The Story Behind Every Song On S.G. Goodman’s New Album Teeth Marks
Just under two years ago, the Kentucky singer-songwriter S.G. Goodman started to generate buzz around her debut album Old Time Feeling. Produced by fellow Kentuckian Jim James, Old Time Feeling was one of those albums that resisted easy categorization. Its deeply Southern theme and aesthetic might make it easily scan as country, even though it wasn’t. Some songs were rock, and other songs definitely weren’t. Sometimes artists like Goodman now get lumped under the amorphous (and, to some, equally annoying and reductive) term “Americana.” Whatever it was, Goodman had proven herself a striking new voice, offering songs full of heavy emotional reckoning at the same time that they wrangled with people’s stereotypes of the South in an effort to portray a more nuanced portrait of Southern identity.
Now, Goodman is back with a sophomore outing called Teeth Marks. The album continues to expand and deepen her sound, with everything from the spare and gorgeous title track to shadowy, gut-wrenching two-part centerpiece “If You Were Someone I Loved/You Were Someone I Loved,” to twanging pleas in “The Heart Of It.” Ahead of its release, we caught up with Goodman over Zoom to talk about each song on the album, how Teeth Marks seeks to catalogue all the ways in which love of various types stays with us, and how we learn to move forward carrying those memories. Now that you can hear the album for yourself, read our conversation below.
1. “Teeth Marks”
You’ve discussed how this is about the “phantom limb” in love affairs, or in unrequited love. What made you want this as the opener setting the album’s themes up?
S.G GOODMAN: Sonically it made sense to have that one as the first track. It was a bit of a different move from my previous record. You’re right and this song is more focused on unrequited love and the idea of how powerful a person’s imagination can be when it comes to speculating another person’s feelings — it can be so powerful that you make a really good story for yourself. As far as a theme, I felt the album as a whole should start with “Teeth Marks,” because I felt the idea of love or the lack of love in so many different arenas when it comes to the human experience… We’re all walking around with the marks, with the scars. As the album progresses, there are tracks that get away from romantic love but I’d say still lean back to the theme of love leaving its marks on you in one way or another. That’s why I started with that track, setting the mood.
When you first hear it, it seems melancholic, but the more I listened to it I got something more like an acceptance of moving on with those marks. Is that song already in that headspace, or is it taking place in a rawer moment?
GOODMAN: I would say with the imagery that’s used in that song, by having a good day at the park and these memories, it kind of involves the good along with it. Which was maybe the proof you would use to make up that the love was more than it was, but at the end of the day it’s still a good memory. It leans towards the complexity of all the different emotions you could feel, which I think is still where the album is going. It’s not all bad. It is unrequited love, but also taking stock in the things that got you there.
2. “All My Love Is Coming Back To Me”
Right out of that, you have this uptempo rock song with a sort of triumphant title. To me, it felt like this immediate about-face. You had a quote about not writing a lot of positive music but wanting to have a song like this for yourself, being welcome to good things coming back into your life.
GOODMAN: Absolutely. That song, for me, is kind of the ever-going mantra. Not to get hokey or whatever, but just the power of positive thinking when it comes to what you’re calling into your life. I don’t mind that it was such a complete 180 thematically from “Teeth Marks.” I feel like that’s just human experience, right? Ups and downs and these little glimmers of why you should continue moving forward or what you have to look forward to.
Ultimately, I also wrote that song thinking about my live performance. I do a lot of banter in my sets. A little bit of sarcastic… I mean, some people would say it’s comedy, I’m not sure if I want to label that. I don’t want that pressure on myself. But it is difficult to get up there and play a set of really emotional songs. I think people listening to my music should know that not only is their experience more complex than just the bad times, but mine is too.
Was this a song that immediately started out as a rocker, or do you have everything in a more sparse form and play with what could go in which direction?
