How a Brooklyn musician uses Tumblr to cover a song a night (roughly) and write accompanying life stories.
One night, Aaron Wolfe, a thirty-something musician and film editor in Brooklyn, drank a bunch of wine, spent the evening catching up with an old friend, and then recorded a cover of The Decemberist’s “Of Angels and Angles.” He felt pleased with it, and though he claims to be a shy guy, posted it on his new Tumblr blog and passed it around. People responded positively, and Wolfe, encouraged by the enthusiasm, recorded another one and decided to embark on a project, a blog called Autonomika, Autonomika! “I’m going to record a new cover every night,” he wrote. “It’ll be a song that I love and has some sort of significance to me in some way or another.” The second night, he chose “New Partner” by a musician with six names. This time, a short blog post accompanied the song, a brief explanation into what propelled him to cover it: “I choose it for the final verse. Which contains the simplest most evocatively sexy lyric: The sun’s fading fast now, we’re ready to go/ there’s a skirt in the bedroom that’s pleasantly low. It slays me.”
As the songs came pouring out, so did Wolfe’s associations with the songs and memories from young adulthood. The songs served as portals into life. And so began a tenuous journey into reliving, reflecting, and blogging; all the while making time, night after night, for music. He has tired of the project at times, and days will pass without a song to post. But always someone tosses him an idea or a song floats to the top of his thoughts that demands to be covered, and a story wriggles its way out onto Tumblr’s stark, elegant page.
Sometimes it’s the title that inspires his essays, such as when Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy” prompted him to launch into a narrative about his relationship with two very different grandfathers. Other times, the mood of the song dips into the recesses of Wolfe’s memory and draws out something emotionally—not logically—related (see one of my favorites, Wolfe’s cover of M. Ward’s “Chinese Translation” along with his remembrance of the time he spent as a shepherd in the woods behind Hampshire College). He even takes on “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel, an artist he can’t stand. As Wolfe will tell you: “having the music is a little bit of a hook, and so if the song is a little bit angsty or whiny or a little bit, like, ‘look at me,’ then maybe it’s tempered by whatever I’ve written.”
So what’s different about Autonomika, Autonomika! and all the other self-centered “projects” hovering around in the blogosphere these days? For one thing, Wolfe’s a great singer, and he brings something original to the tunes. Listen to his versions of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Come On Eileen,” and you’ll get what I mean. There’s also the thrill of listening to an artist record over time—sometimes he sounds tired, sometimes drunk, and other times lucid and energized. The coupling of these intimate tracks with the evolving portrait of the artist as a man, husband, “shithead 22-year-old,” traveler, and spiritual being makes for a compelling musical diary ála Nick Hornby. Oh, and by the way: Wolfe says he loves requests, so feel free to send him along a song to cover.
The Rumpus: A lot of your stories are very honest, and you share a lot of details about your life and people around you. Has this ever gotten you in trouble with anyone?
Aaron Wolfe: I had two experiences that were as close as trouble as I could say. I had a post I really liked that I took down. It was by request of my family, because it just got a little bit too personal; it was my reflections on an event that was not an event just about me. My dad sent me an email that was like: “I really like the blog—you should think about taking this down.” I decided, “yeah, okay, that makes sense.” And it was the first experience I had where there was a difference between reflecting on something and sharing an event that actually happened to me. So after that I realized so I can tell my stories, but I can’t tell other people’s stories.
In another post I refer to an ex-girlfriend in a series of stories about some time I spent in Egypt. And she contacted me, which was funny, but it was fine. She was thinking more about it and she just said “I didn’t realize how scary I must have been to you at that time,” and I apologized for being such a shithead to her and everything turned out okay. But the honesty hasn’t gotten me in trouble, but it has raised tensions, for sure. Between me and my wife. There’s an okay amount of honesty and then there’s a fetishistic amount of honesty. And I’m struggling with that still, but I think hopefully I’m getting closer to an okay amount of honesty and trying to steer clear of confessional. I don’t think I want to just do something that’s confessional just for the sake of confession.
Rumpus: Have you looked to anyone else’s writing or advice when you try to figure out how much honesty is ok?
Wolfe: I know the people who I am pretty impressed by, but they’re terrifyingly honest. I couldn’t do what they do. Like this guy David Heatley who I grew up with who’s a comic book artist. He wrote this comic book called My Brain is Hanging Upside Down—an intensely honest depiction of his life. That was super inspirational to me. But I knew I couldn’t do what he did. And then my friend Amit Wehle—he writes for a couple blogs and we play music together and we grew up together—he’ll talk about his life in a way that is both enviable and terrifying. So those two guys are one side of it.
