My name is Speedy Greenawalt and I record music that no one hears. I’ve been doing this for years. Not because I enjoy shouting my art into the void, but because the act of creation in itself is a reward. Would I like for other people to hear my music and think “I can relate to that?” Sure. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m not pushing it. I’ll continue doing my thing regardless of the void’s response (or lack thereof).
I’ve recorded mostly under the moniker “poor horse.” It should be noted that “Speedy Greenawalt” is not my real name, either, if you couldn’t already tell. I devise pseudonyms for my musical self because it doesn’t feel like the person who’s making the music is actually me. Or maybe my birth name doesn’t quite fit with the creative side of my personality. Something like that. Over the past decade, I’ve recorded five studio albums, two EPs, two albums of covers and one live album (performed in front of an audience of zero people). I’m currently working on a sixth studio album, american bedrooms, which — as with all of my albums — will be recorded on a 2007 MacBook, because it’s the only computer I have with decent recording software. All of these albums have been uploaded to Bandcamp and are listened to by — you guessed it — no one but me. I’m not sure if that’s sad, or uplifting in some indefinable way.
american bedrooms will be recorded in the office of my home in the mountains, with my cat prancing around my feet and my wife watching television in the living room. My last album, A Country of the Mind, was recorded in the same space. Previous albums have been made in my ex-girlfriend’s bedroom closet (the acoustics were fantastic), the living room of an apartment in Austin, and a woodshed behind my wife’s sister’s house in Richmond. I doubt I’ll ever have enough expendable income to rent a studio and record a proper album. Would it be a cool experience? Sure. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. My trusty old MacBook gets the job done. Though I have to admit, it perpetually smells of body odor and the headphone jack only works about 20 percent of the time. Maybe one day I’ll splurge on an upgrade — you know, when the royalties start rolling in. That’ll be the day.
Previous albums have been made in my ex-girlfriend’s bedroom closet (the acoustics were fantastic), in the living room of an apartment in Austin, and in a woodshed behind my wife’s sister’s house in Richmond. I doubt I’ll ever have enough expendable income to rent a proper studio and record a proper album. (Pictured is the cover for my first album, Pink Eyes).
I harbor no illusions of being an undiscovered musical genius. Sure, part of me is holding out hope that one day, long after I’m dead, somebody will stumble on the poor horse catalog on Bandcamp and think: “Holy shit, who is this hidden gem? And how did we miss him?” This person will then contact some major record company, the head of which will wholeheartedly agree that, yes, this Speedy Greenawalt was a rare songwriting talent, and yes, all of his works deserve a proper release. The world needs to hear them! Yada yada yada, so on and so forth. They’ll compare me to Nick Drake, whose music famously didn’t find success until after his death. My music will appear on car commercials, maybe, and Pitchfork will retrospectively review my entire discography, giving my fifth album, A Country of the Mind, a 9.4, even though everyone knows it truly deserves a perfect 10, ala My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The whimsical part of me is hanging onto the possibility that one day this will actually happen. But the realist in me knows it never will. And that’s fine. Really. I’ve made peace with it. When you’re making music in your 20s, you believe that every song you write is a god damn pearl, that you’re forging into new musical ground that other artists have never even approached. Then you mature and realize all music — to some degree — is at least a partial rehashing of the stuff that’s come before it. That’s simply the way of the post-modern world: so much music has been created at this point that it’s basically impossible to whip up something completely new, something that doesn’t owe debts to predecessors on some level. While it may feel like you’re creating something novel in the heat of the moment, you’re really only channeling various influences, and siphoning them through your own distorted lens. This can be done deliberately or accidentally. It’s best when it’s the former, because there’s a noble self-awareness in knowing you’re stealing (or, to put it less harshly, borrowing) from the work of others. That’s certainly true with my music: I’ll try to write a tune in the mold of a song that inspires me. Or I’ll play a guitar riff, or sing a vocal part, and think “Oh, that sounds like such-and-such.” That’s not cheating. It’s just part of the process.
Now: does my personal creative process turn out anything worthwhile? I’m not sure. It’s hard to accurately judge one’s own work. The only thing I can do is attempt to create something that feels authentic. And this is truly something that must be felt: I’ll record, for instance, a vocal part, and down in my gut I’ll know whether it succeeds in expressing what I’m attempting to convey. It’s not a science, but there’s definitely a sense of discernment — of genuine or artificial — to knowing when a song sounds correct. For me, the best way to capture authenticity, all the way down to the bone, is to close my eyes while recording. I try not to worry about always being in-time or hitting every note. I don’t overextend. I simply emote. It’s impossible to know if a song will sound “right” to others, because tastes vary wildly. But if it sounded “right” to me in the moment, I’ll probably be able to listen to it five years down the road without cringing from embarrassment.