GOODMAN: This one came to me in the form that it’s in. It was born a rocker. I was pleasantly surprised and chased it down. I wouldn’t be a producer’s favorite artist to work with, because I’m not normally open to taking something that would be a ballad and turning it into a rocker. It’s hard for me to get out of my own way sometimes. But, luckily, this one was born a rocker. [Laughs]
3. “Heart Swell”
GOODMAN: When the song was forming in me, I was just grasping for ways to describe the feeling you get when you’re going through heartbreak. I think it’s amazing people can still write about that shit. Imagine all the songs that have been written and are being written now about heartbreak. I leaned into it, tried my hardest to find images that felt, one, the most true to myself — crop fires and things like that. And the things I thought people could most easily feel, drawing out the empathy of it.
My dad’s a farmer, I’m a farmer’s daughter. When I was I think 14, he was burning off one of his fields, which is a typical practice — helps keep down bugs and helps prepare the soil for the next crop. On this particular day, the wind shifted, and his truck stalled in the field, and he was severely burned all over his body. According to the doctors, if he would’ve taken a breath while running through the flames, it would’ve done that internally and he would’ve just died. It’s funny how many things fire can mean, with purification or destruction.
A lot of people won’t have that deep of an experience with it when I say “crop fire,” but it is a really strong image for myself. I love to try to include images that lean back into my rural roots, where I am and where I come from. I had a lot of fun letting those moments come up for me in that song.
On Old Time Feeling, there were a lot of direct analyses of Southern identity, or of how people perceive it from the outside. Was it more like weaving it in as little totems for Teeth Marks?
GOODMAN: Yeah, there’s lots of that. I just think it’s important for me — or what I feel called to do, is promote Southern identity as complex as it truly is.
4. “When You Say It”
GOODMAN: This one is interesting in how old it is. I think I might’ve written it in 2010, and it’s had a lot of different forms. I think all artists would agree with this: When you’re in a studio, you don’t always tap into studio magic, but when it comes you gotta go with it. My engineer and co-producer Drew Vandenberg had gone out for dinner and me and the boys were sticking around eating in the studio. I walked in from outside and I just had this shuffle beat, which you find in there, in my head. This is in a different key than other versions have been.
I called in my drummer from eating his sandwich, and my bass player who’s always noodling on whatever instrument was already in the room, and I said, “OK, I need you to do this.” I clicked my phone on, and we worked out that version right there. As soon as the engineer came back in, I said, “Get in there, we gotta get this down right now.”
As far as lyrics, I always say this about songwriting: A song will go about its business, and if it’s something you remember maybe you’re meant to remember it. It’s not like I have super emotional ties, at this point in my life, to these lyrics. But apparently they’ve always held up. It’s been interesting throughout my career, to see how it’s taken shape. My favorite thing about this song was this new life it was given in that moment, and that we captured it.
I know some of the other songs here date a while back as well. Do you do that a lot? Carry songs for years and years?
GOODMAN: Oh yeah. I’m not a factory when it comes to writing. I really do believe… a lot of people are very pretentious when it comes to what a good song is. I’m not a classically trained musician, I don’t have 17 chords in a song. Nobody who’s in the throes of music theory is gonna pick my music out and call me some kind of composition genius. And I’m fine with that. Many people have built careers on three chords or less, whatever.
But my thoughts and feelings on songs… If I walked into a bar and saw one of the best guitar players in the world, but I walked out of there and couldn’t remember what they said, well who gives a shit? [Laughs] I always listen to songs I remember later on down the road, or that I feel haven’t told me everything I need to know about what they’re supposed to be.
5. “If You Were Someone I Loved” / 6. “You Were Someone I Loved”
The centerpiece of the album is this intense two-part saga revolving around the opioid epidemic.
GOODMAN: When it comes to “If You Were Someone I Loved,” I just felt from its earliest moments — which were probably in 2015 — the mood of the music I was hearing was going to call for a serious message. Because it’s such a heavy subject, I was very timid in feeling I hadn’t said everything that would do the subject justice. I still can’t say whether that’s the case or not.
