Listening to my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist in May 2018, my hem was snagged on the briar of Connie Converse’s singular voice and lilting guitar. Compared to the phosphorescent pop that had played prior, the song was diminutive; a melancholic, yet wryly playful sound. Herein laid its inimitable charm. The entire album, How Sad, How Lovely, wanders through lyrical thickets of loneliness, sexual longing, and the desire for simplicity and beauty, doing so through surreal and fantastical images of fisherman’s wives, playboys, lilies and magic trumpets.
I was stumped. Where did she come from? Undeniable are the distinctive references to 1950s Americana, with Converse meticulously combining the “stylistic hallmarks of rural blues, country, gospel, folk, pop, jazz, hillbilly, parlor songs, and early jazz,” as Howard Fishman contends. Yet simultaneously, the nostalgic, lo-fi production coupled with the album’s lyrically and emotionally raw, female-driven sound was reminiscent of mid-2010s indie singer-songwriters Karen O, Angel Olsen and Mitski. The disjunction between these elements drew my assumptions away from the possibility of Converse’s work being truly vintage.
As Go-Betweens singer Robert Forster astutely observes, in the 1950s, women “weren’t writing songs so desperate or pure of feeling, or so flippant and wild.” And the album’s Spotify release date was only 2009. The sweetly hand-painted album cover struck me as a classic bit of slightly-cringe early-naughts-does-retro branding. Even her name; Connie Converse. How naff, how American, to name yourself (alliteratively no less) after a brand of shoes. Here’s the kicker. The whole album was recorded in the early 1950s. Mitski should be reminiscent of Connie Converse, but her enduring obscurity has rendered her timeless; a ghost whom we play dress-up with in the present.
Aiding this is Spotify’s inherently hauntological structure. Through the platform, dead artists become ghosts, who, in the words of French philosopher Colin Davis; are “neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” In Connie’s case; the ability to ‘follow’ her, the section for merch and the “Artist’s Pick” recommendation create the sense that she controls and curates this cyber-space, yet she also feels removed from it. Hauntology is a term first used by philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx (1993). At its core, hauntology captures the sense that time is not experienced as linear. Mark Fisher writes that time “has a way of using us to repeat itself,” and this can be seen in our collective obsession with nostalgia. TikTok users’ appropriation of vintage love songs into Gen Z anthems, including the mildly terrifying “Tonight You Belong to Me” (1956) by Patience and Prudence, and the resurgence of film photography are but two examples of this. Technology plays an integral role in this collapsing of time, as it allows for seemingly infinite possibilities for recycling and repetition.
Connie Converse is ghostly indeed. When she moved to New York, after dropping out of her second year of college, to pursue a writing career, she taught herself guitar and began writing and recording songs. The cartoonist Gene Deitch invited her to his music night and recorded her work, and she performed once on CBS’s “Morning Show,” but she never enjoyed the glow of commercial success. A week after her 50th birthday in 1974, she drove away from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, never to be seen or heard from again.
Her music lay deep in fairy tale slumber until 2009. Squirrel Thing Records released How Sad, How Lovely after one of the producers heard Gene Deitch play an old recording of Converse on a radio show. Converse’s ‘new’ EP Sad Lady was released in 2020. If you listen, perhaps she’ll float out of her grave and perform on Jimmy Fallon, a translucent hand plucking her guitar.