Eric Ziegenhagen spent his high school and college years composing his humble, enigmatic folk tunes in places where he was sure no one could hear him. He plucked out simple melodies on a guitar he barely knew how to play, and he croaked out unadorned lyrics in a meek, untrained voice. "I assumed it was too simplistic, that it wouldn't sound any good," he says. "I assumed I was fake."
There's nothing outwardly striking about Ziegenhagen: he's a quiet, gawky performer with plain midwestern looks and a self-conscious laugh that makes his whole body jiggle. But he has a talent for conjuring up plainspoken folk tunes; though onstage it seems like he's still singing to himself, he performs with a genuine earnestness. He strums his father's old guitar flat on his lap with two strings removed, and steers clear of most musical trends--two of the songs he admires most are "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Amazing Grace."
The stage isn't an unfamiliar place for Ziegenhagen, who's worked as a playwright and director since arriving here in the late 90s. But he's only slowly allowed the spotlight to hit him as a musician, moving from gigs at the Lakeview coffee shop Uncommon Ground to an opening slot for folk icon Bill Morrissey at Schubas last October. Now that his self-released debut CD, You're Talking to the Wrong Guy, is out, he's begun to feel a little less fake.
Along the way, he's made enthusiastic fans of other local musicians, including Andrew Bird, Kevin O'Donnell, Edith Frost (whom, according to her blog, he's now dating), and Steve Frisbie. "The simplicity of his playing and songwriting is something that, I think, only strikes the jealous and cynical as a weakness," O'Donnell says. "His songs are gifts," Frisbie says. "I feel better each time I hear them. My wife says he sounds like a little boy and an old man at the same time. She's right."
Ziegenhagen, 34, grew up in Minneapolis, where his parents moved after serving in the Peace Corps in Samoa and the Philippines. His father owned a guitar, and when eight-year-old Eric took an interest in the instrument, he was allowed to play it--as long as he didn't take it out of its case. "So I got used to plucking it like that, flat on its back," he says. "I didn't really get anywhere with it, but by the time I was old enough to actually hold a guitar, I was used to playing it that way, and nobody was teaching me any different. . . . I still don't know how to play chords and stuff in a standard way. At all."
In 1988 he moved to central Ohio to study English at Kenyon College. His roommate there had a guitar, and at odd hours when nobody was around he would take it out and strum quietly to himself. His playing improved substantially when he realized that instead of trying to approximate standard fingerings he could simply tune the strings to an open major chord--F sounded good--and change chords by sliding his thumb up and down the fret board.
One night not long after this epiphany, a friend let Ziegenhagen borrow an acoustic guitar. He promptly tuned it to an open F, and they began writing. "We turned on a tape recorder and in 45 minutes we had like eight songs," he says. "Just made them up, one after the other. I was doing my thing, but he was filling in the rest with his guitar, which he could actually play, and it was the first time I thought, 'Oh, these sound like songs.'"
Inspired, he attended an open mike at a local coffee shop, but he was using the guitar of a friend who was also playing, so he didn't retune it. So for his public singing debut (outside of playing Captain von Trapp in a junior high production of The Sound of Music) he accompanied himself on a single guitar string. He didn't have the courage to play any of his own songs; instead he sang Michelle Shocked's "Fogtown" and Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears," plucking out the bass lines.
Music soon took a backseat to theater. Ziegenhagen began writing and directing plays at Kenyon; in 1994, a year after he graduated, he moved back into his parents' house and began staging small projects in storefront theaters. Like his songs, his productions were rudimentary and minimalist; props, sets, costumes, and lighting design didn't interest him half as much as two people talking about seemingly ordinary things. "The most important days in people's lives come out of a little conversation in a bar or some small experience, instead of 'the day I lost my arm fighting in a battle,'" he says. He wanted a finite number of details divorced from any obvious context for his plays, and he used the same tactic when writing lyrics. "It's almost dreamlike, in a way," he says. "In a dream, you don't remember a shelf full of books and all the titles. It's just a book on a table. But there's something behind it, something resonant in there."
Secretly Ziegenhagen kept writing songs, "permanently borrowing" his father's guitar and setting aside time every day to write. He simplified his approach to the instrument even further: with open-chord tuning, the fourth and fifth strings could go. "Those two strings are redundant," he says. "They'd be tuned to two of the same notes I already have, and it would be a muddier sound."
In 1995 he screwed up his courage and signed up to perform at Balls, an underground variety show in Minneapolis hosted by actress and musician Leslie Ball at the Southern Theater, built in 1910 as a vaudeville house. "Sometimes you had the Mystery Science Theater guys doing stuff, or [author] Kevin Kling would come by once in a while," he recalls. "A guy with a guitar was a bit of a novelty. And it was a theater, so I could just sit in a chair and play."
Ziegenhagen tried out a tune he'd just written, "Can't Hold Love at Bay," which would become the opening track on You're Talking to the Wrong Guy:
They say there's a wildfire
High upon the ridge
It tore through Joe and Nelly's house
And burned down Stone Creek Bridge
A chopper fills the sky with spray
I stood on your front steps and watched
You can't hold love at bay
Ball immediately fell for Ziegenhagen's songs. "They're sweet, haunting, genuine pieces," she says. "I think he's a really honest artist. I'm so uninterested in flash or production. I get enough of that in my government--I don't need it in my art. I mean, Tom Waits can't sing either, but I'm much more interested in what he has to say than someone with polish but no point of view."
Ziegenhagen moved to Chicago in 1997 and quickly became part of the local fringe performance scene. When he directed The House on the Lake by the Woods Near the Ocean, based on a short story by Curious Theater Branch cofounder Beau O'Reilly, he placed the actors behind the audience, where they read the text deadpan into microphones, leaving the audience to stare at a stage that remained largely unpopulated for more than half an hour.
In 1999 he began appearing at Hoot Night, a showcase at Schubas where local musicians each played two songs that fit a particular theme, like Blondie vs. Bowie, Body Parts, or Canada vs. Ireland. "Whatever it is that I do, it seemed to work really well in that room," he says. But it wasn't until last year that he felt comfortable about recording an album. "I've known a lot of people who have worked hard and studied hard to be musicians, who've taken lessons and bought gear and learned the trade," he says. "So for many years I didn't feel like I was doing the same thing they were doing."
Recorded and mixed in nine straight hours, most of the 14 songs on You're Talking to the Wrong Guy feature only Ziegenhagen's quavering voice and rudimentary guitar playing. Elizabeth Lindau of the local band Canasta contributed mournful violin to four tracks. It's a raw album--he's straining for notes well beyond his range throughout--but purposely so. "There's a live recording of Sinatra doing 'Imagination' in Paris sometime in the 1960s, and he loses his place and sings, 'Imagination is silly / You . . . willy-nilly,'" he says. "And I love that kind of thing. Not because it's ridiculous or wrong but because it's live and human. And it's not his only recording of 'Imagination,' so he can get that part right somewhere else."
Between a day job editing financial research and his music, Ziegenhagen's decided to drop theater work for the moment. "For the last year or two I've been thinking a lot about the perishability of theater," he says. "An unrepeatable live experience can be great. But it's so slow to build a career out of things that disappear."
Eric Ziegenhagen, Steve Frisbie
When: Fri 1/28, 6:30 PM
Where: Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia
Price: $5 suggested donation
Info: 773-227-4433, www.hideoutchicago.com
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.