Owen FitzGerald:​ A deep clean you can count on! | Sleepy Cat Records; Friday, Feb. 4

Like the pile of clothes that accumulates on a bedroom chair—clean laundry never folded, or items overdue for dry cleaning—the nine songs on Owen FitzGerald’s new record, A deep clean you can count on!, were set aside at a moment when dealing with them felt too arduous. The intention was not to leave them there forever, but sorting through the towering works would require a level of mental organization he didn’t achieve until 2017.

Due February 4, A deep clean you can count on! marks FitzGerald’s first full-length as part of Sleepy Cat Records following his label-debut EP, Body, Child, Light, Crime, in 2020. Some songs at the bottom of that stack date back over a decade and the retrospective practice of relistening introduced FitzGerald to a nearly unfamiliar past self.

The Siler City native and current Durham resident—who previously recorded and performed under the moniker Jokes&Jokes&Jokes—was serious about stepping back into his legal name. It required him to bridge the great distance between the person who penned those poignant lyrics and the now-sober husband and father he is today.

“There have been some major transitions in my life since all of these songs have been written—some even happened after the album was recorded,” FitzGerald says. “All of those transitions shift my perspective toward the songs. But what I appreciate and also what is difficult about those songs is that they are all coming from a really dense emotional place.”

“If emotion was a temperature,” he continues, “these are all very hot songs. The circumstances around them are all different, but they are all equally ‘hot’—like, ‘I would rather die than feel how I am feeling right this second.’ And feelings are difficult for me to endure sometimes.”

FitzGerald got sober in 2014. The years leading up to that breakthrough were strenuous and chaotic. He was in a relationship and points to the opening line of “Fear on Pine Street” as the pinnacle of his sorrowful struggle with alcoholism: “Katie, I’m sorry / I keep falling down.”

“It was that last year of drinking, and I just could not understand why I couldn’t tell the truth,” he explains. “I had no idea that it was because I was an alcoholic. I could say one thing and really fucking mean it, and then not be able to do it after I had anything to drink. It was terrifying and sad. And I knew it was fucked up.”

“Don’t Give Me a Pet” comes at that struggle from a different angle with a humorous attempt to explain addiction-induced irresponsibility. The lyrics unfold like a warning about the liability of his disorganization, which he blames, in part, on a lifelong struggle with inattention. In hindsight, a recent diagnosis of attention deficit disorder illuminates the track.

“That song is me being like, ‘I don’t know why I can’t do it another way, but I cannot do it another way,’” he says. “And then I find out so far after the fact, like, ‘Oh, there’s a good reason.’ Just like an alcoholic can’t make good decisions when you’re not sober, people with intense ADD can’t do those things.”

The humor of the opening line, “Don’t give me a pet / I’ll kill it / I’ll kill it by accident,” and the follow-up zinger, “Don’t make a date with me / I’ll miss it,” swiftly shifts into a deeply cerebral space as FitzGerald outlines the aftermath of these accidents. “I soak right through the mattress / Recalling what happened,” he sings through a rollicking chorus line, evoking the drowning paranoia that has kept him up at night.

With wondrous ease, FitzGerald delivers hard truths in plain terms. He began songwriting in early high school, accompanied by a prewar Gibson L-00 his father purchased at a Goodwill. Progressive classic rockers like Jethro Tull and skate-punk pioneers like Millencolin and Anti-Flag soundtracked his teens, but he points to Pete Townshend as the first artist to truly shape his songwriting style.

“Before I could play an instrument or had ever written a song, I was just so into the idea of longer-form storytelling in music,” says FitzGerald. “I remember at 11 or 12 years old, trying to understand Quadrophenia from start to finish.”

Critics at Backseat Mafia and Various Small Flames have compared this candidness to the works of Bill Callahan or John Prine. FitzGerald takes it as a compliment. Admittedly, he’s never heard a Callahan song but says the Prine reference hit home.

“I didn’t hear John Prine until I was out of college. When I did, it was like, ‘Oh, man, there’s a person who’s already done that,’” he says. “The world felt a lot less lonely immediately.”

Beyond the emotional legwork, there were practical reasons why FitzGerald’s songs took so long to see the light of day. Though they were fully formed lyrical works, FitzGerald only had a mental melody.

“Probably because it was emotionally hot enough for me, I never taught myself how to play any of these songs,” he explains. “I couldn’t play them if I wanted to, but I also didn’t want to.”

Two critical realizations allowed the ball to get rolling.

First was seeing the songs as a batch. Listening through the stack, he saw himself through a more stable lens. Each song stands alone as a snapshot in time—some as innocent as a yearbook photo, others more like a mug shot. But as a collection, these now-distant memories make FitzGerald feel proud of the person he has become.

“All of these songs were written from a perspective that I kind of only remember and do not occupy now,” FitzGerald says. “I wouldn’t want to change any of them because they are accurate representations of how I was feeling. And even if some of the songs aren’t dealing with being an alcoholic, or being just a disappointment, or hurting people, they’re all tangentially related to that.”

Second was the understanding that he didn’t need to be ready to reveal darkness on a broad scale to begin recording.

“I just had to trust that for whatever reason, it feels right to start recording now, and to treat these as actual pieces of work,” he explains. “And hopefully by the end of that process, however long it takes, I will feel prepared to offer them up.”

The pandemic offered FitzGerald two more years to prepare. When it finally came time to dive in, FitzGerald immediately turned to a friend and local go-to, Sleepy Cat’s Saman Khoujinian, to co-produce the project.

“I knew that the easiest and healthiest way for me to experience songs that have, like, a lot of toxic versions of myself was to experience them in a really healthy environment with Saman,” FitzGerald says. Khoujinian echoes the spirit of the collaboration, describing it as “educational.”

“My whole relationship to recording was very technical,” Khoujinian adds. “And working with Owen it was like, ‘Oh, you maybe need to spend some more time listening instead of looking at the graph or whatever.’”

For the first time, FitzGerald also allowed other musicians into his creative sphere. The album opener, “Touching the Oven at Work,” welcomes Patrick O’Neil (guitar, keys), Dylan Turner (bass), and Marc Allen (drums) into a slow-burning folk track with enough texture to push it into the rock sphere. John Howie Jr. builds percussive momentum across the chaotic country-rock contained in “Don’t Give Me a Pet,” surmounting it into the rollicking fury. Daniel Fields’s slide guitar blurs the lines between his blues and psych-rock influences on “Bismuth, the Last Gentleman.”

In relinquishing control and expanding his production credits, FitzGerald also bolstered his sonic storytelling. Intentional sparseness balances disorienting bouts of productive mayhem to set the mood of dismal angst that binds these nine vignettes. As if taking a page from a Flannery O’Connor novel, FitzGerald employs morally flawed characters and grotesque humor to explore universal themes and achieve the dark country and psychedelic folk components of his soundscape.

A deep clean you can count on! is an artistic arrival for FitzGerald that hinged on his ability to extinguish the fear of presenting his former self to the world.

“If there is no bad outcome, then you can be so relaxed that you are surprised by the good outcomes that blossom, so there is no way it could have gone wrong,” he concludes.

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