When you’re making music in your 20s, you believe that every song you write is a god damn pearl, that you’re forging into new musical ground that other artists have never even approached. Then you mature and realize all pop music is — to some degree — at least a partial rehashing of stuff that’s come before it.
My earliest music memories include listening to CDs on a Sony Walkman I received Santa Claus on Christmas. The Beatles, Pink Floyd (particularly The Wall, an album opened my mind to the idea of sonic exploration), Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Green Day — all the bands that typically influence young teenagers influenced me, too. For the longest time, I thought I inherited my musical tastes from my father, who listened to CCR, Bob Seger and the Eagles on constant repeat (still does, matter of fact). But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that a lot of the country and soft rock stuff my mom listened to — Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Matchbox 20, etc — had just as big of an influence on my musical evolution. As did church hymns. I’m a sucker for a good melody. But I’m also partial to contrasts, to tension, to dualities. I like dissonance brewed into melody. I like grave lyrics set to a beautiful tune. I like experimentation steeped in tradition. And because of all this, perhaps no other band played a bigger role in shaping my musical progression than Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was beautiful and ugly, harmonic and dissonant, full of love but also brooding with hate, euphoric and angry, all in a single conflicted package. He embodied an aesthetic I’d embrace in artists I’d later grow to love: Wilco, Radiohead, Parquet Courts, Miles Davis, so on and so forth.
My musical creativity comes in cycles. I’ll go long stretches without touching a guitar (the only instrument I know how to play). Then out of the blue, I’ll be hit with the inspiration to record new music, and WHAMMO, I’m in the office every night, working on songs in a fit of obsessive euphoria, trying to capture a moth in the moonlight. I liken it to an extremely mild version of what Brian Wilson must have felt when he was recording Pet Sounds, or what Kanye West must have been going through while working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. (Obviously, I’m not on the same level as those two). This blast of creativity usually lasts a week or so, during which I sometimes pump out an entire album. Once I start working on it, it’s hard for me to stop. Yet once it’s finished, I usually put down the guitar for months and become a normal person again. I’ll noodle around on the thing every once and awhile, just to stay fresh, but for the most part it sits in the office until I’m overtaken by another fit of inspiration.
These explosions of passion are usually ignited by a song or album that I’ve fallen in love with and want to emulate in some way. For my double album, poor horse i & ii, I was enamored with the transient lyricism of Another Side of Bob Dylan, the rapid-fire social commentary of Parquet Courts (particularly the songwriter Andrew Savage) and the dumb-cool aloofness of Stephen Malkmus. I became obsessed with the idea of saying something without being explicit. I loved songs that were about something without overtly being about something. I was in awe of how it was possible to know what a Dylan song was about even though it was impossible to pin down precisely what the lyrics meant. “Crimson flames tied through my ears rolling high and mighty traps/pounced with fire on flaming roads/using ideas as my maps.” And that sort of thing. Poignant lyrics salted with enough vagueness to allow listeners draw their own conclusions.
I was inspired to start recording american bedrooms after hearing Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell. I love that album’s rawness, its gorgeousness, its understatedness. It knows it’s lyrics are beautiful and dripping with meaning, so it doesn’t shout them at you: it whispers them to you, line-by-line, until Stevens has drawn you into a world all his own. “Can we pretend sweetly/before the mystery ends?/I am a man with a heart that offends/with its lonely and greedy demands/there’s only a shadow of me/in a manner of speaking I’m dead.” That sort of thing.
Where american bedrooms will stray from Carrie and Lowell is its production. The latter is lushly orchestrated. The former will be bare: just a guitar and a voice, recorded simultaneously. Minimal overdubbing. Cats meowing in the background. Raw cuts. I want it to sound as spare and haunting Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. As quarantined as Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. I want it to sound like an album recorded off the cuff during a pandemic: no frills, no pretensions…just a man trying to pass the time during one of the most uncertain moments in recent history. I want it to sound like an album that could have been recorded in any American bedroom.
No one will hear it, of course. Only myself. But that’s the only person who needs to. I will know all of the ideas and inspirations that went into making it, and when I re-listen to it in five or 10 years, I’ll be proud that I spent the time creating something instead of nothing.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.