“I See a Change in Me”: An Interview with Shannon McArdle

Shannon McArdle named her first solo album Summer of the Whore, and that, unfortunately, will be the focal point of much of the press surrounding its release.

That’s understandable. After all, the story is great: McArdle, still reeling from the breakup of not only her band — the critical darlings known as the Mendoza Line — but also her marriage, writes an album of songs chronicling her descent into the emotional underworld, and that underworld is populated with lustful, desperate thoughts — the kind everyone thinks but few would dare articulate or own. Add to that the rather tasty fact that her ex-husband, the one who prompted the aforementioned breakups and thoughts, was none other than her former bandmate, Tim Bracy? Oh yeah — that’s entertainment, folks. Beloved rock band, intra-band relationships, breakups, autobiographical album? That’s the stuff of Fleetwood Mac.

So, yes, it’s tempting to take the album title at its superficial meaning, and many publications have done just that: this is Shannon McArdle’s “revenge” album. This is Shannon McArdle shedding her English-major image, letting her proverbial hair down and embracing her inner femme fatale. This is Shannon McArdle gone wild, right?

Not exactly. Not at all, really. While the seeming back story makes for good reading, especially when McArdle practically handed it to you, it’s a distortion worthy of a political ad, the kind that takes a seed of truth and twists it into something else entirely because, well, it’s built on a seed of truth. Yes, Summer of the Whore is an intensely personal album, so much that it’s almost uncomfortable listening to such candid thoughts. The truth, however, is that McArdle was simply dealing with the linchpins of her life suddenly vanishing.

“When [Tim] left, I didn’t believe it for probably a month,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Ah, okay, he’s gonna come back. No one just decides that they’ve had it and packs it in after ten years.’ [But] it became really clear to me [when] I had a terrible back accident. Someone accidentally tripped me going down the subway stairs and I nearly broke my back, and I spent time in the emergency room. It was probably two weeks after Tim had left, and when I called him, he didn’t want to come to the emergency room. [Then] I realized, ‘Ah, so, this marriage is really over. That doesn’t happen. People don’t not take care of each other, even if they’re going through a really difficult time or are angry with each other.’ I just assumed the band was over because I knew I couldn’t be in the band anymore and I couldn’t imagine that Tim would want to continue it.”

The emotional fallout from the loss of her husband and her band left McArdle with a nearly crippling self-doubt. The band and the marriage were almost the entirety of her life, the two sources of her identity, the two things she had achieved throughout her 20s. To lose both was, to her way of thinking, a clear indication of some innate and inescapable shortcoming, an Achilles heel of the character destined to derail all her efforts.

This undercurrent of low self-esteem pervades Summer of the Whore, and that’s really the story to be told about the album. Yes, there are songs on the album — most notably the title track — that are overtly sexual, but when they are viewed in the larger context of the entire album, it’s clear that McArdle was simply struggling through the aftermath of an enormous loss just like anyone else.

Part of that struggle, of course, was trying to work her way through those feelings of unworthiness. To do that, McArdle had to face them, and face them she did. The lyrics on the album are so frank when dealing with insecurity that they often sound like diary entries rather than song lyrics, which too often skew the reality of a painful situation by glamorizing the details. If there’s one strength — and, perhaps, curse — of the album, it’s that McArdle gets out of the way of her feelings, thereby allowing herself to capture them without interference. This is, if you will, cinema verite in song.

In “Paint the Walls”, for example, McArdle deftly captures the worries that are unique to women after a breakup, asking, “Am I used up goods? / Could someone make me new?” In the same song, she also expresses, in gut-wrenching but simple detail, the enormity of simply passing time after a failed relationship. “Maybe I’ll paint the walls,” the narrator says, then, in a moment of forced optimism, adds, “I’ll make some calls and get out tonight.” And if that nugget of insecurity sounds uncomfortably familiar, try this one from “This Longing”: “I think I blew it / I put it out there too fast / I said that thing you don’t say / Christ, I can’t take it back.”

“After those devastating months — and really the year — after Tim left, it was so very difficult to feel confident and to feel really worthy. I struggle with it a lot. And so [the lyrics are] extremely sincere, and I’d like to say I’ve gotten past that and I’m doing a little better, but those feelings of ‘Oh well, of course he would want to leave me. You know, I say what’s on my mind too much. Guys don’t like that. No wonder he left.’ You know, all these things go through my mind. And I think, ‘Well, if I was capable of just running someone off after ten years and after he’d married me, well there must be something just inherently flawed with me. And it’s hard to escape those feelings. But I’m not where I was when I wrote those songs, but I have those fleeting feelings sometimes, still, for sure.”

Along with admissions of insecurity, the album also conveys a profound sense of loss — loss of the naïve innocence of youth, loss of a degree of faith in the supposed pillars of life, and the crushing loss of dreams that always accompanies a divorce. Perhaps the most painful track on the album — and also one of the most beautifully haunting — is “He Was Gone”, in which McArdle mourns the loss of the child she never got to have while married.

“He was gone before you’d even conceived of him,” she sings, “But I did.” Not since the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” has someone so poetically expressed the loss of what never actually was. Allegedly, though this is probably just music folklore, Johnny Marr cried in the studio when Morrissey recorded the vocal for “I Know It’s Over”, and McArdle had a similar experience while recording “He Was Gone”.

