reading someplace, maybe Bandcamp, that Merry Ellen lived in Alaska (makes no sense but that’s what I remember) back in the day, so I sent her a letter — yes, a proper letter, by post, took forever. Anyway, I was deep into lo-fi/DIY artists like Jandek, A Fine Frenzy, Daniel Johnston, The Mountain Goats, First Aid Kit, Jessica Pratt, Low, Catherine Feeny, Antony & The Johnsons, Kathy McCarty, Arthur Russell, The Cairo Gang, Linda Bruner, the list just scrolls out forever. Broadening my view of DIY beyond a particular style or label of music.
Merry Ellen reminded me that my letter found her in Fairbanks. Anyway, I wanted to reissue one of her EPs on vinyl, “Feather & a Leaf.” We talked — and we did. The very first Untide record, actually. Merry Ellen came out to Anacortes later and played one summer at the Anacortes Arts Festival, when I finally met her in person. I continue to follow her work. Recently, she reissued a small live collection of songs, “10 years | 7 Songs (Live)” (self-released, 2019), songs drawn from a few of her full-length records. How this record came into being was the prompt for me to reach out to speak with her, to catch up. It was somewhat nostalgic for me. A reminder that music remains in the heart, forever.
The interesting thing about Merry Ellen’s new release is hearing how her style has deepened, while retaining the simplicity, elegance, and outsider quality that first drew me to her songwriting. Time has made her sound richer, more compelling. Still, she remains the authentic DIY songwriter who moved me when I first started working with musicians.
Merry Ellen Kirk today remains the real deal.
Real talk. I know the life of an artist/musician can seem glamorous from the outside — traveling around, playing shows, writing songs, photo/video shoots, recording studios. I post about those things because that’s the fun part, but what you don’t see is that most of the time I’m sitting in front of my laptop in my sweatshirt, freelancing for clients, managing social media, pitching songs, booking shows, & doing paperwork.Merry Ellen Kirk, from a recent post on Instagram
You’ve re-released your songs before, “We Are the Dreamers (Reprise)” [self-released, 2019] comes to mind, some of which appear again in the majority on this new collection, “10 Years | 7 Songs (Live).” So, I’m curious, how did this studio session come about, for yet another reprise collection?
Merry Ellen Kirk:
Yeah, so, I actually wasn’t the one who picked the songs. I wanted to do something special. It was the ten-year anniversary of releasing my first record, “Invisible War.” It released September 28, 2009. So, I was coming up on that, it was a couple of months away, and thinking I wanted to do something special to celebrate, something special for my fans.
I ended up deciding to put it out to my fans — what everyone’s favorite songs were from the last ten years that I’ve released. So, I made some posts about it on social media and I sent it out in my email newsletter. And whatever people replied back, I tallied up all those votes of what everyone’s favorite songs were, and then I went into a local studio called Centro Cellar Studio here in Columbia, Missouri, where I live.
I had a local videographer friend come and film the recording session. I recorded it all live — just me, piano, vocal — those favorite songs everyone voted for. I’ll be releasing the video to go along with it from that session, over probably the next couple of months as the videos are edited [one video for each song].
Were you surprised by what your fans chose?
A little bit. I think I suspected a bunch of the favorites. There were a few of them that I kind of stopped — hadn’t been playing around as much. I didn’t know how much people liked those songs. It was kind of fun that some of my older songs that I hadn’t played as much were some of people’s favorites.
And then I did include one piece there at the end that wasn’t voted a favorite, the “When Something Falls Part” song. That song was like the end piece, kind of the bookend to “Invisible War.” It was an acapella half-song. My producer and engineer on that first record, Peter Warren, he was always kind of like, “You should finish that! You should make it a whole song!” Nothing really came to me until I was doing this project and then it just kind of fell together and seemed like the right thing to do, to close out this project.
So yeah, the six favorite songs that everyone voted for and then that end piece, “When Something Falls Part,” that finally sort of finished itself.
As an artist, I’m always trying to balance creating meaningful art that moves people, and making a living doing so.Merry Ellen Kirk, from a recent post on Instagram
Normally you play an electronic digital piano, but on this new release, the photos from the studio session show you playing a traditional acoustic piano.
I love playing a real piano. I always prefer playing a real piano because they feel more alive. Kind of the same way vinyl records feel more alive than a digital recording or CD, you know. There’s more personality and life to it. Yeah, I’ve played a few house shows recently where people had real pianos. But keyboards are much more portable, so…
But I always prefer to use a real piano in a studio if I can. That was nice.
So, when an artist goes back and looks at her older work, with an eye to re-recording some of it, as you did with this project, did you find that your relationship — your connection — with your older songs had changed?
The meaning of my songs tends to change. I like to leave a lot of space for interpretation in my songs, you know. Make them thoughtful in a way that there’s some space for the person to ascribe their own story to them. So then, for me, as my story changes, they end up meaning another thing to me 10 years later.
