As a songwriter from Brooklyn's fructuous indie underground, Dougie Poole has been blurring the lines between anti-folk and cosmic country ever since he put out his first EP in 2016.
When it came out, Olneyville System Special was a little lo-fi country pop masterpiece that introduced the world to Poole’s wry storytelling and razor-sharp takes on the uncertainty of modern life as a first-generation Millennial. The two albums that came after it only built on his reputation as one of country music’s great misfits.
Now, with the release of his third album, The Rainbow Wheel of Death, he pulls us ever deeper into his strangely comforting universe. Like a friendly arm around our shoulder as we stare fearfully into the future from our sofas, Dougie Poole is the kind of fuzzy philosopher we all need as we battle our way through the neo-liberal capitalist pre-apocalypse shit state that is life in 2023.
On the back of the new album, and just in case you aren’t yet familiar with him, here’s 10 things to know about Dougie Poole.
He released the critically acclaimed Wideass Highway in 2017 before his breakthrough album The Freelancer's Blues in 2020. While the previous two albums told stories about uninspired Millennials languishing in dead-end jobs and no-good relationships, the new album opens up his universe to take on more ageless concerns like mortality, love and the passing of the time.
Dougie Poole’s new album The Rainbow Wheel of Death nods to the colourful spinning pinwheel that appears onscreen whenever a computer's application stalls. For Poole - who found himself working as a freelance computer programmer once the pandemic brought his touring schedule to a temporary halt in 2020 - it's also a reference to the holding pattern that's left much of society feeling stuck, unable to move ahead in an uncertain world.
"It's about waiting: to feel something new, to go somewhere fresh, for the world to move past its current challenges," he explains.
Yes, we’re still trying to make “anti-country” a thing. Dougie Poole's music has been described as an "intersection of experimental pop and outlaw country” so it was no surprise when his name came up a lot when we were investigating “anti-country” last year.
Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, the singer grew up in Midtown Manhattan which puts him pretty much at the heart of the anti-folk movement too, so who better to be an ambassador for our fledgling sub-genre?
"I think humour is an important part of country music, whether it's right out front or hanging out in the back," Poole says. "Humour is the reason country music can get away with delivering heavy emotions, because it wraps that heaviness with something that may be easier to digest."
“One song that comes immediately to mind is George Jones' ‘The King is Gone (and So Are You)’, which is about a man getting so drunk that he starts talking to a Flintstones jelly bean jar his lost love left behind after moving out. So dumb, but so smart! And so devastating!”
Once hailed as the "patron saint of millennial malaise" for his sardonic wit and topical, tongue-in-cheek songwriting, Dougie Poole has always served up his peculiar brand of country heartbreak with a wedge of dry humour and a side of straight-to-the-heart sincerity.
Whether he’s telling a tale of dissatisfaction and alienation in a mid-level office job like in ‘Vaping on the Job’ or with the simple poetry of lines like, “Sometimes you gotta be the bug, it’s true / But sometimes you’re the windshield, too” in the sweet-natured lament to fading love, ‘Natural Touch’, Poole always delivers his heartfelt country songs with a wry smile and a cheeky wink.
“This record came together really quick,” Poole says. “I hadn’t written much for a couple years - I got a full-time job at an underwear website during the pandemic - but then I cranked out a bunch of tunes really quickly in winter 2021 and recorded them shortly after with my neighbours.”
His neighbours just happened to be Frankie Cosmos collaborators Katie Von Schleicher (Purple Mountains, New Pornographers, Neko Case) and Nate Mendelsohn (Market) and together they helped flesh out those early demos.
“We went down to Katie’s childhood home in the Baltimore suburbs with a bunch of gear and a crew of players and we tracked the bulk of it in a week,” says Poole, explaining how recording all nine tracks live with a band allowed him a newfound ability to let go of control. “It was just really great getting everyone under one roof for a while; eating together, playing music during the day, and watching movies together at night.”
“I think this album is the most collaborative record I've made,” he says. “I didn't have all my ideas fully formed when we went in to record and so I ended up sharing a lot of the creative decision making with Katie and Nate and with the members of my band. Previously I'd obsessively write every bar of every part, and I think even when that music is being played by a band, you can kind of hear that it's all coming from one place. I didn't realize until this record what a relief it is as a songwriter to just hand over the song and let good musicians do their thing. This record feels looser and airier to me for that.”
But then again, in a funny way he kind of was. Apart from being an art handler and a freelance computer programmer at various times in his life, he’s always been making music in some way.
“I guess I've always liked a good pop song,” Poole says, trying to explain his journey from the light melodic folk-pop he grew up listening to through to the cosmic alt-country he’s made his name with. “I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell. Then in my 20s I was in a kinda noisy, kinda skuzzy rock band for a while called Cool World with two of my best friends. We had so much fun playing loud riffs, and it was great, but I was honestly never too good at thinking too abstractly about music.”
“I think I was always sort of subconsciously dragging us away from dissonant and abstract stuff back to pop music song structures. And when I finally started bringing in these pretty little songs I was writing, we couldn't really figure out how to play them together, so I started trying to figure out how to play them on my own. And I guess more and more for the past 10 years or so whenever I dig down and try to make the music that is in my soul, it just comes out sounding like country music.”
If you thought you recognised his milky baritone then perhaps you might have heard it halfway through Drugdealer’s seminal Raw Honey album. Poole sings lead vocals on the beautiful slacker pop ballad, ‘Wild Motion’.
Despite being Jewish and self-admittedly not hugely into festive music, a couple of years ago Dougie Poole felt strangely compelled to write a Christmas song for some reason. It was called ‘Cancun Christmas Morning’ and it’s a mash up of two classic country music song tropes – a song about tequila and a song about Christmas.
“Every country star from the last, like, 50 years has a song about tequila in some way or another, and then a Christmas song,” he told Ben Schwab from Drugdealer and Sylvie in conversation at the time. “I just kind of smooshed them together.”
And we mean loves.He admits to probably having seen the TV show a thousand times. He knows the whole thing inside and out and his girlfriend often jokes that he should do an art installation wherein he recites the entire series from memory.
“In my opinion, it is the funniest show on television,” he says. “The writing is so funny and also tragic, and the characters are so rich! And it gets better and richer every time I watch it - I always notice something new. In my most private, dorky moments, I will yell ridiculous things at the screen like ‘It's fucking Shakespeare!’”
The Rainbow Wheel of Death is out now on Wharf Cat Records