Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay bottoms out, bounces back, finds the divine

The musician visits Natalie’s Grandview for a concert on Friday, Feb. 18

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay

Prior to the 2020 release of Forever Just Beyond — Clem Snide’s first album since Girls Come First, from 2015 — singer and songwriter Eef Barzelay said he mourned the end of the long-running project “at least twice, maybe even three times.”

“There were times it was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s over,’ because something would happen that would derail things for years,” said Barzelay, who brings Clem Snide to Columbus for a headlining show at Natalie’s Music Hall in Grandview on Friday, Feb. 18. “It’s a peaks and valleys kind of thing for me, not this slow, steady [decline], though maybe it was that, too.”

Regardless, Barzelay has carried on amid these hardships, buoyed by random positive signals from the universe (for a time, Barzelay served as the voice of Chobani yogurt, providing a jolt of income when it was badly needed) but generally persevering for no other reason than he refused to give himself another choice. “When you’re doing it, and it’s not really taking off, you get to a point where it’s like, maybe people don’t like it, or there’s something wrong with it. And then you can say, 'I’m done and I’m moving on to something else,' and certainly many people choose that option,” Barzelay said. “But I never gave myself that option, so I had to figure out a way to make it work.”

As a result of this decision, Barzelay has by necessity cultivated a morbid sense of humor, which has helped carry him through the various misfortunes and ill-timed releases that dot Clem Snide’s past. Most recently, Barzelay released Forever Just Beyond, an album produced by Scott Avett of Avett Brothers fame and set to coincide with a joint tour between the two, just weeks into the global coronavirus pandemic that broke in March 2020. “Which in some ways was perfect,” Barzelay said, and laughed, “because events such as that seem to be part of the Clem Snide story.”

In 2001, for instance, the band released its third record, The Ghost of Fashion, to wide critical praise, appearing to be on the verge of a larger breakout as it set out for a massive national tour on Sept. 8, 2001.

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Armed with these past experiences, Barzelay moved quickly through the grieving process when COVID-19 scrapped the band's plans, pivoting to a series of private backyard shows in the spring and summer of 2020 during which he put tens of thousands of miles on a rental car as he crisscrossed the country and performed for small, masked gatherings. He also leaned more heavily into a pursuit he launched years prior to the pandemic, crafting songs for individuals by commission — an intimate approach that impacted his writing process for the new Clem Snide album and also informed a podcast series debuting in May and titled “A Life in Song.”

“I invited people, if they wanted to play along, to share with me their life story, and the more traumatic, the more transformative, the better,” said Barzelay, who recorded his interviews and then wrote a song based on the conversation. Each episode of the podcast centers on one individual, who shares their story in detail, followed by Barzelay performing his song based on this account. 

The musician said he initially started offering these song commissions at a time when he “bottomed out,” as he explained it, entering into a stretch he described less as a midlife crisis and more “a dark night of the soul.”

“Ten years ago ... the band became untenable. The label went out of business. The booking agent was gone. The publisher was gone. After doing this for 10 or 15 years, everything pretty much went away for me,” Barzelay said. “Starting then, I had to rebuild myself, and part of rebuilding myself was … writing those more personal songs for people. And the more I wrote for other people, the more I wrote for myself, too. And the more I opened myself up and the more I put out, the more came in.”

This open-hearted approach resonates throughout Forever Just Beyond, on which Barzelay grapples with all manner of unknowables, turning out songs that linger on the afterlife (“Roger Ebert,” centered on the critic’s supposed final words), human nature (“Don’t Bring No Ladder”) and, on the title track, the existence of God. “Oh, God is simply that which lies/Forever just beyond the limits/Of what we already seem to know,” Barzelay sings atop a graceful musical backdrop far more composed than the song’s narrator, who repeatedly questions the random nature of life and the appearance of free will — concepts to which the musician has returned repeatedly in recent years.

“More and more I feel like something is controlling me. I live my life and I make these choices, but I’m a very disassociated dude. ... And things that have happened to me in my life suggest something larger,” Barzelay said. “That’s why that ‘Roger Ebert’ song struck a chord with me, and why I’m intrigued with near-death experiences. It seems to me there’s something larger at work here.”

Barzelay, who was raised by atheist parents, traced the origins of these larger questions to the point when he hit bottom a decade back. 

“My former self wasn’t working. I wasn’t healthy. My thoughts were tangled, and I had a lot of bitterness, and I was miserable and depressed. And then I got a herniated disc and couldn’t stand for like two months. … At that point, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I surrendered,” he said. “And part of that surrender… It’s hard to explain. It’s not a knowledge thing, and it’s not like I have any information to impart. It’s more just a sense that you’re much more than your body. You identify as something deeper than that, and it’s eternal, and it’s ultimately divine. And if you regard yourself in that sense, then the world will begin to appear as divine to you.”

For Barzelay, this turning point hit in the midst of a depressive November tour in the UK, where the weather was as cold and gray as he felt internally at the time. On one stop, Barzelay played solo at a cozy pub he described as feeling out of time, the room smelling of burnt sod and peat moss. Inside, Barzelay stationed himself at a microphone off in one corner, playing his songs for a completely disinterested crowd that carried on as if he wasn’t even in the room.

“And at that moment, I was like, ‘I’m going to close my eyes and sing to God,’” Barzelay said. “I couldn’t even hear myself, but I was like, ‘I'm going to sing, and I hope God is listening.’ ... And the minute you say the word 'God,' it implies something that is separate from you. But it's never separate from you. It's really you sorting you out, ultimately, but in as wide a frame as possible. You need to widen that frame, because it is infinite. At least that's how I look at it."