Author photo by Emily Lind.
YOU MIGHT KNOW Richard Edwards from his former band, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, whose 2008 song “Broadripple is Burning” currently has more than 24 million plays on Spotify (and that’s just for the album version). Although the song has taken on a life of its own, popping up anywhere from American Idol auditions to Billie Eilish’s Amazon playlist, Edwards has a love-hate relationship with “Broadripple,” seeing it less as a masterpiece and more as a stepping-stone into his expansive body of work.
At the height of the pandemic, Edwards released a new solo album, The Soft Ache and the Moon, a piano-driven collection of songs that he describes as the third in a trilogy (after 2017’s Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset and 2018’s Verdugo, both inspired by and recorded in Los Angeles). Since then — when not busy parenting, running his Patreon page, reissuing coveted Margot records, reading Thomas Pynchon, or watching film noir — he spent his quarantine at home in Indianapolis looking back on his musical career. Unlike several songwriters who rushed to release songs about the pandemic, many of which already haven’t aged well, Edwards opted for a more introspective approach to create what he’s calling Richard Edwards Sings the Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Songbook in Quarantine (Volume 1), an album that manages to capture the existential dilemma of quarantine: rather than emerging from this pandemic as bigger, faster, and stronger, we’ve all been forced to sit with ourselves, which could at times be really painful.
As its title indicates, the album features Edwards covering some of his favorite Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s tracks. Notably, “Broadripple is Burning” is nowhere to be found. In many ways, especially with Dave Palmer’s haunting piano, the album feels like a natural follow-up to The Soft Ache and the Moon; most of the songs on Richard Edwards Sings the Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s are over a decade old, but Edwards’s reimagining of them makes them feel brand new. The songs are slower, sadder, even sometimes lonely, as though coming to us from a less youthful perspective. This is an older and wiser Richard Edwards covering songs written by his younger self.
In what follows, I interview the most underrated songwriter of our time.
JUSTIN GAUTREAU: For readers new to your music, would you consider this quarantine album a good entryway into your catalog?
RICHARD EDWARDS: I think so. I’ve made so much different music that I guess it just depends on what kind of music that hypothetical listener likes. More than anything, I hope the small handful of people that got into my stuff with the solo albums hear it and feel it’s a worthy addition to that catalog. Margot fans are another thing; some of them are very young, and some have grown up with me. I’m so off in my own head, and without touring I’ve completely lost track of what an average Margot fan is into as far as what I make currently. I’m not sure I’d expect a 15-year-old Nukes fan to like it as much as they like [the 2008 Margot album] Not Animal. Could be wrong. It’s an old man record in many ways. But it’s really as personal as anything I’ve made. I stand fully behind it and hope it collects fans throughout the course of its life. I’m proud of it and amazed it got made. Like I always am.
We’re coming out of the pandemic now, so I feel like I can ask this question: What was your quarantine experience?
Can’t say it changed my lifestyle much, but as a parent it was pretty awful to feel the effects on my child. I’m sure I’m far from alone in that. Basically I read a lot, spent time with my daughter, FaceTimed my lady friend at night, and put on old movies. Worked on music. But I wasn’t very creative as far as writing goes. The pandemic wasn’t wholly responsible for that.
You’re a prolific songwriter, always working on something new. What inspired you to look back?
I had been sick in bed for the better part of a year, even while working on Soft Ache. When the pandemic hit, it didn’t change my life much but I fell into a really deep depression. For some reason, the rest of the world being forced inside where I’d been for so long was unbearable. The way to get out of it was to immerse myself in work. Trouble was, I’d just recorded 15 songs for Soft Ache, so there was no real reason to make another thing. Regardless, I dug up a bunch of recent songs that I hadn’t done for the album and made another album with Dave Palmer and Perla Batalla. That hasn’t come out. It went so well that I didn’t want to stop, so I started committing to this idea I’d been beating around in my head for a while, which was to see if I could make something new out of some older songs for which I had an affection. There was only ever going to be a reason to do it if there was a reason to do it.
I was also daydreaming about live shows. If I were to do a solo show with my current band and just pull from those three solo albums, it would be a show I’d be incredibly proud of, but considering the subject matter, it would be really painful. I certainly couldn’t tour it; I’d be a mess trying to do that every night. So that kinda thought experiment was part of the motivation: Would any of these older Margot songs work with the new band, intermingled with what I’ve been making the past five years? The idea was to treat it more like a live set with a specific band of mine in a specific city for a night of music in a little theater or something. It’s a permanent object now, an album, but it was helpful to think of it as if it were a one-night performance.
