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Some artists hide behind the scrim of creative license, contending that even the bloodiest confessions are the mere fabric of fictional conceit. Names are changed to protect the guilty. Catastrophic experiences are shared by imaginary characters. And everything else is coincidental. Bob Dylan, in his 2004 memoir, implied that his 1974 classic Blood on the Tracks, widely assumed to be about his divorce, was in fact based on Chekhov.

It took less than half a pint of Belgian wheat beer to get the skinny from Shannon McArdle. By the time I sludge through the rain to our recent date at the Commonwealth bar in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the singer-songwriter already has a significant jump on me, happily tippling a Heffeweisen as she sat at the booth closest to the joint’s most excellent indie-rock jukebox. Introductions are made, the evening wet shaken off, and a Stoli-O-and-Tonic later, I joined McArdle at her post. Her wheaty refreshment nearly depleted, she was more than ready to spill. The Athens-gone-to-Brooklyn performer had no qualms when she admitted that the tortured tales on her debut solo album, Summer of the Whore (Bar/None), are explicitly inspired by the unexpected collapse of her marriage during the winter of 2007. One day her husband of two years, Tim Bracy, with whom she had performed since 2000 as a member of the indie-rock outfit the Mendoza Line, up and left. To add injury to insult, McArdle was tripped on her way into a subway one day, took a plunge down the stairs, and was rushed to an emergency room. “I had a lump on my back the size of a watermelon,” she said. Luckily, it was only two herniated discs, not a broken back. But what could more aptly symbolize the feeling of “hitting bottom” than actually hitting bottom?

shannonmcardle_credit_sonyakolowrat1Recording Summer of the Whore became a process of emotional exorcism and redemption. And, despite its provocative title, less an anthem to abandon than a rueful reminiscence. The idea came when Ms. McArdle, 31, and former Mendoza Line drummer Adam Gold, likewise newly single, began collaborating on tracks she had quickly written in the wake of the break-up. Afternoon meetings over margaritas would find “one if not both of us looking pretty rough,” McArdle said. “Adam came up with it first. He’d ask, ‘Were you a whore last night?’”

McArdle, a native of Albany, Georgia who fell in with the Mendoza Line while attending the University of Georgia in Athens in the late 1990s, had a definitively Southern lilt to her voice and sat with a certain poise that would befit, say, a schoolteacher. As it turned out, she works two jobs as an instructor of English as second language. But the racy album title isn’t entirely a joke. “It makes sense when you listen to it,” she said. “It’s not derogatory or in your face. I was doing everything out of desperation, trying to feel somewhat secure and somewhat confident, somewhat content and somewhat preoccupied. I think it’s quite appropriate.”

Stylistically, the album’s succinct song cycle rarely veers into nail-spitting Lucinda Williams territory, even though Ms. McArdle shares an affinity for country-rock textures and literary constructions. The melancholy undertow of the opening “Poison My Cup” could belong to an early ’70s MOR ballad. Meanwhile, the tasteful percussive accents, muted twang, and breathy upper-register choral notes of “Paint the Walls,” which is the album’s most direct song about suddenly living alone, could easily serve a jazz singer.

“The record is not supposed to be nasty or even insulting,” McArdle, talking while some vintage punk rock blared from the jukebox, said. “Although there are moments of that. I don’t want revenge. I just wanted to make a record and this was the only thing I could conjure up. It’s not meant to be a slap in the face. It makes me very nervous that I made this record and it’s getting all this press and I think, oh, now I’m going to hear from him. I didn’t want that. I just wanted to make a record that came out as something very personal. This record is just all me. I don’t need to hide behind it.” Nonetheless, like such kindred spirits as Neko Case, Kelly Hogan or the Handsome Family, McArdle reached back into the mountain ballad tradition to find a relevant parable to convey her personal experiences. “That Night in June,” beyond the shimmer of its slow waltz tempo and McArdle’s dreamy vocals, is laced with horror. “It’s about a woman who was drowned by her true love,” she explained. “This man drowns his bride and goes on this journey of self-loathing, but it turns out he has no conscience and he’s just a murderer. The woman dies, but there’s a rebirth of all these incarnations of the woman.”

If the process was meant to be therapeutic, it certainly worked. As she talks, McArdle gives the impression of someone who is unsinkable as a magic homemade fishing lure. Sure, it gets hauled down into the brackish deep, but eventually it bobs back to the surface, usually with a big catch in tow. So what if sometimes it’s just an old shoe. It’s the unsinkable part that counts. “For months, I didn’t know if I was going to write music again. Or not as a solo artist. I felt paralyzed. I wasn’t doing much. I had long work days and the bills were stacking up because I suddenly was faced with twice the expenses – which is what happens when your partner leaves you. So I was working these long hours, still am.” After months of moping, McArdle snapped into focus and wrote the entire album in about three weeks. “I knew there was something festering in me and it wouldn’t take long. The record just spewed out of me. I knew exactly when it was done. Glenn [Morrow, Bar/None head] asked me to add a few songs, and I said, ‘This is an album.’ It’s 30 minutes, but it’s a very hefty 30 minutes. I like short songs, short albums.”

If it’s too short, I suggested, you could play it twice.

Image“I feel completely satisfied with a 30-minute record,” she said. “Elvis Costello had it right with these under-two-minute songs. I felt the same way about this record. Probably for me, it’s that I don’t enjoy playing any instruments. I compose on guitar and I play guitar. But I don’t want to play guitar any longer than I have to. So when the song’s done it’s done.”

The pints came and went. The jukebox settled on some tracks from Television’s Marquee Moon. And our conversation detoured into neighborhood lore. McArdle wondered why we hadn’t talked about an adjacent dive called Timboo’s – one of the select beer-for-breakfast joints in a rapidly yuppiefying part of Brooklyn that once had been the preserve of Irish and Italian immigrants.

“I’ve never gone into Timboo’s, but one of these days,” McArdle said. I tell her about a friend of mine, a real alcoholic burnout, who often scored weak cocaine at the bar, before he ended up on nearly everyone’s shit list.

“It’s quite a crowd in there,” she agreed.

“I think there’s some old Irish gang world that still abides, like a ghost,” I said. “The ‘Boo’ thing is part of the old lingo.”

“My father’s from Ireland,” she said, “and he moved here in the late ’60s. All of his nicknames for us end in ‘Bo.’ My sister’s name is Karrie, so she’s KayKay-Bo, and when I was still with Tim he was Timbo Bimbo. That was not meant to be insulting. Everything ends in ‘Bo.’”

“I guess that carried over to this establishment,” I said. “I don’t think they’d be mean to you. There’s a whole bunch of great old man bars in this neighborhood. I don’t know how those old guys are still holding up.”

“People are living longer these days.”

“There was this poor guy. He lived above the bar called Jackie’s Fifth Amendment, which is like the most hardcore of all the old man bars. He needed help getting from his door to the bar, which was literally not even three feet away. He really needed a drink. I felt bad for him. But he was where he needed to be.”

“It worked out!”

As the vodka began to flow through my bloodstream, I became curious about something McArdle had told me.

“They call you ‘Snowflake’?”

“They called me ‘Snowflake’ and it was very sweet.”

“Little old Jamaican ladies?”

“No, African-American men. It didn’t bother me at all. I thought, I AM the only white person here. They’re just calling it as they see it, no problem.”

“I think it’s better that they call you ‘Snowflake’ than me.”

“It suits me better. I’m fine with it.”

McArdle, the artist sometimes known as ‘Snowflake’ to her neighbors in Prospect Heights, has clearly gotten her groove back.

Even her ESL students, many of whom are Mexican and African, have taken notice when the occasional interview appears. Although, as might be expected, some things are lost in translation. “They’ll come in, saying ‘Teacher you didn’t tell me!’” McArdle, grinning, said. “‘What is Summer of the Whore’”?

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