by L.V. Anderson
Sometimes, Kickstarter campaigns don’t meet their funding goals — but it’s not the end of the world! In this series we explore what happens next. Up first are Dan Dzula and David Herman, the founders of Squirrel Thing Recordings. The label’s first album, How Sad, How Lovely, was a collection of songs by an obscure and enigmatic singer-songwriter named Connie Converse, who recorded in New York in the 1950s without ever finding an audience for her music. After giving up songwriting and working as an editor for several years, Connie packed up her belongings, said goodbye to her friends and family and disappeared. No one ever heard from her again, and her car and body were never found.
This fall, Dan and David created a Kickstarter to raise money for a special-edition, two-disc vinyl set of Connie’s recordings that would include specially commissioned artwork and a bound collection of Connie’s writings. After 30 days, David and Dan had gotten pledges for only $2,036 of their $15,000 goal.
L.V.: First off, who was Connie Converse?
Dan: Connie was a woman who dropped out of college and moved to New York to be a songwriter in the late ’40s, and she was in New York through the ’50s. She had a good day job, but she spent a lot of her time writing songs and a lot of her energy trying to get other artists and other musicians interested in her songs.
When you’re talking to people who don’t know her music, how do you describe it to them? What’s your little elevator spiel to describe what her music sounds like, in terms of artists that people know?
David: Our Kickstarter campaign might have been more successful if we had had that down. I guess I describe it as folk-inspired but with a Tin Pan Alley kind of flavor to it. Definitely that sort of Depression-era songwriting comes into her more so than pop music of the ‘50s.
Dan: What strikes me is how simple her songs are and often how narrative-driven they are, and also how elegant they are. Really so restrained.
David: I always thought of her as a really efficient songwriter, or an efficient lyricist. She was always really good at like making really potent lyrics, meaning that she fit the most meaning into the smallest amount of words possible.
Dan: In the ’60s, she moved to Michigan, created for herself a whole new career in academia.
David: She started as a secretary; pretty soon she was an editor of the journal there, and then she was the managing editor of the journal.
Dan: For ten years, she built this new career, and as she approached her 50th birthday in 1974, evidently she felt like she needed to move on, to try and find herself or reinvent herself or to find life somewhere else.
David: So in 1974, not very long after her 50th birthday, her brother and his family, they took a summer trip every year to a lake in Michigan, I can’t remember which one, and she decided not to go. And, as far as we know, she packed up all of her stuff and left her apartment and left a couple of goodbye letters for people that she knew. And she went away.
Dan: Her brother has accepted that she committed suicide. Within ten years after Connie’s disappearance, Phil contacted a private investigator. And, basically, the private investigator told him, “Look, I might well find your sister, but you need to know that if I find her, that doesn’t mean she’s coming back. It doesn’t even mean that she’ll talk to you.”
David: “If I find her, and she doesn’t want you to know about it, then I can’t tell you about it.”
Dan: “It’s her right to disappear.”
I didn’t know private investigators operated on that code of ethics.
David: They’re not all like that guy in The Big Lebowski.
Dan: That seems to have hit Phil Converse very heavily. That resonated, it made sense to him, that it’s her right, and since then, as a decision to disappear, he has respected that.
Tell me about your background. How did you guys meet?
Dan: David and I met at NYU. We worked on a theater piece together as co-sound designers —
David: Which we thought would come crashing to a miserable halt.
Dan: It’s funny, actually, I didn’t want to do the project. It was my college girlfriend’s theater project, and she was forcing me to work with this new guy David — or new to me — and I was just resisting… and as it turns out, I met my best friend! Anyway, since college, I’ve been working as a recording engineer and a music producer and composer, doing mostly commercials, advertising. And for a couple of short spells, we’ve worked together in the same studio. But David has had his own trajectory.
David: Oh, yeah. I was working in theater for a while, for a few years out of school, doing audio, and then wanted to start working in studios, and Dan’s studio, the place where he was working had an opening, so I worked there for a while, and now I actually work for WNYC as a sound engineer.
Connie’s music has been featured on WNYC’s “Spinning on Air.” Did [“Spinning on Air” host] David Garland find Connie’s music through you?
David: Well, we found Connie through David Garland. Not personally, we didn’t know him; we listened to the show.
