Matt Whipkey is saying goodnight to the girl of his dreams – the one named Penny, who tapped into Omaha’s collective memories of summers’ past.
His 2013 double-album Penny Park: Omaha, NE: Summer 1989 played as a nostalgia trip that stretched Whipkey’s songwriting into new shapes. Arguably, it was a high water mark for one of Omaha’s best-known local rock musicians.
But for Whipkey, the creation and release of Penny Park served as a mix of a distraction and an avoidance of his own personal life. In writing the constructed narrative of Omaha nights more than two decades ago, he put his own personal story on the songwriting backburner.
As his last long term relationship unstitched, Whipkey instead sewed together the story of Penny.
“I didn’t take time to process what was going on with me,” Whipkey says.
Now, there is no constructed narrative. There’s no nostalgia. There are no vestiges of an iconic amusement park tethering Whipkey to Omaha’s historical fabric.
There are no summer nights or radio dedications; there are no teenagers or English class sonnets.
And there’s no Penny Park.
There’s just Matt Whipkey’s Underwater, his new LP. The topic this time is Whipkey and his recent life, all sorted out in the liner notes.
“I realized that this is just a record about me,” Whipkey says.
While not being a fan of journal-type lyricism, Whipkey says he found himself writing about personal things more on Underwater. He sought to include more acoustic-led songwriter showcases on the album too.
“I definitely can wallow with the best of them,” Whipkey says. “But I don’t want to do that too much.”
There are a few songs that pair what Whipkey calls “bummer lyrics” with upbeat arrangements. It’s a contrast Whipkey particularly enjoys.
Whipkey wrote most of Underwater while 32. At 33, he says he already appreciates the critical distance that an extra year has given him from the topics in the songs. Of the relationship songs, Whipkey says “Dreams of Kathleen” digs most directly at those feelings.
“It’s interesting to hear my perspective a year ago,” he says. “Putting it out now my perspective is a little bit different now but it’s still an accurate perspective.”
Whipkey says the 10-song album has also been influenced specifically by how it works on the two-sided vinyl format that he’s releasing Underwater on.
“I think in terms of sides now when I write records. I always thought in terms of sequences but now I definitely think in terms of sides. Ideally you need 18 minutes.” “If you think of it like that, it’s not so daunting.”
It’s putting Whipkey in a mindset that takes him back to the sort of conversations he’d have in the Antiquarium Records basement with owner Dave Sink. The two would verbally joust over weighty matters like “what’s the best Side Two of all time?”
At the time, Sink’s choice was Bob Dylan’s Bringin’ It All Back Home. For Whipkey, Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is his Side Two pick.
“It’s a great way to think of music,” he says.
Whipkey recorded the album at Scott Gaeta’s studio. Gaeta and Whipkey crafted half of the tracks together. A few line-up changes led to those songs, as Whipkey wanted to get songs recorded soon after writing them.
“I wasn’t stopping my writing,” Whipkey says.
The arrangements stick Whipkey’s steady rock beats into a heartland rock groove, with serpentine lines of Hammond B-3 coloring in the margins of many of the songs, especially on the standout “NTW”.
To help promote the album, Whipkey has also shot a schoolhouse video for the title track at St. Joan of Arc Grade School. It serves also has an entry to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest.
Aside from influencing Whipkey’s own back-to-vinyl movement, the success of Penny Park aided the creation of the new album.
Both were pressed using funds generated through a Kickstarter online crowd-funding campaign. Whipkey raised $5900 to make Penny Park and another $5446 to press Underwater.
Whipkey says the key to his success with Kickstarter has been presenting the campaigns with quality reward levels. The best bet is to approach it like an album pre-sale.
“There’s a way to do it well,” he says.
Meanwhile, the two vinyl album pressings have also taught Whipkey a good deal of savvy on looking at the costs and options for the record runs.
Penny Park originally came out as a vinyl-only album, with the CD version released later. This time, Underwater will be offered on both formats, as well as a digital download.
Penny Park’s success hinged on an overarching story that played off the history of the long since closed Peony Park amusement park at 78th and Cass streets.
“I was aware it had an angle that we could tap into,” he says.
It was also a new songwriting approach that guided the songwriting. Whipkey says there was a bit of readjustment as he began writing regular songs again.
Once the focus returned to Whipkey’s real life, the songs poured out, he says.
“All of these songs can from the specific place of not trying to write songs,” Whipkey says.
Whipkey says he didn’t even take notice to self-edit or pull back on what he was sharing of his personal life on the new songs.
“I didn’t stop to think what they were about. I just let them happen,” Whipkey says.
Among that flow of songs is a full-band tribute to local music fan Gary Flanagan, who passed away in 2013. It’s a song that popped out on a night out in January 2014, as Whipkey realized the year anniversary of Flanagan’s passing. The song came together in about an hour.
“I felt something and it just happened,” he says.
Drummer Scott “Zip” Zimmerman, who also knew Flanagan very well, immediately responded to the song. Whipkey says that’s his ultimate seal of approval.
The track, named after Flanagan, trades the closed places of Penny Park’s narrative with the current places that Flanagan frequented to catch live music, jumping from Benson’s Barley St. Tavern and the Waiting Room Lounge to O’Leaver’s Pub.
The connection to a shared friend took hold with the entire band, rendering the track’s performances just a little bit more inspired, Whipkey says.
“It’s hard not to be when it’s about something so close to home,” he says.
Matt Whipkey plays a CD/LP release show for Underwater Friday, February 20 at the Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St. John Klemmensen and The Party & Kait Berreckman Band will also play this 9 p.m. show.