If you're wondering why Austin-based vocalist/multi-instrumentalist K. (for Kathy) McCarty has won the hearts of so many music journalists, bend an ear to her list of favorite artists.
"Richard Thompson," she says. "I've been listening to him pretty much nonstop since 1985. And Randy Newman is another hero of mine, and Sandy Denny, and this Cuban artist, Silvio Rodriguez--he's incredible. And then there's David Byrne and Elvis Costello. And I love Hank Williams." She laughs. "If you got a bunch of rock critics together and asked, `Who are the greatest songwriters of the century?' the people they'd name are mainly who I listen to."
Of course, not all of McCarty's proclivities mirror those of the average rock scribe; for instance, she admits that she spends far more time reading than checking out music ("I go through ten books a week," she boasts). Still, her latest album--the terrific Bar/None disc Dead Dog's Eyeball, subtitled Songs of Daniel Johnston--is exactly the type of offering you'd expect someone with a reviewer's mentality to release. Johnston, you see, is an Austin singer-songwriter with a quavery voice, an offbeat sense of melody, and a history of mental illness who's known primarily by those sonic connoisseurs with a taste for the unconventional. Eyeball, then, seemed fated from the beginning to garner good notices but stiff commercially, because the very people most likely to be interested in it are writers who get their copies for free. And, unfortunately, that's pretty much how things have worked out. "Only something like 13,000 of them have been bought so far," she notes. "With the press I've gotten, people think that it's 250,000 or something. They say, `How is it to be such a big success?' And I'm like, `I lost $10,000 this year. I haven't made a penny.'"
So why did McCarty, a bright, witty and intelligent woman with a keen sense about how the music industry works, spend a year of her life bringing Eyeball to fruition when it seemed bound to be a financial miss? To understand the answer, you've got to understand a few things about both McCarty, who's been a well-kept musical secret for more than a decade, and the city she calls home.
Although it didn't receive as many plaudits as Athens, Georgia, or Minneapolis, Austin circa the early Eighties was the home of a thriving postpunk scene that gave rise to such twisted types as Jesus Lizard and the Butthole Surfers. McCarty was in the middle of this mayhem thanks to her role as frontwoman for Glass Eye, a combo with a shifting membership and a way with songs that encompassed punk, new wave, roots rock, jazz, traditional music and pretty much every other genre term you can pull out of your Webster's. "And that was one of our problems," McCarty says. "We always felt being eclectic was good, like it was with the Beatles. But instead, it ended up being a real Achilles' heel. A lot of reviews we got said things like, `This is the best record I've heard this year. I can't describe it.' And if you can't describe it, that doesn't make people want to buy it."
And people didn't. Glass Eye put out five impressive platters during its decade of life, including 1988's wonderful Bent by Nature and 1989's equally memorable Hello Young Lovers (both on Bar/None), but outside of Austin, it sank like a stone. The group spent the early Nineties trying to make the leap to a major label, but the album on which the players were pinning their dreams--it was to be called Every Woman's Fantasy--remains on the shelf to this very day. (McCarty says Bar/None has made a verbal commitment to release the material in the fall.)
This was a frustrating period for McCarty, and while she insists that she had no inkling that her band was going to break up anytime soon, she found her thoughts drifting to an idea for a solo piece that she'd been nursing for years. The concept, which eventually turned into Eyeball, involved Johnston, whom she met in the mid-Eighties after he attended a Glass Eye gig. During this first encounter, Johnston passed McCarty a copy of a cassette he'd made (the soon-to-be-embraced Hi, How Are You) and asked if he could open a show for the act. Later, when Johnston quizzed her about her reaction to the tape, McCarty said she liked it and offered him a spot on a Glass Eye bill, even though she hadn't bothered to listen to it yet. When she finally did, she found the contents marvelous. More than that: She was certain she was in the company of greatness.
"When I first heard him, I expected that he'd be really famous in five years, like Bob Dylan," she says. "And when that didn't happen, I started realizing that even though a lot of my friends felt as I did about his music, a lot of other people who I respected and thought were smart absolutely could not stand to listen to him. And I started realizing that they weren't rejecting his music because they don't know a good song. It was that they couldn't get around this fidelity thing, this arrangement thing."
To translate: The majority of Johnston's efforts are poorly recorded; they give new meaning to the word "primitive." To appreciate them, you have to listen through these traits or find a way to prize characteristics that are seen as detrimental in practically every other case. As McCarty points out, however, taking the latter tack can lead to condescension. "I get very irritated by the press Daniel gets--that because he's crazy, he's also stupid or retarded or that he's a joke or that his talent comes from some bizarre source and he doesn't work at anything. A lot of people have this impression of him--that he's this giant fluke. Even some writers who I like and are friends of mine write headlines like `Daniel Johnston--Genius or Gerbil?' or `Indie Poster Child.' There's this opinion that nobody would even want to talk about him except for the fact that his exploits as a crazy person are so funny and interesting.
"That's why I wanted to make a record with his songs on it in such a way that people could not deny that he is a great songwriter. They would no longer be able to say that people are interested in his music simply because it's weird or because they think it's funny to listen to someone who's having a nervous breakdown on a recording. I wanted to eradicate once and for all the notion that Daniel is talentless."