“It was terrible,” she says, momentarily silenced by just the memory of singing the words. “I cried when I was recording it and I remember Adam [D. Gold, former drummer of the Mendoza Line and McArdle’s musical collaborator/producer for Summer of the Whore] and I were listening back to the vocals and he was like, ‘Awww … that sounds like it hurts when you sing that.’ And it really did because, you know, I’m 32 years old and having a child was something Tim and I had talked about for, you know, three years or so. By saying we had talked about it means I had told him over and over ‘I want to have a child. When are we going to have a baby?’ But whatever, you know. It was an open conversation. “

As the song approaches the end, the lyrics become less mournful and more enraged. “You know you may as well drown her,” she sings, likening the false promise of a child to the taking away of life. “You don’t fuck around with this particular fever / You just cannot dangle that bait / You do not ask her to wait just to leave.”

When asked to comment on those lyrics, McArdle concedes they’re boldly frank, but then explains what she was feeling at the time. “Having a baby is a time-sensitive thing, and here I am starting from scratch again. And if you want to be a mother desperately, which I do — that’s something I’ve known for years that I want to do — you think, ‘Well, now I don’t even have anyone to have a child with.’ You can’t help but feel cheated out of something, like [for him] to say, ‘Oh yeah, wait a year, wait two years, whatever.’ And so you think that you’re building up to something. And to have someone ask you to wait and then to leave is just devastating. Completely devastating.”

As far as the title of the album and title track, it certainly is an attention getter. McArdle knows that certain titles and lyrics are going to generate chat, but the truth as to why she chronicled her life in such a fashion lies somewhere in the middle of that chat. On one hand, she readily concedes that the album title means what it appears to mean. McArdle, without doubt, was dealing with misfortune in means that didn’t always make her proud.

“I was a disaster,” she admits, “and there was something that felt really nice about being so out of control. It made me sort of excited to think, ‘I can do whatever I want. I’m not responsible to anyone.'” But the freedom of being alone also brings it drawbacks, and McArdle found herself vacillating between excitement and fear. “I mean, really it was a scary feeling more than anything,” she clarifies, “and a sad feeling to know that there’s no one at home waiting for you or no one to call and say, ‘When are you coming home?'”

On the other hand, the lyrics, while capturing some literal events and thoughts, were not meant to be taken literally in every instance. Some were based on actual events, some were based on just thoughts, and others were based on thoughts expressed in a metaphorical fashion. For example, when asked if the title Summer of the Whore was a metaphor for asserting one’s freedom and owning one’s feelings, McArdle sounds relieved that somebody finally sees an alternate interpretation.

“That summer when Adam and I recorded the record was a really strange and terrible time for the two of us. He was also going through a breakup with a girlfriend that he had been with for quite a while … We often met in our favorite Mexican restaurant in Park Slope near the studio around twelve. That’d be our time to meet for a drink. I’d always have a margarita; Adam would have a beer. We’d just sort of look at each other and one or both of us would look a little haggard and … one of us would say, ‘Were you a whore last night?’ You know, it just meant, ‘Were you bad? Were you up to no good?’ Yeah, the title is definitely meant to convey that message [of taking back control of one’s life].”

McArdle knows, however, that the press likes a good story, and the fact that the more sensationalistic aspects of the album and its background are being played up worries her. For one, she doesn’t want the album to be misinterpreted. More importantly, though, she doesn’t want for the album to be perceived as a jab at Bracy. When commenting on this, the trepidation in her voice is clear.

“It’s just … I don’t know if he was aware of just how desperate and what a desperate situation he left me. And I haven’t said anything that I think is insulting to him in any interviews, but I’m sure it’s a sensitive subject to him, and I’m sure he would prefer that I hadn’t written the record or hadn’t done such candid interviews, but I don’t know how else to talk about it. Right now, anyway.”

Still, why would McArdle write such a confessional album when she had to have foreseen the ramifications? The answer, as she explains it, is simple: as an artist, she naturally turned to her art to deal with her feelings, and since there was no way to get past those feelings but straight through the middle, there was no writing a different record.

“It seems so insane to say it had nothing to do with him,” she says, drawing a very thin line between her life and her art, “but, in a way, it didn’t have anything to do with him because he was so … he was just gone, you know? So it was just my way of getting through this. And it was the only record I could have written at the time. It’s not meant to embarrass him. It’s not meant to insult him.”

Unfortunately, the reality of being solo — both in terms of being without a spouse and being without a band — has placed limits on McArdle’s music career. Though she’d like to devote more time to her music career, life intervenes. “I’d love to do a tour, but I’m just at a point in my life where I can’t get up and go on tour for three weeks and lose money, or not make enough money to buy gas or not come back with anything. It’s just a really tough spot for me right now. I have to be sort of picky about what shows I’ll do, and I’m not exactly in a position to be picky. I wish I knew what I’d be doing in the next few months as far as touring and shows go.”

And yet, even as the immediate future looks unpredictable for McArdle, she’s approaching her career in the same manner as she is life post-marriage: have something on the horizon so you can look over the uncertainty that is the foreground of your life. “I am working on a new record,” she proudly reports, “and I hope to have that out at some point, in a year or so. It’s not clear what direction it’s going. It seems very scattered at the moment, not very cohesive, or even coherent. But less personal, which I think is a good thing because I’m sure people are going to be really tired of hearing me talk about this. It’s going to be a little … cheery is not the word. I don’t think I could really make cheery music, but not such a dark, personal record.”

And while McArdle isn’t exactly feeling like life is overwhelmingly great, she’s at least open to the idea of being something other than desperately lonely. Indeed, near the end of the Summer of the Whore — after all the tales of betrayal, loss, and depair — is a track called “Come, Autumn Breeze”. While not a decidedly happy song, it shows McArdle finally catching a glimpse out of the darkness. “Now I smile every once and a while,” she whispers. “I see a change in me, just like the leaves.”

For McArdle, given where she’s been and what she’s been through, that, for sure, is progress.