Excerpted from a story by Sean Nelson for The Stranger, 3/17/05
“My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist”
Like many before him, Colin Meloy was a frustrated college student before he was an acclaimed songwriter. While majoring in English, with an emphasis on creative writing at the University of Montana, he also played in an alternative-countryish band called Tarkio. The band had a respectable following in Missoula, but at least one member was losing interest, both in alt-country as a form, and with the band’s lot: playing “party music” in college bars. “We weren’t even really a party band,” Meloy explains. “But because we had some songs that sounded kind of like the Eagles, people were really into it. There’s this attraction to playing rock music, but I was also getting away from that and writing really dour—we would play entire sets of really dour songs, and we were steadily losing our fan base.”
Tarkio recorded a full-length record and an EP, but after graduation, with no real outlet for success as “a rock band from Missoula, MT,” the band lost steam. Unable to convince his bandmates to leave town, Meloy moved to Portland in 1999 in search of a fresh start, both professionally and creatively. That same year, he took a trip with his family down the Smith River in Montana. The little vacation was a nightmare.
By the time he got home, Meloy was ready to attempt a new style of songwriting.
“I came off that trip with this loathing for my family,” he explains, “and I wrote a song about basically completely re-creating the family in this really fantastical setting, using myself as this sort of sad anti-hero.”
The song was called “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” and it marked both the end of Tarkio (the band recorded a version during its last session) and the eventual birth of the Decemberists, though it didn’t seem like any kind of breakthrough at the time.
“I completely wrote it for myself,” Meloy says. “I thought it was too bizarre to ever appeal to anyone. I think I sang it to my girlfriend, and that was it.”
Listening to the song now—it’s available on the first Decemberists EP, Five Songs—it’s easy to hear the rudiments of Meloy’s signature style: fanciful language (“my mother was a Chinese trapeze artist, pre-war, Paris, smuggling bombs for the underground/she met my father at a fete in Aix en Provence he was disguised as a Russian cadet in employ of the Axis”), sung to a light pop melody over a slow, minor key waltz, dressed up sparingly with accordion and steel guitar. It’s also easy to hear how the singer, embarking on this new style, is holding back a bit, as if to test the waters, wary of straying too far from the familiar shore of his earlier songs.
What’s less obvious, though, is the degree to which “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” represented a declaration of intent, not just for Meloy the songwriter, but for Meloy the writer. Observed by a typical creative writing major, the hellish rafting weekend would have offered all the ingredients for a classic tortured short story—family, alienation, post-adolescence… there was even a river, for God’s sake.
“That was how I was supposed to see it,” says Meloy. “I was taking all these workshops from the faculty at the University of Montana, and that MFA program is pretty renowned, but they teach you a kind of dogmatic approach to writing that’s really terse, you know, the Western style of writing: creative nonfiction… So that’s what I was being taught in writing classes, and that’s how I should have regurgitated that whole experience on that river trip, but I think I was so disillusioned with that whole approach that it was a reaction against that as well. I think it has a lot to do with the songwriting style that I followed after that.”
Armed with a new voice, or at least the beginnings of one, Meloy hit Portland full of ambition and soon discovered what his history as a moderately successful Missoula bandleader was worth. “I supposedly had these connections here,” he recalls, “people I’d met—none of whom were returning phone calls. I kind of had to start from absolute square one.”
That meant several months of open mic nights, “insipid” songwriters-in-the-round events, and the demoralizing quest to land even a crappy solo show. Eventually, things picked up a little, and Meloy was awarded a few thankless slots at one of Portland’s respectable pubs, the Laurelthirst, playing to almost no one. Though lonely, these shows reinforced the impulses that had led to “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist.”
“Being able to have a sense of humor about the fact that I was playing these shows to no one allowed me to kind of poke fun at myself,” Meloy explains. “And my way of poking fun at myself was to try and write more and more ridiculous songs, just to sort of jab the audience. So that’s when I started writing these ghost-story songs and things like that. But I loved doing it so much, because when you don’t have that thrill of having a roomful of people jumping up and down to your songs—when you have five people sitting at the bar who aren’t even listening, you glean what you can from the songwriting process as far as what joy it gives you. The creative process is sort of all you have at that point.”
And the creative process grew bolder.
“I was going to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do,” Meloy recalls of these shows, “and if that involved playing a song in three parts, or playing a song about a legionnaire, you know, then that was what I was going to do. But then I discovered that people liked the songs. But I think also, they liked having that thrown in their face a little bit, liked to be jabbed a bit.”
released January 24, 2006
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