Features

Live Again At Last

Stephen Lynch is touring again and thinking about his legacy
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Musician and comedian Stephen Lynch

© 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

As far as Stephen Lynch is concerned, he doesn’t want to hear the word “Covid” again, and audiences shouldn’t expect the topic to come up much when he begins performing this month for the first time in a year and a half.

At the end of June, the Tony Award–nominated comedic songwriter announced “The Time Machine Tour” — a nationwide run starting Aug. 19 and continuing through the end of November, including two shows in Michigan. During a phone interview from his Kalamazoo home, Lynch says he tweaked the lyrics to his song “Time Machine” to address the all–encompassing pandemic and will perform it early in the show before moving on to his new material.

“I did already rewrite a very small section of a song just to reference there was a pandemic, almost because I had to get it out of the way. It can’t be the elephant in the room. You can’t not say anything," Lynch says. "I just don’t want the whole show to revolve around it. It’s a song I open with about what if I had a time machine, what would I do with it? It occurred to me the other day, if I open with this song and mention something about going back in time to create a vaccine or warn the world or whatever it is, that will get that moment done and it won’t be something hanging over our head.”

Lynch, who turned 50 last month, returns to the road following 18 months of uncertainty when the pandemic shuttered performance spaces and eliminated large gatherings. He’s seen a lot as a performer, with 25 years of working some of the biggest stages, including on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall, and with some of the most well–known comedians such as Bob Saget, Louis C.K., Mitch Hedberg, Lewis Black and more. He’s carved out a place in comedy as a talented guitarist/songwriter whose soothing voice and soft melodies run counter to his often profane lyrics about regrettable tattoos, menstruation, veganism, Satan, organ donation, sex, not having sex, the South, Jesus, the brother of Jesus, cocaine and rushing a relative to his deathbed for the sake of an inheritance, among other topics.

Lynch's creative process relies on testing new songs on a live audience. He absorbs the reactions to help improve a song for its final, recorded version — or to scrap it if it doesn’t resonate. Lynch had a lot of new songs that were ready for the road at the start of 2020 and says he wasn't too concerned about the virus initially. Just before the lockdown, he was in Las Vegas performing what was to be the first leg of his tour. He sat in a casino with thousands of people from around the country and the world, and masks and hand sanitizer weren’t part of the daily routine yet. Cut to a month later, Lynch says, and he was washing his car keys and credit cards.

“I thought I would be really creative in that time period," he says of the lockdown. "It turned out to be the opposite — I didn’t want to do anything creative. Nothing was funny. I didn’t want to re–tailor everything that I had written up to that point to be about this thing that was consuming all of our time and attention.

"So, I just sort of didn’t. I didn’t do anything. I allowed myself to do other things. I cleaned my house. I sold my house. I bought a new house. I moved into that house. I did everything to just not think about that type of thing. I figured when the time was right, I would be reinspired and the creative juices would get flowing again. And that’s what happened, especially now that I have (performance) dates to actually look forward to.”

Back to Kalamazoo

Creative juices flowed early for Lynch. Born in 1971 in Pennsylvania to a former nun and former priest, he was raised Catholic, but religion wasn’t forced on him. He playfully touched on the topic early in his career, especially on 2005’s popular studio album, The Craig Machine, with the song “Craig,” about Jesus’ little–known, trouble–making, beer–pounding brother (fictional, of course) and “Beelz,” in which Lynch sings as a flamboyant devil.

The Lynch family moved to Saginaw where Stephen became active in community theater, graduating from Arthur Hill High School’s Center for the Arts and Sciences (now Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy) in 1988. In 1990, he came to Western Michigan University to study theater, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in drama. It was at WMU that Lynch began writing comedy songs.

After working a few summers at the Barn Theatre in Augusta, he moved in 1996 to New York City, where, over the next decade, his comedy and acting career took off. He appeared on the Comedy Central network, including performing his own special for the first time in 2000, toured with some of the biggest names in stand–up comedy, and in 2006 earned the lead role of Robbie Hart in the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer, based on the Adam Sandler movie. The part led to a Tony Award nomination, among other accolades.

In 2008, Lynch moved back to Kalamazoo, also the hometown of his wife, Erin Dwight (the couple married in 2003). He starred in his second “Comedy Central Presents” special the same year, and in 2009 he released 3 Balloons, his second studio album. He followed up three years later with Lion, a double live/studio album.

In recent years, Lynch has utilized Kalamazoo for more elements of his career. In 2016, he recorded a live show at the State Theatre called Hello, Kalamazoo, which was directed by Kevin Romeo, of Kalamazoo’s Rhino Media.

His 2019 studio album, My Old Heart, features local musicians Ben Lau and Michael Fuerst, as well as longtime friend and collaborator Rod Cone. It was recorded at Ian Gorman’s La Luna Recording & Sound studio in Kalamazoo.

“It’s a good local resource and one I plan to use over and over again,” Lynch says of La Luna, where he returned this spring to record some new material.

