Integrity is the partner of humility, and both qualities infuse Pete Quirk’s new album Fail On, Fail Better. Quirk is best known as the lead singer of beloved folk-rock outfit the Cave Singers, and though he’s been a poet and solo performer for years, he’s never completed an album of his own until now. Released independently last month, Fail On, Fail Better is personal and intimate in its sound but consequential in its emotional impact. It's folk music in a rainbow of iterations—quiet and meditative, intense and brooding, self-possessed and uplifting—expressed in a broad palette of instrumentation. I spoke with Quirk about the album while he was at home in his new apartment in Ravenna.
Jonathan Zwickel: Where and when did these songs come about?
Pete Quirk: The album was pretty much written in its entirety at [my old] Eastlake apartment. And kind of inspired by that whole experience of living over there by myself.
I know you used to share a house with Derek [Fudesco] and Andrea [Zollo, both of Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Cave Singers and Deep Creep]. How was it living by yourself?
Super nice. It was this one-bedroom place. I had just gone through breakup and I was also kind of starting to live a lot healthier, or at least not living unhealthy. So I was doing that over there for the first time. I moved in and had a little tiny mattress and a TV and that was pretty much it. Progressively over time I got a couch and a bed. I didn’t have that much stuff, you know?
So during that time I had this guitar, the one I play a lot live, solo. And I was just trying to get better at playing. And to do that, because I have a hard time concentrating on just practicing, I’d make a little part or half a song so I could do something, work on something guitar-wise. That’s the origin of some of the songs. Mostly the songs are about that time and they’re super personal and they’re about the motivation to transform as a person and having that experience on your own. A lot of solitude. I was by myself a lot over there.
So kind of a breakup record?
The relationship ending was actually, eventually, a great thing for me and the other person. It didn’t really have anything to do with that so much as I had a lot of clarity around [the fact] that I was changing and I was willing to let that happen, you now? A lot of the times when I write songs they start with free-association singing and improvisation while I’m playing the guitar. So they were all written within that chunk of time, adding more pieces of furniture to my apartment and building a life I’d never had before. The songs were kind of affirmations or prayers or something like that. And stories.
Building a life, building an album. It’s similar.
Yeah it was. I was on a search maybe for more of a truer sense of who I am and moving into an unfurnished apartment was a pretty stark metaphor for that. So as that was going on the songs were kind of there but I wasn’t planning on doing anything with them. Sometimes I would watch a few episodes of Law and Order or Game of Thrones and sit there watching playing guitar. I was just hanging out by myself a lot. And trying to enjoy my own company.
Learning to be alone with yourself.
I was very interested in that pursuit. I still am. It actually just deepens and expands. It doesn’t end, apparently.
It’s hard to reconcile being OK with being alone and the pressure that’s put on people to be part of a pair. To be in a romantic relationship or part of a social group or whatever. You get that pressure from every corner of popular culture.
There was one night where I was with friends and they were going to do something and it was Friday night and I was in that apartment. And I had that tinge of loneliness, because I didn’t go with them. And Friday night, I pictured the whole town meeting up with one another. And I kind of realized that I was happy to be alone. I wasn’t lonely, I was just alone. There’s a difference. I’ve been lonely and depressed and all that. But there was some kind of togetherness in it. I had this weird thing where I was like, I’m not the only person that feels this way. But I was also into the idea of whatever the feeling is, tomorrow or the next day, I wanna feel it. I don’t wanna blot it out. Whether that’s with drugs, alcohol, companionship, sex. I’ve tried all those! I like those things! [Laughs] I was looking for emotional moderation on some level.
How old are you?
I’ll be 40 in two weeks.
I turned 40 last October. It’s an interesting age. Now I know what perspective is. I can look back to 20 years ago and I was 20 then—mostly an adult, or at least an actual person. When I was 20, looking back 20 years I was a zygote.
I feel that perspective you’re talking about. It’s so valuable. And then it just comes. Hopefully to everybody. To be able to look back at different things and look at yourself and how different you were. I was just like tripping out on this: I thought about this time where I went to this carnival fair in my hometown when I was in ninth or tenth grade. And I got these brand-new Nikes that I thought were the coolest. And my mom dropped me off and I went and tried to hang out with these kids and this girl that I liked and I was awkward about it and rode on a ride with her. I thought about that kid and it almost made me cry. That little guy was trying, man! I was thinking about him and I had this compassion for him because he was so nervous. And I was like, Hey that was me. That’s so crazy. Same dude.
I feel like I was that little guy at one point, too. You get to think back on that now and have some real distance.
It’s that thing of being alone for awhile. After turning 40—I haven’t turned 40 yet—but I’m kind of more relaxed about stuff. More comfortable.
I think it’s interesting too to have some more awareness, whether it’s from having perspective or getting older but then also retaining a youthfulness, collaborating in these ways and continuing to have a youthful spirit. To practice living with a beginner’s mind, always open to learning. Not like, Hey I’m totally aware and clear and I know everything! I’ve graduated from life and I’m good! I don’t wanna feel that way. I now know more that I don’t know. I’m way more available to tell people I don’t know: I haven’t read that, I don’t know that album. I know what I know. And it doesn’t matter if I know that or not.
Why are these Pete Quirk songs and not Cave Singers songs?
I happened to write the songs by myself which I’d never done before. And what actually makes a Cave Singers song is that the band writes the song collaboratively. That’s the magic of the Cave Singers to me, the collaboration and whatever happens when we get together. We’d just put out Naomi and so really what I wanted to do was write some folk songs. And I wanted to play a show by myself with just a guitar. I’d never done that. And I was also interested in just writing songs by myself and what I was going through at the time was very solitary, like I said. So it just kind of happened that I would write these songs at night by myself. Derek plays on one but he just plays bass. And Morgan [Henderson] plays bass on a couple. But I can play all the songs by myself. So it was never a consideration to make them Cave Singers songs.
I recorded in Anacortes in this old church and Josh [Wells] from Black Mountain came down from Vancouver and I put us up in a hotel. I financed the record myself and managed the recording of it that turned into a bigger project than I thought. And got backup singers and arranged it. I’m kind of blown away that I pulled it off. Managing all these things. It was just a good thing to start and finish. I’ve started a lot of things and not finished them, I assure you.
And you’ve played these songs live a couple times, right? How was that?
The first time, there was this feeling of gratitude that I even got to do it. And that these songs were really special for me and healing and healthy for me. And they just presented themselves, I didn’t force them to be there. They were just there. They appeared. I had to work on them but I never really set out to do it. Which made it seem like what I was supposed to do. There was no question that this is what I was supposed to do at the time.
All that. And a celebration. Kind of looking at life and... gratitude.
When I was playing the first show, the solo show, I played these songs myself with a guitar. Plugged in. On the second or third song I was playing and mostly it was a lot of my friends there and then some new friends. And I feel like we were going through similar things at the time and I was singing this song and I was like, Whoa, I actually did this. And then I got choked up. I got that crying-laughing-I’m-gonna-explode-feeling, feeling everything all at once. And then I fucked up the words! And I was like, Have that feeling but let’s get our shit together! It was one of those pure, hey-I’m-really-happy-I’m-alive feelings, you know? But I played it cool, don’t worry.
You’re talking about a pretty meaningful journey with this album, Pete. At what sounds like an important time in your life.
There’s the album, but what we’re talking about, you and I, is life. And life can be difficult and beautiful and puzzling and all these different things. But underneath it all, when I was making that album, there was a new happiness. New gratitude. You know? A new feeling of connectedness that I hadn’t had before. So I just like to share that with people.