The Making of Meloy
Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy was born and raised in Montana. And yes, he’s making it as a rock star.
By Nate Schweber
In May 2008, Colin Meloy stood in front of his band, The Decemberists, under a sapphire blue sky in Portland’s Waterfront Park as more than 75,000 people including one future president listened to him sing his unique and fanciful songs.
Such is the influence of those songs, which feature a sideshow cast of characters, including a whale-swallowed sailor, a child ghost, and a chimney sweep, that Barack Obama took notice. In 2007, campaign workers contacted Meloy and introduced him to the candidate.
“It’s a testament to the campaign knowing that the arts, music, and film are really important as a way of energizing a base,” says Meloy, thirty-four, during a phone interview from his home in Portland.
While opening for Obama may have meant the most to Meloy politically, it was a much more intimate concert three years earlier and 600 miles away that meant the most to him personally. On a crisp Tuesday night in April 2005, The Decemberists—their popularity beginning to soar worldwide—rocked out the humble Helena Middle School auditorium.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Meloy, who was born in the capital town and as a cherubic youngster began imagining the phantasmagoria of stories that would propel his music career.
Mostly, says Meloy, it was a chance to give music fans in Helena something he yearned for growing up—cool music and inspiration.
“To see somebody who grew up in Montana and went to school in Montana being known in a nationally known band, it’s good that kids in Montana know that’s possible,” Meloy says.
The Decemberists are adored by critics and fans alike for their baroque pop featuring words that could stump a spelling-bee champ and literary references more likely heard in a college classroom than on college radio. The band’s 2005 album was titled Picaresque, which means an epic Spanish form of storytelling. The album The Crane Wife, from their 2006 major label debut on Capitol Records, was based on a timeless Japanese folktale.
Songwriter Meloy, who graduated from UM in 1998 with a degree in creative writing, has distinguished himself as one of the more original voices in popular music today. He sings with a distinct, reedy tenor and sports lamb-chop sideburns and black-rimmed glasses.
David Fricke, a senior editor at Rolling Stone, says Meloy has “a literate soul.”
“He’s trying to take the storytelling in popular music to a level that is both enjoyable and a bit fantastical, but doesn’t violate the qualities of good storytelling,” Fricke says from his office in Manhattan.
Fricke compares Meloy’s creative impulses to those of another literate songwriter, the Frankenstein-faced chronicler of New York noir, Lou Reed.
“But where Lou Reed was inspired by William Boroughs, Colin’s stories can be more like Canterbury Tales,” Fricke says.“To see somebody who grew up in Montana and went to school in Montana being known in a nationally known band, it's good that kids in Montana know that's possible”
That a kid from Helena became a rock star by writing songs in a lexicon more suited for the fourteenth century is a curious fact best explained by Meloy’s relationship to his home state, and his decision to leave it.
“Colin always struck me as a kid who was born in Helena who wished he grew up in England,” says Andy Smetanka, a Missoula journalist who penned the liner notes to a 2006 compilation of songs by Tarkio, Meloy’s college band.
“If that’s part of your fantasy life,” he adds, “you have to leave Montana.”
Colin Patrick Henry Meloy was born a fifth-generation Montanan in a valley once populated by colorful western characters such as buffalo hunters, gold miners, railroaders, and the Shoshone and Blackfeet tribes. Yet as a boy he was captivated by the work of fantasy writer Piers Anthony and the Elfquest series of comic books, says his sister Maile Meloy, now a writer living in Los Angeles.
“When he was really little he was into superheroes and wore a cape for months,” she says. “I fell from a second-story loft when I was seven and he was five, and he was first on the scene and told me I should have borrowed his cape and flown down.”
Colin and Maile’s father worked as an attorney, and their mother worked for a stint at an alternative high school. Music coursed through their household. Melodic and lyric-driven rock by the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen played on the stereo, as did The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper Feast, a rock opera based on a children’s book that Meloy would later use as the intro music for Decemberists shows.
When he hit middle school, Meloy was inspired to start writing music thanks to a hip uncle in Eugene, Oreg., who sent Meloy mix tapes with intriguing titles such as “Radio-Free Montana.” The mixes turned Meloy on to sounds rarely found in mid-1980s Lewis and Clark County. He heard the shiny electricity of R.E.M. and Husker Du and the sass and style of English pop acts XTC and Squeeze.
“I would pore over them like they were sacred texts,” Meloy says. “They were kind of my lifeblood.”
Despite his interest in high school drama and hours spent acting at Helena’s Grandstreet Theatre, Meloy opted to study English in college. Like plenty of ambitious and artistic young people from Montana, he also wanted to leave. He enrolled at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
In two years he discovered, like many of the state’s expats, the particular pang of pining for Big Sky Country.
“I missed the mountains,” Meloy says. “I definitely had a longing to be back in Montana.”
In 1995, Meloy split the difference between the hippie haven of Eugene and the Helena valley and enrolled as a creative-writing major at The University of Montana.
