By Drew Ailes
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By Kyra Scrimgeour
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By Tom Murphy
For most musicians, the notion of putting out one album per year is daunting. Summoning the wherewithal to pen enough material (a dozen or more songs in a twelve-month period) is an arduous task, made even more difficult by the demands of dealing with promotion and being on the road. Because inspiration can't be forced, many artists go years between releases to allow themselves time to refresh their oeuvres and nerves.
And then there's David Andrew Strackany (or Paleo, as he's perhaps best known to fans of his freakish, folkish musings). Since Easter 2006, the DIY singer-songwriter has written and recorded one new song a day, each of which is posted on his website. And he intends to continue this project, which he refers to as his Song Diary, at that rate through Tax Day. In a way, the Diary has come to define him as a person and an artist.
Strackany's story begins in Elgin, Illinois, where he grew up the second youngest of five children, desperately trying to grab the attention and affection of his parents and siblings. "I was always at a disadvantage for being noticed," he recalls. "My oldest brother was valedictorian in high school, a track star, a super-smart guy, a great musician and a fantastic artist. The brother below him was a fantastic singer and class president. My oldest sister was super-cool, incredibly superior and gifted. My little sister is a professional dancer in Chicago."
With such overachieving siblings, Strackany had to find a way to stand out. "It became a part of my personality to carve a niche for myself," he notes. "And in my tiny universe back then, it felt like everything had been done. In fact, it still feels that way, so I have to work even harder."
Strackany's drive to achieve hasn't mellowed since those childhood struggles. After graduating from the University of Iowa, where he studied art and English, the young artist helped manage Public Space One, a multi-disciplinary arts venue in Iowa City. Since 2004, however, when he embarked on a full-time career as a nomadic musician, Strackany has barely come up for air. He recorded and self-released his debut album, the hypnotic Misery, Missouri, and has played more than 200 shows. In fact, by the time he hits the stage at the hi-dive this week, he will have played approximately 56 shows in the first 74 days of 2007. For the mathematically challenged, that means Strackany plays an average of three shows every four nights.
Even Strackany's chosen moniker betrays ambitions that are strikingly grand for such an unassuming artist. He waxes rhapsodic when relaying the story of its origins. "There needed to be some distinctions between what I'm doing and any misconceptions about who I am," he explains, "a distinction between who I am to my family and who I am to people I've never met, who take my music and use it for what they need to use it for.
"I was at the National Museum in Prague," he continues, "and there was a butterfly and moth exhibit in this one room -- all these moths of different shapes and sizes, from gorgeous to absolutely hideous. They reminded me of songs: to be captured in the moment, in its most vivacious and beautiful, and being beautiful enough to kill and put up on a wall as an example that the world can learn from. And I thought, 'I want to be one of those moths.'"
Since then, Paleo's career has grown outside the usual machinations of the industry. He books all of his own shows and releases his own music. Though he's had interest from labels, Strackany says he's not convinced yet that they're necessary to accomplish his goals. "So far, it's been happy accident after happy accident," he insists. "Nothing's been linear. I've been pretty intense about my work ethic since my senior year of college. I don't see this year as being much different."
But what makes this year different and illustrates Strackany's determination more than anything is the Song Diary. Initially, the project was conceived as a way to help him get over a painful breakup, but the journal of words and music has become as much an odyssey as Paleo's incessant touring. Each of the tracks is lo-fi by necessity, featuring Strackany's quirky, warbling voice -- a creaky, carnival-barker croon that occasionally rises to falsetto hysteria -- and his Wal-Mart guitar, all captured on a trusty laptop. The songs stir together Woody's Guthrie's urgency, Elliott Smith's sweet dejection and M. Ward's informed musicology in a melting pot of eccentric minstrelsy. Occasionally, the audience or other musicians sharing a bill join in to flesh out the recordings, but the lyrics take center stage. In addition to an MP3 of every song for free download, the songwriter also posts the lyrics for all of the songs. Strackany insists that the Song Diary is about the words, not the music.
"Advances in music these days are all about texture and timbre and color, but in order to play with that, you need toys," he points out. "I don't have toys, but I have every word in the English language at my disposal. So out of necessity, it's become a poetry project."
Nowhere is this clearer than in the "Sunday Prayer" series of songs. Every Sunday, Strackany revisits and revises a recurring song concept. The vocal melody is more or less the same from week to week, as are the first line and last verse of the lyrics, but the rest of the song evolves and changes, depending on what the songwriter feels moved to explore. In this series, the listener gains the most insight into Paleo's internal odyssey. On April 16, 2006, at the outset of the project, Strackany begins with a sweet, wistful line: "Time and time again, I like to share a drink with friends." This is the voice of the small-town boy who longs for the comfort of those who know and love him best. By February 25, 2007 (or 313 days, 127 cities, 37 states, 172 shows, 47,322 miles and 45 Sundays later), we hear: "Time and time again, who is that monster in the mirror?"
Perhaps it's not surprising that the tone has changed slightly. After all, traveling constantly, leaving behind all that's familiar and forcing yourself to write a song every day has got to take its toll.
"I'm pretty at peace with travel these days," Strackany declares. "The highs are rounded down, and the lows are filled in a bit. I miss having a favorite diner, but I find one in every new town. I miss my friends, but I meet people who look like them and talk like them every day. It sort of becomes its own kind of routine. At some point, I stopped feeling like I was moving at all -- more like the world was moving under me, and I was pretty much standing still."
Even the songwriting, which might seem like a burden, doesn't have that weight for Strackany. "I don't think it's really answered anything for me in the way that I thought it would," he confesses. "But I feel much more at home with myself than when I started. There were definitely demons to exorcise, and this process created some new ones, but I wouldn't use the word 'burden.'"
In fact, the project itself has, at times, been the only thing to get the songwriter through another day. "Last night I had the stomach flu," he recounts. "I was in a town where I didn't know anyone. I ended up sleeping for eighteen hours and throwing up in the street. I couldn't even drive, so I couldn't go anywhere. In moments like that, it feels less like a burden and more like an anchor -- it becomes the thing that makes the terrible worth it. The only thing good that came out of that experience was that I wrote a song." That song is appropriately titled "All Misery and No Company."
There's a Zen-like tranquility to Strackany's acceptance of his life and the world as it is. Though his songs are filled with characters who are alternately distraught and enraptured, despondent and transcendent, the man himself is remarkably self-possessed. In a few short weeks, all that he has known for the past year -- the project, the diary, the tour -- will come to an end, but even that prospect fails to perturb him. Talk to most young musicians and they'll tell you that they want to keep making music and touring as long as they can get away with it. But Strackany's musical ambitions are part of a much bigger picture.
"The day after it's done, I'll probably want to write a song, but I won't," he predicts. "What I put my efforts into is going to change a bit. I'm getting most of what I needed to get out of traveling. If I stay on the road for two or three more years, more people would be into what I'm doing, but it wouldn't be challenging, and I wouldn't learn anything from it.
"When it gets to be about popularity," he concludes, "it isn't really about anything at all. Art is a path to peace, understanding and being a better human, as long as you're using it the right way. And I feel like I'm running out of time."