I actually shared a little story about that whenever I shared the video for the first song, “Blinding Me.” That song meant one thing to me when I wrote it, and now it means something different. But it’s nice to have that background behind it where it’s grown with me.
I was fascinated by a recent Instagram post of yours about a few complaints you’ve received about this new release, everything from your voice to the sound of the piano! My reaction to this new release was completely opposite: that your voice and your instrument have arrived at the perfect edge of simplicity and beauty.
Well, I’ve played a lot of shows now and done a lot of recording and I feel like I’ve found my sound pretty well. You know, I’m confident in doing what I do as an artist. I posted that post not because I needed any kind of validation from anyone, but to just share — everyone has their own opinion about art. You can’t listen to those kinds of things as an artist. You have to do your own thing and be confident in who you are and what you’re doing. Whether you’re an artist or not, actually, in anything in your life.
You take what you can from people’s criticism, but literally I was just so fascinated by that list of critiques and how opposite they were. [Laughs] I tried to put them together in a way where it just looked kind of absurd what everyone was saying — the exact opposite things as each other, about the same piece!
Hello again, do you know who I am?from the song “Blinding Me,” on “10 Years | 7 Songs (Live)”
It’s so nice to hear your voice again
Cuz I’ve been looking in the mirror lately
And I still think that I’m torn in a million pieces…
And what do I see, please tell me
The dark is overwhelming
But when I close my eyes, I see paradise
And my eyes are blinding me
What was this live recording session like for you?
I’m not sure the right word to describe it. It just felt like my career was kind of coming full circle, if you know what I mean. Receiving this list of everyone’s favorite songs and then just going through and playing everyone’s favorites. You know, it’s similar to the way I’ve played house concerts: it’s just me and the piano.
It was also fun to do it with the video session. We ran through each song three different times to get the different video angles. I think that allowed me to feel each song. I think we ended up, for most of the songs, using the second take.
Did you just bang out the collection in one day?
I booked a three-hour recording session [Laughs] and we tried to run them through as quickly as we could — to get the three different angles. To make the video for each song pretty quick.
You have this kind of “road warrior” thing going on every year, hitting the road for days doing home concerts with a lot of road in between shows. I think your last tour took you as far as Wyoming. What’s that even like for you?
I love playing house concerts. It’s my ideal show. I hardly play any other type of concert now, actually, just because I love that intimate exchange that you get when you’re just there, in a room with the audience, and everyone’s there to experience the music together — intentionally and specifically. You don’t get that most of time at venues. People in your average bar or coffeeshop, people are usually there to hang out and socialize, drink, or have coffee and work. Or there’s a coffee grinder going in the background! So, I love being intentional about experiencing music together — really creating something special when everyone’s there, sitting close to each other.
And I get a lot back as an artist from the audience when I see people, the energy that they’re receiving from what I’m playing, if that makes sense.
Sure, but it’s kind of without a net! You’re kind of exposed without the distance of being on a stage, without that wall.
I’d rather not have the wall! To me, that’s the whole point of art when you can break down walls, and the things that normally hold us apart. You know, that’s the power of it. So I love house concerts and those intimate listening environments because it’s physically, intentionally breaking down those barriers. We’re here! We’re doing this thing together!
It feels like you’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern. You released “We Are the Dreamers” about 4 years ago. You then released the “reprise” collection, and now this selection of “live” fan favorites, which draws pretty heavily from “We Are the Dreamers.” What’s next? Are you working on a new record?
I have slowed down a little bit. So honestly — real talk — I put everything I had on the line to make “We Are the Dreamers,” financially. So, I took a job for while doing web design. And I recently got back to freelancing. So, my time got swallowed up by working a full-time job. It’s feeling good being back at it, doing music and putting out new releases.
I’ve been slowly writing and working on a new record, just on the writing side of it. I went out to L.A. two times and had specific writing time where I was co-writing with people. I have this collection of songs saved up that’s going to be my next project. I have four three-song EPs lined up — what was going to be a full-length record that I’m separating into four three-song EPs. I have the first one almost done. It’s in the final mixing stages. I’m slowly working on recording the next pieces.
So, it was a regathering of myself — and my life — pause. And I think that’s good. Personally, I needed it. It’s been a growth period for me. And I’m really excited and proud of the new songs that I’m going to record.
As I’m working on that and getting it together, I have some of this other material and some of these ideas that I just wanted to go ahead and get out. While I’m being finicky and perfectionistic on my new project. [Laughs]
I want my new record to be just right!
Social media is a double-edge sword. It can inspire but it can also make us feel inadequate when we only see the rewarding & exciting parts of people’s lives. The success we see is just that 10% of the iceberg that’s above the water…whenever you see someone looking really awesome and put-together on social media, remember they’re probably sitting on the couch in a sweatshirt working their ass off.Merry Ellen Kirk, from a recent post on Instagram
[Editorial note: This post is dedicated to my beloved Ella. Gone but forever in my heart.]