It’s the introvert’s dilemma. You require alone time, away from people and the energy they emit, in order to refill your psychic reserves. And yet, you also realize that — intellectually and physically — you need social stimulation. According to Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, I am what you’d call a “cusp extrovert.” There is a not insignificant part of me that initiates social activity, a trait which, according to the Meyers-Briggs indicator, is suggestive of extroversion. As for the other facets of that disposition — expressiveness, gregariousness, and enthusiasm — I am a card carrying introvert.
Because of my cusp status, I have a hard time tuning the dials of life. My signals frequently get scrambled. Pursuant to my Myers-Briggs indicators, I’ve spent a lifetime reaping the rewards of taking initiative. It’s a trait that has brought me joy and excitement — until it doesn’t. At that point, all I want to do is go home and ignore people and press play on “Astral Weeks.” Fortunately, this rarely happens. Nearly one half century into life, I’ve figured out how much treble, bass and volume I can tolerate.
For extreme introverts, I suspect that the tuning can be less complicated, but also more difficult. On the one hand, the physiology of an introvert makes matters very clear: do not disturb. On the other hand, people need people. We need socialization and intimacy and — yes — stimulation. For hardcore introverts, while those requirements might be exhausting, they are still necessary. That discord — between craving solitude and wanting human connection — can be something of a tightrope act.
Generally, musicians are able to reconcile this quandary without too much cost. Either they are born extroverts, nourished by the attention, or they are introverts, who eschew bandmates and audiences for bedrooms and Youtube followers. Most musicians, though, fall somewhere in the middle. They may be slight extroverts who find solace in hotels and the recesses of tour buses. Or they may be introverts who, through practice and reward, build a certain tolerance that eventually becomes a comfort or, even, a pleasure.
Of course, there are exceptions — those no-doubt-about-it introverts who, because of inordinate talent, cannot fend off success and celebrity. Prince is a great example. Famously insular to the point of being anti-social, The Purple One handled this by hiding away in Paisley Park. Kurt Cobain chose heroin as his salve. Farrokh Bulsara created an alter ego: Freddie Mercury. Bob Dylan shape-shifted. More recently, Elliott Smith succumbed while Chan Marshall got help.
The one thing that each of these artists have in common, however, is that they all signed contracts. They elected to release music through companies that paid for the rights to sell their art slash product to the broadest audience possible. That’s ostensibly what record labels attempt to do and why recording contracts exist: to define how music will be publicly exploited (ideally) for profit. So while these musical introverts may have been naive to what their deal terms actually meant or what fame would eventually feel like, and while they may have resisted mightily along the way, they signed the contracts. And though extroversion was not explicitly stated in writing, it was fully assumed.
To my knowledge, the first introvert to experience contemporary, international fame who also refused to sign the contract was Alec Ounsworth. You may know his name, though I suspect most of you reading this do not. You may be in the very small minority of people who know his name, his band, and the half dozen albums they’ve made. Or, more likely, you may have heard about his band long ago and forgotten about them soon thereafter. Whatever the case, for the better eighteen months — between the summer of 2005 and then end of 2006 — in some circles of the internet and some smaller circles of the real world, Alec Ounsworth and his band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, were a very big deal.
Now, I do not personally know Alec Ounsworth and I obviously don’t know if he’s ever taken a Meyers-Briggs test. But I know an introvert when I see one. And I know how insistently Ounsworth avoided signing contracts with record labels. I know this from reading his Wikipedia page. And from reading interviews with him and his former bandmates. And from having seen the band play live many times. And from having spoken to the band’s former manager. But, mostly, I know it from my many years running Insound, the online record store that was conveniently situated on the other side of that unsigned contract.
I started Insound with a couple buddies in 1998 and, by 2005, we were the biggest little record store on the internet. We specialized in Indie Rock with a strong lean towards vinyl. And because we had global reach and a close affiliation with Pitchfork, many unsigned bands wanted to sell their records through us. Most of the time, this amounted to five or ten sales. But, occasionally, through friends or proximity or good fortune, we’d be the primary seller of some important album, before the band had a label or distributor — before they’d signed any contract. It happened with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol and The Rapture. We sold hundreds — sometimes thousands — of copies of their early releases before their music was widely available.
None of those previous examples, however, prepared us for the summer of 2005, when the ascending music blogosphere plus social media plus Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” conspired to make Clap Your Hands Say Yeah the most exciting name in indie music. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly. But it sure seemed that way, back then in Brooklyn, New York, which was (along with Pitchfork) the capitol of the indie universe.
In the preceding years, as Indie Rock was returning from a dormant period, we’d had our share of exhilarating debuts. The Shins. Arcade Fire. LCD Soundsystem. These were bands who broke through in the dawn of Internet 2.0 and proceeded to become generationally important. But Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was a different animal. They seemed to have no past. They had no record label. Their name inspired as much snark as it did curiosity. And they were from Philadelphia. Philly — the was less cool, cranky, not Indie Rock city that was one hundred miles from Brooklyn. It made no sense that these undrafted rookies were the next big things. And yet, there they were. And there was that album and that sound and that voice. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled debut was one olde timey invocation followed by eleven perfect — and perfectly odd — jangle pop anthems. Though Ounsworth liked to namecheck Wire and Suicide and Brian Eno, his band’s first foray was far from experimental. They rang like The Feelies and bounced like The Smiths. The bass was supple and the beats steady. In fact, aside from their singer, their first batch of songs were downright ebullient.
