S.G. Goodman leaves 'Teeth Marks' in Southern stereotypes
Editor's note: This interview includes some discussion of suicidal thoughts.
Before the release of her second album, Teeth Marks, S.G. Goodman was openly dreading an obligation that she knew lay ahead of her: explaining her music, and by implication, her life, to interviewers. She'd done only one round of that before, when she released her debut, Old Time Feeling, during the summer of 2020. But what she lacked in direct experience with the contrived rituals of promotional cycles, she made up for in canny insight — having seen enough media portrayals of Southerners, rural dwellers and working people to know how frequently they devolve into superficial caricature. Musing out loud during an opening set in Nashville this spring, she deadpanned that perhaps she'd tell every single journalist that Alan Jackson is her sole influence and see how it played.
Jokes aside, Goodman isn't one to boil down complexity. You won't sense any sort of neat template behind the Kentucky artist's new set of songs. They're refined in a recalcitrant way, and put across with wiry but emotionally present resolve. Her singing has the cutting intensity of Appalachian tradition, along with wildly expressive flourishes, crescendos, decrescendos and nervy vibrato. As Goodman told me when we spoke, six weeks after that Nashville show, she had nudged her longtime bandmates — guys she'd met right there in her small town in the western part of the state — to join her in actively resisting flattening assumptions before they even began recording. "Knowing their backgrounds in post-punk and their different musical influences," she says, "I didn't really want them to get it so lodged in their head that, 'Well, people are calling this Americana, so we've got to form this album to fit that.' "
During our conversation, Goodman explained that Teeth Marks isn't precisely an album about love, but rather "the marks that love, or the lack of love, leaves behind." After putting a song on her first album that she's described as a very fond farewell — written when she was contemplating suicide — she took up equally knotty matters this time, examining and evoking the feeling of carrying trauma, be it from unrequited love, phobic rejection of her queerness, or any of the other countless ways one can be told they don't matter. The centerpiece of the album is a pair of songs that take in the horror of opioid deaths, but spin everything around to ask the surrounding society what's keeping us from caring enough to take action. It's a collection that feels shrewdly powerful, culturally significant and hard to pin down, all at the same time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewly Hight: During a recent Nashville performance, you joked about your accent making you unintelligible when you travel outside the South. What have you experienced when it comes to feeling misunderstood, pigeonholed or dismissed as you have traveled and shared your work beyond where you are from?
S.G. Goodman: A lot of times when people hear a really thick Southern accent, they're very shocked to learn that I have a degree in philosophy, that I'm interested in anything like that, that I'm decently well-traveled. I've decided not to go out of my way to do any code switching there, because I feel like it's important to hold on to certain aspects that make your experience in the world. One of those is that I have a thick accent because I come from a small, rural place. I'm not ashamed of that. But it is a funny experience when I've been talking for five minutes and I realize whoever is in front of me has had a very hard time understanding what I just said.
You've staked your claim to the Kentucky town where you've lived for several years. You briefly tested the waters of living elsewhere, but decided to stay close to where you grew up. How important is that to the position that you are writing and singing and speaking from?
I've always wanted to "make it," in quotations, where I'm from. That's always been important for me, because there are talented, competent people from small towns, and I think that people from small towns need to know that that is true of themselves. I have remained in a very small town, very close to where I was raised. I'm not saying that I'll always live there. I'm a complex person. I want to experience new things. But I do have a really deep appreciation for that way of life.
When I was getting my car registration done this year, I just walked into the courthouse and walked back out. I've never been to a DMV — I don't even know what that is. There's aspects of small, rural life that are just easier. I mean, yeah, there's not as much great food around necessarily, and you might need to learn how to cook for yourself a little bit more if you ever want some Tom Kha soup or something. But for the most part, there are so many pluses to living in a small town.
You mentioned studying philosophy in college, and in the song "If You Were Someone I Loved," you write about people's motivations for helping, and not helping, others. How did you apply the theoretical framework you got from your studies to your own lived experiences and observations in that song?
