Old Man Makes Music (And Writes a Memoir):
Mark Lanegan Tells His Own Story
Rock ‘n’ roll history is rife with stories of addiction and debauchery. But even after being so desensitized to these tales of excess and woe by now, the ones that Mark Lanegan recounts are still startling – and startlingly honest. He does so in a one-two punch, releasing both his memoir, Sing Backwards and Weep (out on April 28) and an album, Straight Songs of Sorrow (released on May 8), both chronicling his often-harrowing life story.
Lanegan is also unflinchingly honest when he calls from his California home. “I don’t enjoy writing books, at all – I found that out,” he says. “But I do enjoy writing songs. That’s what I get up and do every day. I got done with this book, and then went right back to writing music.”
Writing Sing Backwards and Weep may have been an arduous task for Lanegan, but it also directly inspired him to write the autobiographical songs on Straight Songs of Sorrow – though he says this wasn’t deliberately done. “I never plan anything from the beginning – or the end or the middle,” he says. “I finished this book, I went back to writing songs, and at some point, I realized that there was a difference in these songs. And then I put two and two together: it was the influence of the memories brought up from writing the book that gave these songs a different bent.”
He is pleased with the result. “I realized that there was a depth of emotion to these songs that maybe I had never had in a song before. In some ways, it was probably maybe my most honest record. This is the first time that I recognized that this is something different.”
And it’s true: Straight Songs of Sorrow does seem to have a certain edge and vulnerability to it that sets it apart from any of Lanegan’s other 11 solo albums. Many songs have been written over the years about addiction, but Lanegan manages to do it in a way that’s often poetic, especially on the ballads like the darkly languid “Ketamine” and the haunting, atmospheric “Stockholm City Blues.” Even the uptempo single “Bleed All Over” has a kind of queasy beauty to it. It can make for an uneasy listening experience – how much should stories of someone else’s pain be enjoyed? But it’s a compelling document of a life, all the same.
Several notable collaborators helped Lanegan bring his story to life, including John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Mark Morton (Lamb of God), Greg Dulli, Adrian Utley (Portishead), Warren Ellis (The Bad Seeds), and Ed Harcourt. “I just called everyone I knew,” Lanegan says. “Some of my heroes, guys whose music I’ve always admired, and who I had known for a long time but hadn’t necessarily worked with. And then I called up my usual gang of friends who will play in anything that I ask them to.”
Lanegan chuckles at the suggestion that writing this album must have been cathartic in some way. “I’ve never gotten any cathartic experience from any song I’ve ever written,” he says wryly, “I don’t get relief or joy: ‘Oh, boy I’m glad I got that off my back!’ That’s never been my experience. And that goes with this one, as well.”
When asked what he does get out of writing songs, Lanegan says simply, “I get a life.” Then he elaborates: “I get a life beyond anything I could have imagined as a kid. I get to make a modest living off of the thing that I love to do most, and that’s make music. Music saved me as a kid and then as a teenager, validated the way I felt. As a young adult, it gave me a job. I’m just really blessed.
“When I look at my father – 70 years of work at a job that he didn’t necessarily love,” Lanegan continues. “In fact, I would dare to say he probably didn’t even like [it]. And that’s most people’s experience.” Another dark laugh, then: “People like me, who are basically shitty people, somehow get lucky and get to do what they love to do.”
Despite being grateful for his professional music career, Lanegan says he’s never had any kind of grand plan when he works. “I just do everything intuitively. I don’t really think about the big picture, what it means, what the song’s about. When it comes to my songwriting, I just do what seems natural. I don’t even know where it comes from. Whatever pops into my head and fits with the music, that’s what I do.”
Lanegan says he first became inspired, as a teenager growing up in Ellensburg, Washington, to become a singer after hearing The Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce. “That’s what made me think, ‘You know what? I want to do this, too.’ To me, he was the greatest singer of all time. It wasn’t because I thought I could do as well as him or anything. It was just the way that he was so balls out and intense and real. That was the first time I heard something that really spoke to me, that made me say, ‘I would like to make music like this.’”
But, Lanegan says, “Even at that point, I didn’t necessarily think that I was actually going to be a singer. That just happened by chance. I was working for some people whose kids had a band in the back room. They asked me if I wanted to be in the band, and I did. And that’s how that happened. But it wasn’t really planned.”
Those “kids” were Gary Lee Conner and Van Conner, and the band they invited him to join was Screaming Trees – who went on to become one of the most celebrated of the 1990s Seattle grunge revolution. But, it should be noted, they’d already paid plenty of dues by the time they found success in that scene: their 1992 breakthrough album, Sweet Oblivion, was actually their sixth album. It contained the massive hit “Nearly Lost You,” which was also featured in the hit film Singles.
But even before Screaming Trees became famous, Lanegan had already begun a solo career, releasing his first album, The Winding Sheet, in 1990. By the time that band called it quits in 2000, Lanegan had released his third solo album, and he has continued doing so ever since (Straight Songs of Sorrow is his 12th one). He has also done several notable collaborations, including albums with The Twilight Singers, Isobel Campbell (ex-Belle & Sebastian), and also worked under the band name The Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli, among many other projects.
Lanegan is amused at the idea that he might have been fated to do this type of work, given how it has all seemed to fall into place for him. “Yeah, it could have been fate, it could have been destiny,” he says, “or I just could be a lucky motherfucker, which I think is really the truth of the matter.”
However he’s managed it, Lanegan has achieved the same type of cult status that his idol Jeffrey Lee Pierce had. He says he doesn’t know why his fan base is so strongly attached to his work – but he can explain what draws him to a song: “The music that I connect most with is the music that tells me my own story back to me, if that makes any sense. I never really thought about, ‘What did Bob Dylan mean by that song?’ That never even crossed my mind. All that matters was what it meant to me. It’s the connection that you have with music that either tells you your story as you want it to be told, or it is exactly like something you’ve experienced.”
That said, Lanegan doubts the authenticity of certain music – including songs that have moved him. “I’m talking about other people’s songs, not my own,” he says, then explains: “A song, to me, usually is not real. In other words, it’s a song, it’s not real life. It starts in some place in reality, but then it becomes like a version of reality. Or a version of an incident the way you would like it to be seen. It’s fake. There’s lots of great, great songs that are filled with emotion and power and will make me cry but I know goddamn well they’re not drawn from an actual real-life experience.”
Harrowing as they are, Lanegan’s latest songs really do recount his real-life experiences – but fortunately (and rather miraculously), his story has turned out well in the end. He has enjoyed a long, varied and acclaimed career – something that so many of his peers in the Seattle scene didn’t manage. He knows that it is an unlikely redemptive tale. “What else can I say?” he says with a laugh. “I’m an old man; I make music.”