The Simplicity of Solitude Is a Hard Thing to Perfect: An Interview With Sam Beebe

Part 1: Master of Hybrid

I reached out to Sam Beebe of the music Project Black Bear on a Thursday afternoon. I spent the morning cleaning up a mysterious amount of dead milipedes in my apartment. It was here, like many times before, that the line “the simplicity of solitude is a hard thing to perfect” inched into my head. 

Sam Beebe is an artist originally from Massachusettes. In 2006, he released his debut album The Cinnamon Phase on his Seattle-based label, Baskerville Hill, which he founded and ran with Scott Reitherman. A couple years later, he attended New York University as an MFA candidate for fiction, after which he stayed on at NYU as a writing teacher. He now lives in Germany with his wife and son, where he continues to make music and write.

Shannon Sullivan: I wanted to focus on the first and last song of the album, because I sort of listened to them back to back over and over again. “Black Bear”, the first song on The Cinnamon Phase, discusses encounters, exchanges, and solitude, which seem contradicting, but they’re not at all, right? We encounter this bear who appears comfortable in solitude, and the speaker is admiring the mundanity of the bear, and the speaker is alone in admiring this and in writing this, right? It makes me think of Paul Celan, how he says “[the poem] is lonely and in route.” But before I get too ahead of myself, I’ll ask here, about the initial acknowledgment you made, when confronted with this bear, literal or metaphorical. 

Sam Beebe: I hope it’s not disappointing to learn that I did not really, in fact, ever encounter a black bear in the wild as much as I have yearned to. So if anything that sort of gives it another layer of yearning and loneliness–it’s not even a comforting and inspiring experience that I actually had. It was one that I was imagining in order to comfort myself.

I can’t fully remember where it began. I can tell you the origin story.

I was at my grandparents’ house, visiting them on vacation in New Hampshire and flipping through the North American Guide to Mammals, I just landed on the black bear page, and there was an image, which is the cover of the album, of the three colors of the black bear, which just stopped me in my tracks, because I had never heard of such a thing–that a black bear had these three phases where their colors changed. And the cinnamon phase jumped out to me, it’s just a really, really evocative term. And this was in between college and my first years in Seattle, which is where The Cinnamon Phase was made. At that point, I had only dreamed about being someone who made music, I was mostly someone who was obsessed with music. And, I think that there was just something about the idea of the bear. Suddenly, you know, it just jumped out at me at that point in my life as something to aspire to. And then [“Black Bear”] is me following that inkling I had at that moment, and it turned into this imagined encounter with all these points of contrast.

SB: To talk about “the simplicity of solitude is a hard thing to perfect,” I was in a new space, I was in a new social circle, along with having brought some of my own social circle with me. I had just broken up with my college girlfriend who was from Seattle and lived in Seattle at that time, too. So, we were still in each other’s orbit in a way and we would see each other occasionally, but I’m also making new friends, I’m making new music friends, I’m trying to start this record label, I’m doing this thing that I’ve never done before: making my own music from scratch, from the ground up. And it’s all really exciting. It’s like the most independent that I’ve ever been in my life up to that point. But I’m also still kind of reeling from feeling alone after this breakup. And so I’m living in this very vibrant house where people are always over and hanging out. My room is right off the main common space. So I’m the most accessible person in the house with the least privacy. But I’m not bemoaning that, it wasn’t a hard time in general. It was just a hard time in one aspect. I think that the whole album speaks to that, in a way, that there were so many different things going on. And it’s not just a breakup album. And it’s not just like a sad 20 something album, there’s just a lot of different fields going on. The music itself, some of it, is pretty exultant, some of it’s more melancholy. 

SS: I like that you describe the house that you were living in as this vibrant space. Because when I think of The Cinnamon Phase, the word “vibrant” feels right to describe it. But also, “Like Venice” has certainly made me cry, and it has inspired a lot of my poems, sort of passing around that idea of being in a bathtub, and letting it drain out, shedding yourself. 

One comparison I made in thinking about the first song “Black Bear” and the last song, “Like Venice” is the line “the fur that he is wearing as a fur that he prefers” from “Black Bear” and then, in “Like Venice” where you’re talking about the sort of shedding the skin, a layer of yourself, as the water drains. We can hold both of these at the same time, right, this desire to want to be comfortable in this fur and also always stripping away layers. I feel like there’s no difference, you know.

