Happy Tooth learns to appreciate life

The rapper’s new album, ‘The Laughter’s Rehearsed,’ is set to be released on streaming services on Monday, May 31

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Happy Tooth

Just before the coronavirus shut down the state last March, I sat outside of a Bexley coffee shop with rappers Happy Tooth and Dug, all three of us uncertain if meeting in-person was entirely safe (in retrospect, probably not), and with zero awareness that it would be the last public socializing any of us would engage in for months.

So when I reconvened with Happy Tooth outside of the same coffee shop earlier this month, both of us fully vaccinated and feeling like maybe there was finally some daylight bleeding in at the tail end of a long, dark year, there was a general sense of things coming full circle, which is an idea that worms its way into the rapper’s new solo album, The Laughter’s Rehearsed, which is set for release on Memorial Day (Monday, May 31).

The record opens with “U gud,” a track that essentially serves as a self check-in, Happy Tooth taking stock of his mental health while rapping about how we all want a story with a happy ending. At times on Rehearsed, it feels as if this moment might never arrive, the rapper’s anxieties, run-ins with anti-maskers and technology fatigue mirroring the human experience for many throughout broad stretches of 2020. These often rest side-by-side with more personal admissions, including “Morse Code,” a song fashioned and performed as an open mic poetry reading in which Happy Tooth wonders if a malfunctioning lamp could be his late father communicating with him from the afterlife. “I can’t assume he’s with the angels when in life he made friends with his demons,” he recites. As the track draws to a close, Happy Tooth replaces the bulb and the flickering stops.

But the record is also dotted with moments of surrealist humor (“Let me cry in this Applebee's”), and as it nears the end the weather finally begins to break, with “WTWAP” (When the World’s at Peace) painting a comparatively bright picture, a handful of lines reflecting the possibility inherent in post-pandemic life: “We’ll have cured disease!”; “We can go to shows again!”

“I realized I really do need the music as an escape, so there are times where you’re exorcising your demons and getting all of those feelings out, but there were times I almost needed a distraction from those feelings,” said Happy Tooth, born Colin Ward. “I tried to go a little lighter on this record, at times, because I felt like I needed to. … I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression and being sad forever, and to add all of this (the pandemic, attendant lockdowns, etc.) on top of it, it was like, ‘Oh, I can’t even.’ It was like I needed to think about something else.”

While Happy Tooth continued to work a public-facing job installing garage doors throughout the pandemic, a 9-to-5 that generally allowed him to maintain safe social distance, at home he mostly kept to himself, which forced a new approach to writing and recording. For past releases, the rapper has tested material in front of audiences, performing at open mics and using the response as one gauge to continue editing and finessing a track. Absent those usual avenues this time around, he had to learn to trust his own instincts, and in the process of doing so he started to realize that his motivations for making music had shifted considerably over the years. “I’ve realized I do it for myself, and I don’t need the validation from others that I thought I needed,” he said.

There are also moments on the record where Happy Tooth looks back at the person he used to be, a reflective streak influenced in part by the rapper again taking up rollerblading, a sport he gave up as a teenager but which in the last year has allowed a needed physical and mental release amid the most suffocating stretches of the pandemic.

“It’s something I lost the love for years ago, because it was always kind of the black sheep of aggressive sports, to where so few people did it I’d be the only person at the park in in-line skates,” he said. “But coming back to it, it’s definitely been life-saving, in a sense, because I needed a way to perform, and to get that physical release. And I fell back in love with it on a whole other level. I can skate really hard for an hour or two or three, and I’m exhausted, and I feel better and sleep better. … It’s something more primal, even though it’s horrible for my body. I try to stretch and do what I can, but if you miss [a trick] you’re going to get hurt.”

At the same time, in each instance Happy Tooth has picked himself back up and kept going. It’s a lesson that has served as a needed reminder throughout this past year, which, though it has dimmed his overall faith in humanity, particularly in observing the vocal anti-mask and anti-vaccine contingents, has still managed to leave him with a greater appreciation for living.

“Every day that I get to go out, and my legs still work and I get to see and hear things, I appreciate it,” he said. “After this last year, after going through all of this, I just appreciate everything a lot more.”