I haven’t slowed down over the past 15 years and I’ve changed and grown as far as what I’m doing. Every day of my life I’ve worked on slowly becoming a different writer. I’ve always challenged myself to look at my writing more like a filmmaker/screenwriter than a musician. It’s not a given that a filmmaker makes their best or most interesting work when they’re young. It’s really rare, in fact. That is not the case for songwriters, for many reasons. Because I’ve gotten better at what I do, the task was to see if I could take some of the older favorites of mine and inject something else into them that I didn’t have access to as a younger singer. Your work should get richer as you feel the effects of time and see those effects on the people you love. It’s never been easier to feel that passing of time in a real way than during that pandemic. Everything got frozen and I can’t imagine anyone looks at their life the same way as they did before it happened. Songs really can be like screenplays. Every version of you is going to interpret that blueprint differently. My life has completely changed since the Nukes. I have different traumas and joys and insights. This version of me hears those songs in a new way. They come out of me in a new way. Maybe that way is better or worse or whatever, but because I can’t play shows anymore, I miss that process of trying to keep a song fresh for yourself on stage. This was a way of giving them a little dusting. Maybe more of a fresh paint job.
I remember reading somewhere that you find returning to old material painful, particularly when you were putting the Margot boxset together. How did quarantine change your relationship to Margot-era songs?
I think maybe the painful part is just the looking back instead of the making of something new. Because I run my own label, I can’t really avoid being intimately involved with those old things on account of reissues and stuff. I’ve always had this sense that part of fighting against the dying of the light and aging gracefully in the arts is divorcing yourself from stuff you’ve done quickly. You almost have to develop an antagonistic relationship to it so that you trick yourself into competing with it. Getting back on the horse quickly and moving on. Becoming satisfied is the enemy. Luckily for me, when I look back, I feel — rightly or wrongly — that I can top it rather than just admiring my work or longevity. But obviously there must be something unfinished for me to embark on this kind of project. I certainly wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could improve on the versions that already existed.
When this all started, some songwriters had a knee-jerk reaction of writing songs about the quarantine, often a bit too on the nose. How do you think your quarantine album reflects or embodies this past year and a half?
I knee-jerk against topical music, so I didn’t have that problem so much. Most real things that happen to you, you can kinda feel very early but it takes a long time to understand them intellectually. Because of that, writing too specifically about a big thing in your life or the world without the time that is required to attain the wisdom to sort it out for yourself can make the work come off as a bit naïve or something. If you can channel the feeling, you can come up with great stuff, but if you’re trying to activate your brain it maybe doesn’t come off so great. But I’d also been forced inside prior to the pandemic on account of an illness so this child-like wonder at the fact that disaster can strike at any minute isn’t really there for me anymore. I’m an old pro at that. The way our COVID records relate to the pandemic is more that feeling stuff I mentioned. It’s in how they sound. To me, they sound like people who are struggling, and more specifically, are struggling in the confines of small spaces. They sound like late nights, cigarette smoke, self-medication, the feeling of time passing. The weird unspoken moment between a party being fun and a party being over. More than anything I can hear how sad the passing of time felt to me during that year. Isolation and the self-awareness that you are moving toward a destination that you will never get an inch further away from than you are now is a sobering situation.
How did you go about choosing which Margot songs to revisit?
They were simply ones I liked. It was a very selfish selection process. Through streaming data and stuff, you can really zone in on the songs that have “wide” (by my meager standards) appeal. For this to work, it couldn’t be fan service, it had to be personal. This album is as personal as any record I’ve ever made and it’s personal because I excluded other opinions from the curation (puke) of the setlist. I also think it makes it a better record, so hopefully fans of my music feel that the decision to exclude them was a proper one.
Producing an album during quarantine sounds challenging, especially with others accompanying you. How was this one recorded?
Distanced, but in a lot of ways not much differently from any other record. I’ve made records where everyone is live on the floor, and I’ve made records where you’re more using the studio as an instrument and building a track. Neither are superior to the other, it just depends. For this, Dave and I made little demos based on the songs I sent and the stuff we talked about. A track was built with Dave and Jay Bellerose, who work together a great deal and have a built in rapport thing. Then I’d sing ’em and Perla would come in and sing ’em. In some ways, it’s the same as anyone else forced to work from home this year. You miss your friends, but you also discover that it’s more efficient a lot of the time. I’m ready to get back into a studio with people I like, but I’m also very suited to working this way.
From what I understand, quarantine album #2 will focus more on your solo material, but based on what I’ve heard so far, the line between Margot songs and Richard Edwards songs has become increasingly blurred. What inspired you to keep this batch of songs separate, from album #1 and album #2?
Well, it’s definitely blurred but for some reason keeping a little separation still seems like a good idea. I couldn’t make any of those Margot records now (nor would I want to) aside from maybe the last one, and that guy could never make the solo ones I’ve made. For the same reason I can’t mingle my blu-rays and records, I can’t mingle the solo and Margot, unless it’s a live show or something. My brain is just a little diseased and weird that way. My life changed in many ways when the Margot band ended, and it’s probably for the best to not mix the before and after up too much. I like myself more than I expected to as I age. I only want to interact with that young punk version if I’m giving him a little lesson on how to sing those songs of his properly.
Richard Edwards Sings the Margot & The Nuclear So and So’s, Songbook in Quarantine (Volume 1), the first in a series of Edwards’s quarantine albums, will be out October 21. It is now available for pre-order at www.richardcharlesedwards.com.
Justin Gautreau is lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His book The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his work has also appeared in Genre and Adaptation.