Even though "If You Were Someone I Loved" directly talks about the opioid crisis, the overall question that me, as the writer, would hope would come up around it is, what is it that makes us extend our love to our neighbors? Why are we more compelled to act on behalf of someone else if love is present? And what does it say about us that we, most of the time, will not if love isn't present?
A lot of our medical facilities, our medical schools, were founded when an affluent family lost a child to some kind of rare illness. They thought it was a need — to study, to leave money to a school — to do that, and bam: We have research on this particular rare illness. That might not have ever happened if that affluent family was just an outside spectator to that tragedy. It took them experiencing it from a firsthand place for them to act on it.
It's kind of a sad reality about when it comes to how we function as humans, which is why I wrote that song from the point of view of the "I." I wanted the listener, if they were ever to sing the lyrics aloud, they had to admit to the subject in that song that if they loved them, they would treat them differently.
That song has the full force of your band's attack behind it. But you pair it, right in the middle of the album, with an a cappella number that's simply called "You Were Someone I Loved" — which has such naked grief to it because it's just your unadorned voice. Why did you see that as a necessary companion piece?
The whole story hadn't been told: I feel like the last word needed to be from the person who loved the subject that was going through addiction. In fact, I struggled with that a lot in the years it took me to decide this song was done: Have I said everything I needed to say?
On vinyl it's actually just one track, which is the way I intended it to be — one long, continuous song. In the digital world we live in, we've got to split everything up and put it in black and white. I had to try to come up with another title — which, if you know me, I really hate naming songs, so I made it the most obvious name I could.
I felt like there didn't need to be any instrumentation. What was being said in the second portion of this song, there didn't need to be any barriers between the human nature of how I chose to sing this part and the listener, because that's what, in my mind, I was trying to get people to connect with anyway: Let's connect as humans here, and realize when we're not.
You've given the album a certain symmetry, starting with the title track and its stories of wounds that are both visible and invisible, and then concluding with "Keeper of the Time," which takes a while to build in urgency. You're depicting trauma that's internalized in the body, and can't be held in forever. That seems a difficult thing to write about without veering into the abstract. You make it feel so immediate.
The way it builds, I had that vision for how I wanted to compose the music side of that song. Trauma essentially builds in your body. I wanted for the listener to experience, in a kind of a listening way, the release of that. I'm glad that it comes across that way, because as a writer, you're always questioning, "Will anybody understand what you're trying to say there?"
When I was writing the song, it kind of felt like a little bit of a response to another song I had written on a previous album called "Space and Time." Basically, I was dealing with the [thought of] suicide at that moment. The time frame between writing that song and writing "Keeper of the Time," I spent a lot of years [working] through that. But it's interesting how trauma stores in the body. The work I'm doing now is not necessarily about suicide, but it still is dealing with some of the aspects of what put me in that place when I was writing "Space and Time." And that ultimately is what I'm getting at, is that your work is continuous. It's our responsibility to acknowledge that our experience in the world builds in us. If we don't take to that in a positive way, it can be detrimental.
We're still in a moment when there are a lot of simplistic perceptions of rural people, whether that's Southerners or middle Americans, Midwesterners. This collection of songs is an alternative to those kinds of one-dimensional portrayals. I wonder what you feel like you are offering with it.
Well, I'm definitely not a poster child for anything. I don't think anybody would want me to be. But I will say that we are definitely living, and have been living, in a world where headlines win. Unfortunately, the headlines, when it comes to rural places in the South, are more focused on what would get someone's attention that doesn't live here, and what would continue the narrative that outsiders are used to hearing. You are definitely more likely to hear some crazy thing about Rand Paul than the sweet five people that are trying to organize community outreach in Murray, Ky. So I think it's just so important to present the world, as best as I can, with the full picture of the South and rural places. [Whether] I do that well or not, we'll see. But it is something I feel really strongly about.
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