“I forgot what it’s like to put out a record,”Chad Clark told me last week, the day his band Beauty Pill released its first album in 11 years. “People are very nice to you.”
Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are, or some version of it, might have arrived earlier had a few things not happened. In 2007, Clark was sidelined by viral cardiomyopathy, an infection of the heart that nearly killed him and required surgeons to open up his chest. During his recovery, he could scarcely hold a guitar but could handle a laptop, which led him to double down on the electronic and cinematic sounds he’d already begun to explore. Clark wrote, made demos, composed the score for an experimental play about suicide, and recorded sporadically over the next several years, and in 2011, Beauty Pill took over a black-box theater in Rosslyn’s Artisphere to record a new album in public. A nearly disastrous hard-drive snafu, some re-recording, another major surgery for Clark, and a new record label later, the album has arrived. It feels as though it’s landed right on time.
Listeners of Clark’s old band, Smart Went Crazy, and Beauty Pill’s earlier recordings will recognize—but feel no redundancy in—the songwriter’s tense yet immediate melodic stamp, his lyrics’ floating narration, his sociopolitical engagement, and his cutting sense of humor. The sonic leaps are something else: Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are presents the band as a fully organic and electronic outfit. “The album is saturated with details, with color,” Clark told me last year. “It definitely hits you with a lot of information.”
The lyrics, sung by Clark and multi-instrumentalist Jean Cook, do too: The lurching, groove-centered “Afrikaner Barista” depicts a flirtatious encounter freighted by the baggage of apartheid. “Steven and Tiwonge” imagines the flight of a real-life queer couple that was prosecuted by the Malawian government for “unnatural offenses.” In the dreamlike “Ann the Word”—a lush, chilling update of a song Beauty Pill originally released in 2006—the narrator reckons with mortality as “the car fills up with water, and you and I are kissing just the same.” “Ain’t a Jury in the World Gon’ Convict You, Baby” centers on a traffic stop turned recognizably ugly. “Near Miss Stories” directly addresses Clark’s illness.
The band, which also currently includes Basla Andolsun, Drew Doucette, and Devin Ocampo (the sixth member during the Artisphere sessions was Abram Goodrich), has a full spring and summer: In addition to the new album, it’s re-releasing the band’s first EP, The Cigarette Girl of the Future, both on Butterscotch Records. It wrote and recorded the score to Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s current production of Hamlet: The First Quarto. And it will tour this summer for the first time in years.
Because Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are was such a long time coming—and because it really, really, rewards attentive listening—Clark and I were both eager to finally have a discussion about its content. Our interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Some of these songs are close to a decade old. Which ones went in directions that aren’t at all what you imagined?
My personal favorite song is “Afrikaner Barista.” It’s so much deeper and richer than I expected it to be, and it went in a really unexpected direction in terms of what happens in the song. The initial impulse behind the song was to write an answer song to [David Bowie’s] “China Girl,” a kind of response or vague shadow to it.
A kind of multicultural encounter in a bar or café or club…
Right. But in that song it gets very dark. Toward the end, “visions of swastikas” and stuff. It’s a really interesting song about cultural dissonance or friction, and attraction. I wanted to write something that felt like the flip side of that coin. In my mind it ended darkly. I kept trying to write it, and I couldn’t finish it for a really, really long time, almost a year. I’d have these attempts at dark endings. They didn’t feel right—they felt pretentious, they didn’t feel truthful. And then I realized that my idea of a song ending in a dark, bloody kind of way was kind of stupid. Like, “What the hell, who cares?” An attraction across races, across cultures isn’t that big a deal, happens all the time. Why does this have to have this tragic ending? And what’s the worst that can happen? That’s when the last verse appeared: “Origin’s not destination. You have to move on.” And it’s a really bright and hopeful ending. I didn’t expect that—that was an example where the song tugged you in a direction you didn’t expect.
I’m not one of those songwriters who’s like, “I don’t know where it’s coming from, God is speaking through me,” or something like that. Kristin Hersh will tell you her writing process is totally unconscious and she goes into a fugue state and she comes out with the music. That’s not exactly how it works with me. I am aware I’m shaping a narrative and trying to tell a story. There is Hersh in what I’m doing. There are moments where it does feel a little like Kristin Hersh but there are a lot of times I haven’t lost total control. I’m a pretty conscious artist.
“Barista” ends very brightly, suddenly the music turns bright, where the music suddenly turns into this rainbow. Jean was the first who picked up on it [during the Artisphere sessions]. That’s something I didn’t see happening, and it really feels really good. When I hear it on the record I think, “Wow, this really resolved.”
If you were to assign a literary label to the kind of lyrics you write, especially songs like “Ann the Word,” “Steven and Tiwonge,” “Afrikaner Barista”—all of those songs are vignettes. Why does that form work for you?
There are songwriters whom I admire who write totally different, and sometimes I’ll hear someone else’s style of writing and I’ll decide, “Oh, why would I try to write [like that].” I love Bob Dylan; I love John Lennon; I love Mos Def. But you’re right about the vignette, the visual scene. “Lifeguard in Wintertime,” “The Mule on the Plane”—they’re pretty visual songs, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s been really challenging to make videos for Beauty Pill. You could make them literal or you could make them totally abstract, but either way the listener’s mind is going to the images of the lyrics—and they are visual lyrics. I hope it’s involving—I hope it’s like a movie. With a very dark song like “Ann the Word,” I hope listeners go—not literally go—to the place of the song. The vignettes seem to suit the length of a song, you can get away within the length of a song.