That’s why I ended it with, once again, a musical or vocal style that leans towards my roots. But also I ended the story with the subject of a family member who loved this person, because I felt they should have the final say about that person’s life and worth. In the digital version it’ll look like two tracks, but on the vinyl it’ll be one, which is how I intended it.
Who is the narrator in the first half?
GOODMAN: I wrote it from the perspective of the “I.” I think it’s a really interesting thing in society, how policies are made when a certain group of people have a firsthand experience with tragedy or a real visible need. We really don’t take action unless that’s the case. A lot of our medical facilities, even, were started by affluent families who had a child afflicted by a rare illness or something like that, and they said, “We’re going to put money into this and research this.”
That’s a great thing, but in a way it also says something very sad about humans and our interactions with each other. That it takes a strong firsthand experience with loving someone or being hurt by someone before we take it upon ourselves to give a shit. Lyrically, I wanted the listener, if they’re singing along, to be the person telling the subject that, if I loved you, I would act differently.
So the “if” is doing a lot of work in that first half of the title.
GOODMAN: It points out the obvious: That they don’t love them. Love is a strong word, but it’s also kind of a damning thing to say to someone. You don’t care, because you don’t have the capacity to love them.
Where you’re from, was the opioid crisis something that’s important to you or that you’ve been thinking about for a while?
GOODMAN: It definitely is. I’ve lost friends to the typical story. They have a medical condition, they’re given an opioid, it’s not monitored, they develop an addiction — which, arguably, is something the people who were in charge of that drug knew would happen, its capabilities. From someone who’s seen close friends mourn a friend, or know of other people’s experience losing someone through that, it’s been on my mind. Also the after effects of not being able to get opioids and what people are turning to — how many people are overdosing on fentanyl right now. That’s all directly related to this crisis. It’s ravaging every city in America, every small town in America. It’s such a big problem that, yeah, I think it’s been on my mind for many years and it’s definitely not gone away.
You were talking about Teeth Marks being all these different kinds of love, and sometimes that’s an absence — like in the “If” half. There’s romantic love, and then familial love here. Are there other forms of love you’re turning over across the album — like a platonic one later on in “Dead Soldiers”?
GOODMAN: There is. [“Dead Soldiers” is] about a friend who’s struggling with alcoholism, another form of addiction. Bearing witness to that. I’d say that song, as much as it has to do with platonic love, is also self love. It’s easy to love people, but it’s really hard to love people’s habits. Sometimes that drives a wedge into your ability to remain present. Sometimes self love comes in separation from those types of things. It was important for me, in that song, to express how much being faced with those kinds of decisions wasn’t from a lack of love, it was just heartbreak in a different kind of present love. Those kinds of experiences leave marks on you.
One more thing I wanted to ask about “You Were Someone I Loved” — tell me about this a cappella half. You said it was another way you were harnessing the Southern roots.
GOODMAN: If a person was reading my lyrics and they weren’t from the South or weren’t familiar with this animal, it looks like “killdeer,” but the way my people said it is “killdee.” It’s a small bird that I’m very, very familiar with. Like I said, my dad’s a farmer. On some of the turn roads, which were gravel, this bird would burrow in the gravel and have its little peppered eggs buried there and you could barely see them. The way you knew you were approaching this bird is they would raise all kinds of hell and cover these eggs up and get as big as they could. They were really fierce mothers.
In that a cappella song, I start out with who I believe is a mother figure, but then also talk about the the subject, who else has been covering them up. The world, people in white suits — I’m not trying to be mysterious there, it’s pharmaceutical companies. The killdee image, to me, if anyone’s ever experienced it, it’s something trying to cover something up with all they have.
7. “Work Until I Die”
In the press release, you talked about influences like Pavement and the Velvet Underground. It’s interesting to think of something as stereotypically urban as the Velvet Underground mixing with more rural sounds. There’s something that’s almost like, Southern post-punk to me about this song.