Dan: So this man Gene Deitch, from Prague, he has been sort of a recording hobbyist for his whole life, and at some point maybe in the late ’90s or early aughts, his son reminded him that he had some very early John Lee Hooker tapes that he made before John Lee Hooker was signed to a label, in 1949, I think. And it was on that release that he was brought to New York by David Garland and WNYC, and they did a “Spinning on Air” special —
David: Playing Gene Deitch’s records.
Dan: — and Garland had asked him to play some more random and unique things that he had done, or recorded in the last 50 years, and yeah, she was one of those. And he talks, Gene, on that broadcast, it was in 2004, he talked about her for a minute, played her song, and that was it. And I was in the car with my brother, and it just like — dumbfounded me. And over the next several years, I was always trying to find information on her, and just couldn’t. And that was really frustrating.
You remembered her name and remembered the song and that was it?
Dan: Yeah. And then after a couple of months, I went to the WNYC website and did a very crude recording of their webstream — it wasn’t downloadable — just so I could listen to this woman’s song. It was “One by One.”
And I always wanted to know more about her, I always felt like if no one else was prepared to work with her music that perhaps I could. And I finally just got sick of never knowing, and it took me three years to — I don’t know if it was to get up the courage or what — but three years to write a letter to Gene Deitch, and he responded immediately. He was so excited to hear of my interest, and excited to hook me up with Phil Converse. And evidently this project of promoting Connie’s music has been his lifelong mission.
And so How Sad, How Lovely is the first album that you put out, correct?
I think that the story was sort of the allure. Come for the story, stay for the music!
Who do you think the audience for that album is? Do you think you generally drew people in who heard the story and then fell in love with the music the way you did, or do you think they were folk-music buffs who loved it because of its genre?
David: I think that the story was sort of the allure. Come for the story, stay for the music! I think the audience really is people that are searching out those kinds of stories. People that are interested in — what’s the word? — bizarreties. Unexplained things. Those moments of awe that people are always searching for on the Internet. That’s sort of the grail of the 21st century.
How did you come to develop the second project? This was supposed to be two-disc set with other media attached, right?
Dan: Well, over the past two years, we had received emails from people asking us when this will be available on vinyl. Some people have even said, “I will not buy this until it’s on vinyl,” which is also just a funny indicator —
Why do you think that was?
David: People are really into the experience of vinyl. And there’s a lot of crossover between the people who are really into this tactile experiential thing of playing a record and the people who are into these weirdo stories like Connie Converse. I’m sure you could do a Venn diagram —
Dan: Her music, too, the vibe of her music and the vibe of vinyl is kind of, there’s a crossover —
David: Light a candle.
Dan: So we wanted to please that one person. Or two people.
David: And we thought that it was the right way to present her music, and especially the right way to present what we envisioned as a really special collection of her music.
How many copies were you going to do?
David: We were going to do 300 copies of the special edition, two-LP set, but at the same time we wanted to run 500 copies of the first CD as a vinyl edition.
Dan: Yeah, like a straight reissue. And ultimately, that was too ambitious.
Dan: I used to think that — and this is just speculation — I think of a Kickstarter, I suspect that the more successful a project is, the more successful it will be. If you’re 80% at your goal, then someone who doesn’t really know the project might be more likely to support a project like that.
Right. Like once you get momentum going —
Dan: Whereas something hovering at 10% is less likely.
Kickstarter is such an interesting sort of alternative economy.
We chose to go about it very differently. It was like, “Here’s a story. You may know it already; you may not. And this is what we’d like to do.”
David: There are people who make all kinds of money on all kinds of bizarro stuff. There are some great projects; there was this bike-light project that makes your bicycle look like a bike from Tron. It was $250, and there were thousands of supporters.
Dan: That girl from Pomplamoose raised $120,000. Her goal was $20,000.
David: Ah, yeah yeah yeah.
Dan: I understand her appeal, and I think she’s kind of cool. But it’s just amazing that she made six times her $20,000 goal.
David: I’m really positive on Kickstarter. I think it’s great. I don’t think that the reason we didn’t get funded was the fault of Kickstarter.
So what do you think it was?
Dan: I think part of it was marketing on our behalf, because it was — well, first of all, not a thing about our project had a personal appeal. Whereas a lot of Kickstarter projects I’ve seen are very personal.
David: Like a guy in a video saying, “Blah blah blah.”