SB: That’s a very astute pairing to put those two next to each other, it’s not something I’ve ever done in my head. “The fur that he is wearing is the fur that he prefers” and putting that next to “some layer of my body is going down the pipes with it,” I think they do speak to a similar desire. When I’m looking at the black bear and saying the fur he is wearing is the fur he prefers, it’s distanced from me, the narrator, because what’s implied obviously is that the fur that I am wearing is not necessarily always the fur that I prefer. I sort of envy the simplicity of that, just being within oneself. If you put that next to “some layer of my body is going down the pipes with it” it’s also a want to shed some part of the outer layer that doesn’t feel comfortable or that doesn’t feel like who you want to be presenting as. To compare these two bookends, and you know, even though I bookended the album within myself, I’ve never put them next to each other in any sort of analytical way. So I’m definitely intrigued by this thought experiment. Yeah. What is it? When you say “Like Venice” has made you cry? Is it always that line? Is it the image of the bathtub?

SS: Well, I suppose it’s, you know, the yearning. I was reading your essay “Dad, The Maker”  and when I read the last paragraph, I wasn’t listening to The Cinnamon Phase, at the same time, but I thought of “Like Venice”

“This is what I have of him though, which is a lot––whole worlds. I would never even take a stutter-step towards complaint. I’ll keep reading his novels, the ones he wrote and the ones he didn’t write, until it’s time for me to get planted in the ground myself and someone who loves me like I love him decides what should go on my tombstone. In the gap from now to then which will compose the remainder of my many, yet limited, living days, I reckon I can train myself to be less distracted by the aesthetic flourishes and gizmos, to see into them, and in between them, and past them, to the intricate heart of their maker.”

This training here…in “Like Venice”, there’s this attempt to train yourself to swim in such currents, and then diving into it, and it being the same. Which I think speaks to grief, for me at least, and I’m not sure that was the intention, and that’s all right, but the submerging of yourself in something, surrendering, in a way, is what we do with anything in life, but especially grief. “Like Venice” feels like fully surrendering, and jumping into something and then realizing, once you’re in it–

SB: You’re still in your jeans and your hooded sweatshirt. Yeah, it’s like, I hadn’t even thought of it that way. 

But the jumping in, and it just being the same. Honestly, when I listen back to “Like Venice” and that moment, I’m always like, what an interesting choice that I made in that moment, you know, like, why did I decide so? Another disclosure here, I imagine you’ve wondered this at some point, as well, whether or not I actually jumped into the locks? And again, the answer is no, I never did that.

It’s like with the encounter with the black bear, I was dreaming about doing it. I’m standing there on the edge, reading this placard, and I’m thinking like, “what if I just fucking jumped in?” Of course, I didn’t do it, I went home and wrote those lyrics, which was really just a prose poem. It was two paragraphs of prose. I didn’t even think of it as a song, only later did I put it to music. 

It was wishful thinking, it was a wanting to shake things up. I was itching, I was yearning for something else to jump into. And, you know, it’s a happy ending to report that, that jump I did actually make by saying, you know what, I’m gonna peace out and jump on this opportunity, to move to Germany, and teach at the Munich International School, because it feels exciting. And it feels like, if I don’t do this, I mean, I didn’t have this thought at the time, but I’m making the connection. It’s sort of the same thing where I would have just been like, Oh, I didn’t, why didn’t I just fucking jump in? 

This is actually kind of blowing my mind because I haven’t thought about “Like Venice”, in comparison to what happened to me shortly thereafter, and what has happened in my life since. 

SB (continued): First I jump in, and it’s not that different to being in a stable body of water, except for it’s more difficult, I’m wearing my clothes, but then, the bells start ringing, the doors open up, and they give way to this new city, like Venice, that floats on water. 

I still think of myself, in every way, as a day dreamer. That has everything to do with being my father’s son. I think of him as The Maker. It’s a perfect thing for him. That’s just what he was.  He wasn’t just an artist, he made everything. Whenever there was something that could be made, he would make it instead of buying it, within reason. It always had this, this flourish to it. There was always an aesthetic interest and a playfulness to it. My aesthetics are definitely different from his, but, you know, to go back to one of the first things you said in this conversation about him being a writer being an influence to me, it was, and he did not make music at all, and he liked music. For sure. We had good music on in the house, and I would say the majority of it was more of his choosing than it was my mom’s. But he was never musical himself at all. He was anything having to do with words, there was no way he would do it straight, he would never do the boring version of anything when words were involved. Even if it was just putting my name on my paper bag for lunch, there would be this whole cartoony element to it, he would do these big bubble letters and draw characters. It was always there. It was sort of the way that he carried himself through what started out as a pretty difficult life, that he had these wounds at the center of who he was, and there’s nothing new about this, that people who make things and people who make art are often working through their tougher emotions and experiences and aspects of themselves, while they’re making their art. But with him, it was very, very subterranean. You know, he wrote novels and in the novels, he rarely made reference to his mother, or to difficult things from his childhood. One of the things that’s most different about him and me as artists is that I’m much more open. I’m much more “expository” to use a word from my teaching days, you can tell just from looking at The Cinnamon Phase, and also from looking at that piece that you just read the excerpt from…I am not really playing my cards too close to my chest. As a writer,  I’m happy to sort of put it out there. 

