By Jillian Dawson
When Marc emailed me to write about Brian Vander Ark, I admittedly had no idea who he was. I thought this was another of Marc’s hidden gems in the local music scene – another crazy talented musician overlooked amid cover bands and Mile of Music-promoted acts. Turns out, he was a bit bigger than that: a simple Google search listed Vander Ark as the lead singer/songwriter from the Verve Pipe with a little song you might remember called “The Freshmen.”
I was eleven in 1997 when the single from their album Villains hit the airwaves, peaking at number five on the Billboard charts. Eleven is an age where the inklings of personal musical taste begin outside of your parents’ influence (at least for me it was). Back then, I had a collection of mix tapes full of songs from the radio, a blank cassette waiting in my boom box to record my favorites, commercials and radio announcers cutting into the final fadeout or the first few bars of the song. I remember watching MTV in the mornings before school, putting faces to the voices on my mix tapes, idolizing Ginger Spice and Nina Persson from the Cardigans. At that time, “The Freshmen” video was in heavy rotation and is one I’ve seen more times than I can count. I recently re-watched it with a smile, the quintessential ‘90s video: Flickering lightbulb – check. Moody lighting – check. Perfectly styled bleached rock star hair – check. The sidebar of suggested videos brought up the Wallflowers, Fiona Apple, Marcy Playground and Soul Asylum. The usual suspects, all songs you could belt out at karaoke but most likely didn’t know much about aside from their singles.
The life of a song is a rollercoaster of love, overexposure and nostalgia. These songs remain present in our psyche, familiarity creeping up when we hear the song on the radio or it comes on in the bar. “Oh god, remember this song?” you shout at your best friend over the crowd. Suddenly you’re both dramatically singing along (“FOR THE LIFE OF ME!”) gesturing wildly (“I CANNOT REMEMBER!”) with outstretched fingers (“WE WERE MERELY FRESHMEN!”). I think it’s easy to think of a song as its own entity apart from the people who wrote and recorded the song. What happens to the artists when the sparkle fades?
My research on Vander Ark sent me down a rabbit hole of information and borderline obsession with five tabs open in my browser: his website, interviews, a steady stream of various musical projects playing in the background and a particularly sweet appearance on “Failure Lab” discussing the rise and fall of the Verve Pipe.
For the record, the Verve Pipe released five additional albums since Villains, none of which have matched the triumph of their successor. Oddly enough, two of these releases are family albums with songs about waking up, suppertime and my personal favorite, a rock anthem about cereal. Along with four of his own solo albums, Vander Ark has recorded a collection of covers as well as collaborated on a recent release, Simple Truths, with Jeff Daniels.
While the Verve Pipe still perform together, what is especially of note is Vander Ark’s unorthodox approach to booking personal appearances. By creating Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms, Vander Ark has opened a whole new experience to his fans who book him to play shows in their own homes across the country.
Breakfast food-related power ballads and house gigs aside, my favorite thing about Vander Ark has been his willingness to share his professional journey. In addition to his musicianship, his credits on his website include ‘speaker,’ his press pack stating, “Brian shares his story through a very humble, dynamic and special way, helping live audiences throughout the world find it in themselves to keep moving, adapting and changing.”
I think about the way so-called “one hit wonders” are perceived, thought of as something rather sad and somehow unintentionally diminishing all the other amazing and creative things that have come from those phantom fifteen minutes. Perhaps the level of success Vander Ark has achieved is something most of us can only dream of, but the message that he portrays is accessible to anyone whose linear path didn’t exactly follow where they expected it to.
I had a moment a while back, wiping away drink picks and cherry stems from the bar top at close, when a song came on from (ironically) my freshman year. Instantly I was taken back to the bus stop, walkman in hand, steadying it from skipping as I hurried to the corner, always running late. How strange is it I never considered where I would be when I heard that song at twenty or thirty. I didn’t think too much about that sort of thing then. So in 1997, swimming at Erb Park Pool, “The Freshmen” played in the background, another song I didn’t consider as a part of my future self. And now, at thirty (and admittedly in my own bit of a rut) I found a spark in the words of Brian Vander Ark – not in his music, but his own personal story.
That’s the thing about the life of a song – it never actually dies. I can’t wait to see where they all lead.
Brian Vander Ark performs at Rock Garden Studio Thursday January 5th at 7pm.
For more information on Brian Vander Ark, visit www.brianvanderark.com