October 24, 2013

Teacher, Writer, Rocker, Why?

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Cornell’s MFA program has produced a number of contemporary literary luminaries, from Junot Diaz M.F.A. ’95 to Téa Obreht M.F.A. ’09 to NoViolet Bulawayo M.F.A. ’10. Most recently, however, the program has spawned something more surprising: The Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band. The rootsy rock band is made up primarily of Cornell fiction writers: three lecturers and J. Robert Lennon, acclaimed novelist and Director of the Creative Writing Program. The band — a five-piece made up by Lennon, Daniel Peña, Lauren Schenkman, Adam Price and Elizabeth Watkins Price — came together last fall in Lennon’s MFA fiction workshop. This Sunday, the band will host a record release party at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge.

Though it started as a cover band, The Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band has since progressed to writing its own music. Its eponymous debut album, released on Sept. 15, features 11 infectious Americana tunes detailing stories of love, loss and disappointment. According to Lennon, the transition from writing fiction to music has been difficult but well worth it.

“All of our songs are sort of sad little stories with all the details left out,” he said. “They’re a little bit enigmatic but they’re kind of narrative and that comes from the same place fiction comes from. For me that’s a relief from thinking in language. It’s more visceral and immediate.”

That visceral immediacy can be difficult for a group of writers accustomed to more solitary, revision-based work. They’ve played nine shows since December — one a month, including a September appearance at The Gutter in Brooklyn — and getting accustomed to live performances has taken some time, Lennon said.

“It’s fun and scary to play in front of people, but writing isn’t like that,” he said. “There’s giving a reading, but it’s not the same thing. You’re alone when you’re writing and no one is paying attention. But the immediate feedback of playing live is really exciting.”

While the Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band could easily be called Cornell’s English department band, its existence seems to be off the radar of most of Lennon’s colleagues.

“I mentioned it at a meeting the other day — I couldn’t do something because I was going down to New York with the band on Friday — and they all looked at me like ‘what?’” he said. “I was like, ‘you know … the band I have? with the lecturers?’ None of them knew what I was talking about.”

Despite the fact that Lennon is his bandmates’ professor, he claims that the band has successfully navigated the potentially uncomfortable power dynamic.

“I think I was more concerned about it than they were,” he said. “Luckily the three writers in question are relaxed people in general … Eventually I sent them an email and said ‘just to let you know, you can say my song sucks and I won’t give you an F and whatever happens in our relationship as teacher and student won’t effect the band.’”

That feeling of egalitarian unity resonates throughout the band’s first album. Four of the band members — all but drummer Peña — share vocals, often collaborating on gorgeous multi-part harmonies. The album opens with “It Fades,” a track that pairs dark sorrow with frantic optimism (“if we talk about it now / it could last another day / if we say it’s over / maybe we can start again”). Lyrically, the song conveys the desperate grasping at straws that occurs in the dying moments of a relationship. Yet the bright guitar and soaring four-part harmonies give off a feeling of togetherness that keeps the song from drifting too far into misery. Later, the lush female voices on “Milk and Honey” veer into ’60s girl band territory. Here, the layered, poppy vocals stray somewhat from the folksiness that dominates the rest of the album. The prominence of vocal layering ensures that the group’s solo vocal tracks create an accentuated feeling of loneliness. Closing ballad “Memory Hole” — one of the strongest on the album — opens with Lennon’s voice over a solitary guitar. It’s heartbreaking.

The range of styles — and the collectivism that reverberates throughout the album — may result from the band’s shared songwriting process. With no clear frontman, the Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band relies on writing contributions from the whole group. Luckily, the band members have had very few personal conflicts.

“I’m kind of amazed at how well we all get along,” Lennon said. “It’s hard enough being married to one person, but this is like being in a marriage with a bunch of people and you all have to get along. But we do get along and it’s incredible.”

Academia may not be the usual breeding ground for this country-inspired kind of rock music, but the English Department’s latest band is nothing to sneer at. And, if Cornell’s other departments listen to Lennon’s advice, we’ll soon see far more professors on stage.

“I think it’s therapeutic for academics,” he said. “We should all start rock bands.”

Gina Cargas is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]