SS: The Cinnamon Phase speaks a lot to the inescapable, the capital inescapable being grief, right?  I mean, a breakup is a grief in its own right. And too, sort of wanting to go somewhere and not take yourself with you is inescapable, like the line by Lucie Brock-Broido, “Wherever I went I came with me” I think about that all the time because I’m always bumping into myself, you know?  But then you have this escape, possibly, like the send off in “Like Venice,” the opening, the bells ringing…I always think I have this habit of looking at poems in particular and songs as sort of a death and rebirth. What’s the difference? “Like Venice” and “Black Bear” provide this sort of cycle. It’s really fun when Spotify automatically plays the first song when I finish the last, like I can be stuck in this world of beginning and ending, ushering into this completely different, but the same world. To sort of record these worlds, and those experiences, you do so in many different forms–you’re sort of a master of hybrid forms. You talked about “Like Venice” starting out as a prose poem, and to go back to your essay “The Maker,” you have that line about creativity being inexhaustible, always redirected, and it seems like you are a prolific creator, in every essence, whether it be music, personal essays, fiction, poetry. You have your hands and a lot of things. And then, of course, it’s inevitable that those would all mesh together. 

SB: That multiplicity, yeah. It’s something that, as a creative person, at various parts in my life, I’ve been both proud and self-conscious of. I am very interested in hearing people talk about their art in their creative processes. You encounter so many people who are sort of mono-maniacally dedicated to the one thing that they do really well. whether it’s writers that are just like, you know, that cliche butt in the chair in the morning or the Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours idea, which goes beyond the creative, but, I am not that, I’m a dilettante. But that dilettantism is something that at times you have to be like, well, is this, this fact that I am spread so widely, does that equate to being spread thin, and not becoming a master of anything? Right? I’m not a master musician. There’s a naivete to most of the things that I do, maybe less so with writing. 

When you, when you say to me, that I’m kind of a master of hybrid, it’s like, you know, I can’t help but have that caress my ego a little bit. And also just to sort of feel kind of validated. Because it is something that I have wondered about if it kept me from being more successful at any one of these things. You know, if I had, for example, just been focused on making music ever since 2006, instead of going off to Germany, and then going to grad school for fiction writing, and then focusing on learning how to become a really good teacher for a decade, at the expense of not getting as much writing time as I really wanted during those years. All of those things each new project is like, the shiny thing over here. Is it an attention span issue? Or is it a gift? And the answer is that it might be both or neither. It’s just the way I am and it’s not going to change, you know, I know that now.  One month I’m focused on writing a novel, the other another month I’m focused on making new music. Right now I’m in a music phase, I have the luxury of being able to follow those impulses.

The best I can hope for is that it all comes to fruition, at least in some ways, even if it might slow down the process of getting things done in the long run, or, you know, and there’s also the question of like, oh, what about those avenues you went down that never really produced much, you know, or like, never produced much that was shared beyond a very small circle. You know, was that sort of wasted time. But I’m kind enough to myself and optimistic enough to be like, no, all of the tangents, you know, I go on tangents when I’m talking and I go on tangents with my life as a creative person, and there’s always something that comes from that.

There is this wondering that accompanies the excitability of my interests, my creative interest and my desire to always want to try to make the thing, it’s just in my nature, that when I see something that was created, that I really am moved by, or I’m interested in, it’s in my nature to want to try and make it to try and make something in that medium as well. And that has to come from my dad, whether it’s genetic, or whether being raised in a household where it’s normal for somebody to just make the thing themselves. Instead of: “Wow, that’s a nice chair” it’s always “Oh, I’m gonna make the chair.”

If you would have asked me, as I was starting my career at NYU as a professor, “do you think there will be a time 10 years from now when you resign from this really good job, and leap off into a couple of years of making things?” I would have been like, that sounds awesome, and I hope that’s true, but of course, there’s this other voice that would have said that sounds like probably it would be a dumb thing for me to do at that point. But, I believe in life being expansive enough to be able to leap from path to path, all the way down the line.

A longer version of this interview will be available soon. In the meantime, you can find out more about Sam Beebe here.

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