SongWriter: Joyce Carol Oates + Tony Trischka + Jennifer Marks

SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs,” featuring performances by Roxane Gay, Gary Shteyngart, Mary Gauthier, Susan Orlean, Toshi Reagon, and Michael Ian Black. You can hear the new episode featuring a short story from Joyce Carol Oates, and songs written in response by banjo master Tony Trischka and songwriter Jennifer Marks above.

By the time I signed my first record contract I had been pursuing a deal for more than ten years. This was back before you could distribute music with a click of a button, when a label was practically the only door to a career in music. This label was new, but it seemed like a serious operation, run by a hit songwriter and former manager, with an upstream deal to Sony. I was over the moon.

But there were early signs of trouble. My lawyer told me that during the deal negotiations the label president forgot to hang up after leaving a voicemail, accidentally recording a detailed overview of their strategy for the negotiations. Over the following months this would happen repeatedly – several people got voicemails like this, including me. I remember the nauseating gut-punch when I realized that what I was hearing faintly in the background was the president of the label telling whoever was in the room that they should drop me. (Turned out he was furious because I had called a publicist without asking his permission.)

I told myself that quirky, strange people were inevitable; musicians expect to work with people whose behavior would get them fired in any other business. And I wanted the future I imagined – my songs on the radio, national tours, the eventual upstream to Sony – so badly. I spent months eating shit, justifying it with my fantasy future.

But there were limits, and money helped provide unassailable, mathematical clarity. After weeks on the road, my tour manager told me that he had never been paid. He was still taking shifts as a waiter to support himself, while working full time at the label. The money the label offered my band was so bad that my keyboard player ditched a tour at the last minute. Though I was left with half a band, a bunch of non-refundable plane tickets, and a label even more enraged than usual, I couldn’t blame her.

My friend Jennifer Marks was signed to the same label. “There was this carrot that was put out in front of us,” she remembered, “I’m gonna give you this huge career, I’m gonna give you whatever you want.” She was on tour with Cyndi Lauper when she found out her band wasn’t being paid. She told me how hard it was to walk away from someone who offers everything you want, even when you know it is a lie. 

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