Stephen Michael McCabe has been a staple of the nationally invisible Oshkosh, Wisconsin (the side of the state opposite Bon Iver’s Eau Claire) music scene for 20 years, writing 10 experimental indie pop albums and playing on 22 in that time, including those by his bands The Willis, Congratulations on Your Decision to Become a Pilot, and Cookie Bug. As unknown as he is, he’s played a thousand shows throughout the Midwest, touring the East Coast a few times, playing on the final test show of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (which, holding with the anonymity theme, never aired). There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of anonymous musicians like him in small towns, doing what they do because they’re good at it and they love it, pushing themselves and their music in new directions, rarely following trends. Some quit, grow up, some commit suicide or get cancer, and some just keep playing, writing, looking for the next turn of phrase, the next melody that makes getting up tomorrow worth something. Scott Heisel of Alternative Press called one of his records “one of my favorites…to this day,” Pitchfork described the same record as “potential greatness,” and The Dallas Observer said another of McCabe’s records “rocks viciously.”
When McCabe puts his mind to something, he does it the whole way. When he was 26, he went back to college to retake the classes he’d failed 6 years before, then went to graduate school, all the while making records and touring in bursts. “I couldn’t get a job, so I just kept going to school and playing,” he says, driving to Milwaukee three days a week for almost a decade, working as a house painter and teaching college classes, finally finishing his PhD in contemporary literature and creative writing in 2009, now on staff in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
McCabe, a fiercely talented musical force in the underground music world, dark, nerdy, funny, and on some level shy and awkward, played 20 instruments (including 4-mallet marimba, Rhodes piano, all guitars) on the debut album of his new effort, a solo-looping, multi-instrument project called Redshift Headlights. The album is titled Inside Voices, an orchestrally-inflected and ambitious concept album that attempts to construct the arc of a human life through fragmented identities speaking through inner monologue. “This is my midlife crisis record,” McCabe says. “I didn’t have an affair, or buy a sports car. I’m in the middle of my life and I feel like I can see its whole arc differently now, somehow. I’m probably full of it,” he laughs. The album opens with a toddler who is searching for his "mother’s knees/in a forest of legs/that look like trees.” But McCabe didn’t want the record to just follow one person through his life. “I feel like everyone [in this country] is in these little weird bubbles where everyone is saying, ‘Here is what I think’ and ‘Here is what I think’ and nobody is listening to each other. I wanted to construct a more collective story of life. I decided to make each character different in each song, each telling about that stage of their life from their own perspective.” Inside Voices introduces characters of various genders, cultures, sexualities. “There’s superficial difference,” he says, “but it’s all part of the same life.”
After the opening song and the moment that toddler finally finds his mother, in the second track “What This Heart Is For,” we meet two teenagers discovering the dimensions of their own feelings, then in song #3 “You Might Find It,” a 20-year-old man who falls in love with his best friend in 1990s Portland, in song #4 a 29-year-old mistress obsessed with Molly Ringwald, all the way to song #10, a grandmother on her death bed and her last words to her husband: “wish I done a better job as a wife.”
As a counterpoint to the increasing ages of each character as the album progresses, McCabe notes that “the historical setting of each song [actually] moves backward in time,” so that the first song takes place “basically today,” the second song takes place in 2001, the third in 1994, until the final song’s setting in 1936 concludes the record. “It’s a way to connect to the past,” McCabe says. “I’ve always been fascinated with what it’s like to see the world change throughout your life. I’d ask my grandma about what it was like during WWII, the way our lives intersect with big moments in the world.” So, as you listen through the record, you are taken deeper and deeper into the American past as well as deeper into the dark minds of each character revealing themselves to you.
Though each song introduces a different character, the album feels surprisingly personal, somehow. “I’ve got a lot of my own secrets in this record,” McCabe says, “things I’d never say out loud.” From the moment a disenfranchised father after fleeing with his family to America from the 1979 Iranian Revolution angrily yelps, “Now we’re safe in Ameri-cahhh” to the 1950s white housewife who foresees that “someday they’ll bury me under this carpeting,” each song reveals both McCabe’s truths along with his characters'. “By the end, a good song should hurt you a little,” McCabe says. And these songs do. The songs of Inside Voices are fragments of brutal honesty, deep secrets, desires, anger, even racism and sexism. “I wanted to respect and follow each character’s mind. I had to fight the urge to step outside and critique and ridicule them, sometimes. I wanted them to speak whatever truth was to them, even if I don’t agree with that truth.” He refers to the WWII veteran in song #6 living through the 1960s and lamenting the loss of masculinity, shouting “Women worshipped us/and we loved them,/back when there used to be men,/ but now we’re nobody!”
In fact, if, by the end of the album or after a Redshift Headlights show, you aren’t damaged in some way, it could already be too late for you. When he writes and plays music, McCabe gives everything he has, mentally, emotionally, physically. “I always feel a little closer to death, after,” he says, “but somehow better, like I’m still moving in the right direction.”