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Remembering Scott Hutchison

The first time I heard Scott Hutchison’s voice was thanks to a friend. She’d recently gotten into Frightened Rabbit, the Scottish indie band for which he was the frontman and songwriter, and thought I might like them, too. So, she sent me the video for “Head Rolls Off,” from the band’s celebrated, adored 2008 sophomore album The Midnight Organ Fight.

Sometimes you hear a song, and it takes a few listens until you start liking it. Other times, you hear a song for the first time and it works like a key. It unlocks this whole other realm. “Head Rolls Off,” and the album it came from, played like one of those latter moments, when you find a sound you didn’t know you were looking for. The mixture of ragged indie and traces of alt-country or Scottish folk was just enough to make the album feel like something else, like a voice calling out with shared language but delivered in some different dialect, a sound that was simultaneously new but also immediately felt like home.

This was, of course, mostly thanks to Scott’s presence and the way he wrote: brutally honest, self-effacing and depleted, but channelling sins and anxieties and confessions into the sort of swelling, open-armed catharses that can envelop and aid a listener when they most need it. That’s a specific level of communication that invites a special bond between listener and artist. And, sure, that could simply describe the fan relationship as it always exists. But Frightened Rabbit were one of those bands that encouraged a stronger attachment. Scott bore a unique songwriting gift. Even on other albums where he wasn’t writing as personally, there was a sense of commiseration and communion alike.

Maybe for you, it was the charge of “Head Rolls Off” as well. Or maybe it was the shout-along refrains of “The Loneliness And The Scream” or the rousing chorus of “The Woodpile” or any number of moments small or gigantic across the deeply human and earnest body of work Scott left behind, not just with Frightened Rabbit but also with his solo album as Owl John and, more recently, his new band Mastersystem. The effect was the same: For those who found some kind of solace in Scott’s music, the opening notes of whatever that first listen was felt like you’d just discovered a kindred spirit.

And so, the first time I actually met Scott Hutchison, I knew his voice. I felt like I had already known him for years. As if we’d been friends, some years or lifetimes ago, and rather than getting to know each other, we simply had some catching up to do.

The occasion was in the summer of 2015, at Aaron Dessner’s old house in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, a place that had become hallowed ground in a certain circle of the indie community, as the National member had opened his doors to other artists. He was producing what would become Frightened Rabbit’s fifth album Painting Of A Panic Attack, and I was there to work on profiles of both them and the National.

There’s a funny, somewhat unspoken aspect to this whole enterprise of interviewing artists, the main aspect of my job during the years I’ve spent as a music journalist. Here is someone’s life’s work, often with an immense amount of themselves plainly exposed and on display, and our task is to have a conversation about it for maybe 45 minutes, maybe a couple of hours, maybe a day. It’s their job to try to explain or clarify or contextualize it, my job to then take it back and tell a story that feels true. And so you have to talk about things that, say, if you had just met someone 30 minutes ago in a bar, you would not talk about. You have to delve into some of the most sensitive parts of a human being’s life, while being aware of the finite amount of time you have with them.

My point is that it is a completely unnatural manner in which to meet a person, and sometimes, even after you’ve done it dozens of times, it’s easy to walk away thinking you’ve made some greater connection, when in fact you will write your piece and never see this person again while they will go on to open themselves up to the next interviewer. This was never the way it felt with Scott, and I’d imagine anyone who met him under the loosely professional veneer of our little music world would say the same. I would venture to guess he befriended a lot of journalists over the years.

The Scott I met that day was pretty much the Scott I knew from there on out: self-deprecating but warm, dryly hilarious, quick with a giant hug or a giant laugh. At the time, he was living in LA and I was about to be out there for a bit doing some work. We exchanged numbers and planned to meet up at a festival. Over time, I’d been a fan for whom Scott’s music had resonated, and then I’d been a music writer tasked with chronicling the newest chapter of a band that had meant so much to me. But later on, for the last couple years of Scott’s life, I was lucky enough to call him a friend.

From those first hangs in 2015, we crossed paths thanks to the bizarre jobs we’d found for ourselves, meeting up in one city or another on one tour or another. We were both travelers then, and we had conversations about how we were supposed to shape our lives, about how we were supposed to do right by the people close to us when we were always off to the next place, when we always had an escape. In perhaps more cynical moments, I’d think I looked up to some of my musician friends as big brother figures out of some shared sensibility — like Scott and I both liked surrounding ourselves with new people to stave off some ever-present loneliness. I have no idea if that was true for him or not. But either way, friendships are often forged on less.

One of the nights that sticks out in my mind now came in September of 2016. Scott had recently gone through a rough patch, culminating in a string of tweets in which he called Frightened Rabbit a farce, and himself a bad person. They were the sort of messages that leave you concerned, and we spoke around that time. But we didn’t speak about it, didn’t reference it exactly, when we saw each other a little over a month later. We just hung out, talked, caught up. Part of that was me detailing my own rough patch at the time — a period of existential drift that was hard to shake, I guess. When I had to leave, Scott said goodbye, and then stopped as if he’d just realized something. He stood up and gave me a big hug goodbye. “If you ever need to talk you know where I am,” he told me. “You’ve been there for me, I’m there for you,” he finished, leaving the reference unspoken but knowing we both understood.

He didn’t need to say that. He never needed to say a lot of the things he said. But that was the way he was, in his music and in his life, gregarious and always caring even when he dwelled on the places where he felt he’d left wreckage behind. Maybe he did in some places; we all do somewhere. But the Scott I saw more often was the kind of guy you could see only sporadically and still know he was looking out for you.

