March 5, 2007
Happy Musician: Oxymoron?
By Chris Godsey
It was sad. So frustrating to see another promising young musician
seek the sway of addictive chemicals. "I'm spending all my
money on this stuff," 20-year-old singer-songwriter Dave Mehling
said recently during a chat at Duluth's Chester Creek Cafe, his
gold curls wild and sticking mostly straight out, like Bob Dylan's
Blonde on Blonde mop.
Mehling looks like an aspiring white-boy musician
should: wiry and almost haggard; geeky and impossibly cool; utterly
without traces of what must be significant and self-conscious affectation.
He'd look perfect stumbling out of a tour van at some truck stop
along I-90, or at a piano in an empty bar, running through late-afternoon
sound check, when what he really wants is to take a nap or find
somewhere to score.
"Espresso," he said at the cafe before
sipping from his second tiny cup of the hour. "I'm addicted.
I spend at least six bucks on it every day. I'm at the point where
I drink regular coffee when I'm thirsty."
OK. OK. You were misled with all that bullshit
about addiction and self-destruction. Sorry.
But if you had hung out with Mehling for an hour
or so, chatting about his new (first) record and his education and
what he hopes to do with the rest of his life, you'd also have trouble
coming up with a lead that said anything other than, "Dave
Mehling's preternaturally mature perspective on music, education,
and life is impressive enough to be just this side of creepy. No
one should be or even seem so together and destined for solid artistic
and professional success. Damn him."
Rock musician stories have to be about zany, self-destructive
exploits, don't they? How can an ostensibly non-tortured and conscientious
kid have anything interesting to say? How can we trust or live vicariously
through an artist who hasn't bled himself for our pleasure?
West End, Represent
"I'm born and bred in Gary-New Duluth,"
Mehling said. "I lived the whole West Duluth, Denfeld [High
His mom made him start piano lessons in fourth
grade. ("I didn't like them. I'm basically self-taught.")
He still plays, but says guitar, which he started on at 14 or 15,
is probably his main instrument.
"I'm not better at guitar, but that's what
I write on," he said. "When you're holding a guitar next
to you, whether it's acoustic or electric, the wood vibrates and
resonates and the sound comes right back at you, into your chest."
Like most 20-year-old aspiring rock stars, he's
working on an organizational management degree, taking the occasional
music theory class, and paying serious attention to how he handles
the business side of music.
Yes, that was sarcasm.
In truth, not many 20-year-old aspiring rock stars
are conscientious or wise enough to keep an organized list of media
contacts, then, the week before their CD gets back from being duplicated,
e-mail a writer and say something like, "Hey. We met briefly
a few months ago. Could I send you a copy of my CD when it comes
out? If you've got a chance to review it, or to mention the release
concert at Beaner's, that would be great. Thanks for your time."
The CD arrived in the mail exactly when he said
it would. That seems logical, but it's impressive, especially for
a guy who's hopped up on espresso, carrying a full credit load,
running through at least one solo set of tunes every day, playing
in another band (The Brushstrokes), building a recording studio
with buddies, trying to spend time with his sweetie, and spending
at least two hours sending out CDs, booking summer tour dates, and
managing a nascent career. His business education is obvious.
"It's totally practical," he says. "They
don't teach super specific things, but what you do learn is an extra
level of organization and communication."
His music theory courses are practical, too: "I
want to understand how music works. If you have a song you're working
on and you get stuck, you can apply the things you learned about
theory. It gives you directions. You don't necessarily open the
rule book and do what it says, but it's all in the back of your
The Music, Man
"My whole approach lately has been self-critical,"
Mehling says. "Running a solo set every day and just listening
to see where and how I can get better. Listening to recordings of
myself and figuring out what I'm doing wrong. Trying to learn to
be a real singer, and to be more natural."
He's been playing a 1970s Epiphone guitar "with
a bit of reverb, a real clean sound. For a while I had terrible
rhythm problems while learning guitar, but now I've got that down
and I know the chords. I'll never be a lead player, but I've been
working toward doing what Jeff Buckley does on the Live at Sin-e
disc. Becoming a good accompanying player, learning little tricks
If Mehling had to fit his music into a genre,
he'd go with something like, "melodic pop or pop rock."
Any definition can be reductive, and those two
are, but they're good places to start. Multiple listens to How
Can I Make You Lonesome? turn up wisps or chunks of the Jayhawks,
Ryan Adams, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Buckley, Billy Joel (even though
an observation about his presence made Mehling cringe), Ben Folds,
Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Fiona Apple, Nellie McKay, the Beatles,
maybe some Rufus Wainwright, and hundreds of other artists who have
been on the radio and in CD players since forever in the scheme
of a 20-year life.
Mostly, though, an educated listener's experience
with Mehling's music is one of, "Hey, this sounds like...hold
on, it's on the tip of my tongue..."; the history of singer-songwriter
pop is there, as it should be in stuff put forth by a smart, inquisitive
musician; but none of it is so imitative or painfully derivative
that it fails to be his. It sounds familiar, but it's unique.
He's still testing his literal and figurative
voices. Still figuring out who he is and how he should sound, and
it's obvious that he's not going to be comfortable with any one
genre's stipulations or expectations.
Mehling acknowledges how his influences have been
folded into his developing sound, and he says he's changed even
since recording How Do I Make You Lonesome? last October
and November: "I've been listening to a lot of Feist, Damian
Rice, TV on the Radio. Huge stuff. Records that once you listen
to them, you don't know why you need anything else. I really like
almost any singer-songwriter from the early 1970s. Harry Nilsson,
Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits. And [the Beach Boys'] Pet
Sounds. I listen to that the most out of anything.
"I've been doing some writing on a Rhodes
keyboard and listening to Motown. That bouncy stuff with some sleigh
bells in the background. My voice has changed massive amounts since
recording, and my songwriting has taken a turn. That record still
represents me, and I'm glad to have it and to have spent the time
doing it, but I'm already looking forward to my next project."
That creative restlessness informs his live sets,
"My whole approach is to make it diverse.
Maybe start off with an alt-country tune, then something with a
cabaret feel, then back to something else. So often, I got to shows
where there are three or four bands, and before long I get tired
of the sound because it's all so similar. I'm not a guy who runs
around and lights his guitar on fire, so I have to help the audience
stay engaged with a variety of songs."
Mehling has two semesters left in his management
program. He's at UMD on a scholarship, and feels like he owes "it
to everybody to finish."
After that, he'd "like to try to make a living
at music. I'd like to drive around Europe and the United States
and play. If it doesn't work out after a couple years of doing that,
that's fine. I just want those experiences. I have no obsession
with fame or wealth, but I do want to soak up life for a while before
settling into a career.
"Living in America, we can almost do whatever
we want with the freedom and opportunities we're given. I'm not
nervous or apprehensive about the future. I'm more or less just