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Aaron Scholz’s solo career returns with “Third Place”

The singer-songwriter released his long-delayed third album in June.

Photo: Aaron Scholz sits on a couch in a living room, holding an acoustic guitar. In front of Scholz is a small coffee table with a notebook on it. Photo by Anna White.

Aaron Scholz has spent the past 15 years doing seemingly anything but playing his own songs. In a normal year, Madison show-goers have plenty of opportunities to encounter the singer and guitarist—playing in respected cover band The Low Czars, playing in other projects including country band Westernwhere, hosting open-mics at Mickey’s Tavern, and working behind the scenes at WORT. Audiences have had vanishingly few chances to see him play an actual set of original Aaron Scholz material since the late ’90s and early 2000s. After releasing two albums, 1999’s Perfect Child and 2002’s Come Back Down, Scholz kept writing and plotting out another release. But he got busy with other musical projects and decided that his efforts at a solo career were “a bit of a bust,” as he puts it.

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When live events came to a standstill in 2020, Scholz finally found the time and energy to revisit the project with fresh ears. He recorded 10 songs that combine the sparse wit of country music, an instinct for hooks, and frank but empathetic character sketches. The result, Third Place, came out in June. 

“I basically had the record written and conceived about 2005 or 2006. Some of the songs are older than that,” Scholz says. “Some of the songs are older than my kid, and my kid just graduated from high school.” 

Scholz fills the songs on Third Place with stories of dislocation and sadness, yet the mood never tips over into rage or despair. He often writes about people who’ve tucked themselves into the corners of everyone else’s forgetting. On the closing track, “The Place,” Scholz sings, “I never hesitate to get out of the way.” The spirit of that line also rings true for the lovelorn drunk placing a possibly ill-advised call on “Payphone,” the hapless drifter on “St. Paul,” the unlucky bus traveler on “No Station.” These characters, sometimes named and sometimes just implied, give the album an array of rich perspectives. 

“The songs that I put on the record before this, 19 years ago, were very wordy and very heavy and were very much, like, ‘I’m singing this song about what I’m doing,'” Scholz says. “In retrospect that wasn’t a bad move, but I think I wanted to write songs that were maybe about my experiences but maybe shift the narrative to be about someone singing that song, not necessarily me. I consciously tried to put that in there instead of saying, ‘I’m gonna sing my song about me.’ There’s parts of me in here, but there might not be anything in there that’s me.”

The places are often just as lost as the people. Scholz puts his plaintive but deceptively strong voice to excellent use on “Dorothy Door,” offering a wry meditation on Cold War paranoia and changing times: “Built in the backyard, for a Russian invasion / for the strength of the nation, or for self-preservation / now I wonder, should we all get together / way down in the bunker, while the world falls asunder?” 

When he started listening back to the album’s demos last year, Scholz realized that he had unintentionally written a set of pandemic songs: “Some of them are about being isolated and feeling cut-off and not having any interaction, or feeling like society is changed and now I have to be like this. That definitely brought me back to say, ‘OK, I should put these out.’ It’s not that they wouldn’t have been relatable 10 years ago or 15 years ago, but they’re even more so now.”

He came up with arrangements that center on his own acoustic guitar, organ, piano, bass, and percussion—playing everything himself, except for Low Czars member Peter Fatka’s contribution of pedal steel on “Little Bars.” Scholz believes the songs benefitted from the long wait. He’s not the same person he was when he wrote them, but somehow that distance made him more confident. All the years he’s spent singing and playing various instruments in different settings also paid off in the album’s crisp, uncluttered performances. This all plays to the strengths of the songwriting, which treats its subjects with tender care but never aims to embellish or evoke pity. That drifter on “St. Paul” stumbles into a schoolyard, gets arrested, and “in the morning he walks through the courtroom / the judge rolls his eyes.” On one level, this is clearly a tragic character. Yet Scholz ends up giving the listener a strong impression of his resilience, even though he never mentions it directly. 

Scholz also uses the very title of the album to put a fine point on its currents of rootlessness and disorientation.

“The record is my third record, [but it was also] named after the sociological concept of ‘third place,'” he says. “You live somewhere, you work somewhere, and the third place is like the bar or the restaurant or the coffeehouse, or even your band or your club or whatever. 100 years ago, that was built into society because people didn’t drive everywhere. Everything was localized and media was localized, and communication was very much on a smaller scale, and that’s how things were organized, and now that we’re all kind of separated, either by physical distance or just by the fact that people don’t go out of their houses because it’s a pandemic, it’s worked out that the sense of isolation that comes from that, if that sort of thing were still prevalent in our society and people naturally gravitated towards that, they would feel better. 

“Some of us folks are lucky,” he continues. “I’m a musician, I have bands, I’ve met most of the people in my life because of that. Most people aren’t so lucky. Most people don’t have that built into their lives. They go to work and watch television and feel like shit. That’s an oversimplification, but if there was more of that in our lives, if there were more places—I grew up in the suburbs, it’s like, there’s a bunch of houses and the shops were all in a strip mall or in a mall, there isn’t a coffeehouse on the corner, there isn’t a bar over here, there isn’t whatever….and that’s not the way it used to be.”

At the same time, people ask a great deal of their “third places,” and for Scholz that makes them as fraught as they are comforting. “The Place” captures that tension, drawing on experiences that don’t match up with people’s emotional investment in a given situation: “If we go there / will we be there / will we understand? / our hearts are breaking / find a place / better than an also-ran.” Yet the song also manages to end the record with encouraging brightness, amid Scholz’s keyboard swells and steadily jangling guitar chords. For all the letdowns and embarrassments they endure, the people in these songs are never truly defeated.

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“You want to be able to go somewhere and belong to whatever’s happening or the group of people or the event, and sometimes you go there and that doesn’t happen, or you go there to actually interact with somebody or some people and that doesn’t happen, and what do you do with it?” Scholz asks. “How do you deal with the emotional impact of that? You have an expectation and it’s not gonna be fulfilled and then what do you do? You put so much on that. When I was younger, that was really how it was. I really felt like, ‘I’m gonna show up, and if this doesn’t happen, things are really gonna be bad. Things are really gonna be disappointing.’ I think a lot of people have felt that way, that they put a lot of emotional resonance in their experiences at a show, wherever they go to get away from the rest of their life, and that’s what that song is about. Even if we get together, we might not be able to actually make things happen, and why not?”

The liner notes for Third Place are a bit self-deprecating: “During the pandemic I revisited my cache of failed experiments and decided to update the naive vision of a thirtysomething singer-songwriter who had big plans for his Third Place record,” Scholz writes. In our actual interview, though, he came off as deeply satisfied with the result—not cocky, but confident that these songs accomplish what they set out to do. We’ve been deprived of his solo work for a long time, but Scholz is at peace with that. 

“Sort of giving up on trying to promote my own music 15 years ago, playing here and there, but learning more about how to play other different kinds of music, how to work with others… I absorbed more about music in a different sense, because I’d been in bands but I’d mostly been trying to write songs and push that,” he says. “Once I just said, ‘OK, I’m not gonna try to do that consciously for a while and just play,’ I think it definitely added to my vocabulary about what works.”

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