ISSUE 6 APRIL 22, 2002

MUSIC:

Working through the Mysteries of Life

By Stacee Sledge

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This is the story of a musical couple in Bloomington, Indiana, who played in bands throughout their younger years, left the business for college and childbirth, then found themselves pulled back in via an 8-track in their basement and two toddlers who slumbered soundly through late-night rock and roll.

At once familiar, yet completely original, the Mysteries of Life, led by husband and wife team Jake Smith and Freda Love, defined its sound early on, and it has found ways to keep it inventive without straying from the core style. With focused lyrics and sensitive pop arrangements, Jake writes with a deft hand, enmeshing the intelligent turn of phrase with a warm groove.

When Freda and Jake met in the early 1990s, Freda's Boston band, indie favorite the Blake Babies, also featuring Juliana Hatfield and John Strohm, was in the slow process of breaking up.

"Jake and I met during the period of time when John and I had moved back to Indiana, but the Blake Babies were still together," Freda says. "John introduced me to Jake. They grew up practically across the street from each other, and John took me out to see the band Jake played in at the time. We were floored by his bass playing, his singing, and his stage presence. So when we started conceptualizing Antenna, we thought of Jake right away."

"I was playing in a 'mod' band in Bloomington, but it wasn't really going anywhere and I was getting ready to go back to school at IU," says Jake. "When I heard John and Freda were looking for a bass player, I decided to check it out, and we hit it off right away. Freda was too good to be true--the smartest, hottest, nicest, funniest, coolest, most talented woman I'd ever met. Sign me up!"

Antenna released the critical success, Sway, and then hit the road with fIREHOSE and Cracker. Freda eventually burned out and left the band.

"When I initially left the band, I really thought I was through with music," says Freda. "But, in retrospect, I just needed a break and some kind of reevaluation. We hurried to get Antenna going after the Blake Babies broke up, and I never felt like I got a handle on our musical purpose. All the touring we did mostly confused and exhausted me."

Freda returned to the Antenna fold after an extended break. "I came back because I missed playing with Jake and John--they were, and still are, among my favorite people in the world in every way, including musically."

The non-stop touring again took a toll--this time on the entire band--and Jake and Freda decided it was time to leave music behind for good.

"Antenna had been hard, and we ended up feeling pretty disconnected to the kind of music we were making," says Jake.

"It was partly a kind of aesthetic uncertainty, combined with road-weariness, and, perhaps most significantly, a desire to start a family," says Freda. "We felt pretty certain at the time that we wouldn't try to pursue a career in music and we both immediately went back to school."

Jake and Freda had quit their partying ways before things got out of hand.

"We didn't have the good fortune of smoking crack and throwing sinks out of hotel windows," Freda says.

"One of the challenges of being in a rock band in the '90s was not becoming a walking cliché," says Jake. "In a strange way, it felt much more transgressive and exciting to have a baby and then smoke crack and throw sinks out of hotel windows," he jokes.

The couple married in December 1993, right after the dissolution of Antenna. Despite their best intentions, the musical break didn't last long. "Jake was effortlessly coming up with some beautiful new songs, and, within a few months, we had accidentally formed the Mysteries of Life in our living room," says Freda. "We were very content with the concept of establishing ourselves as a local band, having babies, and finding a new way to make a living."

"It felt really good to switch gears and try and find a way to make music that felt more comfortable and fun," Jake says of that time.

"Then, ironically, we got signed to RCA," says Freda. "Maybe we should have told them to leave us alone, but we couldn't resist." The first full-length Mysteries of Life release, Keep a Secret, and its follow-up, Come Clean, were released in 1996 and 1998, respectively.

There's a near seamless continuity between each Mysteries of Life record, though small changes exist that make each new work a progression.

Keep a Secret had a stripped down feel, while Come Clean was more a transition from "very modest lo-fi band to Big Budget Studio Act, while still keeping our identity," says Jake.

RCA brought in wunderkind producer Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Pete Yorn) to re-tool a few Come Clean tracks. The resulting album was a critical smash (Ira Robbins of Trouser Press named it his number two pick for 1998), but RCA failed to put its support behind the band, and a wide audience eluded them. Shortly after the release of Come Clean, the label unceremoniously dropped the Mysteries Of Life from its roster.

The couple continued to make music, while Jake moved on to graduate school and a teaching position and Freda taught Yoga and continued her college coursework. On top of their Mysteries of Life duties, the two regularly sat in with a handful of local bands. Freda also hit the road in 2001 with the reunited Blake Babies.

Jake and Freda put their less-than-satisfactory major label experience behind them, teaming up with Bloomington friend and ex-Vulgar Boatmen leader Dale Lawrence to create their own label, No Nostalgia. The first release is the latest, self-produced Mysteries of Life project, Distant Relative.

There are some new-to-Mysteries of Life sounds on Distant Relative. "The new sounds are partly by design and partly by necessity," says Jake. "We didn't have a big major label budget, so we were forced to work when we could on friends' computer studios. Not having the luxury of time in a big studio also meant we decided to loop some things--drum beats etc. But this was also the plan going into it. I'd been listening mostly to rap, dub, and techno, and decided that it wasn't fair for rap producers to have all the fun, and wanted to play around with some new approaches. The last things we recorded ("I Just Bet" and "Distant Relative") are the most radical departures, but also the places I felt like we were just hitting our stride--I wanted to start making a whole new album at that point."

The Mysteries of Life have had a considerable amount of critical success, but popular success has been harder to come by. When asked if mass appeal is important in the bigger picture, Jake answers: "It would be easy to say that doesn't matter, but I think it really does to a certain degree. I would have been really happy if, say, Come Clean had struck a chord with lots of people. But you have such little control over that kind of thing. One thing you figure out on a major label is just how little control you have over things on that mass level. Mostly we'd just like to achieve a level of success where we could keep making records."

Jake and Freda both enjoy the close-knit musical community surrounding Bloomington. "The local radio station, WFHB, is so great, and there are lots of like-minded folks around here. The lead singer/songwriter in the Vulgar Boatmen is our good friend and also our biggest influence, which is nice!"

The future for the Mysteries of Life will involve more of the same. "We plan on recording more and playing more shows," says Jake.

"Some of my favorite musicians and artists have found ways to combine writing about what they do with their work--people like John Cage, Jean-Luc Godard, Brian Eno. I like trying to balance multiple roles and careers--writing about music and making it. It's not very original: All rap DJ's are also historians and scholars. Also, we like the idea of being a kind of 'school' or 'collective' with our pals the Vulgar Boatmen and our friends who work with us on the label and Web site. We're also planning to try and do some creative work on local radio here."

Parenthood, music, school, teaching. How do they manage to do it all? "I got a Palm Pilot for Christmas, which helps," Jake says with a laugh.

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