'You do things when you're able to do them': Amy Abts has made her first solo album in 17 years
I met Amy Abts in the late-1990s. We both always seemed to be shelving in the fiction section of a Barnes & Noble store located in Rochester's gorgeous old Chateau Theater. She was always good for a yarn: her background as a mime, her encount...
I met Amy Abts in the late-1990s. We both always seemed to be shelving in the fiction section of a Barnes & Noble store located in Rochester's gorgeous old Chateau Theater. She was always good for a yarn: her background as a mime, her encounters with store regular Art Garfunkel, how her sister was dating the Dutch consulate's son.
I believed about 20 percent of it. I didn't give a rip about the other 80 percent. A good story is a good story, and she's the master. Funny, theatrical, an eye for the absurd.
At some point I realized that these stories were all true. They would be verified by, for instance, actually seeing Garfunkel settle into a chair on the store's main level with a stack of books and a drink from the cafe.
These days, her fantastic stories are medical. Chronic pain, fainting, the seemingly sudden emergence of a tumor on her wrist. The tedious process of ruling out various autoimmune disorders, the realization that she's allergic to 60 percent of the medications that could treat her pain. Surgeons have cut into her skull twice, and they might again. She was this close to getting a pacemaker. Don't even try to talk to her in her left ear.
'THE SUICIDE DISEASE'
Abts' medical history is a complicated narrative. She was in the Duluth band State Champs in 2006 when she realized she couldn't hear anything. Her left eardrum had to be reconstructed - but that didn't stop the crazy, intense pain. Like someone was poking her in the face with a knife, she said, or an electric shock - diagonally across her left cheek and mouth.
"It took a good three years, and that's the hardest thing," she said. "They have to rule out every single other thing. It was a diagnosis of exclusion, which most rare things are."
Ear problems, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and other major neurological disorders.
In the meantime, she was in and out of emergency rooms. Normal painkillers don't help with nerve pain, and she was allergic to the anti-seizure meds.
Turns out it was trigeminal neuralgia, nickname: "the suicide disease."
Abts had surgery. They put teflon between her main cranial nerve and the veins and arteries around it. But then it started happening to other cranial nerves.
"Obviously they can't operate on all the cranial nerves," she said.
With this has come ancillary issues. It has affected her balance, which ultimately resulted in a broken wrist. She has brain damage to the cerebellum from one of her surgeries. When she started fainting during flare-ups, her doctors were worried it was a heart issue.
This time, she didn't get the bad diagnosis. It was just the effect of that crazy thunderbolt of 10-out-of-10 pain.
Abts said she has a pain flare about once or twice a week. She has to stop life, dig into her Netflix queue or one of the hundreds of books she reads in a year. Send rapid-fire text messages to friends. (The girl might have teflon in her head, but her thumbs are quite nimble.) She can't hold a full-time job - though there is a touch of irony to her part-time gig. She works as an actor at a hospital, presenting symptoms and scenes for young doctors to work through and diagnose. Her medication - and there is a lot - affects her cognitive skills. And if her pain lasts more than 10 hours, she has to find her way to an emergency room.
On good days, she's good. High functioning.
"Like today," she said in a phone interview. "I wake up, I'm feeling good, I'm going to the Y because I don't know if I can go to the Y tomorrow. You do things when you're able to do them. There's a degree of uncertainty. I can't plan for very much."
Abts recently took advantage of some pain-free living to make her first solo album in 17 years.
"Fifty-Fifty" is a collection of songs written in the past decade, a period that includes a three-year creative drought where all she could handle was the day-to-day basic functions of living. But now, she finally had a collection of songs that were ready to be heard.
"I feel like the songs deserve and if I don't record them, I'm not doing justice by them," she said.
"Fifty-Fifty" was scheduled for release in the fall of 2017, but, well, she had to have a tumor surgically removed from her hand, and she wouldn't be able to play during the recovery period.
Abts recorded the album in Duluth with some of her old bandmates filling out the sound and Jake Larson handling the technical parts.
She has a 1990s aesthetic. Her voice has an indie-rock girlishness. She sounds like flannel and fishnets and thick-soled boots. She could duet with Juliana Hatfield. It's befitting of a woman who once wrote a song about how she could kick Jewel's ass. It's sort of the "Jessie's Girl" of her back catalogue.
As for "Fifty-Fifty": The song "Lost it Good," was written right when her health detoured. "I'm ashamed I'm sick," she sings. "Swear it's not in my head/Can't get out of bed." There's fatigue with a side of slow resignation. "Hooverville," a slice of Seattle-living, is upbeat and catchy and deserves a rom-com montage. The title track has a Willy Wonka on a boat-ride feel. "What choice do I have but to keep on?" she sings - which sort of matches her approach to life: live in the moment.
"Which is much easier said than done," she said. "I have to do what I can in the moment, and I have to expect there are going to be days when I can't do anything. That's a challenge I live with."
IF YOU GO
What: Storytellers: Amy Abts, Marc Gartman, Peter Miller and Adam Herman - singer-songwriters will talk about the meanings behind their songs during this low-key event hosted by Mike Novitzki of The Current.
When: 7:30 p.m.-10 p.m. April 5
Where: The Red Herring Lounge, 208 E. First St.
Christa Lawler is an A&E reporter for the News Tribune.