“If you ever thought about committing suicide at happy hour, then this is the songwriter for you. This is the alcoholic soundtrack to my lonely, pathetic life.” — Doug Stanhope
Everyone loves a comeback story. On February 3, 2015 the underdog Mishka Shubaly releases his third full-length album, Coward’s Path (In Music We Trust Records), a document of Shubaly’s wasted years—songs he wrote about getting messed up that he was too messed up to record. Twelve tracks of drinking songs, snapshots from a life careening out of control—tunes about death and darkness and failure and the cold comfort of oblivion. Somehow, it’s also incredibly funny.
“The title refers to a time in my life where I took the path of least resistance to the end of the line,” admits Shubaly. “In one of the first copyrighted blues songs from 1912, Lee Roy White says ‘the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad.’ Coward’s Path is the sound of a bad man feeling bad.”
In 2008, singer-songwriter Mishka Shubaly was falling apart. His 2007 release, How To Make A Bad Situation Worse, had suffered the curse of being critically acclaimed and largely ignored. He had won a great fan and advocate, the renegade comedian Doug Stanhope, and Stanhope had flown him all over the country, opening for the biggest shows of his life. But his appetite for drugs, alcohol, and chaos alienated even Stanhope. After losing a series of jobs, bands, friends, and girlfriends, Shubaly finally bottomed out. In the spring of 2009, he got sober.
Early in his sobriety, he began publishing his writing with Amazon. To date, he’s published six best-selling Kindle Singles, a collection of the singles with the foreword by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, gotten his name on the front page of the New York Times, and landed a book deal. His biggest seller, “The Long Run,” a mini-memoir detailing his rocky transition from blackout druggie to sober ultra-runner has sold more than 80,000 copies and been translated into German, Spanish and Polish. Not bad for a guy who used to work off Craig’s List.
Five years later, he’s back with a vengeance. He recorded the bare bones of Coward’s Path on an 8-track reel-to-reel in an unheated, condemned squat in Long Island City in 2008, then sat on those basic tracks for years.
“My life fell apart and it took me a couple of years to put it back together. Once I was no longer out of my head, well, I was sober and I wasn’t sure what my relationship was to these songs. So they just sat on tape while my writing took off,” says Shubaly of the delay. “After four years sober, I knew that I was proud of the writing and that the songs didn’t have the power to derail me. I also knew that I had neither the time nor the patience to sit in a studio twiddling knobs to give these songs the life they deserved.”
Shubaly brought the 8-track recordings to his longtime friend, composer/engineer/producer Erik Nickerson. They dumped the tapes onto Nickerson’s computer and began talking about what to do with the songs.
“I’ve been discussing music with Erik for more than twenty years. He’s been blowing my mind for the same amount of time. I tried to hold back from giving him specific instructions like ‘play this part’ or ‘use this instrument.’ We talked about the vibe of each song and then I left him alone with it. The album drifted to me in the course of a year in rough mixes that we’d bicker over. We developed a vision of what we wanted things to sound like, sort of The Flamingos playing a Rolling Stones country song on the bottom of the ocean.”
Thanks to the help of his old friend, those songs have been fully realized on Coward’s Path.
“Many times in my life,” Shubaly says, “I’ve had people I trusted say ‘just jump—we’ll catch you.’ It has always ended terribly. This was the exact opposite experience.”
The result is a record that is less stripped-down rock ’n’ roll, like his previous releases, and more ensemble work, featuring accordion, upright bass, mellotron, vibes, weird percussion, maracas, bells, tape hiss, and even the sound of a passing airplane. Shubaly’s black-hearted paeans to inebriation and annihilation shimmer with damaged glory.
“I’d like to think that with this record, I’m completing the journey I started with my first two records. Thanks For Letting Me Crash is sort of like Happy Hour – you’re still shaking off the cobwebs from the night before, kicking back, easing into the darkness with a couple of beers,” he says. “On How To Make A Bad Situation Worse, the liquor starts flowing, the night gets darker and louder, it’s starting to feel good. You know that it’s dangerous to feel good but you still get behind the wheel or drunk-dial your ex so you can let her know how you really feel.
“With Coward’s Path, well, you’ve drank the bar closed, they’ve kicked everyone else out and pulled the gate down so it’s just the bar staff and their friends. The drugs come out. You’re drinking top shelf liquor for free but it’s costing you more than if you paid for it because you’re tipping so much. Everything gets better; everything gets worse. The party turns weird. The party turns bad. Shit gets totally out of control. And then you have to stumble out into the daylight and confront what you’ve done.”
Shubaly will admit that it’s a little awkward releasing these songs into the world now that he’s sober.
“The record has a disclaimer on it and when I started playing out again, I felt like I would have to issue a disclaimer every time I played. I’ve since relaxed. Not every song has to be about where you are, it can be about where you’ve been. Not everyone needs to be sober. If you wanna destroy your life, that’s fine, go and have a blast doing it and yes, this is absolutely the record for it. But don’t come crying to me when it hurts.”
Shubaly has been back on the road with his old friend Doug Stanhope, singing, playing and performing better than ever. It’s too early to tell—Shubaly has an uncanny way of dodging success—but this broke down singer-songwriter may finally get his due.
“Forever a favorite! Sublime.” — Johnny Depp