The good-natured Stephen Lynch never really imagined a stand-up comedy career for himself – in the beginning, his ambitions stretched no further than making his college buddies laugh. “I was a theatre major at a state university,” he explains, “living in a house in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with about eight or nine of us. It was a big old place in what was insensitively referred to as the student ghetto. I lived with a mix of theatre people, like me, and dirty punk rock people.” Lynch found himself drawn to the punks – and to the guitars that they left lying around. “I knew how to play the piano, but there’s not a whole lot of that in punk,” he says with a laugh. “Living there is where I first learned to play the guitar.” Comedy soon followed
There were many times, Lynch tells me, when the bong was being passed around, and everyone was trying to crack one another up – as, let’s face it, is an unbeatable form of entertainment at that age. “I’d pick up a guitar and start making up funny songs,” he says. “I did it just to amuse myself and those around me, and never thought it would be anything but a hobby, then I woke up a decade later and realised it was my career, so I quit my job and decided to go for it fulltime. It just happened – it was never my intention to get into the world of comedy. I don’t know much about comedy, to be honest with you, but I love playing music, so I got to sneak in the back door of a life where I get to play songs for people. No matter the subject matter, I’m happy.”
Lynch’s debut album A Little Bit Special was released in 2000 – it featured an array of comedy songs both affectionate and mocking, with subject matter ranging from testicular anxiety to Jim Henson. He has written songs about abortion, and about the Special Olympics, and I ask if, over the course of his career, he’s found any subject too touchy, or perhaps one that’s just plain off-limits. “I definitely have that feeling about songs I’ve written,” he says. “I mean, I wrote that song about the Special Olympics when I was 19 or 20. I would never write something like that today, but you’re a different person when you’re young. I’ve learned form that song, and as I’ve gotten older, my focus is more on directing the humour in the music at myself, or at least at someone deserving.”
Though comedy is his trade, Lynch sees himself as a musician first and a joke-teller second. “I have a stable of singer-song writers who I’ve listened to since I was a kid, and I add to that periodically,” he tells me, of his direct musical influences. “When I was a kid, it was Paul Simon, and when I got a bit older, I added Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young – great musicians with something to say, who can express emotions as well as ideas in songs. These days I listen to Patty Griffin and Iron And Wine and Ryan Adams and still Neil Young.” A few years ago, it occurred to Lynch that since he listened to and loved this kind of music, he might as well take a crack at writing it himself. Though it seems obvious in retrospect, Lynch was amazed at how much his new approach changed his song-writing technique.
In the past, Lynch would start a song with a joke, or at least a lyrical idea, and would then build a song around it. After growing tired of this approach, he decided that instead, he’d start by writing music he loved and let the lyrics flow from there. His most recent album, Lion, is his first to be written this way. “It was a very difficult process,” he says, “and I don’t think I’ve perfected it yet, but I figured it out enough along the way to write 13 songs I feel are pretty good, or at least pretty representative of where I am in my life. That’s why it took three years between the last two records. I threw away the old template, which had become stale and predictable and obvious, and challenged myself. I wanted to do something creatively satisfying.”
Lion was recorded in the country music capital of Nashville, and working there had been a dream of Lynch’s for some time. “I would drive to Nashville from where I live in Michigan,” he explains, “mostly because I wanted to take a big collection of instruments with me. It’s an eight-hour drive that I did probably three or four times, but I loved it, because I drove through some beautiful parts of the world.” He was drawn to the city to work with producer Doug Lancio, whose credits include the likes of Patty Griffin and Steve Earle. “You can’t spit without hitting an incredible musician down there,” Lynch laughs. “I wanted to work with a producer I admired and trusted, someone who could add the textures and layers I wanted to my music, and Doug was the guy. It was a thrilling process, not just to work with him, but to hear my music in the bands of some of the players I so greatly admire.”
Lynch has visited Australia several times over the years, and I ask what exactly we can expect when from his show when he returns. “It’s been a while since I’ve been down there last,” he says, “so I’ll probably play a very healthy combination of songs from the new record, and old ones that I know people will want to hear. I’m bringing a big group of people with me – funny people, great musicians and funny people, so it should be a really great show for everyone.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN