Photo by Jane Montalto.
Head over to the border of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens, and you’ll find a small building standing alone, bordering a cemetery. That’s Purgatory — a woman-and queer-owned bar with a name that pokes fun at a possible afterlife. When you enter, the stairs are worn in, reminiscent of an older home, and the hallway is bare. Going upstairs and opening the creaky door at the top unveils a secret universe — a room with a small, intimate stage illuminated by purple, blue and red lights and a mesmerizing disco ball.
The night of Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 was a special one at Purgatory. After opening sets by musicians Grumpy and Jodi, the crowd turned quiet and attentive when singer-songwriter Al Menne got on stage and took a seat. These days it’s become the norm for fans to sing louder than the artist at concerts, but this felt strikingly different. The crowd stared devotedly at Menne when he closed his eyes to sing songs accompanied mainly by his guitar, and the crowd hung onto every word, taking in each detailed story Menne told through song.
The concert at Purgatory served as an album release celebration for Menne. His debut album Freak Accident was released on Sept. 22, 2023. Although this album was his solo debut, Menne has been the lead singer of indie rock band Great Grandpa for years, so he’s no stranger to the music scene. Despite this, Freak Accident marks a big difference for Menne in comparison with his past projects — all of the songs credit him as the sole writer.
“The band and a lot of my other musical experiences have been more of a collaboration on writing, or what I’m bringing to the table is the artistic delivery,” Menne said. “I’ll be singing somebody else’s song that they wrote or writing a couple of lyrics in a chorus, but the rest of the song somebody else has written.”
Through a mixture of autobiography and creative writing, Menne paints pictures of various moments in his life across the album. Confessional tracks like “What U Want” feel like reading someone’s diary, exposing the secrets they promised never to speak of — ”You were wasted, confessing over/How you cheated with a past love/Crossed my heart I’d never tell anyone.” Menne’s songwriting process involves a lot of time journaling, but he admits that even what seems to be true might not be completely accurate.
“I think that even just the way that people remember their own memories is kind of an embellishment in a way,” he said. “When you look back on a memory from childhood, you’re not quite sure if it’s something you’re remembering verbatim, or you’re remembering it through a story you were told. So it’s sort of a game of telephone that seeps into your brain.”
Even if you experienced something first hand, it is very likely that the other person involved has a completely different perspective. That doesn’t make one person right and the other wrong — it is just a fact of life that we all have unique perceptions of each experience.
“The human memory is very fallible, and everybody has their own little experience of what is happening around them, which is kind of fun,” he added.
The opening line from the album’s lead single, “Kill Me” — “Take it from me, I’m no mystery” — feels very indicative of Menne’s approach to vulnerability in music. As a songwriter, or any kind of creative, drawing inspiration directly from one’s life and feelings leaves you exposed to an audience wider than close friends and loved ones.
“There were definitely multiple moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, I think I’ve said too much,” Menne said.
He even had times where he felt the need to lessen some of what he said, but he would reach out to a friend to get a second opinion before doing so. “Everybody that I asked was like, ‘Dude, go for it, whatever, it’s art, it’s fine.”
Menne explained that, when it comes to creating music, he enjoys the collaborative manner in which a song can take shape and transform into something outside of himself. This can be heard through the team of musicians who contributed to the album, including Christian Lee Hutson, Jay Som, Hand Habits, Jodi and more.
“I feel like then it becomes a different art form,” he said. “It’s still like this vulnerable thing that I wrote and made, but I’m not the only one who had their hands on it.”
“Freak Accident,” the title track and fourth single, has an accompanying black and white music video that features Menne playing a runner named Freak running a race against a man, known as Dogman, wearing the head of a dog mascot. Dogman catches up to Menne and grabs him by the foot, causing him to fall down onto the track. Finally, Menne is able to get up and run away from Dogman. At the end, Menne is surrounded by triumphant fans, motioning for him to get up and join them in celebration. This is the happiest part of the music video, and it comes when the song’s outro is repeating what is, on the surface, a sad sentiment — “I’m a freak accident/Head-on collision, just waiting to happen.”
But maybe being a freak isn’t such a sad sentiment to Menne. “My personal identification with being a freak is just, in an internal way, taking back the feeling of, ‘Fuck, I don’t feel like I belong in a lot of different pockets of my life,’ or ‘I just don’t feel normal,’” he said with a laugh. “And sort of being like ‘Well, let me lean into it a little bit and just own it.’”
He also noted the feeling of otherness that comes along with identifying within the spectrum of being queer and that being in a community that might feel the same way is comforting.
“I feel like the more you talk about those feelings, and the more open you are about anything in general, the more you’ll be magnetized towards people who feel a similar way,” he added.
Menne acknowledged that, at its root, “freak” is sort of a funny word, and that he can’t help but sprinkle in some humor to his stories. That’s the human experience. Even the saddest moment could have a moment of humor in it.
“So I feel like calling yourself a freak is a silly way of saying, ‘Alright, who’s with me?” Menne said.
Menne also said that “Freak Accident” was one of the songs he was most looking forward to playing at Purgatory. Something magical happened when he did. The crowd was illuminated by the refractions of blue and purple light off of the room’s central disco ball, and they were now even more attentive than before, quietly singing along throughout the song. Once Menne — joined by Jodi — got to the outro, the audience’s voices grew a little bit louder. After singing the lines himself for a couple of bars, Menne motioned to the crowd, encouraging them to sing louder. The small room swelled with everyone chanting, “I’m a freak accident/Head-on collision just waiting to happen.” It was a cathartic release of energy and feeling. Those who might have felt how Menne describes in the song were screaming it, joined by a group of others doing the same. It was a beautiful display of how sometimes we might feel isolated in our feelings, but in reality there’s a huge group of people screaming along with you. It was an unforgettable moment.
In the future, Menne hopes to release more solo music. “I am planning on working on another album, this coming year, maybe even this winter. I’m starting to get some of the songs together now, which is fun,” he said. He plans on working with Great Grandpa around December and January.
As for his current favorite song off his debut album, it’s the “little guy” — “Feeling/Meaning.” The track clocks in at a quick one minute and three seconds. Though short, its theme is powerful. “I wrote it as a way of self-soothing a little bit, and I think it still holds true,” Menne said.
You don’t have to give it meaning
Just lay into the feeling
Someday it’s all gonna be
Water under something
That you just can’t see
“I hope that it’s a helpful message to other people,” he added. “Just like, ‘It’s all good, dude. Just chill out.’”