And then I’ve been super into Marc Maron’s podcast and his book. There’s this quality to his stuff that’s incredibly honest without being oppressively honest. He hits this balance between being fearless in his honest without invading the listener and the reader. He has this podcast called WTF, and it’s amazing what he can get to in an hour, how deep he can go with people who are practiced at not letting that inside come out.
Rumpus: How long do you plan to do this? Do you think it will have any sort of beginning or end?
Wolfe: I don’t know. The last couple of weeks I thought I was done, I thought there weren’t going to be any more songs. I kind of hit a wall; there weren’t any more covers to do. Because I don’t like doing songs as imitations of another song. Also I don’t like doing a song that’s like, “Oh, he’s doing a mellow version of that song”; that bums me out. I’m hoping people will send me requests. A couple have, and that’s been fun. I think I’ll go for a little longer.
Rumpus: That’s interesting because you wrote one just yesterday that was a great little exploration of your identity, and it seemed so lucid, and it’s interesting that that came out after you thought you were done.
Wolfe: Yeah, that’s what happens. To be honest, getting an email from you, I was like “Oh shit, that’s right, I do that sometimes.” I don’t think too much about the songs; that wasn’t a planned thing, it just happened. I have a feeling it’s going to be part of my life for the foreseeable future. If it slows down to once a month, that’s what it does. But I can’t see that happening for a while.
Rumpus: Can you explain the name?
Wolfe: Autonomika; there’s no real reason at all for it. I write scores for documentaries, and I had to register with ASCAP, and I hadn’t signed up, and the director of the documentary was like on my case, he couldn’t submit till I had the rights cleared. I went online and signed up, and at a certain point they require you to have a publishing name. I put in the first thing that came to mine which was Autonomika, which I thought made sense. Because I thought it was a word. But in reality it’s just a combination of “autonomic,” the nervous system, and a nickname I have for my wife, Naomi—I call her “Nomika.” It just somehow happened. It just sort of stuck. Why it’s twice and why I have exclamation points, I don’t know. Honestly, I think I thought it was cool.
Rumpus: You dropped out of college. What are you up to these days?
Wolfe: Yeah, I dropped out of a lot of colleges. Not just one. I’m a prolific college drop-out. I edit documentary film and television shows, and I’m trying to write, and I’m trying to tell stories. I’ve done a story at The Moth, and I’m trying to do more. I live in Brooklyn, and I play in a band, though not much lately.
Rumpus: Do you have anyone you’re writing to?
Wolfe:It’s funny. I think I do. I think when I’m most successful is when I’m writing to myself as a 22-year-old. When I’m talking to shit-head 22-year-old me, it feels the most natural. And sometimes I forget to do that and I end up writing what I think someone would want to hear. I come from this literary family; they are all very smart and well read and had very high standards that have never applied to me. Occasionally I find myself writing in a voice that they would like, and it’s never successful.
Rumpus: I will say first that I blog, and I’m not trying to be mean with this question, but I’m wondering how you think this project is different than a lot of the blogs which people characterize as egotistical and whiny.
Wolfe: Totally. I think a lot of times, it’s not at all. I try very hard to tell stories that I hope have some sort of larger connection, and I think I don’t always succeed. I think sometimes, there’s something that’s happening in the writing, and I feel a little bit like by having the music it’s a little bit of a hook, and so if the song is a little bit angsty or whiny or if the song is a little bit “look at me,” then maybe it’s tempered by whatever I’ve written. And if I’ve written something that’s a little narcissistic, hopefully I’ve tempered it with a song that’s nodding to the fact that, yes, I was completely full of myself for the past thirty minutes. I don’t think I’m doing something great or particularly novel.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about the films you are working on?
Wolfe: I’m about to start shooting a documentary about umpires. I’m kind of fascinated about these guys and women who go out and call balls and strikes.
I have also written these kinds of conceptual narrative films. One was about the Golum, a Yiddish folk hero. It’s the first Frankenstein monster. The movie was called The Golum of Washington Heights. But it was in this elaborate worlds; the story was set in three different time periods. I did that and I was really happy with it, and I got good feedback. But I realized I haven’t tried telling the things that are in me directly. Like, what if I didn’t include a monster made out of clay that was being used by a rabbi to do that thing? What if it was just like the real thing that happened and the real drama of life and being human? What if I didn’t hide behind these layers of other things? Whether it was fantastical stories or my rock band, which is very different from my blog music, I was trying to see what would happen if I stripped all these things away—would people like me, and would I like me?
First photo by Morgan Shortell.