Dan: Right, it wasn’t like, “Hi, it’s me! This is what I want to do. Help me!” We chose to go about it very differently. It was like, “Here’s a story. You may know it already; you may not. And this is what we’d like to do.”
David: Also, I think in general the market for music by people who are no longer around to play their music is very different from that of people who are like bands touring or something like that. You know, fans jump in on a different kind of involvement, a different level of involvement.
It seems like today people almost expect to be able to interact with the musicians they like on Twitter and whatever.
Dan: I have friends in bands on Kickstarter that are basically auctioning off dates with the singers of their bands.
David: A date with Connie Converse would be amazing.
Oh, I wanted to talk about — one of the rewards you offered, which was a visit to her apartment. Where is her apartment and how did you find it?
Dan: Well, she had — three?
David: Yeah, she had three addresses in New York.
Dan: She basically was moving from the West Village to Hell’s Kitchen, I think, and then up to Harlem, or Morningside Heights, through the decade.
David: Yeah. Because she sent her songs to the U.S. copyright office. She got copyright on a lot of her songs. And there was a registered address on her copyright.
Oh, so that’s how you found out.
David: Yeah, and that also gave us the chronology of where she was living over a handful of years, maybe five or six years we have those records. We have a record that her landlord sent to the, whatever, the New York City housing office. I think she was paying sixty-some-odd dollars a month for her apartment in the West Village. Which apparently was still a lot of money.
So a visit to her apartment was the closest you could get to offering a date with Connie Converse?
Dan: Right. That was the thinking.
What would you do differently if you were going to do it again?
David: What we would have done and what we are now planning to do is scale it down a lot. Not necessarily in terms of — we don’t want to scale down the quality of the materials, just the scope of the release. We’re doing a smaller run and trying to find some ways to maybe make the book a little smaller, not as many pages in the booklet, maybe print the cover, what’s going to be the folio enclosure in a different way to make it a little less expensive, and try to find partners who will want to do a co-release maybe.
Dan: That’s the thing, too. The money we were asking for was basically for us to produce it entirely ourselves. And so now we’re considering taking partners.
David: I think, maybe naively so, I envisioned Kickstarter as an interesting presales kind of platform, but also, an ask your customers what they want and respond accordingly sort of a thing? Whereas it’s not that businesslike. It’s not set up to be that… Straightforward isn’t the right word —
David: Yeah, transactional, exactly. It’s set up to make you feel like you’re part of a big group of friends.
How did you decide on the name Squirrel Thing for your label?
David: It’s a line from one of her songs.
Why that lyric; why that song?
David: Well, it was one of the first ones that we heard. I mean, “One by One” was the first song that we heard, but “Talkin’ Like You” was a crowd favorite among her friends and family.
David: And it’s so peculiar.
What do you think it means? Is she just talking about an animal that’s like a squirrel in a tree?
Dan: Yeah, yeah. But cheekier, it’s like flippant.
David: The song is also very bubbly and very quintessentially Connie, in the sense that the tone belies the meaning. It has a kind of bouncy thing going on, but it’s really about these two people who love each other but can’t stand each other. It’s sort of a theme going on. The actual “squirrel thing” is, I think, a metaphor that she’s using, or an image that she’s using, that has a lot more than that wrapped up in it. But how many other people would have found something to rhyme with “quarreling” and said, “Ah, yes. Squirrel thing!”
Dan: Yeah, we really liked the image of it, we liked its poetic nature, and we thought it would be fitting to use it as a tribute to Connie.
David: Yeah, we don’t necessarily want to be, like, all Connie Converse, all the time.
Dan: Yeah. We want to do other things.
David: But we don’t necessarily feel the need to do a bajillion projects. At this point, we’ve done a record a year. And that’s maybe not the speed that I’d like to be going ultimately, but it is what it is.
What other kinds of projects do you want to do going forward?
David: Personally, I’d prefer to do the kind of projects that you stumble on, like Connie Converse. Things that would otherwise get forgotten about or tossed aside.
Dan: Yeah, whether it has been overlooked or not, I’m looking for projects that have a compelling story. I think generally we’re looking in the realm of a rerelease.
The untold, forgotten stories.
David: You know, the 21st-century Holy Grail. It’s our version of sailing across the ocean or finding the North Pole.
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