“The front line of what it is to be human”

Finders keepers: Brothers Peter (left) and Davy Rothbart take inspiration in other people’s lost and cast-off notes. Davy co-created FOUND Magazine and penned the essay collection My Heart Is an Idiot; Peter records music inspired by found notes. His most recent is You Are What You Dream.

FOUND Magazine’s 10th anniversary tour stops in Asheville

who: FOUND Magazine 10th Anniversary Tour
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, Dec. 13 (8 p.m., $8 advance/$10 day of show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)

What does collecting a decade's worth of lost, misplaced and throwaway notes do to a guy? Does all the ephemera of the world overwhelm or depress? If said guy is Davy Rothbart, the co-creator of FOUND Magazine, those castoff words (and photos and cards and tickets stubs and doodles, but mostly words) serve as inspiration.

And sometimes as mysteries: "On the bus or on the street, I find myself gazing at faces and arbitrarily assigning certain notes to certain people," says Rothbart.

But mostly inspiration. Rothbart's brother, Peter, recently released his third solo album, You Are What You Dream, its tracks sparked by FOUND letters that left their mark on the singer-songwriter. The poignant, “A Child to Call Our Own” evolved from a letter (published in FOUND No. 6) discovered in “a burnt-out shell of a car, abandoned on a roadside in Hawaii,” says Davy. “This woman was writing a letter to God. She’d just had her second miscarriage and was understandably devastated. Peter imagined what it would be like to be the husband or partner of this women, trying to give her support while grieving himself.”

The album isn’t all heart-wrenching. “Don’t Let the Hard Times Rule You” is a sweet, upbeat life-advice-and-harmonica tune;  “When I Rise” is equally uplifting (a theme throughout the nine songs) — “When I fall, let me fall, like a leaf, without regret. Joyfully,” Peter sings, his gentle tenor enhanced by a sweeping violin accompaniment.

Davy says that the decade of reading the lost notes of strangers has given him “nuanced understanding.”

“It leaks into my creative output,” he says. “I feel like I’m on the front line of what it is to be human.” But, where this is evidenced by the quiet hope and dignity encapsulated in Peter’s songs, Davy parlayed the raw stories and insights into his own collection of essays (culled from personal memories and misadventures). His book, My Heart Is an Idiot, is as hilarious as it is unsettling. Like the story about how, as a kid, he used to prank his deaf mother. Or the one about how, when he had a broken ankle, he peed in bottles to save unnecessary trips to the downstairs bathroom, eventually amassing more than 100 bottles — which he then used to terrorize a scam artist.

Davy’s father (a character in the latter story) liked the book so much he made a promo video in the form of a rap. Most readers and FOUND fans don’t go that far but, says Davy, “People come up to me [at the FOUND events] with these sly looks. Because they’ve read these deeply personal stories, they feel comfortable sharing things with me.”

While the FOUND events still include the reading of Davy’s favorite note discoveries, he says that the addition of stories from his book along with Peter’s music has “changed the pace a little bit,” as Davy puts it. He pushes the envelope farther by inviting a volunteer up on stage to “just talk to them about life.”

“The FOUND notes, they give you a glimpse into someone else’s life, just a fragment of a story. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks,” says Davy. The stories in his book are about love, relationships and meeting strangers: “real people’s stories, instead of imagining what they’re like from the FOUND notes.”

That gave him an idea: “Since me and Peter are going to 79 cities this fall, wouldn’t it be cool to meet 79 strangers?” Hence the volunteer from the crowd.

But not all strangers are strangers. Davy reports that, on the rare occasion, the writer of a FOUND note surfaces. Once, a nattily-dressed musician named Willis Earl Beal, who’d made his own hand-drawn flyer/singles ad (FOUND No. 7), turned up at a show. Davy brought Beal (who looked just like his hand-drawn likeness) up on stage, and wound up pressing a limited release of his songs. XL Recordings heard the songs and signed Beal, who is now on tour with Cat Power.

“I think he would have been discovered one way or another,” says Davy. “But the serendipity was really special.”

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

 

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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