"Some people call it surreal," says Donovan Quinn, talking about his new solo album. "But it's more about examining all the weirdness that draws me to heartbreak. It's about wondering why I'm a screwed-up, weird little dude."
In reality, Quinn is about average height and medium build. He's a real cutie, too, in a Timothy-Bottoms-circa-The-Last-Picture-Show kind of way: boyish, and dusty like the smooth, rural expanses of central Nebraska and Oklahoma (from which his family emigrated to the Walnut Creek area two generations back).
Yet the guy is right about being kind of weird. Quinn doesn't converse — he meanders. He could be talking to you or himself; it's often hard to tell. In the first few minutes of our interview, Quinn's thoughts wander from the tasty goodness of Philz Coffee to an old trailer home in the East Bay to his job at the Sierra Club to the Skygreen Leopards (his longtime pastoral folk-pop band with fellow San Franciscan Glenn Donaldson) to repeatedly apologizing for being such a "rambling fool."
Quinn sings a lot like he speaks. With a backing band laying down a wobbly, country-kissed jangle that feels as influenced by twee icons like Television Personalities and the Pastels as by West Coast folkies P.F. Sloan and John Phillips, he plays the shy guy, mumbling and whispering in a narcotic drone that rarely crawls out of a gooey unintelligibility. It's really quite hypnotic, the aural equivalent of a sluggish Sunday afternoon poisoned by Saturday night's transgressions.
So yeah, Quinn the person and artist is really pretty loose, so to speak. For him, the new disc, Donovan Quinn & the 13th Month, was nothing more than "writing songs, trying to convey some kind of emotion or idea, and then just getting your buddies to do whatever they do naturally on top of it." But that's also a bit misleading. Beneath that garbled croon and that slack approach to collaboration exists an extremely skilled lyricist who has fully internalized classic modes of metaphor, symbolism, and narrative.
What distinguishes Quinn, who is well read but never attended college, from other hyperliterate indie wordsmiths is how natural he sounds as (gulp) a poet and storyteller. Although he's a complete drama queen ("He must be a total bitch to break up with," wrote one reviewer) he never comes off as some English grad student flirting with T.S. Eliot.
An old-school romantic, Quinn intuitively understands that love comes smeared in both tragedy and comedy. On "Hollow Candles," he croaks, "I wish I could freeze the night/Whenever I'm with you/For when light fills the window/I'll have to find my shoes." And on "They're Going to Pick Us Apart" he warns, "Flesheaters will pick us apart/Gravediggers will rob our fingers of their rings/And all earthly things/But for now I watch a hazy sun." Quinn even turns nasty with the lover's dis. "October's Bride" finds him asking, "What kind of love is this/The lamb's throat and the Judas kiss/It's a harem of bees and all you reap is disease."
"Now that's a fucked-up thing to write about a girl, but it's also totally ridiculous," laughs Quinn of the latter song. "I don't think I've written one song ever that I don't think is a little bit funny."
Funny indeed. When asked if the new record is a true breakup album, he drops the best punch line of them all: "It's actually about two different girls, and that might get me into trouble."
See — he is a true romantic.