Happiness isn't as simple as hitting a Pick 3 at the racetrack: Dave Simonett had a nice house, beautiful family and a successful job leading upstart bluegrass sensations Trampled by Turtles. What happens when you have everything you want and still feel unsatisfied? Life, like great art, requires honesty, so he left and shoveled the smoldering embers into Furnace, his second album by side project Dead Man Winter.
"It could be called a midlife crisis," the 36-year-old Simonett says, driving home to Minneapolis from a show at a friend's new record store an hour south. "I know a lot of people in their early or mid 30s who got divorced or had a drastic career change. It's a bitch, kind of like going through puberty all over again. You're confused and everything is wrong."
Unlike the boisterous bounce of his bluegrass main gig (on temporary hiatus for the moment), Furnace lingers like a cold front. The spare and spacious sound recalls the parched country hum of Neil Young and the somber lurching ache of Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon), as Simonett spills his guts like a stomach wound.
"This house is on fire," he sings on the opening track of the same name, "and I'm not getting out. It's not made to last, I'm not afraid to say. I dwell in the past and drink to delay."
"Everything I had was pretty great. Nobody would want to ruin that. People do all the time, but I don't think anybody wants to," he says. "It was a really great lesson in where happiness and contentment does or doesn't come from. Just because all the conditions look right on paper doesn't make it right inside.
Channeling those emotions into the music wasn't an easy process. Simonett wrote and recorded an entire album, and even had it mastered, before deciding to shelve it and try again.
"I wasn't unhappy with anything specific, but the thing as a whole just wasn't sitting right with me," he says. "Some of the same songs we redid in a different way, and then I wrote a bunch of new stuff. I think I just needed more space for the chaotic experience and the recording."
The album closes with "You Are Out of Control," a dreamy, largely instrumental tune that recalls early Pink Floyd, and emerged in a single take from a few barely sketched chords and a rhythm.
"There is some magic that doesn't happen every time, but that you can attain the first time you play a song," he says. "It went exactly where I was hoping for it to go — even expecting it to go — but I don't think we could've done it again."
Simonett might say the same about the last couple years.
"Working in the arts in any way, that's kind of the constant struggle or the constant goal — to always be who you really are and trying to figure that out all the way," Simonett says. "It's a painful process. It's definitely not without casualties."