Music

Christy McWilson: What Dudes Won't Tell

Shira Richman

I felt like a schmuck for holding my notebook in front of me like a choir girl and for stopping mid-song to cry, but I felt better when I remembered how McWilson feels when she first plays a new song.

A few weeks ago I went to a reunion show of my all-time favorite band. This was one of the few performances the Picketts had given since they disbanded over ten years ago. While I watched Christy McWilson play the microphone stand like an upright bass and sing with her brows furrowed, I thought back to an earlier time in my life.

In my late teens and early twenties, I must have gone to over a hundred of the Picketts’ shows. I’ve never had much interest in breaking the law -- except when it meant getting into bars to see the rocking rockabilly band play. I generally went to these shows with my older sister, Elise, and her boyfriend, Michael. Since I was using Elise’s old California ID from when her hair was died brown, I would enter the club first, alone, while Elise and Michael parked our grandma’s car. Then they would join me, a few minutes later, after the bouncers had surely forgotten that Elise Richman had already entered the bar.

In those days, my aspirations were simple: I wanted to be Christy McWilson. I wanted to sing beautiful songs while someone harmonized with me. I wanted to create melodic catharsis. I wanted to entertain people, to help them be transported from the dreary night, the smoky room, their growing debt as they sipped another frothy beer. I wanted to make them dance, make them unable to resist tapping their feet and nodding their heads.

I can tell you right now, I’m not a musician. I have not fulfilled my dreams, and since watching the Picketts give this rowdy, raucous, life-igniting performance, I haven’t been able to get Christy McWilson out of my mind. When I have to grade papers, write syllabi, or prepare lesson plans, I think of her and remember that life can be more. So I called her yesterday and interviewed her. It wasn’t quite that easy -- first I had to friend her on Facebook and email her, explaining how she has been my idol for the past 16 years. But all of that really happened pretty quickly, and I made a phone call that very well could have changed my life.

I know a lot of dudes who are musicians who tool around on their guitars and make up riffs. And I know dudes who sing their songs, regardless of who is around, without seeming to care if anyone is listening or not. I’m not an easy-going tooler, and I had never before talked to a songwriter with whom I completely related about songwriting and her feelings about the process. McWilson describes herself as an “intuitive type.” She says she can only write songs when she has lots of quiet and open time. “I don’t just need an afternoon,” she said on the telephone from her hotel in California between a show in Chico and one in Redding. “I need several afternoons in a row.”

The time allows her to clear the “jumble of thoughts” that generally occupy her mind. Once she is able to relax, a melody comes, and the next step is to find words that express important, though sometimes mysterious, thoughts or ideas. Often, the meaning of a given line doesn’t make itself completely apparent for some time. This process of fitting words to melody can go on for years, in order to get just the right ones together. “I’m a slow writer,” McWilson says plainly.

Even after a song is finished enough to meet her high standards, McWilson is shy about singing it. “I don’t go ‘Give me that guitar, I have a new song I want to play you,’” she says. “I slink around, like I’m guilty.” If she does decide to play it, she’s more likely to introduce the song by saying, “I have a song -- you’re probably not gonna like it.” Though she has been writing and performing music for at least 30 years, when she plays a new song her “hands still shake,” and her “heart beats” faster, more loudly. “It’s the hardest thing to do. I don’t have that bravado.”

And though she puts on a mean performance, McWilson claims it’s the songwriting she really loves. “I feel good when I work on a song,” she said. She describes songwriting as both “meditative” and as an act of “discovery,” and says, “I think I get more out of the creative process than just about anything else.” And then, because she doesn’t take herself very seriously, and because she is so down-to-earth, she adds, “You know. You must know what I’m talking about?”

She’s right, of course. What she said about the importance of songwriting and her writing process resonates with me. I’d just never talked to someone who worked the way I did before. The operable word here is did. I hadn’t written a song for years.

When I got off the phone with McWilson, I forced myself to write a song. I say “forced” because that’s what it felt like. I often get ideas for lyrics and melodies while I’m walking, and yesterday when it started to happen I sang them into my phone recorder on my way to the library. When I got home, I intended to go grocery shopping, but instead I made myself sit down and write down the lyrics I had come up with so far, figure out which key the song was in, and write a chorus and last verse. When my boyfriend Tracy got home from work, exhausted and burning with a fever, I asked if I could sing it for him. “You better,” he said and flopped onto the couch. I sat next to him and held my notebook in front of me.

“This is intense, isn’t it?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Is it?”

I started to sing the song -- about a woman who works for a major corporation and the sexism she encounters there. I was mostly doing okay at remembering my melodies and phrasings and keeping it together until I got to the chorus -- “They will fire you” -- where the lyrics felt particularly mean, and I started to feel awful for the woman who fulfills the feminine ideal and isn’t taken seriously in corporate culture.

“I guess this is intense,” Tracy said, smiling and urging me to keep singing. I got through the song and he, being a genius-musician who has taught himself to play drums, bass, and lead guitar, and has composed, recorded, and performed music since he was ten, didn’t understand why I had lost it while I was singing. He did seem to understand the song, though. And he told me it was “really strong,” words he doesn’t bother saying unless he means them.

I felt like a schmuck for holding my notebook in front of me like a choir girl and for stopping mid-song to cry, but I felt better when I remembered how McWilson feels when she first plays a new song. If her hands shake and her heart beats like crazy, I think my amateur song warrants freaking out at a higher level.

She mentioned during our interview that she had the day off and wanted to work on a song that afternoon. I like to think that after I thanked her for time and we each hung up the telephone, she and I did the exact same thing.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.