“I don’t even know if I would have been able to survive it 10 years ago,” muses Gary Jules over the unprecedented success of his cover of Tears for Fears’ 1982 hit, “Mad World,” arguably one of the most unlikely songs to ever cause a nationwide sensation. Topping the U.K. charts over Christmas, the 35-year-old Los Angeles singer/songwriter has gone from largely unknown West Coast troubadour — selling CDs out of his bedroom — to headliner of sold-out shows, late night television guest and soon-to-be opening act for Bob Dylan. “I’m trying to leverage this little bit of success into stunning debt,” he laughs, squeezing in an interview while balancing his books during a tour stop outside Cincinnati.
Given his 15 years of songwriting and touring, Jules can appreciate the oddity of a decidedly unpolished demo, recorded for less than $100, becoming a transatlantic hit. Of the innately haunting vibe of his rendition of “Mad World” he says, “It’s a total mystery to me.” The song was chosen by Jules’ longtime friend and collaborator, Michael Andrews, as he was putting together the score for 2001 standout independent film Donnie Darko. “We had only run through it a couple of times, and Mike really isn’t a trained piano player,” says Jules, “so it has a real fragile tone, as far as the backing music is concerned. It’s very sparse and dark. And I was just sort of interpreting a song that I’d loved for 20 years in a totally different way.” Still, the breakthrough, as unlikely as it was, couldn’t have come at a more improbable moment for the songwriter, who’d gone back to school to finish an English degree in lieu of any obvious commercial opportunities, recording his songs in his free time and dreaming of what could have been.
Now he has a new record out, Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets. “It’s definitely sort of a song cycle in that I wrote all of the songs around the same time and I was in one particular mode,” he says of his second solo release. “I had been landlocked in L.A. for a couple of years, didn’t have any money to go anywhere, and didn’t really have a place to live when I was recording it. I was just sort of sleeping on a friend’s couch and thinking about the last 10 years of my life that I’d spent trying to get a record deal. Or the years up until I’d had my deal, and then what had happened…” he finishes on a ominous note.
What had happened, of course, was Jules found himself one of the many casualties of the great music-industry mergers of the new millennium, leaving him helplessly trapped in a creative limbo, dropped from his label but unable to work on new material or even distribute his own. “It’s more broadly about disappointment and the things that happen to everybody in a situation like that,” he says of the album of fragile folk-tinged songs posited on the balancing point of resilient hope and exhausted despair. “It was about coming off a big high, finding out it was a big low, and then waking up stuck in a particular place.”
But the irony of having a hit off an album so informed by the disappointment of having your dreams wriggle from your grasp is not lost on Jules. “It’s extremely ironic,” he laughs, adding that the unfortunate circumstances only added to the starving-artist allure of the singer/songwriter life. “[The British press] always make it out that you’re a victim, when, honestly, I was a victim of timing, if anything. Being caught in the fray of a gigantic merger between Polygram and MCA is like happening to be in the fault line when two tectonic plates move against each other. You don’t take it as an insult; you just figure you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all of a sudden there are people writing stories about being on the road in the U.S., and it’s got this kind of folk status, that sort of road-weary, Johnny Cash kind of vibe.”
And while he admits the reality of the singer/songwriter life is far less romantic than what people who have to sell magazines would like it to be, Jules knows he has to enjoy the moment while it lasts. “Like I said, you think through it a million times when you’re a kid, thinking about how it will be. At this point, I’ve been working so hard and for so long. I know that ‘Mad World’ isn’t a hit because I’m the greatest thing on the planet. I think it’s timing, it’s luck, it’s a lot of the work that I’d already put in. The fantasy end of it is largely gone for me. I’m a very grown up person. That makes it very easy for me, though, because I can focus on making songs and playing them for people. I’m kind of playing catch-up on the industry side, but I’m pretty good at the living side at this point.”