At a time when the world seems to be getting smaller and smaller every day thanks to the unprecedented achievements of the internet, it’s almost hard to believe that anyone can keep their identity entirely secret anymore.
But the New York indie-rock duo, Newspoke, is doing just that—known only as “M” and “R,” the two songwriters have been making highly melodic and deeply personal music since 2017. Now, on March 19, they’re releasing a new single: “Clean,” which comes ahead of their sophomore album, Knocking on the Door of Daylight, due later in 2021.
With an ear-candy acoustic guitar line, a driving backbeat and a tapestry of synths, wind instruments and countermelodies, “Clean” is demonstrative of the duo’s knack for writing songs that are intimate, deep, inspiring and catchy all at the same time. When the song comes to a peak as the lyrical hook “You need to clean ‘em out/ because your demons are getting mean” repeats, it’s hard not to feel an immense sense of hope. Yet, as M told American Songwriter, the song came from a very real, dark situation, and has gone on a multi-year journey to get here.
“I was 19 when I moved to Los Angeles,” M began. “My new roommate was found on a message board; we had separate bedrooms and got along well. He was a skater who sold weed for pocket change and came from a good middle-class family. A few weeks into our domestic bliss, I came in from a night at the bars and he was snorting heroin with a classmate. It was only his second time and he said it was a recreational thing. I sat around and watched and observed in fascination like it was an alien culture doing a sacrifice in my broken-down IKEA living room.”
But, as is often the case, things soon went south for M’s roommate. “A month later, I get up early in the morning for a glass of water and he’s in a business suit, preparing for a school presentation and snorting a line of heroin,” M continued. “Predictably, his life spiraled quickly out of control: bent spoons in the kitchen drawer, red balloons in the trash, and stolen personal items. It ultimately came crashing down when his parents put him in rehab. They thought this stint was a quick correction back to a normal life, so he arrived back in our apartment four weeks later with an unusual arrangement: he would go home on the weekend (which was two hours away) to be drug tested. Also, he could only be provided McDonald’s gift certificates because this form of payment supposedly could not buy heroin.”
This new arrangement worked… for a week. After that, M came home one day to find his roommate passed out on the couch in a deep sweat. See, the roommate began thinking of ways he could ‘escape’ his arrangement, so he bought an exercise bike and came up with a plan. The plan? He’d do heroin from Sunday through Thursday, ride the bike on Friday morning to sweat out the heroin, go home Friday night to get drug tested and then come back on Sunday and start the whole cycle over again.
“He thought that was a sustainable cycle that pleased everyone, including his demons,” M said. “When I walked in that night to see him sleeping in a puddle of sweat on the couch, I could see these mini-devils sitting there on opposite arms of the couch. It was clear that this sweet, brilliant kid was possessed by something beyond his control, grasp or experience. I went into my bedroom, locked my door, picked up a guitar and wrote this song. The lyrics are pretty straightforward: they’re a clear picture of what I was seeing first-hand on a daily basis. All of the lyrics came out at once. Here was this normal kid forcing himself to go through a horrendous withdraw every single week just to give these demons something to eat.”
And now, a few years later, M is finally getting to share “Clean” with the world. “Here we are,” he said. “I explained the inspiration to Dom Bloink, our visual artistic partner, and she created this perfect vision as if she were living in my head.”
This is how a lot of Newspokes’ work comes to be. As evidenced by their anonymity, their main focus always comes back to the song itself. “I grew up listening to 3rd-wave emo: The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day, Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails, etc,” M explained. “If those kinds of records are ingrained in your soul and your psyche, then you don’t have an option to be insincere when you put pen to paper. I remember when Weezer went from the rawness of Pinkerton to the purposeful soullessness of the Green album and it truly hurt me as a fan. So, if I’m going to spend this inordinate amount of time making music, why make something that doesn’t matter to me or my bandmates?”
This underlying philosophy is a recurring theme in everything Newspoke does, even down to their anonymity itself. While the decision to keep their identities hidden originally started as an accident of sorts—they wore masks for their first music video and just rolled with it from then on—it now plays a more important role in the duo’s artistic vision.
“If music is a ‘stream’ that has no monetary value and no physical structure, then it’s gone back to its purest form,” M said. “If it’s not meant to be sold (because none of us are making money from streams), why does a song or an album have to be packaged for radio consumption? It doesn’t. Find people who like your music, hope they share with others and it’ll find its way. And let’s be really honest: I’ve been making this music my entire life without anyone really hearing it, so it’s not much different.”
M has a point here—countless artists across the country have spent decades making brilliant music, only to release it out into an endless void, unsung. In that regard, Newspoke’s music is emblematic of a wider cultural phenomenon. In the midst of an unprecedented and never-ending flow of information, entertainment and noise, the duo has carved out a small, cozy little corner and has devoted it to their songcraft and nothing else. While it might seem like a small thing, their sincerity and earnest devotion to music speaks volumes.
Watch the music video for Newspoke’s new single “Clean” below: