Music: Blissful Solitude

With new CD, Wake the Bear gets more comfortable in his solo skin

Amanda Cunningham

After 13 years with a band, Scott Cunningham goes it alone as Wake the Bear.

Years ago, when I'd meet up with Scott Cunningham — then lead singer and bassist for the local Pop/Rock trio Promenade — it was usually at a bar. Or maybe we'd hook up at his swank downtown bachelor pad, which he shared with a couple of college buddies.

But on the eve of the release of his second solo album under the moniker Wake the Bear, we arrange to meet at his new house in Pleasant Ridge. As I approach, his new bride is fussing with some flowers out front on the porch.

The house is nicely decorated, immaculately clean and perfect for young newlyweds. And, though Cunningham has never been the messy type (and this isn't quite "white-picket fence" Suburbicana), it's a far cry from all those times I remember doing shots in his kitchen.

Cunningham and his wife Amanda seem to have one of those "easy" relationships, where they appear to fit together perfectly. Obviously, as a songwriter who writes songs about relationships (among other things), Amanda's spirit and inspiration loom pretty large over the new Wake the Bear CD, If We Survive This Rapture. Fitting, as their wedding took place directly in the middle of the Rapture creation process.

That's the "ghost" of Amanda on the back of the CD.

She even contributes some backing vocals to the choral atmospherics of "Holy Moses." Chances are she checked in on Cunningham more than a few times while he was recording, since he no longer spends thousands of dollars at a big-time studio, opting instead for a small upstairs bedroom in his new home, loaded with instruments and a Mac computer, on which he does all of the recording.

And, of course, you can feel Amanda's presence in many of the album's songs, be it the lush, warm, peaceful feel of the music or the lyrics, some directly related to their relationship.

When we adjourn to Mapletape Studios (as he calls the room) to chat, I ask Cunningham if Amanda is his "muse."

"She's a muse," he clarifies, with an embarrassed, sly smirk.

After 13 years with Promenade, which included heavy industry pushes and some regional touring, he and guitarist Steve Sauer made the decision to end the band a couple of years ago. They decided to do one last album, Part 2, which turned out to be a stepping-stone to Wake the Bear's emergence.

The decision was made to record the last Promenade album on Cunningham's new recording gear. As his band recorded their swan song, he also began making his solo debut.

Cunningham professes a deep-seated love for writing and recording music, something that stretches back to childhood.

"I remember being in fourth grade and I set up this corner in my room with these old dressers and I had some Casio keyboards and I remember some Rap songs I did and there was a ballad, 'Rose of November'," he recalls, describing an Erector Set version of his current home studio set-up.

Cunningham says he misses some of the "checks and balances" of being in a band situation. But, at the same time, his newfound freedom (he calls it being "single") has enabled him to find his own voice and take chances he wouldn't have previously. That's good and bad, he says.

"There's no filter now," he says of his musical bachelorhood. "Which is great because it means I can" — as if on cue, his two large dogs begin barking up a storm —"put a dog bark on the album if I want to."

Cunningham is one of those people who doesn't seem to have a negative bone in his body. And his humbleness comes through in his self-depreciating humor. When I ask about the one piece of art on the recording room's walls — a framed poster of Prince — he quips, "It's my little shrine. It's inspiration."

When I mention that what he is doing is similar to what Prince does, recording everything himself and playing all the instruments, he kind of rolls his eyes without actually rolling his eyes.

"I'm exactly like Prince," he jokes, straight-faced. "Except he knows how to play all the instruments."

Unlike Prince, Cunningham doesn't have a giant backing band when he plays shows. It's just him. Putting together a live show has been an evolutionary one. He's played gigs in front of a handful of people at The Comet, but he has also worked in front of larger audiences, opening for people like Bob Mould and Andrew Bird.

After the release of his debut a couple of years ago, the splendid Woe Is Meat, Cunningham played shows with an acoustic and a keyboard. Gradually, he worked in loops and backing samples. Supporting this new album, he says he'll incorporate more backing tracks via an iPod, though he says he is leery of making it "sound like karaoke — I don't want it to be too much of a cheat."

In lieu of going on the road for prolonged treks, Cunningham says he's discovered the wonderful world of song licensing. He's already sold one song from his first record to a company that will shop it to TV and film.

"That totally interests me right now, the whole licensing thing," he says. "It's a convenient way to get music out there. I'd rather have recording success than have to hit the road hard."

The new album contains songs about aliens, a chicken-boy, religion and love, all back-dropped by Cunningham's velvet sonic curtain, which uses '80s synth sounds, full orchestral backing and simple drum machine beats. Rapture features his most "soulful" songs yet, as his elastic voice (from a low-toned almost-whisper to his trademark sterling, natural falsetto) and luxurious melodies give each track its heartbeat, fleshed out by the appropriate, matching backing.

He sings dreamy, gorgeous odes to lasting love over simple piano chords. But tracks like "80s Babies" and "Chicken" are more upbeat and playful, showing the more "instantly catchy" Pop aspects of his writing personality.

Despite the mix of humor and more serious topics, the whole album has a cozy vibe that, given the album title, seems to say, "The world is going to end, but we have each other so let's just cling to that." Cunningham says that he did pick If We Survive This Rapture as a title because it fit the mood, but he didn't write with that title in mind. When asked if he is worried about the state of the world, he shrugs and then thinks for a second.

"I'm cynical about some things," he finally says, belying some of the clarity and optimism of the album. "I don't think the world is ending, really ... but it might."

WAKE THE BEAR hosts a CD release party Friday at Northside Tavern with guests Wussy.