Publish Our Love: The Be Good Tanyas

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 6:31pm

.

Design by Kathryn Halverson

“You can never publish my love,” Rogue Wave chants, in the song that the title of this series riffs on. Maybe that’s true, and we can never quite account for our love on paper or in print, but we sure can try. That’s what this series is devoted to: publishing our love. Us, the Arts section of The Michigan Daily, talking about artists, some of the people we love the most. Perhaps these are futile approximations of love for the poet who told us we deserve to be heard, the director who changed the way we see the world, the singer we see as an old friend. But who ever said futile can’t still be beautiful?

Last summer, I spent a lot of time wandering around Boston listening to music. I wasn’t lonely, exactly — I was living with my best friend — but we both worked, and I was often alone, on the bus to a catering gig or entering data into a spreadsheet at my internship. Every week, I walked from our third-floor bedroom in Mission Hill to the main branch of the downtown library, which was a two-mile straight shot down Huntington Avenue, and I listened to The Be Good Tanyas.

I first heard The Be Good Tanyas when my mom checked out one of their CDs from our local library in Philadelphia. I was in elementary school, six or seven years old, and I listened to what she listened to: Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, a rotating mix of folk singers and women whose voices sounded like bird calls. The album from the library was Blue Horse, The Be Good Tanyas’ 2001 debut, and we listened to it on the orange wooden stereo system my parents kept in the living room alcove. 

When I rediscovered The Be Good Tanyas in high school, I liked Blue Horse for its nostalgic power. Still, their music was like an article of clothing I was holding onto until it fit. Each one of their songs was a meditation on emotions I hadn’t experienced yet — the real, grown-up variations on the fledgling feelings of adolescence. The Be Good Tanyas seem to inhabit the kind of fullness that is created by acknowledging it, by wanting it. Their music made me want to be the kind of person who would look for this largesse. 

During sophomore year of college, I got back into the Tanyas — not just Blue Horse, but also Chinatown (2003) and Hello Love (2006). That spring, I played “Draft Daughter’s Blues” for a guy I liked. I wanted to impress him with my obscure music taste (ugh), and I also thought the way he might understand me through the song was the way I wanted to be understood: “Impossible to keep a straight line / Too young to keep these bitter hearts / And all around me, somebody’s singin’ / Get back, get back.”

But even as we listened to it, I was already imagining him into the mythology of my own life, wondering how future-me would explain to someone else what our relationship had been. I was thinking about how he would fade into a character who only mattered for the ways he exposed something truthful about me, my desires, my selfishness, my tendency to refuse to cede the moral high ground even when maintaining my position meant hurting the people I cared about. As much as I didn’t like thinking this way, there was something good about it, too, knowing I was figuring out unflattering truths about myself. I left for Boston as soon as school ended, ready to find out if the person I’d become in college was a product of my influences or something less malleable.

When I listened to The Be Good Tanyas in Boston last summer, I finally felt they were singing to me, about things I was old enough to understand. “Keep it light enough to travel / Don't let it all unravel,” vocalist Frazey Ford sings on “Light Enough to Travel.” This was what I was after in Boston: an impossible balance, a mixture of freedom and security with equal portions of each. More concrete lyrics struck me, too: “Promise me we won’t go into the nightclub / I really think that it's obscene / What kind of people go to meet people / Where they can’t be heard or seen.” I like how the Be Good Tanyas sing about finding a nightclub obscene without coming across as frumpy. This became something I want to say: “Don’t you think nightclubs are obscene?” Obscene.

That summer, I wrote in my journal that I worried my personality was a “mish-mash of everyone I’ve ever admired and that I have no original ideas or interests.” It’s ironic, then, that The Be Good Tanyas have joined the conglomerate of people whose personalities and interests I have pawned and emulated. I stumbled on my version of the anxiety of influence last summer  — a set of fears which is itself derivative, proving my point that nothing exists outside of its circumstances. It’s true that I spent a month crafting detailed, snarky diary entries after I read David Sedaris’s “Theft by Finding,” and it’s true that I bought my black carpenter pants because I saw them on Man Repeller. Whatever!

The Be Good Tanyas are a part of this, giving me something less concrete to steal: a mindset, a way of walking around while I’m listening to their music in my headphones. I’ve decided to stop feeling uncomfortable about this, because cribbing from the people I admire is just the way life works — and it’s even better to give credit to everyone I’ve copied something from. A non-exhaustive list: Caroline’s Swedish clogs, Claire’s razor brand, Nora Ephron’s motto (everything is copy!), Summer’s obsession with the eye makeup in “Euphoria,” the star-shaped hoops on that girl in my English class. Sally’s middle-school cell phone and Rory Gilmore’s journalism aspirations. Also, a million other things.

In an editorially satisfying twist, The Be Good Tanyas are notorious for covering other people’s songs. “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” dates to the 19th century. “For the Turnstiles” is a Neil Young song. They’ve covered Prince and Blind Willie Johnson, and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” fits nicely into an album of their original songs. The Be Good Tanyas aren’t shy about reworking other people’s material, which seems to support my theory that the most interesting people have forgotten all about the anxiety of influence. What I want — what the Tanyas have embraced — is the serenity of influence, the confidence of influence, the creative thrill of turning someone else’s thing into your thing and forgetting to be embarrassed that someone else always did it first.