But that was the thing, of course. The singer. He was different. His tone was frequently compared to that of David Byrne’s, and probably for good reason. But whereas the former Talking Heads’ frontman would yelp about his phobias and anxieties, Ounsworth liked to whine and mumble. It was a similar sound but with a different affect. And, unlike the Talking Heads but also because of them, CYHSY’s debut sounded quite familiar. Refreshing, but familiar.
I loved that album. So did most of the Insound office. And so, apparently, did most everyone who read Pitchfork, Stereogum, Brooklyn Vegan and the unending list of charming, if lesser, music blogs and reviews sites. Because Ounsworth steadfastly resisted record labels, we’d been delivered an initial box of twenty copies of his band’s debut album in June of 2005. When Pitchfork awarded the album a 9.0, those copies were gone within minutes. Within days we’d sold through hundreds of copies. In time, it was thousands. And, by the time it was all said and done, it was tens of thousands.
CYHSY meanwhile, leapfrogged from empty club shows to large, sold out rooms and, then, festival main stages. Live, they were fine, but no match for the record. The original quintet were all very capable musicians who looked the parts — much more so, in fact, than Ounsworth, who resembled a software engineer who’d left his cubicle to front a band of “proper Indie Rock dudes.” Even at his most comfortable, you could see how unnatural public performance was for the singer-songwriter. He’d gone straight from the basement “studio” to the biggest of stages. And, according to the history of history, it was not supposed to happen that way.
It all felt like a glitch. Not that it wasn’t deserving. That album may well have been a 9.0. But, this was not Matt Berringer or James Murphy or Karen O or Paul Banks we were talking about. This was somebody who had been dropped off at a party that he didn’t want to go to and that he really wasn’t invited to. It was like the algorithm just found him and transported him into our lives, because the algorithm knew what we wanted more than Alec Ounsworth did.
Eventually, and in part because Ounsworth resisted convention, the hoopla faded. CYHSY followed their debut with a more restless, electronically inclined record, mostly devoid of jangle and choruses. At the time, the shift seemed logical. Their popular regression seemed like the natural thing. Their briefly massive success was the accident. In the wake of CYHSY’s debut, there was a string of other “blog bands” — artists christened by Pitchfork or the greater blogosphere who enjoyed sudden and intense hype but, generally, less success. Tapes ‘n Tapes. Voxtrot. The Unicorns. Tokyo Police Club. It’s a long list of good to excellent bands who seemed bound for a greatness but who either never arrived or only briefly endured.
For his part Ounsworth and his band did, actually, endure. There have been five CYHSH albums since 2005. There was an Ounsworth solo album in 2009 and a Flashy Python album released that same year. Every one of these albums had two things in common: Alec Ounsworth was the songwriter and they were all self-released. Almost two decades after his band’s loud, but fleeting first splash, Ounsworth had proven to be musically varied but fundamentally consistent. He rarely gave interviews. He appeared ill at ease during the rare television performance. On stage, he was the diminutive, reluctant mastermind, in the hat and glasses, surrounded by men with beards and guitars who seemed far more at ease.
Of course, it wasn’t always the same. Ounsworth aged. He married. He had a child. HIs band shed members until, eventually, it had completely turned over. A decade after their debut and their headlining gigs — Ounsworth — as CYHSY — booked a tour wherein he played exclusively for small audiences in fans’ living rooms. Ounsworth described it as a way to reconnect directly with the people he made music for. But, from the outside, it seemed much more like a way to constrain that relationship — to limit the scale of performance and socialization required of him. Even then — as a husband and a father with, presumably, more rent, or a mortgage to pay — Ounsworth seemed a poor fit for the job. He was a recording musician without a record label. A public performer who cringed at publicity. An artist who ascended through social media but who appeared unsocial, if not anti-social. So much had changed in the years since fame was thrust upon Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. But, Ounsworth’s introversion was not one of those things.
Before I venture too far into armchair psychiatry, I should note that my estimation of Alec Ounsworth is not pejorative. At least, not negatively so. In almost every way, I relate to being an introvert working in an extroverts’ world. If anything, I admire his resolution. Also, to state the obvious, it’s not as though I know him. I’m just projecting — imagining a portrait in broad and impressionistic strokes. Any evidence I have relies mostly on what I have seen or read. And also what I’ve heard from Ounsworth on record. In fact, mostly from that. After his unlikely breakthrough in 2005, he has been tireless in his efforts to recede or obfuscate. Even beyond his voice — in his lyrics and songwriting — there is an unmistakable alienation. But perhaps never more so than on “The Tourist,” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s fifth album.
In 2017, Alec Ounsworth was forty, not exactly a young man and certainly no longer a precocious young adult. The origins of “The Tourist” are unclear. Some indications are that Ounsworth played almost all of the instruments while elsewhere it’s suggested that a new permutation of CYHSY, featuring touring members, played a part. Whatever the credits may be, one thing is clear: “The Tourist” is an album about the estrangement from self. It states this from the outset — on its cover, which sports a black and white illustration of a detached hand, holding up a theatrical mask, drowning under the crests of crashing waves. Five albums into his career (seven if you count the side projects), and stuck between creativity and domesticity — between semi-fame and complete obscurity — the album’s art tells us almost everything we need to know. And yet, the songs say so much more.