Cathartic Nights and Sunny Days: An Interview with Jeremy Enigk

Brian Bartels

For Enigk, the singer-songwriter behind Sunny Day Real Estate and the Fire Theft, creative inspiration strikes when most others are asleep.

Emotion. The very word staggers me. To act on your emotions is to convey your strongest feelings, displaying them for whoever rests within eye or earshot, with really no concern for how they react. Emotions will always bubble the surface of our intentions. To be alive -- no, to feel alive - we must react in ways that sometimes even we cannot interpret, as our precognitive selves all have hearts that beat, and those hearts have tendencies to speak our intentions.

As someone who's been told more than once that he wears his emotions on his sleeve, I've gravitated toward my emotions, finding sympathy from others who react to the world the same way. I can relate to the "There is something in me that cannot smile" lyric taken from World Waits, Jeremy Enigk's new solo album, his follow-up to 1996's Return of the Frog Queen, which was released the same year his popular band, Sunny Day Real Estate, first broke up.

I held a very affable chat with Enigk, raised in the Seattle suburbs, whose literary interests span genres; the Bible has become the foremost influence on his life since converting to Christianity. He also finds solace in the words and music of John Lennon and, interestingly enough, science fiction commands his attention.

World Waits, due October 17, evokes a maturity from a voice molded in rage and pain. Return of the Frog Queen applied lush orchestration to the mix, whereas World Waits unfurls percussion and guitars into the foreground, with pianos and keyboards thickening the gravy. Enigk's goal of starting the new album was paying homage to Frog Queen with "A New Beginning", a gorgeous, cinematic instrumental track. I asked the singer/songwriter, busy preparing for a month-long tour, how he felt about approaching the studio this time around.

I've always been curious of how the Pacific Northwest's sullen climate affects its residents. When I pressed Enigk about the occasional gloomy, despair-laden songs he's written in the past, he shrugged off any geographical interference. "Well, I'm a lot happier in the summertime, sure, and being outside, for that matter." His mood shifts before continuing. "And yeah, it's definitely easier to stay in bed all day when it's miserable outside," he finishes, laughing.

"I've changed in ten years, yeah," Enigk says from a cell phone in Seattle, his co-producer Josh Myers driving them around the coffee-strewn streets. "It's experience. The older you get, the more you learn." In a Seattle Post interview, Enigk said, "The benefit of sitting on these songs for years is that I've grown in different styles of writing." He also stated it's akin to throwing baggage off your shoulders. "I'll be a different man when I'm 50." "Damien Dreams", which was originally intended for the follow-up to Frog Queen, supports that ideology.

Writing the album was cathartic for Enigk, a self-proclaimed night-owl. His creative juices start flowing later in the day and keep him going until morning. "Cannons", another new track, evokes that sentiment, its quiet breaths a harmonious take on sleep deprivation. "It's a nighttime song," he says.

Arguably, creative inspiration unfolds on varying wavelengths, so when I asked Enigk about his inspiration -- a question I ask all my musician friends -- I listened earnestly to his response: "There is a space for me. For everyone. Sitting at a piano or acoustic guitar is a meditation in itself. The more I sink in, the more it speaks through me." He also refuses to get caught up in the competitive-mindedness the music business elicits, going so far as to issuing World Waits on his new label, Lewis Hollow Records. "Lately, I'm trying to balance that perception of business-to-music," he says. "Now that I have my own label to worry about, there is that business side, but it's up to me if I want to make records. Ultimately, it's about the music. I remind myself to stay humble and enjoy the moment."

Critics, it seems, have had quite the time categorizing Enigk's music. Is it indie? Is it rock? Or emo-core? Some believe its roots to be descended from punk. Whichever it may be, as an artist or someone who creates, being pigeonholed can be unsavory at times, yet as artists we're tying to form a connection with the world. "I don't have a genre," Enigk says. "I just play music. People need to create genres. Not that I have anything against that form of communication. But, really, if it's anything, it's rock 'n' roll."

Enigk's solo albums and those with past bands -- the now defunct Sunny Day Real Estate and the Fire Theft project (on temporary hold) -- have always established a reflective ending, something personal and revealing. World Waits does not disrupt this continuity; "Burn", a captivating track about spirituality, is something Enigk has expressed as a "personal prayer". "I've always felt the first and last songs are so important for the album. Goodbyes are so important."

Other songs on "World Waits" bring new and old fans through the torrential downpour of singer-songwriter maladies. Many songs surround love loss and relationships from the past, heartbreaking odes to forgiveness and spirituality. "Been Here Before" renders those sentiments, while the title track "Is like a love song to the world," he says, perhaps referencing any one of multiple global disappointments. "It's that frustration about the imperfections of humans. The world's waiting, what are you waiting for? There are simple solutions to simple problems. People are starving -- feed 'em. As an American especially, it's so easy to put on blinders and live in TV land. That frustrates me; that laziness to take responsibility."

"Dare A Smile" breaks ground with how frustrating the world can be perceived. "I don't know what I was going through this night," Enigk says, "But I was exhausted with everything. So I just wrote these really grim, very personal lyrics about frustration in the world. It's probably the most honest and personal song on the record."

The upcoming World Waits tour will mix things up. Enigk is playing with four other musicians he's been playing with for years, one of which is Josh Myers, co-producer of World Waits and an old friend. "He's been with me for tours while Sunny Day was still together." It's no doubt they run in a tight pack. "He's actually sitting next to me while I speak to you," he says, laughing. Fans can expect the same of what Enigk's always offered, a live show with emotionally pitched vocals and layered with shrieks and nurturing whispers. There will be songs from the forthcoming album as well as Sunny Day and Fire Theft songs picked from a hat. But the tour can be strenuous, no matter the material. Few singers match his range. "I definitely need days off, though," he says, laughing. "It crashes. It goes off."

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