'It's 100% me': Micah Schnabel finds his true voice

Joel Oliphint
Micah Schnabel

When the results of the 2016 presidential election came trickling in, Micah Schnabel was onstage, and by the time he finished his set, the outcome appeared final. 

“We got back to the hotel that night, and it felt like a mourning. And then we woke up in it. And we've been on this hamster wheel ever since,” Schnabel said. 

From that day on, Schnabel has been trying to make sense of the post-Trump world. Initially, he felt frozen by this new reality. “I've never existed through anything like this before as an adult. … I was having trouble processing it all,” he said. “I had to start spitting [songs] out, just for my own mental health — just trying to stay alive and not let it eat you and destroy you.”  

And so Schnabel, co-frontman of long-running local rock act Two Cow Garage, began writing songs for his just-released solo record, The Teenage Years of the 21st Century, coming on the heels of 2017’s Your New Norman Rockwell and Schnabel’s 2018 debut novel, Hello, My Name is Henry. Throughout the process, Schnabel embraced a writing technique he’s been perfecting for the last few years, embracing a conversational, spoken-word approach and ridding his work of anything extraneous or affected. 

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“It's very plainspoken and straightforward. … It's 100 percent me. It’s my speaking voice. The voice I'm using right now is the voice that I use on the record, and then I play some guitar behind this conversation we're having right now,” Schnabel said in early December at a Clintonville coffee shop. “Hopefully people can find some connection to that. And I think people have. It’s stuff that we're all seeing every single day. The record's not even been out a week, but it's the most successful thing I've ever put out.”

Working in the studio with Mark Miller, who pulled together a bare-bones setup for Schnabel to use at will, Schnabel recruited a bunch of his friends to add parts in fits and starts, including Jay Gasper on electric guitar and pedal steel; George Hondroulis, Jason Winner and additional engineer Ben Miller on drums; plus another set of musicians from a California recording session. 

On The Teenage Years of the 21st Century, quite possibly Schnabel’s best release to date, the songwriter fills the album with keen-eyed observations, pleas for betterment (“Oh please just be gentle, always,” Schnabel sings on “Gentle Always”), sigh-filled laments and indignant calls for action set to strummy, oft-upbeat rock songs with a folksinger’s heart. The words came straight from Schnabel’s everyday existence, like when his uncle went on a Trumpist rant on social media, inspiring the song “Remain Silent.” 

“That was me just wanting to lose my mind, like, ‘You're voting against your best interests and doing nothing for yourself or your children.’ But instead of getting on a Facebook tangent about that, I channeled that into [songwriting],” Schnabel said. “Most of my songs are the answer to a conversation, but I get to sculpt it — like when you're laying in bed at night and you get to have that conversation again.”

Regardless of the response to the songs and the ideas contained therein, Schnabel is committed to having those conversations, as he notes at the end of “Remain Silent”: “Words are never enough/But these words are all that I have/That and the right to remain silent/But that feels too close to compliance.” 

At 37, Schnabel has developed a perspective he may not have had when he was younger. “Maybe because I don't have children, I feel a disconnect. I feel like I'm watching. Maybe that allows me to look at things as an outsider,” Schnabel said. “School shootings come up four or five times on the record, and at times I was like, ‘Well, I've already talked about that.’ But I'm just going to keep talking about that, because it's already normalized. … We should be talking about how that shouldn't be a normal part of our culture. I hope when I'm dead, people look back on my work and are like, ‘Oh, yeah. He was talking about how messed up that was.’”

While Schnabel recognizes his privilege as a white male, he’s also brutally honest about his financial situation throughout the record, directly referencing his lack of health insurance on “Emergency Room” and his inability to buy a car on “How to Ride a Bike,” which is anchored by the album’s most anthemic and darkest refrain: “Being alive is so expensive/Being dead is such a lousy alternative.” 

Schnabel said his newfound plainspoken approach to songwriting translates well in the Two Cow context, too. The band has recently been rehearsing songs for a new record, which the bandmates plan to record in the same studio setup with Mark Miller. “It's exciting for me to bring songs into that whole-band situation,” he said. “It's just more full, and I can really, really yell at people. Or yell at myself.”

Two Cow will headline the 5th Annual Holiday Office Party at Rumba Cafe on Wednesday, Dec. 18, playing alongside Cliffs, Sam Corlett and others, plus various vendors, including artist Vanessa Jean Speckman, Schnabel’s partner. Schnabel and Speckman will also head out on a UK tour with Frank Turner in March.

When he looks to 2020, despite all the enraging things Schnabel sings about on The Teenage Years of the 21st Century, he has hope. Especially when he thinks of the kids he knows. “My nieces and my friends' children, they're hyper-intelligent and soft and kind with one another,” he said. “We are evolving positively. Things are getting softer and kinder.”

Two Cow Garage

7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18

2507 Summit St., North Campus


ALSO PLAYING: Cliffs, Sam Corlett, Mukiss, VJS & The MG’s

5th Annual Holiday Office Party