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Nashville Scene Tragic Songs of Life

Mike Ireland's compelling new LP.

By Michael McCall

APRIL 13, 1998:  After singer Mike Ireland finished a recent nightclub performance, a record-company executive rushed up to him backstage. The man shook Ireland's hand and praised him for his convincing onstage delivery. When Ireland performed songs about heartbreak and loss, the executive said, the singer seemed truly pissed off. Ireland somberly fixed his gaze on the man and said, "I am."

These days, Ireland is achieving a dream--but he does it by reliving a nightmare. His new album, Learning How to Live, is a country-music masterpiece that's getting him national attention. Rich in deeply felt emotions and artfully stated pain, the album fixates on the end of a relationship. Some songs tackle the difficult moments leading to a breakup, while others convey the shattering emptiness and anguished self-questioning that follows.

What's more, it's all true--or, as they say, it's based on a true story. In 1995, Ireland discovered that his wife had been carrying on an affair with his best friend. The friend also happened to be lead vocalist in The Starkweathers, a Missouri-based alternative roots-rock band for which Ireland played bass and wrote songs. After one fracturing moment of truth, Ireland lost his wife, two lifelong friends, his band, and his primary source of income.

He responded by composing concisely drawn story-songs about love and loss. Working with producer Marvin Etzioni, arranger Jerry Yester, and a band that features former Starkweathers bandmates Michael and Paul Lemon along with rhythm guitarist Dan Mesh, Ireland created a stirring, supremely crafted album. String arrangements and sparse, carefully detailed instrumentation drive the emotionally bare collection of songs; far from light entertainment, the album has the same devastating effect as a forceful stage drama.

When he recorded the songs, Ireland didn't think about what would come next: going out, night after night, and performing works based on such pain. "I still haven't come to terms with it," he says, speaking by telephone from his home in Kansas City. "I'm basically having to go through it all again whenever I perform. It was particularly hard when I first started. I was really unprepared for how traumatic it would be."

The singer's first shows performing the new material took place in his hometown. They were particularly intense: Most of the crowd consisted of friends who knew what he'd gone through and what the songs were about. "It was pretty unnerving," he says.

Then again, it wasn't any easier performing the songs for strangers: At out-of-town shows, people would come up and tell him how pointed his songs were. "It turned out to be strange, no matter what the circumstances," he says. "If it was people I knew, then it added this weird spin to what I was up there singing. But then I found that if they didn't know, it was weird too. People would come up and tell me I was really good at capturing this or that kind of emotion."

In the end, the experience of playing live only underscored the fact that the songs were born from life rather than from imagination. "Honestly, I wish it were true that I'd made it up," Ireland says. "I suppose if I could manufacture that, I'd be prouder of myself. 'Look at what I can do, I made this all up!' I wish I was that guy."

Ireland should give himself more credit. It's not as though the songs are based strictly on fact. For instance, he never torched the home that he shared with his wife, as happens in the album-opening "House of Secrets." Like someone going through analysis, Ireland dramatizes feelings and desires, acting out fantasies and fears to help him confront what he's repressed or failed to get past.

On "Don't Call This Love," he takes on the role of a cheating man who scolds his philandering partner in sin for over-romanticizing what they've been sharing. "Don't call this love," he cries in the chorus, "not this thing that we're doing. Hearts that we're breaking, lives that we ruin. The passion we steal here, it's not like love that is real, dear. Call me your lover, say that it's over, but don't call this love."

Ireland admits that writing these songs pushed him deeper into country music--a genre that allows for the expression of stark, emotional truths. "I used to dismiss country music when I was young," he says. "I'd hear the songs, and I'd roll my eyes and think, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, those country people, going on about all these little affairs.' I didn't get it because I hadn't experienced it. It hadn't entered my thoughts that you could really love the same person until you die."

But once he'd lived through a volcanic emotional experience, he found himself turning to records by the likes of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Charlie Rich, and Jim Reeves. "You would think you wouldn't want to hear about it after having gone through it," he says. "But somehow it helps to realize someone else has gone through it too. So I was drawn back to all these albums about relationships falling apart and to performances where there's a conviction about what these people are singing. Listen to George Jones in the '70s, and he comes across as completely connected to the words he sings. That's how I wanted to sound."

Once he had the songs, Ireland says, the music itself came naturally. No longer content to pursue the rougher strains of alternative country, he decided to work the lush, carefully arranged musical terrain once surveyed by producers Billy Sherrill, Owen Bradley, and Chet Atkins, among others. Ireland wanted a simple yet sophisticated sound, complete with strings, that emphasized the emotions of his words.

"At some point, I started hearing strings in my head," he says. "I wanted to do whatever was necessary to bring out the emotion in the listener. I felt like strings would really up the emotional punch. They really highlight the feeling."

When Ireland signed with Sub Pop Records--the Seattle indie label that gave the world Nirvana and Soundgarden--he fully realized just how strange it was to be recording a lush, carefully produced album. "I didn't do it because I wanted to be different or weird," he says. "It was an artistic decision."

And yet there were those who would have had him scrap the strings--among them an executive at Sub Pop Records. But the first time he played "House of Secrets" for the exec, she looked over after about five bars of the tune and beamingly nodded her approval. "It was one of those moments of validation," he says. "I thought, 'Good, I'm not crazy.' "

In the months since the album's completion, Ireland has found that he draws an odd kind of strength from performing his soul-baring songs. "Because of what they're about, I'm more able to really be in the song at the moment I'm singing it," he says. "I do still feel pissed off when I'm in the middle of certain songs. Or I feel hurt, or whatever. I'm pretty sure that's pathological behavior, in one way or another, but it helps me tap into the emotions."

Perhaps more importantly, he has learned to get past his anger and his hurt once the song ends. "I'm better now at leaving it onstage," he says. "When I walk offstage, I walk away from those feelings. I think a lot less about it now."

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