GOODMAN: This song, I first heard in a little bar in Paducah, Kentucky, called Happy’s Chili Parlor. My bandmate Steven got us a show there. On the bill that night was Matt Rowan, who helped make this record with me. This was years ago, 2018 I believe. As soon as I heard it, I just fell in love with it. I thought it was so powerful. Matt writes so fast. A lot of his songs, he doesn’t go through a super editing process [with the lyrics]. I recorded it that night and I’ve been listening to it for years on my iPhone. When it came time to make this record, I begged him to let me work on it with him. It’s one of the proudest things I can say personally about this record, because I’d been begging him to co-write with me for years, as a person who has played with him for 11 or 12 years.
We’re from the generation where we’re in a ton of college debt. Before I was signed, I was a musician but I was also a landscaper. We’ve worked in factories and different kinds of jobs. We’ve seen each other grow and be under different kinds of strains that the average American is under right now, especially people our age. When he said he’d be open to letting me put this on the record, I worked to tying it into where I could see the song going and its bigger message about workers’ rights.
Right now, it’s an interesting time… There are more unions being formed now than there have been in years. It’s a different situation when it comes to the price of living and how many people are renting compared to owning, compared to when unions were forming after the Depression and things like that. I think it was interesting, the way Matt wrote this song. Initially, the subject was very aware of their situation, but also having to go back to it. There’s not really a solution, necessarily, in the song. But I think there is power when people first start acknowledging their situation, especially when it comes to the hours you’re spending with your body for another person’s profit.
This feels much more directly, socially topical than any other song on the album for me. For you, how would this fit into the other overarching themes that we’ve already discussed?
GOODMAN: I would say, you know, we’re all living in a capitalist society. It’s an interesting idea, the idea of using your body for hours and hours a day and having to be thankful for how little you get from it. That’s one reason I ended that song with an old prayer my brother would say before a meal, which of course didn’t say “the company,” it said “in Christ’s name.” It’s also why I harken back to an old Alabama song melodically and lyrically.
I come from a right-to-work state. That’s been in the last 10 years. My grandfather was a union man. I have other family members who are union. Basically, when you’re exploited and then politicians put in laws that make it to where it would be harder for you to advocate for yourself, that’s leaving a mark not only on your psyche but in your body and also possibly directly impacting generations to come after you in a bad way, by keeping you in a cycle of either poverty or not being able to afford a better education. For me, it makes perfect sense how it aligns with the theme of Teeth Marks.
8. “The Heart Of It”
The opening line almost made me laugh in a way: “Oh honey, why would you ever take that trip down South/ I let you visit for free each time I open my mouth up.”
GOODMAN: I’m sure we all were with these odd social experiences during the pandemic. You know, people who weren’t phone people were now getting on the phone. When I wrote this song, in particular, was when things were getting back to more quote-unquote normal interactions with other people. This song was being in flux about what all those particular moments in time meant, as far as what I’d meant to someone else. Because, if you don’t have anywhere to go or anyone else to talk to, maybe you will talk to a girl from Kentucky on the phone all night. But as soon as you can go sit outside at a restaurant, that might go away. It was a silly song, a bit. It’s just another moment of recognition of “I might’ve been making this up” as far as what I meant to someone else.
Why do you call it a silly song? I think it has one of the more emotive choruses on the album.
GOODMAN: In the sense of what you were talking about earlier. That line, that is tongue in cheek. “And how am I gonna say to my heart/ Your vacation’s over.” Silly not that it isn’t meaningful, but yeah there’s some humor along with the absolute desperate chorus.
9. “Dead Soldiers”
We referenced this earlier, it’s about a song about a friend of yours struggling with alcoholism.
GOODMAN: I was cleaning up a house show in Statesville, North Carolina with an older gentleman, and every time he would find a spent bottle he would throw it in the trash bag and say “Another dead soldier.” The first line I wrote to this song was “He poured gasoline on the flowers.” Alcoholism is all over this song, but I wanted to find a different way to talk about it. “Dead soldiers” is a really evocative imagery and it sent me on a path of describing addiction as it is, when you’re at war with yourself and other people are casualties by proxy or there’s a lot of damage done around you in your war zone.
