Update: Years ago, when local singer-songwriter Steven Mercyhill first came up with the title for “Wide-Awake Nightmare,” the third single from his upcoming album Nonfiction, he had no idea how appropriate the song would be.
“The original idea came to me when, after going through a particularly rough period in my life,” he says in a statement about the tune, which just came out today. “I had awakened from a bad dream only to come to the realization that events in my actual waking life were worse than the nightmare I had just had. As I often do, I tucked the idea away in my lyric notebook to work on at a later date as I wasn't really in the right frame of mind to work on it at that time. Years went by until I ran across it again and, even then, in 2019, it occurred to me that current events were such that it would be a great time to bring that song into existence. However, this was still before what unfolded for all of us in 2020, and I am now struck by just how well it still applies to what we are all going through. Apparently, there is never any shortage of nightmares.”
The pandemic influenced how Mercyhill made the song’s accompanying music video. Rather than working with a cinematographer, a cast and a crew, Mercyhill instead decided to use a combination of scenes shot primarily with his iPhone. He combined that with some footage from an as-yet-unfinished short film he made with local experimental filmmaker Robert Banks. He also used some public domain archival footage and a smattering of stock imagery to create the very cinematic clip.
“I'm especially proud of the image in the last scene that Robert [Banks] and I created, which was shot on actual 35mm,Tri-X, black & white film stock, not digital, with Robert's Bell and Howell, 35 Eyemo — a Military Surplus issued cinematic movie camera from the 1960s which enabled us to achieve an incredibly ‘film noir’ look," says Mercyhill. "That shot is so creepy, it still gives me chills every time I see it.”
Unlike all of the other songs on his album which were recorded using professional-grade recording software on a very powerful PC that Mercyhill built himself, “Wide-Awake Nightmare” was recorded using the free program Garageband on a beat up old “steam-powered” MacBook Pro that he picked up on eBay for $165.
“I wanted to start using Garageband just for idea generation and getting basic song sketches down quickly because it's so fast and easy to use,” he says. “Garageband is only available on a MacIntosh, though, so I picked up this little Mac very cheaply and started laying down the basic tracks for ‘Wide-Awake Nightmare’ on it with no intention of using any of it for the final project. I also laid down the vocals on it with a very inexpensive microphone that I bought used for under $100, despite the fact that I own several much higher-end microphones. Once I got on a roll writing it, I didn't want to stop my momentum and, before I knew it, the song was finished. It sounded pretty good already so I didn't feel the need to re-record it on better equipment. Given the subject matter, I also liked the rawness of it. I did have it remixed though, by Jim Stewart, at his recording studio at Superior Sound as my home studio doesn't have a very good mixing environment.”
Mercyhill had the tune mastered at Abbey Road and enlisted mastering engineer Miles Showell. Aside from having re-mastered some of the Beatles work, Showell did the mastering on the Church’s big hit “Under the Milky Way” as well as several Portishead albums.
“Basically, the main reason I went with Abbey Road, though," Mercyhill says, "was to have my song and voice echoing off the same walls that have had the Beatles singing and playing within them. I just really like the idea of that ... and, of course, all kidding aside, I also knew Miles [Showell] would do a fantastic job on it, which he absolutely did. The song came out great despite the unconventional way it was recorded.”
“Wide-Awake Nightmare” is available on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, and all major streaming platforms. The music video is available on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, and on stevenmercyhill.com. Original Post 12/11/2020: Today, local singer-songwriter Steven Mercyhill released “Anesthetic,” the second song and music video from his upcoming album, Nonfiction.
The song and video follows the release of “You Are Your Own Undoing,” an ambitious music video that Mercyhill made with local filmmaker Robert Banks. That video was shot at the haunted former funeral home, the House of Wills, as well as the abandoned amusement park Chippewa Lake and the ruins of St. Joseph’s Byzantine Church in Cleveland.
Banks handled cinematography for "Anesthetic" as well.
Inspired by acts such as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Prick and Filter, Mercyhill enlisted many respected veteran musicians for the album, which features contributions from Sean Beavan (Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Pucifer), Michael Seifert (Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Tori Amos, Fountains of Wayne), Jim Stewart (Welshly Arms, Eddie Levert), Tom Baker (David Bowie, Ministry, My Chemical Romance), and Abbey Road's Miles Showell (The Beatles vinyl remaster, Portishead, the Church).
Michael Seifert and Jim Stewart did the sound engineering. Mercyhill wrote it, sang it, produced it, arranged it, played all the guitars and keyboards and wrote all the parts.
The video uses some footage from two of Banks’s films, Outlet and Reduxx.
“The song was recorded over a disjointed period of several months and, variously, was worked on in about four different studios altogether,” says Mercyhill. “I sang the first line of the first verse in one studio, and then, about six months later, sang the rest of the song in a different studio. The music video required a lot of planning and pre-production and took eight months to shoot and edit. As the central theme revolves around a ‘house of cards’ with the lead actress required to also star as all of the card faces, we had to set up two separate photo shoots just for that alone.”
Mercyhill bought outfits and props for the royalty card suits and figured out poses for each card. He then had to find a printer who could do different pictures for each of the 13 card faces in the four suits. He also had to figure out how to build a house of cards that could be put together and knocked down repeatedly.
“All of my ambitious ideas for this video were only made a reality because of the incredible talents of the lead actress Diane Ziska,” he says. “I had one scene in mind that required a female stilt walker and, as she was a Facebook acquaintance of mine, I had seen her post a few pictures of herself doing that, so I reached out to her. At first, that was to be the extent of her role. But when we met in person, I found out all the other talents she had and knew I had to talk her into being the lead because I could envision using everything she could do for different parts of the song. Foremost among her other abilities is the fact that she’s also a professional aerialist. I very much wanted to use that in my video. However, for the scene I had in mind, I knew we would need a green screen and her aerial rig is 18-feet high, and, of course, it has to have a good deal of clearance above that as well.”
Mercyhill says he knew of only one commercial studio in Cleveland, Creative House Studios, with ceilings high enough to accommodate her rig.
“So, I rented it for an afternoon and off we went,” he says. “It was, by far, the single biggest expense of the project and a whole lot of effort for what amounts to about nine seconds of footage, but it’s a really nice scene, so I’m glad we did it.”
In addition, Mercyhill commissioned Cleveland sculptor, Damian Vendetti, to create a mask inspired by the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for one, very brief scene, in the end sequence.
“I love what he created so much, it now hangs on the wall in my living room,” says Mercyhill.
The final scene in the music video was shot at the now shuttered Phantasy Nite Club.
“A lot went into the making of this song and video; hopefully, it shows,” he says.
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Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].