In the quiet hours of night, songwriter Michael Flynn crept downstairs to his home studio and hunched over a keyboard. He put on his headphones and whispered into a microphone while his wife and infant daughter slept.
He was terrified. For the first time in a long time, the words wouldn't come.
"Most songwriters I know, as soon as they have a kid and they start writing songs, it's over. I'm not interested anymore, and the songs aren't as good," Flynn says. "And I couldn't write for a really long time because I was determined not to write about this thing that was my whole life and was all I had to write about."
Flynn is best known as one-half of the pop-rock duo Slow Runner, which achieved modest national fame on the strength of its eminently catchy synthesizer hooks and achy-breaky songs about girls. The group announced it was going on a hiatus in August 2013, when Flynn's bandmate Josh Kaler left Charleston to pursue production work in Nashville. Flynn's first solo album, Face in the Cloud, comes out July 15 on Hearts & Plugs.
As Flynn struggled with his own reluctance to write songs about fatherhood, the melodies kept coming. When it came to the lyrics, he didn't want to write anything cloyingly sweet, but he wasn't sure what other direction to take. One thing was for sure: He couldn't go on writing songs about girls and dating. "I can't write them anymore," Flynn says. "I don't know how to anymore."
Musically, Face in the Cloud is not a radical departure in style from the last Slow Runner album, 2011's Damage Points. Drum machines and keyboards still abound, and Flynn's falsetto still steals the show on the choruses. But where Slow Runner often leaned on a chintzy Casiotone to supply the tones and even ventured into chiptune territory on Damage Points, Face in the Cloud is lusher and warmer. The difference is partly owed to Brooklyn-based producer Villain Lighting, who took MIDI files from Flynn's home recordings and ran them through his own arsenal of analog synthesizers and drum machines.
It's an even-keeled album, with fewer dynamic changes between verse and chorus than on a typical Slow Runner album. Flynn says this was a conscious decision. Whereas most Slow Runner songs were written at a piano, Flynn wrote these songs in front of a computer, building on looped samples with only slight variations over the course of a song. "I wanted to do a record that was anti-dynamics, that just started and went. It's more of one long, repeating, hypnotic thing," he says.
But all of those are cosmetic changes. The thing that changed Flynn's entire world was the birth of his daughter, Tula. As he and his wife Summer adjusted to the parenting life in their James Island home, Flynn wondered if he would ever compose a good song again. He didn't want to write his own "Butterfly Kisses."
Flynn sits at the breakfast table in his home, a spacious former farmhouse set off from the street by an expansive front yard and separated from the neighbors by a small bamboo forest. Although he's only minutes from downtown, it feels isolated out here, cozy. Tula, now two years old, toddles in from the backyard where she has been playing naked in the spray of the garden hose with her grandmother.
Face in the Cloud was written over the past 16 months, the majority of Tula's life. "Basically my entire life revolved around parenting, and that first year of that, it's sort of a lot of effort for little reward," Flynn says. "For that first six months or so, you're not getting a lot of positive feedback that you're even there. And as the dad, too, you're just kind of this other blob in the room who can't do milk."
Despite Flynn's initial reservations, the album does include several songs about being a father — although you might not guess it on a first listen. One of those tracks, "Holy Ghost," sounds more like a re-imagining of The Police's stalker-riffic 1983 hit "Every Breath You Take" than a song about being a dad.
"Don't be afraid / If I lean in to whisper / I'm the flash of gray / In the background of your every picture," Flynn leads off breathily, nearly whispering over a distorted, downright spooky drum machine loop. Flynn released the song early on a music blog, and he says that, so far, no one has asked him if it's about being a parent.
"It's about that first year where you're just this thing in the background of the picture. You're the god of this little creature," Flynn says.
Another song, "The Arrow at Your Feet" (which debuted last week on charlestoncitypaper.com), sounds at first like a breakup song, with Flynn bemoaning "The arrow at your feet / Pointing you away from me." But it, too, is about raising a child.
"When they're first born, they need you completely and they can't do anything," he says. "And then at the first signs of independence and being able to choose, I just realize she's pointed in the opposite direction of me, and she's supposed to push me away, and even though I know that in my head, and I know that that's natural and good and I want her to do that, it still kind of hurts your feelings."
Some of the confusion over song meanings may have to do with Flynn's writing process. On his phone, Flynn keeps a running list of potential song titles and interesting phrases, ready to deploy when the right melody comes along. "I'll start developing a musical idea and humming a melody, and then I'll get out the list and see, does anything on here fit?" he says.
A real pop gem on the album is "Pop Culture," a slow jam in classic Slow Runner form about being the shallow one in a relationship ("You give me love, love, love / I give you pop culture"). It's no dad-rock anthem, but it does contain a bit of hard-won wisdom in the opening line: "Everyone is faking it and hoping it turns real." Make of that what you will: parenthood, music, love, work.
"That," Flynn says, "is adulthood in a nutshell to me."