Honest Art: A One Question Interview with Peter Squires

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“I am, for better or worse, a bit of an over-sharer who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve, so for me songs come more naturally (much to the chagrin of my exes).”

Peter Squires is a big man that I met on a tiny island. The island was a blue collar fantasy camp, where twenty-something kids ran a conference center: driving boats, running diesel lines, cleaning toilets, and collecting trash in old trucks rusted by the salt air.

The island had one road that ran in a circle. There were no cinemas or shops… no cellphone reception… no entertainment to speak of besides beer, sex, stories and songs.

When Peter wasn’t playing backgammon on a deck with a view of the Atlantic, one which none of us would ever be able to afford on the mainland, he was playing guitar and crooning love songs. His music, like the man, was honest and kind.

During the off season Peter waited tables and played music in New York City. In 2004 I went to Manhattan to visit him.

Peter’s mother had passed away earlier that year. I hadn’t seen him since she died, but was surprised by his buoyant attitude. We met up with some other island workers who lived in the city and did what we did best: drank and reminisced about our summers. One glass after another we spent our money like it was on fire, walking from bar to bar. Peter and I stayed close as our friends drifted off to go to bed, kiss each other, or collapse in the street.

Soon it was early morning and Peter and I were alone. The train swayed from side to side as we rode back to his apartment in Spanish Harlem. I pulled out my flask and turned to him, afraid, as I always am, to stop. Afraid to let go of the night.

Peter’s smile was gone though. His shoulders heaved as his heavy frame collapsed, tears pouring from his eyes faster than whiskey into a shot glass. “My mother is dead,” he said.

There is nothing to say to a 23 year old man on a train in New York City who says this. You can only wrap your arms around him and squeeze. You can only let the tears come, let go of the night, and grab onto him with all your strength.

Peter’s most recent album, Woe Is Me, is not about his mother (though she is mentioned in the title track), but it is about loss. About life throwing you a curveball right when you thought you were going to hit it out of the park.  About the worst kind of breakup, the kind where no one walks away a winner. The man has been playing music his entire adult life. I asked him “why?”

Peter Squires: My longest and most serious relationship ended ugly. Years of love and trust gave way to months of betrayal, lies, and denial, culminating in a tragi-comic New Years Eve confession that had me bidding “good riddance!” to 2008 and bracing for an epic crash to start 2009. In the couple of instances in my life when my heart has felt really truly broken, songwriting has been a key element in my healing process, in the way that journal-writing is for lots of people. But I am, for better or worse, a bit of an over-sharer who tends to wear his heart on his sleeve, so for me songs come more naturally (much to the chagrin of my exes).

I have been playing in bands for 15 years, but hardly ever serve as the primary singer or songwriter (I currently play bass and sing harmonies in a band called Monster Eiffel Tower, who also has a self-released E.P. coming out this Fall). In honesty, I usually don’t even pay attention to lyrics. When I sing along to other peoples’ songs there’s usually a lot of phonetic “skeedle-dee-doos,” and a lot of the time when I sit down and try to write songs, nothing comes out. There’s just something about getting my heart broken that opens the creative floodgates… it’s almost like I go into a songwriting trance, and when I’m “over it” I look back and can’t even really remember writing them. I guess deep down in the hole is just where I have to be to get the creative juices flowing… I should probably take up heroin (I kid).

True to form, from January through April, I became intensely focused and obsessively analytical about every aspect of the heartbreak hole I’d fallen into, and every self-pitying “why?!/what did I do to deserve this?!” was answered with a song. Some are really angry, just lashing out at everything (“System of a Down,” “Fault Line”); some are lonely, nostalgic, and mournful (“Saturday Morning,” “Woe is Me”); others are redemptive and self-empowering (“I Would Hate to Be You,” “Witch,” “Wrong Way to Monterey”)…and all of those feelings were very prevalent, real, and valid at the time.

Tragic as it all felt in the thick of it, I’m glad I was occasionally able to acknowledge the inherent comedy in my own crazed anger and pathetic sorrow… a touch of humor helped break the tension. The Al Roker line at the end of “I Would Hate to Be You,” still makes me laugh… it’s just so immature and bitchy. And in my younger days, when I took myself more seriously, I would never have used the word “chutzpah” in a pop song (like I do in “Fault Line“). But I wasn’t trying to be another Bon Iver and write a heartbreak masterpiece… I just wanted to sound like myself. If not for a bit of humor, I might’ve come across as Dashboard Confessional Lite or something, and that’s not me.

In addition to the floodgate of originals, there is one cover song on the album, “Double Life.” I never credited the band that wrote the original because I never asked for permission, and I don’t want to get sued. I’m giving the album away for free, so there’d be no royalties to owe them anyway… I feel guilty about not crediting them though, because it’s such a good song, and I don’t want to come across like the kid at the talent show in The Squid and the Whale.  Who knows, maybe I’d be better off if I did get sued… it would probably be good publicity.  For anyone who doesn’t know the original version of “Double Life,” it was written in the late 70s by a band whose frontman is famous for having a very beautiful wife despite being very funny-looking himself. I don’t think the licensing company will Google-search that, and my version sounds totally different, so their music-sniffing copyright robots won’t be able to find it… I’m probably still safe (cue the cease and desist order).

While I was writing these songs, I wasn’t really thinking about any kind of artistic vision… they were just a medium for my catharsis. But once I’d recorded enough songs that they actually started to feel like a cohesive album, I put more thought into how I wanted it to come across. As I edited the record, I decided to be meticulous about leaving mistakes and imperfections in. You can hear car horns honking in “Saturday Morning,” and the squealing brakes of a bus stopping outside my apartment in “Witch.”  When I recorded “System of a Down” I had a horrible cold that made me sing like a muppet. But I felt like an album that was recorded in my bedroom and is so focused on weakness and vulnerability couldn’t sound precious or rehearsed and still be authentic. I wanted to allow the record to feel like a tangible and sincere document of a specific moment, which it is. That kind of honesty, to me, is what makes art poignant.

Anyway, the album’s free (I think sooner or later all music will be, which I love) and if all goes according to plan, I’ll eventually be touring all over the US to support it.

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Photos by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, save the second photo, which is by Hally McGehean.


Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and was once given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. Formerly of The Rumpus and McSweeney’s and most recently the founding editor of BuzzFeed Books, Isaac is now the co-host of BuzzFeed News’ Twitter Morning Show, #AMtoDM. He also appears frequently on The Today Show to talk books, and is co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (with Recipes) (winner of an IACP award), and the author of a YA novel and picture book forthcoming from Bloomsbury. He uses Twitter. More from this author →