But if you have already been looking for new material by Lynch, you might have been a bit confused to find the 2020 instrumental album Nostalgia and Hope: Heartwarming Irish Landscapes (Original Score) on Amazon or Spotify. Lynch has been credited on those platforms as the album's artist, but the work is not his. It’s by an Irish musician with the same name. This mix–up has baffled more than a few listeners, whose back–and–forth comments in the Amazon review section of the album are their own kind of internet humor.

“Every day somebody will ask me, ‘What’s this weird new direction you’re going in?’ And there will be a picture of that guy’s album,” Lynch says. “Sometimes I fess up and I say, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s some other guy.’ Then sometimes I say, ‘I want to express a different side of me, the Irish ballad side of me.’ That’s how you’ll know if I’ve gone crazy — if I actually put out an album of Irish lullabies.”

From hibernation to domination

For the last few months, however, Lynch has been riding his bicycle a lot. He grew his hair out to see “how annoyed it would make my wife,” he says, cutting it in May after the “awkward” but “fun experiment” ran its course. As he prepares to hit the road, he jokes, “I’m going from complete hibernation to world tour domination. Nothing in between.”

Lynch's credits the "genius strategy" of his agent, Mike Berkowitz, for getting the new tour on track. During the pandemic, Berkowitz would reschedule Lynch's tour stops every few months to “keep him on the books” at venues across the country, hoping everything would reopen at some point. The move is allowing Lynch to quickly resume his tour this summer, now that much of the country has received the vaccine and many pandemic restrictions have been lifted.

Lynch says audiences can expect a show of almost entirely new songs and says he’s anxious to return to the stage, anticipating a special vibe as performers and audiences reacquaint themselves. He expects a few rough spots but is looking forward to those as well.

“I’m probably going to piss myself, I’ll be so nervous. … I feel rusty and out of practice. I’ve gone through this before when I’ve had big gaps in my touring life. The audiences I play for don’t seem to care. They like it when I’m a little rusty or everything isn’t lined up or in tip–top shape. They like to see the cracks — see how the sausage is made a little bit. There’s going to be some sort of energy there, and hopefully I’ll be able to rein it in and not just explode on stage.”

As a newly minted 50–year–old, Lynch says that this life milestone has affected how he is approaching his current project.

“You start to think about making something that will last, something you want to last. Not just something you sort of did, which is how I think I started off. Not to say I don’t like some of that stuff, but I wanted to make it better. That’s what I’ve been doing. I can’t tell you there’s a theme to this material, but if you liked the last couple records, then I’m hoping you’ll like this one too.”

And like almost everyone else, Lynch is happy to finally get in front of faces.

“To me, there’s no greater joy than when you have a bunch of new things to play for people and get a reaction and an assessment for how you did. Playing the old stuff is fine, and I know people want to hear their favorite thing or whatever, but, to me, when people ask me what my favorite song is that I’ve written, it’s probably going to be the last song I wrote.

"There’s something fulfilling with starting at zero, literally nothing, and creating out of the ether a thing. Hopefully a fully realized and good thing. It’s really hard to do. It’s really hard for me to do anyway. I look forward to playing all the new material for people and getting reactions and then changing things and reworking things. That’s part of the fun of it for me. You’re not trying to get it perfect. It’ll never be perfect. I want to get it to a point where I’m happy with it, and then I can run into the studio, and that is what it will be forever.”

Stephen Lynch's Life Thus Far: A Timeline

  • Born July 28, 1971, in Pennsylvania
  • Moved with his family to Saginaw
  • Graduated from Arthur Hill High School’s Center for the Arts and Sciences (now Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy) in 1988
  • Transferred from The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., to Western Michigan University in 1990
  • Graduated from WMU in 1993
  • Worked at the Barn Theatre in Augusta in the summers of 1993–95
  • Moved to New York City in 1996
  • Appeared on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend in 1997
  • Released his debut comedy album, A Little Bit Special, in 2000
  • Performed in his first “Comedy Central Presents” special in 2000
  • Married Kalamazoo native Erin Dwight in September 2003
  • Co–headlined a tour with Mitch Hedberg from 2004–05
  • Released The Craig Machine Oct. 4, 2005 (it reached No. 129 on the Billboard 200)
  • Starred as Robbie Hart in the Broadway production of The Wedding Singer, April–December 2006
  • Performed in Opie and Anthony’s Traveling Virus Comedy Tour with Bob Saget, Frank Caliendo, Louis C.K., Carlos Mencia and others in 2007
  • Performed in his second “Comedy Central Presents” special in 2008
  • Moved to Kalamazoo in 2008
  • Released his double live/studio album Lion on Nov. 13, 2012
  • Released his live DVD Hello, Kalamazoo on March 21, 2016 (recorded at the Kalamazoo State Theatre)
  • Released My Old Heart on July 19, 2019
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Stephen Lynch Timeline

Stephen Lynch's Top 5 Singles on Spotify

  • 1. “Beelz,” 3.4 million plays
  • 2. “Grandfather,” 3.3 million plays
  • 3. “Craig,” 3.1 million plays
  • 4. “Grow Old with You” (from The Wedding Singer soundtrack), 2.7 million plays
  • 5. “Down to the Old Pub Instead,” 2.4 million plays

(Warning: Stephen Lynch's songs often contain explicit references and profanity. Not for tender ears or to play while riding in the car with your kids.)