Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he studied English and music and trained as an opera singer. In 2018, he released his debut record, “First Thing Tomorrow,” a collection of 10 original, pop/rock songs.
Not your average introduction. This is not an average story.
In ‘Talking to Myself’ you sing ‘the sun goes down, we are another day closer to dying’. You told me this song is about you talking yourself through this project. What was this project about, for you? And how important was it to finish?
A 48-year-old sports writer putting out a debut record requires some explanation, I know. But there’s only so much I can explain. On one level, this project was the culmination of a life immersed in music, from the piano lessons as a kid, which I quit after a couple of years like everyone; to my music studies at Vanderbilt, where I trained as an opera singer, but was always more drawn to the theory/composition classes; to my dabbling at guitar and piano as an adult, with an occasional sit-in gig with a friend’s band (my crazy day job precluded anything more serious) and lots of drunken hootenanny jams; and of course, to my years spent as an active, insatiable and analytical listener of music.
But on a deeper level – and this is where “Talking To Myself” comes in – it was about challenging myself to take on something I’ve always dreamed of doing (but maybe doubted that I could do well), and seeing it through. I always figured I would try this at some point, but when you get to a certain age, you wake up and realize “some point” needs to be right freaking now. There wasn’t one big event or epiphany, that got me to that point. It was more like a slow dawning. I certainly wish it had happened earlier in life, but I refuse to grant myself the cop-out of saying I missed my calling. As the lyric goes, “There are no callings in life / There’s only what you have the guts to try.” I didn’t have the guts – or the wherewithal — to try it at 18 or 28 or 38.
In the song, you hear the speaker talking to someone as if encouraging them to “follow through or it dies,” and hopefully it sounds sort of inspirational. But by the bridge (“Mirror mirror on the wall behind the bar / Who’s the loneliest by far”), you realize it’s just some guy talking to himself in a bar. In a way, that’s its own sort of cop-out: he spends two verses going all carpe diem on you, but by the end he’s resigned to saying he’ll get to it “someday.” It just seemed more rock-n-roll to do it that way, instead of the opposite. But I know what it meant to me.
The meaning of ‘success’ has changed over the years. When will the new record be a success?
Honestly, just making a real, actual piece of art for the first time in my life, then putting the thing out and having some people listen to it and like it is all the success I needed or wanted. I would have loved to have made back my expenses, but it seems as if that ship has sailed, from a standpoint of people paying for music. (It’s been interesting, by the way, to be involved in two industries – newspapers and music – where the economic model has collapsed due largely to the misguided belief from consumers that online content should be free.) I also would love it if someone saw this and thought, “If this over-the-hill chump-ass sports writer can make a record like this, I can pull off my dream project.” But that doesn’t seem to actually happen in real life, so I’m not counting on it.
Andy Bopp is producing. What’s the story?
I met Andy Bopp through my good friend, the Baltimore-based Americana legend Andrew Grimm, who fronts a band called June Star and is the best songwriter I know. Bopp and Grimm have been playing in each other’s bands for years. Having them both involved was perfect for me, since Bopp’s power pop genius and Grimm’s Americana chops were like the yin and yang of my musical sensibilities. Being in the studio with these two, plus J. Robbins, the legendary D.C. hardcore guitarist/singer/songwriter (Jawbox, Burning Airlines, et al.) who also co-produced and mixed it, was an incredible experience for me.
I never set out to make a power pop record. They were just songs that I thought were pretty good, but I wasn’t hearing a defined, distinctive sound like that. But circumstances led to Bopp becoming the primary producer, and he was like a mad scientist in the studio. We triple-tracked most of the vocals, and Bopp added touches like the “It’s Getting Better,” one-note guitar lick in “City You Left Behind” and some classic-pop percussion. It totally indulged that side of my sensibilities, and I was completely on board. I was thrilled with how it came out. But when we were finished, I was kind of like: Welp, I think we made a power pop record.
You are a writer. Have you always been writing songs?
No, not at all. I went through periods when I dabbled at it, but I never stuck with it. I just resigned myself to the notion I was good at telling other people’s stories in the newspaper but terrible at telling my own in song. Then, maybe four years ago, I built myself a music “lounge” in my basement and started to apply myself to songwriting. I think it’s essential to carve out both the mental and the physical space for yourself to be able to tap into the creative side, and until then I had neither. I still found it incredibly hard to write a good song, but nothing had ever felt more rewarding to me, including writing a book.
Are people, who know you from work, surprised when they hear your music?
Yes and no. I didn’t tell many people about the project – just enough to where there was pressure on me to see it through. But nobody at the newspaper knew until a few days before the record was coming out. My bosses could not have reacted any better. My sports editor was one of the first people to buy it on the day it came out – and then his wife did, too.
At the same time, in my professional circles, my musical ability has always been viewed a cool novelty, and I was well-known, or perhaps infamous, for assaulting hotel-lobby pianos at any major sporting event until security was inevitably called to shut me down. These episodes have led to some epic stories, such as the time Tommy Lasorda sang along with me to Louis Prima songs, and when Dusty Baker tipped me a $50 after Game 6 of the 2002 World Series.
She tells you she will decide on a 5-song-mixtape if there is going to be a second date. Which 5 would you put on?
You’re an evil person, Patrick, for limiting this to five songs. But with that said, and keeping in mind the stated mission of securing a second date, I’ll line it up like this:
Waterloo Sunset, The Kinks
Fruits of My Labor, Lucinda Williams
Things, Paul Westerberg
Take It With Me, Tom Waits
My One and Only Love, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
How will you promote First Thing Tomorrow?
I’ve always been terrible at self-promotion, and that’s doubly so when it comes to my music. So basically, there will be zero promotion. I don’t have the time or even the desire to play out. We talked about doing one record release show, but two months later we still haven’t gotten that off the ground. I’ve sent the record around to some radio stations, blogs, and what-have-you, and WTMD in Baltimore (my favorite station) played “Talking To Myself” for about a month, which was just about the coolest thing ever for me.
But I already have a possible second record maybe 60-70 percent written, and my only goal here is to convince myself — through positive feedback, encouragement of friends and maybe a few more download sales – to do it again. Otherwise, you’ll see me back at that bar, talking to myself.