When McCarty pitched her Johnston theories to Bar/None, a small independent imprint out of Hoboken, New Jersey, the response she received was relatively lukewarm. It took years to receive a go-ahead from the company, and when it finally came, Glass Eye was on the rocks--meaning that Eyeball would not be seen as the entertaining side project McCarty had envisioned. "I never conceived of this as being a big foray into solo artistry," she confirms. "To me, it was something that I really wanted to do, something that really needed to be done but that I thought might sell 2,500 copies. I never thought of it as being a huge deal except to me, artistically."
Eyeball's quality belies the circumstances surrounding its making. The album was cut entirely on an ADAT machine owned by Craig Ross, an Austin musician who let McCarty use the equipment (located in his bedroom) during those occasions when he wasn't fiddling with it himself. "That's why it took me over a year to do it," McCarty says.
It was time well-spent. The nineteen Johnston songs on the CD are given full-bodied treatment by McCarty and her cast of supporters, including co-producer/fellow Glass Eye veteran Brian Beattie, drummer Scott Marcus (part of Glass Eye for Hello Young Lovers) and other Austin regulars. McCarty transformed tracks that Johnston had left largely unadorned with cellos, violas, trumpets, flugelhorn and her own remarkable voice, which can switch from rich and honeyed (as on "Walking the Cow" and "Like a Monkey in a Zoo") to sharp and biting ("Sorry Entertainer") in the middle of a syllable. The results somehow render Johnston's idiosyncrasies accessible without squeezing the juice out of them. Like the best interpreters, McCarty makes each tune her own even as she makes it clear that they still belong to someone else.
"I've had people say to me that my versions didn't lose any of Daniel's natural pathos," she says, "and in a conceited way, I kind of agree, and feel that I am the best person to translate his stuff, because I do understand him. Daniel and I were born one day apart, and we're similar in a lot of ways--we even look a little alike. So maybe there's a zodiac thing happening."
Another example of synchronicity: As McCarty was wrapping up Eyeball, Johnston, freshly released from a mental hospital, was signed by Atlantic Records. At first glance (and at second and third), the pairing of this fragile, erratic but often exceptional songwriter and one of the biggest record companies on the globe is a quizzical one, and it certainly didn't bring out the best in Johnston: His Atlantic debut, Fun (produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary), is an uneven full-length even by his eccentric standards. Worse, it hit the streets at roughly the same time as Eyeball, prompting many analysts to judge them jointly. In practically every case, McCarty's version of Johnston was seen as superior to Johnston's. Even Johnston thought so.
"Daniel wasn't really ready to make a record, and you can tell," McCarty claims. "About half the songs on Fun are really good, and the other half aren't as good as his usual work. That's why Daniel isn't really happy with the record. So at least he wasn't mad about those reviews--he'd say, `Your record's much better than mine.'
"But those reviews are unfair to the extent that mine was like Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits and his is like Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. I mean, he wrote the songs on Fun in the last year, but the songs from Dead Dog's Eyeball are from his entire catalogue. I think a lot of people get lost in that. They think I'm entirely responsible for my album, but Daniel's the one who wrote all the songs."
Johnston's at work coming up with material for a second Atlantic release, which McCarty believes the corporation will have to support on some level. "They caught a lot of shit from the music community at conferences for signing Daniel," she divulges. "People were like, `Why did you sign Daniel Johnston? Obviously, you're just exploiting this poor crazy person.' And the Atlantic people defended themselves by saying, `Daniel Johnston is a genius. He's the kind of person whose records should be put out whether they're profitable or not.' So they have to stick with that, at least for a little while."
As for McCarty, she has yet to be snapped up by a major, in spite of Eyeball's heady showing in last year's Village Voice critics' poll, gushing praise for her live appearances and an ultrahip movie role on her resume (she played the anarchist's daughter in director Richard Linklater's 1991 film Slacker). McCarty says she isn't surprised: "Critics like my songs, but my songs haven't sold a lot, and even though this record is getting incredible raves, I didn't write these songs. So I think that people in the industry are kind of keeping an eye on me to see what I'll do, but they don't want to make a move until they find out what that is."
When that long-awaited contract offer finally reaches McCarty, she'll approach it with caution. She has strong opinions about the business side of music, and most of them are negative. "I think the only time the recording industry approached normalcy was back in the Sixties," she announces, "because at the time, all the people who worked at the labels were classical-music people who knew that they didn't have a clue about rock music. All they knew was that people were going crazy over this stuff, so they signed bands right and left and let them do whatever they wanted. And that's why the music from the Sixties was so great. I think as long as the business people know their place, there's a flowering of art. And in a perfect society, that's how it would have worked with Glass Eye. Someone would have come to us and said, `We don't really get this, but other people do, so you're signed. Now go forth and wait no tables ever again.'
"But when you get into the position where people on the business end think they know about the music and think they can tell the artists what to do, you experience a withering of the artistic blossom that leads to, well, Loverboy and the Romantics. And Winger."
Since McCarty could not be more different from the Wingers of the world, it's fortunate that she doesn't aspire to arena shows and laser displays. "I'll probably never have a million-selling career," she concedes. "But that's okay, because I'd rather be an artist like Richard Thompson or Kate Bush or Tom Waits, where I'd have enough fans that I could do whatever I want and I could make a living at it. That's really all I need. That's all I want. And that's a more durable thing than fame, I think. I just hope I'll get the chance to find out."
K. McCarty, with Morning Glories and Sincola. 7 p.m. Thursday, June 29, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $4, 447-0095 or 830-
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