Often you’ll start with a scene and then you’ll either twist the scene somehow, or finally step back and actually explain the idea in the song. Sometimes you’ll do both.
And then there’s “Drapetomania,” which doesn’t make any sense at all. Well, it kind of makes sense. It’s like a rant.
It’s interesting you chose that song to start the record. Usually you want the first song to ground you, to tell you what’s going on. “Drapetomania” has a different purpose.
Yes. There was a lot of controversy within the band to put that first. For a long time, “Afrikaner Barista” was first. “Drapetomania” is confusing and alarming. If the album is saturated, that song is super saturated, and it takes the most to puzzle through and has the most, probably, provocative lyrics. We could not find another place to put it on the record; it’s so bizarre and unwelcome. And, well, one thing that it does is, “OK, I’m aware.” I really like that song. Basla says her favorite lyric on the record is on that song: “Deep in the heart of wildest Caucasia.”
Where’d that come from?
Being in the suburbs. I feel there’s a lot of humor in that line. It’s not a hateful line. I always loved the idea that people would say Caucasian. No one knows what you’re referring to when you say Caucasian. And it just occurred to me one day, being in the suburbs: “This is the jungle of Caucasia!” Race is something I’ve always addressed pretty directly, but if someone were to say to me, “What do you mean by that? What are you saying directly?” I would probably pull a Dylan and say, “Hey, it’s in the line.”
I was thinking something like that with “Ain’t a Jury in the World Gon’ Convict You, Baby.” That’s a song that, if you wanted, could really address our current moment, especially the debate we’re having over police departments and racism and the latitude they have.
I’ve been hearing that a lot, and sometimes people will say, “That song really predicted Ferguson!” I’m like, honestly, as a black person, I will say this straight up: If I’m ever with cops alone, I feel like I could die. That’s my truth, that’s always been my truth. I’m a much more privileged black man than a lot of people, and that’s my truth. So the idea that Ferguson is something I predicted is a little bit hard to swallow. Like, that’s my life. That’s not new. It’s a reality.
This is the first time as an artist where someone hasn’t told me that the record I’m putting out is ahead of its time. When [Smart Went Crazy] put out Con Art, Ian [MacKaye], very, very supportively, very sweetly, was like, “People will get this in 10 years.” But this is the first time people have said this record is now. Which is very exciting. I’ve never been on time for anything, ever.
Musically, it certainly feels like we’re in this moment where time has kind of collapsed—not that there won’t always be a conservatism to some people’s tastes.
That’s been encouraging, too. No one has tried to circumscribe a genre around Beauty Pill, or found that unnerving or found that a turnoff. I’ve always found that the fact that our music is hard to describe is a problem for marketing it. And it’s really encouraging to me that that’s no longer a thing people are putting on me as a liability, basically.
“Exit Without Saving” could be about a lot of things—about a war, about a relationship, any kind of situation in which you’d want to get out.
It’s about making a choice for self-preservation, where you have to get out and you can’t save everybody. When you’re going into a plane crash, your instinct is to check the child, make sure they’re OK. But the first thing you need to do is make sure you have your oxygen mask. It kind of runs counter to every parental instinct you would have. “Exit Without Saving” is basically saying, “This is fucked, it’s not going to get any better, we have to get out.”
“For Pretend,” in its story of an actor who uses role research to justify his poor parenting—with lines like the one about “just researching the part,” it involves some manner of self-deception, or a slow awakening from it.
Yes. That’s a delicate song, because I have a lot of friends who are actors now. And I didn’t want anybody to think I had based that character on them, or that I was implying anything about anyone I know. But for “For Pretend,” it seems to me that even in the best case scenarios—actors or artists or painters or poets or songwriters—that in order to be good at what they’re doing, there’s a certain amount of self-involvement that’s necessary. When you hear about someone like Al Pacino going into character and being Method, when you hear that they took the character [home with them] off the set, if there’s a child involved, that’s got to be weird. I think that probably is the case for a lot of great artists. But it would be even worse for not great artists. I think they’d have to have a lot of self-delusion to keep going.
They have this idea: “I am a great artist and you are the son of a great artist,” and it turns out they’re not a great artist. They’re just a hack.
Why did that particular dilemma occur to you?
I was thinking about jazz musicians, who often have children with really cool names. You imagine growing up with a jazz dad must be a pretty cool life. My parents are not artists; my parents are lawyers, but I was just thinking about how hard it must be to have a parent who’s a struggling artist. And in the case of “For Pretend,” it goes through the child’s life and the parent is kind of saying, “Well, this is normal,” which is where the title comes from. It’s about an actor who’s not very good, and at the end of the song that person has come to realize he was never very good at acting, but the kid is gone. And that’s the end of the song. It’s very sad.
I wanted to talk about “Near Miss Stories.”
“Near Miss Stories” is the closest thing to a literal read of my experience. I wanted to have something that addressed [my illness] specifically and nonelliptically. The line that I really love the most is in the chorus: “If you see something you want and don’t have, let me know and I’ll tell you how to live without it,” which is a thing my dad used to say. And he’s being a hardass, he’s being a tough guy. And I wanted to turn his turning of that into a welcoming, comforting thing—which is to be really grateful. It’s a little corny to be that explicitly explicit about being happy to be alive. But that’s what the song is trying to say.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery