Warren Zanes is getting a divorce. That would be a crackpot opening line if his new album,“I Want to Move Out in the Daylight,” weren’t a full-tilt explication of the wreckage. It’s also a smart, lean pop record that arrives nearly three decades after Zanes joined his brother Dan for a few glory years in the Del Fuegos. Today he’s a single parent with a PhD and a pair of master’s degrees, the resume of a rock brainiac (former Vice President of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, current Executive Director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation), and an under-the-radar solo career. We spoke on the phone while Zanes was driving to court-ordered parenting class.
Q: How are you, Doctor?
A: I’m okay. Sorry, all hell is breaking loose at the job.
Q: We can reschedule if you’re in a crisis.
A: It’s only a crisis if I allow it to become one.
Q: Okay, I’ll be surgical. Your new record came out yesterday, right?
A: You know, it’s such a different age. It’s almost like an arbitrary point on the calendar as opposed to when boxes ship. The album has been in my life for awhile. I think it might have been released yesterday.
Q: There wasn’t a parade, then.
A: I took my boys up to Maine and did a house party playing solo this weekend. If there was a parade, that was it.
Q: Tell me about the album. I have to say the title blows my mind.
A: I euphemistically call it a midlife record, but really it’s midlife as triggered by divorce. I was unambiguous in letting it all hang out there. There didn’t seem to be any point in hiding behind figurative language. And part of me thought that there’s so many people who go through divorce and given the degree to which it shakes your life up, I’m surprised that there aren’t a greater number of conversations.
Q: I think there’s some kind of stigma, especially in pop music, attached to addressing adult issues.
A: John Prine always felt like somebody who got it, as far back as “Hello in There” [from 1971], a song about saying hello to old people. It struck me when I was younger that it took the pop song into territory that just is not typically associated with it. A more current example that’s really been striking to me is Nick Lowe. Odd to think that he’s a revolutionary just by virtue of the fact that he addresses his current life.
Q: The burdens and responsibilities of midlife are in some ways at odds with an artistic life, but in spite of that, or maybe because of that, it’s also a gold mine. There’s a way of burrowing in, I think, where it becomes a resource and not just a distraction.
A: I had an experience when I was putting a fence in my yard, and I started to realize that half the adult population was walking around with their divorce story tucked somewhere in their brain. This guy — from the outside he looked like a bit of a brute and in our conversation he’s a real simple, working class guy — he and I were talking about the fence. And I was at that point where I was just kind of hemorrhaging the facts of my life. At some point the fence guy just stopped his work and told me his divorce story. Like, the whole thing. And he gave me some of the best advice that I’d gotten about how to deal with conflict and stuff. Now this guy wasn’t like me. He wasn’t walking around feeling the need to tell everybody his story. But the moment presented itself and he shared his story. To me, making the record was the equivalent of what the fence guy did, because we both went away feeling a little bit better. You can go into isolation with this kind of stuff. And when you go into isolation it gets worse. But if you start to look out into the world and go, “Shit, half the people here have been through something really close to what I’m going through,” a good percentage of that fifty percent really has a grasp on it.
To kind of be out there with it is the thing that I came to. There’s a way to talk about this without demonizing your former partner. And hopefully I achieved that without hiding facts of what caused the pain. I just think there’s a responsibility to put it out there, because if you don’t put it out there the next person can’t identify with you and through that feel less isolated.
Q: You were in a band that had some success and then that went away. I’m curious about how that impacted your identity as an artist.
A: The truth is, when it comes to my identity as an artist, I don’t need a lot. I got my little taste of success, enough so that I learned that it’s never enough when you head down that road, and if you chase it your life gets smaller and smaller. So I stopped thinking like that at a certain point, not through any virtuous mentality. I was getting more glory from other things. And I wasn’t asking that of music. I was satisfied with what I had. But it took this pressure off music. The primary thing was the satisfaction of seeing songs that I’d written, authentic expressions, produced as recordings. After I made this record, I just kind of put it on a shelf and it sat there for months because I had other stuff to attend to. When I was 18 years old and I was waiting for a Del Fuegos record to come out, it was like it was taking forever because I wanted it to change my life. I wanted it to make things different. So now here I am at 46 and I’m satisfied having made the record. I’m not asking it to change my life. So it’s a dramatic shift for me. And again, don’t chalk this up to the category of the virtuous. It’s not.