The Making of Bug Eyes, pt. 1

Album cover: Sketch of young woman holding a splotches of color to her nose. 
Words at top: Bug Eyes (title)
Words at bottom: Bailey Merlin and Richie Smith
The cover art was done by our friend Elizabeth Noble.

As a preamble, I want you to know that Richie Smith and I released an honest-to-god spoken word/ambient jazz album on November 17. You can purchase it or you can stream it, whichever will go a long way in supporting us. In many ways, Bug Eyes is the sort of emotionally grounded art I wanted to consume when I was younger, and it blows my mind that I now get to make it. 

In 2015, I wrote the best short story I think I’ve ever written. It needed work, but it had a heart core that made me homesick, which told me that I had tapped into something “good.” It was that fundamental goodness that made me want to keep working with it. When friends read it, they would tell me how lovely the piece was. I was confident in the world that I had created.  

Over the next three years, it would be rejected by over forty journals. 

After each major round of denial, I would take “Bug Eyes” back to the drawing board and think critically about what it was I wanted my main character to achieve. There was a lot of rearranging and deleting and adding. There was a major love story component tacked on towards the end of the original draft that I nixed because it didn’t have enough time to develop. I dearly miss a wedding scene in which a twister tears off the roof of a reception hall, destroying everything except for the cake, which is found intact five miles away in someone’s front lawn. A big part of writing is removing things you love because you know they don’t work. 

The distillation process is hard, but there was never once a moment where I thought the story was bad. In fact, as time went on and the story changed and began to resonate more strongly with readers, I stopped submitting it to small journals. I wanted it to be in The Missouri Review or Ploughshares so it could be read by a large audience. “Bug Eyes” almost got picked up by one such titan (they requested some rewrites) before being passed over yet again. After that, I stopped writing for a while. My confidence was shot. 

On January 1, 2020, I met Richie. We went on our first date two weeks later and talked at length about our own passions and the long, heartbreaking paths we had been down. There was a difference between us: he had been in a touring band, was an award-winning musician, and cared more about his craft than anyone I’d ever met. 

After our date, he requested that we trade work. I sent him a poem that had been published the year before and he sent me his album Fallout. From jump, I was stunned by his artistry, listening to sorrow, rage, peace, the animation of soul with such reverence. It was quite unlike anything I’d ever experienced with new music. By the end of it, I was embarrassed. Richie had sent me a piece of his heart, and I’d sent him a poem that had taken an hour to write. 

To my surprise, he requested to not only read more but to read one of my short stories.

For a lot of writers, this sharing of work can be a kind of courtship. What do you send someone when you’re a fiction writer, especially if you work in long form? You don’t want to throw a book chapter at someone you just met, and you definitely don’t want to send something too navel-gazey. In the end, I sent him the only short story I’d ever been confident in: “You don’t have to read it. It’s kinda long.”

A little over an hour later, he texted: “Can I call you? I need to talk about this.”

We talked about “Bug Eyes” for three hours. We talked about characters, about the sound of scent, about life influencing art, about growing up in the South, about how places shape a person. 

Richie experiences synesthesia, which manifests in him as seeing colors when he hears music. During that three hour conversation, he told me that he saw blues and greens when he read my story. Without prompting, he asked if he could compose a piece to go with it. At first, I thought, “Wow, this kid’s got game.” Then as time went on and he played bits and pieces for me, I knew two things were true: 1) he had read “Bug Eyes” and 2) it had actually resonated with him.

When the quarantine hit Boston in late March, the discussion of collaborating turned serious. Besides, what else were we going to do with our time with the threat of a virus looming over us? We had everything we needed to record, so what was stopping us from making an album? 

I made a fresh copy of the short story, read it out loud to get a feel for my work again. Then I helped Richie lug his equipment into the Bond House. With a nearly empty house, we had the space, the quiet, and the time we needed. I stood in the dining room in front of a mic; Richie stood across from me in the living room, a litany of pedals at his feet. 

Then it all sort of happened.

The first take was rushed, done in only twenty-five minutes. We sat down after, talked about what had gone right, and agreed that taking our time and allowing the guitar and story more space would benefit our flow. 

We resumed our positions, took some deep breaths, and then we tried again. This time, it was easier to listen to Richie, to understand where to come in–it was a dance. 49 minutes later, we stood in the static of his amp, and the guitar looped through a pedal and into infinity. When we looked at one another, our eyes were wet.

bam

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