Combating America’s “Teenage” Angst with Kindness, Compassion

Micah Schnabel is an optimist. Fiercely.

He believes that the world can be a beautiful, loving place.

We just have to get through all the crap first.

On his new solo album, “The Teenage Years of the 21st Century,” the Ohio-based singer-songwriter dives deep into anger, apathy, the gut-punch of having to struggle to afford health care in the face of a loved one’s serious illness, the power of empathy and taking a moment to be kind when loud yelling and disagreement is the rule of the day.

“This album came out of the chaos that ensued after the election in 2016,” he said. “It felt like the world got flipped upside down and I found myself glued to the news, pacing in the kitchen, drinking way too much espresso and yelling into the void.”

After a while, he knew he needed a healthy way to process the massive impending changes in the world, so he started to write.

“Every time I heard or read something that made me want to scream, I made myself sit down and write out my argument against it,” he said. “It’ was how I’ve managed to stay mentally healthy over the last three years.”

But, again, he’s an optimist. He thinks the hard times can help shine a light on the good, if people are willing to look for it and embrace it.

“We’re surrounded by beauty and tragedy all colliding constantly. I think it’s very human to try and capture all of it,” Schnabel said. “Joy and suffering will always exist. The only human thing we can do is try and keep suffering at bay whenever possible. Bust its kneecaps with kindness whenever possible and try and make the world a better place for the generations behind us.”

There’s certainly a political bent to the music here, but it’s not all focused in one direction, but rather the generational shift that’s very apparent – and the source of plenty of struggles that many might have dealt with this week around family holiday tables.

“We’re in the midst of a generational shift, the baton is being passed and the old folks are pissed, having to hand the power over to their kids and the hand reaching out is a female fist,” he sings on the album’s second song, “Gentle Always.”

This album is the first Schnable – who’s also part of the folk punk group Two Cow Garage – has put out fully on his own, without a label, totally independent. That being said, he’s quick to point out he wasn’t alone in the album’s production or creation, thanking Mark Miller for creating “a studio from almost nothing” and Jay Gasper for housing the studio and playing guitar, pedal steel and keys. “Jay Gasper makes everything he touches better.”

This is an album of heartbreaking songs that are instantly familiar and recognizable. Struggles with family, with health, commentary on the bizarre situation along the U.S. border with Mexico, race relations, trying to get along with relatives whose worldview is the polar opposite of yours – it’s all relatable. But these are not depressing songs. They’re uplifting and heart-filling and, again, optimistic despite everything that should kill any suggestion of hoping for better.

“There can be brilliance in failure and there can be growth in pain, all human beings, we’re all basically the same,” he sings on “Remain Silent.”

“I think the songs are the best I’ve ever written,” Schnabel admits. “I feel like it’s a personal breakthrough record. The world feels wide open now.”

The world is going to see a lot more of Schnabel in 2020, as he prepares for a three-week tour opening for Frank Turner in March before returning to the U.S. He and his partner, artist Vanessa Jean Speckman, are working on booking another trip to Europe next summer.

“We’re booking everything ourselves so there are plenty of challenges ahead but I’m excited for this chapter,” he says.

Speaking of chapters, he’s also working on his second book and another new album in the new year.

Listening to this album is a very heartening view of what it’s like to be an independent musician during a very volatile time when the initial reflex for many is to either stay quiet and angry, or to get loud and close people out. Schnabel follows in the great tradition of artists who takes a look at the world, says yeah, things are awful, but we can find ways to listen to our better angels and find the hope and the light. Maybe we’ll all be OK after a while, if we take the time to be kind and gentle instead of hostile and judgmental. 

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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