He also delved into the music scene.
Gibson Hartwell, the guitarist in Tarkio, remembers Meloy coming over to his house early on to record songs on a four-track tape machine.
“I remember being surprised about how young he was,” Hartwell says. “He had patience, articulation, and all these other mannerisms that kind of made him seem like an older person trapped in a younger body.”
Early Tarkio rehearsals were held at the house south of Missoula owned by Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament. (“Jeff was really sweet to let us do that,” Meloy says.) Soon the band began to draw scores of fans to shows at the Top Hat and the Ritz (now the Badlander). They toured the state, hitting joints such as Bert & Ernie’s in Great Falls, the Silver Dollar in Butte, and the Dire Wolf in Whitefish. Meloy says his most vivid memories of these times were watching frozen mountains through the window of the band’s tour van and a bizarre after-show scuffle with skinheads at a bar in Bozeman.
“It was one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever seen,” Meloy says. “We were this kind of bookish alt-country band, and here we were getting in fights in bars with skinheads.”
Tarkio released its first EP, Falleness, in 1997, and the next year it released a full-length album, I Guess I Was Hoping For Something More. In 1999, the band put out its final EP, Sea Songs for Landlocked Sailors. In 2006, a Tarkio compilation CD, titled Omnibus, was released by the well-known independent record label Kill Rock Stars, which also put out three Decemberists releases.
Music provided Meloy a creative escape from his studies at UM. He says he had a difficult time connecting to his course work, which entailed reading gritty western writers such as Richard Hugo, Annie Dillard, and William Kittredge.
It is perhaps indicative of Meloy’s shift of focus from attaining an M.F.A. in creative writing at UM to becoming a full-time musician that of three faculty members he recalls taking classes from, none remember him. One, Earl Ganz, gave an example of the type of assignment compared to which making up a rock-’n’-roll song would have surely been a relief.
“I assigned my students to imitate Kafka,” Ganz says in a phone interview from his home in Lake Charles, La. “I maintain you learn to write by imitating better writers.”
While Meloy’s mind didn’t seem to be on school, it certainly wasn’t at work either. Esther Chessin, who from 1993 to 2004 owned Bernice’s Bakery, a favorite hangout near the banks of the Clark Fork River, hired Meloy near the end of his tenure at UM.
“He was a good employee, but he wasn’t absolutely one-hundred percent dedicated,” she says.
Chessin, who calls herself a “huge Tarkio fan,” did note a particular business advantage to having Meloy in her employ.
“We sure had a lot more young girls coming in,” she says.
By 1998, Meloy was again itching to leave Montana. He set his sights on Portland. Tarkio had played some well-received shows there and in Seattle, and Meloy was anxious to reach a wider audience.
“You can only go so far as a band out of Missoula, not to be downplaying being in a band in Missoula,” Meloy says. “But just the amount of travel to get to your nearest metro area was really time-consuming and expensive.”
After graduation, with Tarkio at a crossroads, Meloy made the gamble that lost him his band and his bearings, but found him his voice. Convinced that he had enough friends and contacts in Portland to get established quickly in the city’s competitive music scene and hopeful that at least some of his Tarkio bandmates would go with him, Meloy moved.
He found, to his disappointment, that the friends he’d counted on would not return his calls. Alone and bandless, Meloy worked at a pizza parlor to make rent and went back to square one of the music scene, performing at open mics.
Louis Stein, the bassist in Tarkio who did not move to Portland for personal reasons, remembers talking to Meloy on the phone during this period. Meloy told him it was “tough starting from scratch, going to open mics,” Stein recalls.
“But it helped in the long run develop what his style is now,” he says. “The Decemberists and Colin have a very specific sound. A lot of musicians aspire to it, but few get it.”
Meloy says the difficult reboot led to an epiphany. He recalls several early gigs in tiny clubs when there was no one else in the room save the bartender. And sometimes the bartender went outside for a smoke.
“When I was in that position, with nobody to appeal to or scare away, I thought, ‘I might as well do whatever I want to do,’” Meloy says. “And that created a new thing.”
In Portland, Meloy cultivated and followed his fantastical muse. Though it often led him to old England or the high seas, Montana wasn’t entirely absent. “The Apology Song,” a tale of bicycle theft from The Decemberists’ 2001 EP, 5 Songs, features a Meloy name check of two Missoula-centric landmarks—the Orange Street Food Farm and Frenchtown Pond.
Though today Meloy, his wife, Carson Ellis, and their nine-month old son, Henry “Hank” Meloy, call Portland home, Montana still beckons. Meloy says his grandfather told him that “Meloys move around a bit, but they always come back to Montana.”
“I think that’s true for me, too. I’ll probably come back,” Meloy says. “I’m a proud Oregonian, but a temporary Oregonian.”
Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist who graduated from UM’s School of Journalism in 2001. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Budget Travel, and the Village Voice. He lives in Manhattan and sings in a band called the New Heathens.