Michael Rank's modernist home is tucked back into a sylvan stretch between Pittsboro and Carrboro, a steel-and-concrete prism that juts from the surrounding greenery. Gray and angled, the formidable four-story structure appears as though it could be the lair of some horror movie villain. The dimensions recall a refrigerator more than a ranch.
But a goat pen near the end of the long gravel driveway suggests that maybe this is a friendly place. Rank keeps a large garden here most years, and inside the monstrous masterpiece, he writes soft, acoustic songs that stem from an old heartache, not some comic-book-like malice.
Rank's home of the last two and a half years sits on a 50-acre estate he bought a quarter-century ago with money from a Warner Brothers publishing deal. It was one of the best financial decisions he ever made, and perhaps the peak of what became a drawn-out and ultimately unfulfilling music career in the almost-famous Snatches of Pink.
"I got farther than a lot of my friends were able to get, but never got as far as I wanted to get," says Rank, who turns 50 in mid-August. He is tall and slender, with scruffy brown hair. He's got a nervous but eager demeanor when he talks about his music. Still, he's easygoing and open as he sits in his sparse living room, reflecting on his disappointment over the way Snatches of Pink turned sour.
"I never really enjoyed the victories when they happened," he says.
In their heyday, Snatches of Pink shared a lawyer with Kurt Cobain. They were labelmates with The Smashing Pumpkins and Hole and filled opening slots for The Ramones, Iggy Pop, The Cramps, Steppenwolf and Soundgarden. But they never caught the big-time break Rank craved, and they fizzled out in 2007. Rank regrets being too concerned with trying to discern his next big step to enjoy Snatches of Pink's moderate success. In a way, that became a harbinger for the second phase of his musical career—the sad-eyed solo records he now makes with a loose confederation of musicians he calls Stag.
Rank maintains that the timing was never right for Snatches of Pink. He wrote noisy songs for the band before grunge hit its mainstream stride, and they put out a more sensitive acoustic record before artists going "unplugged" became a trend. Snatches of Pink returned to the discordant stuff, again missing the softer tide that was arriving. For too long, Rank refused to bail.
"I'm Joe Don't-Ever-Leave-a-Sinking-Ship to, like, a clownish degree," he says. "To a degree of, 'Dude, there isn't a ship anymore.'"
There was another reason to give it up: Rank now had a family—a long-term partner and their newborn son, Bowie. He had to change his priorities. He limited himself to playing his guitar for his baby boy, turning aggressive tunes like Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" or Aerosmith's "Back in the Saddle" into slowed-down ballads.
"I didn't want to miss a minute of that, so I just stopped getting in the van," he says. "My heart just hurt. After 25 years, I just felt really sad by my whole experience in the industry. So I stopped playing."
That didn't last: Rank's partner of seven years walked out one morning nearly five years ago. The songs suddenly poured out.
"She left in the morning," he says, "and I started writing."
In fact, since 2011, Rank has penned five albums that explore the emotional turmoil that ensued. His songs are no longer glam-and-grunge-tinged rock; rather, they're intimate and mostly acoustic, smoldering instead of scorching. With Stag, Rank explores his feelings in direct ways that he never did with Snatches of Pink. With that band, his writing dipped into surrealism. While working on his 2012 debut with Stag, Kin, Rank says he startled himself with how raw his songwriting could be: "There was definitely a moment of, 'Oh, man. Am I Taylor Swift now?'"
Rank doesn't quite swing for Swift's tell-all style, but he does sing frankly about coping with loss. Horsehair, the latest arrival in his series of emotional snapshots, uses Americana to explore some of his most direct, poignant lines yet. "I wish that I was enough so that you would stay here with me," he offers on "Trails."
Mangled enough by past relationships, Rank never built an actual band for these tunes. For gigs, he enlists whoever can play the date, whether that results in a three-piece, five-piece or more. And his songs begin at home, where he records guitars and vocals to an eight-track cassette deck, fed by a microphone he bought at a Radio Shack. He cleans them up in ProTools and sends them to friends to see who can add instrumental parts. Horsehair includes a sharp local bunch, from the fiddle of Chatham County Line's John Teer to Nathan Golub's deft pedal steel.
Mount Moriah's Heather McEntire sings on all of Horsehair's songs but one. As with those other cohorts, Rank approached McEntire as a fan. He originally only asked her to sing on a few songs, but he was so thrilled with the results that he asked McEntire to return. She appreciated the underlying darkness in Rank's lyrics, especially how he countered with intriguing hooks.
"I was needing something to kind of rock me a little bit out of the headspace I was in with finishing the Mount Moriah record—something that wasn't mine, but that I could identify with sonically," she says. "He just really believed in my voice, and it allowed me to participate pretty plurally on that record."
Their voices fit together naturally, with McEntire's higher clarity accenting Rank's low gruffness. They're mixed evenly, too, with McEntire acting more as an equal player than a mere background harmonizer. It widens the scope of Rank's former one-man confessionals.
Throughout Horsehair, Rank balances pieces of what he loves most about music: the intimacy of singer-songwriters performing alone against the organ, pedal steel, mandolin and fiddle tones he just loves to hear. He's never been able to hit that stride as well as he does here.
Rank has already started to write Stag's sixth album, but he's also trying to appreciate the results of this batch, too—something that's been a lifelong struggle, no matter the band, the style or the situation.
"Savor the moments when they happen," he says, "because you never know when they're going to stop happening."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Going steady."