The theme to Omaha singer/songwriter/rocker Matt Whipkey’s new album, Hard, can be summed up by its artwork: a photo of a vintage bride-and-groom cake topper, sitting on a Pepperidge Farm cake.
“The record is about a break-up, the end of a marriage,” said Whipkey, who, though proud of the album, sounded skittish about the subject.
He easily could have said the album was about the pandemic, having written the first songs when the country went into lockdown in March 2020 and wrapping up the last song in April 2021. But that cake topper would have been hard to explain.
Whipkey said he and his wife were together for a couple years before their divorce in March 2020 at the height of the pandemic. He suddenly found himself living in the basement of his artist/photographer friend Justin Limoges’ house with a whole lot of time on his hands.
“I said I wasn’t going to turn his basement into a recording studio, but sure enough…,” Whipkey said.
With Limoges’ support, Whipkey began to write and record the new album, starting with rocker “Hello, Hello” and ending with album-closer “Big Noise.” Along the way he thematically covered aspects of his broken relationship, shifting from bombastic power chords to subtle acoustic nuance.
“For an artist treading that territory, you want to be reverent about it,” Whipkey said. “At a certain point, the songs wrote themselves, and what came out ended up being what was on my mind. It was therapeutic.”
You can’t blame the guy if he occasionally wandered into maudlin territory, but, to his credit, Whipkey edited himself, cutting songs he felt “ventured into the land of diary rock.”
“I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “When you look at the idea of a divorce album, there’s some standouts in the genre you have to consider.” He said those include Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and the overlooked 1999 gem by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Echo.
On the other hand, Whipkey said, “The worst thing you can do is write something that you’re going to be embarrassed by 10 years down the road.”
He doesn’t have anything to worry about.
Clocking in at 11 songs in 41 minutes, Hard is the best sounding album Whipkey has recorded in a career that spans 24 years and 14 albums, including work with bands The Movies, Anonymous American and punk act Unexplained Death. Whipkey recorded almost all the tracks in lockdown in Limoges’ basement, adding Scott Gaeta’s drum parts along the way. He shares recording and production credits with Gaeta and recording engineer Ian Aeillo.
The DIY recording approach allowed him to lay down as many as 40 vocal tracks per song, searching for the perfect take. “I compare singing to pitching,” Whipkey said. “Some pitchers don’t hit their shit until the seventh inning. When I sing a vocal 20 times, things begin to sound different by take 10 or 12. I want to know where it will take me from a physical and spiritual perspective. You’re no longer thinking about pitch, you’re feeling the experience.”
Throughout the album, Whipkey’s vocals go from a breathy, husky whisper to a throaty yell as if channeling his relationship’s pleasure and pain. Standout songs include the rock-hard title track, the aforementioned “Hello, Hello,” twang-inspired waltz “Lazarus” and indie-swing closer “Big Noise.”
The album was digitally released last month, but the vinyl release is slated for Nov. 12 in conjunction with an album release show at The Jewell. While the album was mastered by the inimitable Doug Van Sloun, the vinyl’s lacquers were cut by legendary engineer Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Services.
Whipkey said landing Weston was a stroke of luck, as was finding his record label — a boutique mom-and-pop label out of Minneapolis called Unusual. Hard will be #001 in the Unusual catalog, with an initial vinyl run of 300 copies.
After years of recording and touring, including performing in arenas opening for Dwight Yoakam, Heart and America, Whipkey sounds satisfied with his career. “I’ve done some pretty cool things with music,” he said. “Playing those arena shows was something I dreamt about. The joy for me now is the creative process, the songwriting, just producing something. And while I want people to enjoy this album, I wrote it for me.”
Matt Whipkey and his band play Friday, Nov. 12, at The Jewell, 1030 Capitol Avenue. Two shows will be performed, at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, go to jewellomaha.com.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.