You were talking about the idea of self love, in having to distance yourself. Is that where this story ends? “I’ve done what I can, I can’t be here anymore,” that type of thing.
GOODMAN: That might’ve been the feeling that was happening when I was writing that song. It’s more of a message to my friend, just to let him know how it feels to witness this. “Slurred calls after midnight/ Met by a voice of one who loves you” — like, if it was a backstory, you’d know I’ve hung up on this person a million times in times where I’m putting distance or I don’t have the capacity to listen to someone drunk. There is some self love in there, and me using this song to express to this person, “This hurts.” Coming clean would be the form of self love there.
10. “Patron Saint Of The Dollar Store”
GOODMAN: I suck at naming at songs.
This is a pretty good name for someone who sucks at naming songs.
GOODMAN: This is the only one I’ve ever named where I was like, “I like that name.” “Patron Saint Of The Dollar Store” wasn’t the first image or line I had for this song. I had started another song about the idea of harvesting people’s voices on answering machines and that kind of thing. That’s what got the wheels turning with this. I honestly can’t remember how “Patron Saint Of The Dollar Store” came to me, but I do have to admit I find it gratifying that in both Old Time Feeling and Teeth Marks, the Dollar Store is mentioned. [Laughs]
Mentioning that alongside the harvest people’s voices — were there different vignettes that came together for this song?
GOODMAN: Definitely. In fact, I didn’t finish the lyrics to this song until right before I recorded it in the studio. The lines about flying back home and not wanting the window seat. Those came literally seconds before I went in there and tried to make the song. It’s a one-take song, I knew that’s how I wanted to capture it. It was kind of a piecemeal situation, a bit of a puzzle. I don’t feel bad about that anyway. Not every song is divinely inspired coming to you on a golden tablet. Sometimes you gotta work on it. I also think, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you just like writing songs and they’re fun. You don’t have to let it be a big emotional thing.
Coming home to the voicemails — I was thinking about being on tour and the lives you leave behind. People go on and you think it’s gonna be where you left it. Is there a thread there, like leaving and coming back home and embracing an image like the Dollar Store?
GOODMAN: I would say the Dollar Store line would put me in a particular place, a region. The answering machine comes from the fact that if I wasn’t a touring musician I wouldn’t have a smartphone. I’m not very technically savvy. Answering machines are something I’ve always just loved and I never get rid of voicemails from people. I have them back from 2015 on my phone. It’s a powerful thing to harvest voices of other people. It’s your own way to be a secret Alan Lomax. My line “No trace of your love is ev’r lost on me” — I’m actually holding moments of it in that machine. I think that’s where all that formed from.
11. “Keeper Of The Time”
GOODMAN: I don’t shy away from talking about my experience going through trauma therapy or still actively being in therapy, or what I’ve learned and what anyone can read about with how trauma stores in the body and our brains. On my first record, “Space And Time” was written in a moment of trauma. This song came from diving into remnants of that moment and of things surrounding it that were still present in me. It’s an experience that makes it so that I’m OK with sharing the importance of self-interrogation for your own health and the health of the relationships around you. I think, the truth is, all humans carry things with them that they don’t necessarily need to, or maybe need some help processing, or learning better or more constructive ways of living with it. That’s where that song comes from.
I was going to bring up “Space And Time,” and the idea that “Keeper Of The Time” not only wraps up this album, but also answering the first song from the first album. Beyond the fact that it has this big cathartic outro that makes it musically a good closer, did it feel like a final realization or statement after all the other little moments across Teeth Marks?
GOODMAN: It kind of leans into the fact that in your experience of gathering the marks left behind, from love or not, you’re going to be the one holding it all. The buck ends with you a bit, with what you do with that or what you choose not to do with that. But it’s important for all of us to realize we’re the embodiment. That was why that had to close this record.
Teeth Marks is out now via Verve Forecast/UMG.