Clichés have run rampant in my head today. The kinds of platitudes or whatever that come to you when you don’t know how to process death, especially one as tragic as Scott’s. The idea that he gave so much to everyone else that he had nothing left for himself. The idea that, maybe now he’s finally found some peace. The fact that he had the gift of making so many other people around the world feel less alone, whether through a song or an affable beer after a show, and yet that aloneness wouldn’t stop plaguing him.

Another cliché: He seemed so good the last time I saw him. This time, he was in town for two shows on Frightened Rabbit’s tour marking the 10 year anniversary of The Midnight Organ Fight. And those shows were something else. Playing their landmark album in venues much smaller than usual meant that the band had attracted diehards who had been along for the ride, the types to shout along not just to every single lyric but to the melodies of guitar breaks. There was something wistful about the whole thing of course, but also triumphant: the hopeful aspects of the album amplified and overshadowing its broken characters and narratives, because it was 10 years later and we had all made it through, were all moving onto the next thing. I don’t know that I’d ever heard the band sound better, and Scott was the same frontman we’d always known and loved, cracking jokes and sliding mock self-deprecation monologues in between some of his most emotive songs.

We tried to hang out after the first show, but missed each other — one of those instances of “Wait, you’re in that part of town now? Ah, fuck it, there’s always tomorrow.” At the aftershow the next night, he was in good spirits. He had a new album with a new band, and seemed pleasantly surprised about people getting into it. Considering the self-consciousness that could come out of touring an old favorite album rather than a new one, he was pretty upbeat there, too, as we talked about how much it clearly meant to people and how fun it had been for the band. Frightened Rabbit even had their own hometown festival coming up.

I couldn’t stay long that night, though; it had been an exhausting couple of weeks. “See you at the next one, then we’ll really hang,” I said to him. I hate that I left. I hate that I went to sleep instead of making the last time I saw him last for a couple more hours.

That was just over two months ago. And he seemed so good then. I don’t know what happened since; I don’t know if you could know. These kinds of demons … they’re so cyclical, so insidious. They come out of nowhere, but never totally go away. It’s one thing to understand that. It’s another for me to try and square my memory of the last time I saw Scott with, for me at least, the suddenness of his death.

All day, I’ve seen people online sharing their favorite Frightened Rabbit songs in tribute. As they should: It’s a wonderful body of work that has changed people’s lives for the better. It’s the legacy Scott leaves behind, more of a legacy than many of us, and he deserves to be remembered through it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. I couldn’t pick a song. I see death in titles where it doesn’t belong. The embarrassments and banalities that made Scott’s songs so relatable don’t feel like enough to sum up his work today. I would hear foreshadowing in lyrics from five or 10 years ago.

Every time I try to turn on a Frightened Rabbit song, each time my finger hovers over the play button, I can’t bring myself to touch it. Maybe once I’m done writing this, done saying whatever I’m trying to say, I’ll be able to. People might be going back, and finding comfort in tragedy through Scott’s music, the same as they found comfort through it during crises before. I want to be able to do that, too. But right now, I fear it’s going to be a long time before I’m ready to hear that voice again.

When I saw the news today, my first reaction was numbness. I’d been worrying, from a distance across an ocean, for two days, worrying that the worst news would be the news that did eventually arrive. I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond. I thought about all the people who knew Scott longer or better, I thought about his family, I thought about the other members of Frightened Rabbit — Billy, Andy, Simon, and of course Scott’s brother Grant. I thought about how colossal their loss is. It didn’t, and still doesn’t really, feel like it’s my place to feel loss, too.

But then I saw all the reactions online. I saw the fans sharing stories like mine. I saw the outpouring of grief, and of love for this band, for Scott, for the work he left behind and for the person he was. It’s a strange facet of our digital era, everyone grieving online, together, when a beloved celebrity or artist dies. It’s a stranger one still when the tone of it is as if everyone is mourning a friend, from far-flung corners of the world, together. Scott was one of those guys, whether you knew him or whether you listened to his music, that always felt like he was there to talk. Now, in at least one way, he isn’t. And that’s a loss that is felt by many, many people.

On the train ride to work today, I was in a fog. I didn’t really have total awareness of or control over my thoughts, as I tried to perceive this reality alongside life continuing on around me. But when I walked up the stairs and into Manhattan, something odd happened. I felt every detail acutely, the light glancing off tall glass building faces, or the fact that a street in Midtown for whatever reason had this seafood smell like a restaurant near the water in Barcelona. I think memories were collapsing together, in the abstract, but then one came rushing back to me concretely. Of a different time of my life in New York, walking these same streets but almost 10 years ago in the dead of winter, surrounding myself in the music of Frightened Rabbit during one of those rough patches.

As countless others have said today: Scott’s music got me through some things then, and then again years later, and again after that. It’s some mixture of gratitude and devastation, remembering those times and wondering if he could never find the same salve for himself.

Back when I first heard “Head Rolls Off,” there was a line that stood out, the line Scott repeats over and over with a sense of resolve, the line that makes it one of his most enduring anthems. “And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth,” he sings. And he did that. He did that when his music helped me with some run-of-the-mill turmoil at one point in my life, and he did that when his music literally saved other people’s lives. He put so much of himself into those songs, and those songs in turn made those tiny changes all over Earth. And that’s the thing: Eventually, there were a lot of those tiny changes, and those tiny changes had ripple effects, and soon the changes weren’t so tiny at all. Scott left something bigger behind. I hope, deep down, some part of him knew that. I really hope he knew that.