When Richard Edwards fronted Margot & the Nuclear So And So’s, the rising young indie-rock star was known for his depressing lyrics and sad overtures. That was over a decade ago, before his divorce and brush with a potentially fatal disease that forced him to stop performing.
Now, Edwards doesn’t just sing about tragedy—he has lived it.
Edwards’s new solo record, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, is set for release on Indy’s Joyful Noise Recordings label, and he has another full album ready for later this year.
At 33, he has grown up a lot since he first embarked on the Margot project in the mid-2000s. And the maturity shows in his latest effort.
“This is really Richard at his finest,” says Tyler Watkins, who was the bassist for Margot and also played on Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset. “It was clear this wasn’t a Margot album and—just, wow.”
Margot & the Nuclear So And So’s was one of the most successful bands to come from Indianapolis in the 2000s and at one point looked to be on the verge of breaking out nationally.
The group’s first full album, The Dust of Retreat, was released in 2006, and then they signed with major label Epic Records. In 2008, they performed live on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
In retrospect, though, Margot’s 2008 follow-up effort seems to have been doomed from the start. The band squabbled with Epic and ended up putting out two versions of their second album: Animal!, which reflected Edwards’s vision for the record, and Not Animal, which followed the label’s direction. After a tour, nearly the entire band quit due to financial difficulties. “We were doing something that was unsustainable,” says Watkins. “There’s not much to go around when you’ve got eight mouths to feed.”
Margot left Epic, the remaining band members decided to move to Chicago, and in 2010, they put out album number three, Buzzard, on Edwards’s own label, Mariel Recording Company. Free of string arrangements, their sound had a new grittiness. Watkins describes it as the product of a couple of guys trying to make a record after their band just quit.
“The band, for all intents and purposes, from the beginning, was me and a gang of buddies here and there that would change and morph,” Edwards says. “My 20s had ended, and that band kinda felt like my 20s.”
Right before the tour for Buzzard started in 2010, Edwards started getting sick. No one could figure out what was wrong with him, and the band marched on with a mysteriously ill front man. “On that tour, I’d lost like 40 to 45 pounds, and that’s when I realized, I’m done having some motherfucker tell me to eat yogurt—something is going on,” says Edwards. Margot’s 2012 album, Rot Gut, Domestic, is partly an exploration of Edwards’s sickness and the havoc it was wreaking on his life. (“My guts rottin’ out, I get paranoid,” he wrote in the song “Ludlow Junk Hustle.”) His health deteriorated to the point that the band had to cancel a 2014 tour for what ended up being the band’s final record, Slingshot to Heaven.
After years of battling with stomach problems that by 2014 had caused him to lose 40 pounds and vomit whenever he attempted to sing, Edwards was finally diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease clostridium difficile colitis, also known as C. Diff. He gave his last performance with Margot on Record Store Day at Luna Music in 2014 when he was at his sickest.
“I don’t know if I ever felt sicker than I did at Luna on that day,” says Edwards. “I’d been sick for a little while, but that was when I woke up the day before and realized something was different. I almost called Todd [Robinson, Luna’s owner] and canceled it, but I figured, Fuck it, we should do it. We have a new record coming out. It was the start of a real rotten experience.”
Edwards started working on what would become his new solo record in 2015. Nearly finished in June of that year and originally titled The Devil is a Dog, it was to be the sixth Margot album. Unsatisfied with the effort, he scrapped it before it could be released, which is classic Edwards. He has spent his entire career throwing out albums and starting over when he felt like he could create something better.
It was around that time that life turned around. Now diagnosed with C. Diff., he flew around the country for treatment with the aid of MusiCares, a charity for musicians in need of medical attention, and got his first surgery. He was eventually declared C. Diff.–free and started getting healthy again. He was back on his bicycle, writing music and ready to head to Los Angeles to rerecord the album—which, by then, was beginning to feel like something more personal than a Margot project.
Right before he left for L.A., he had a flare-up and became sick again. He lost weight and needed a cane to get around. He spent a month sleeping on a cot on the floor of the studio in L.A. Once he started recording, it was clear the music was a departure from the band, both sonically and spiritually, and he decided to make it a solo project.
“It’s hard to describe it. It’s not a break-up, because the band, for all intents and purposes, from the beginning, was me and a gang of buddies here and there that would change and morph,” Edwards says. “My 20s had ended, and that band kinda felt like my 20s.”
He worked with Rob Schnapf, who produced Elliott Smith’s posthumous releases and Beck’s Mellow Gold album. Schnapf had listened to Margot’s Slingshot to Heaven and loved it. When he heard that Edwards was looking to record a new album, Schnapf wanted to be involved. And he watched as Edwards’s health deteriorated again.
“We got pretty far along, but in about three weeks time he lost about 35 pounds, and it was really obvious he had gotten sick again,” Schnapf says. “He was basically on the studio floor with a blanket.”
Edwards stuck it out, though, and they finished the record. When he returned home to Indianapolis, his wife had divorce papers waiting for him. If Edwards knows why the relationship unraveled, he won’t say. Whatever the case, he moved into what he describes as a “flophouse” with Watkins and lived in the basement before returning to L.A. to record the album a third time, this time focusing on the breakup of his marriage.
“That’s sort of when I rewrote some songs,” says Edwards. “The album kind of changed again. That certainly wasn’t the plan at the beginning. It cost a lot of money to go back and re-record half another fucking record.”
After all the work, challenges, and crises—after two full years and three versions—Edwards and Schnapf are relieved to have a finished record they are both proud of. Schnapf describes the sound as something that gets under your skin; the melodies and imagery come easy, but require multiple listens to be fully appreciated.
Indianapolis-based label Joyful Noise Recordings is officially releasing Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset on March 31, but limited-edition vinyl pressings are already available at some local record stores. (Joyful Noise previously put out The Bride on the Boxcar—A Decade of Margot Rarities: 2004–2014, a five-LP retrospective box set, and Edwards contributed a track to the label’s 2015 compilation 50 Bands and a Cat for Indiana Equality in 2015.)
For Edwards, the release of Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset comes with a feeling that the clouds are lifting. He’s feeling well enough to play shows again and, maybe more important, just live his life. “I do whatever I want,” says Edwards. “I go to L.A. when I want. I go to New York when I want. I write a lot. I hang out with my kid a lot. I basically do whatever the fuck I want.”
Doing whatever he wants, however, doesn’t necessarily include the grueling tour schedule he logged with Margot. He recently played a music festival in Iowa and will return to the stage in Indianapolis on April 22 as part of Luna Music’s Record Store Day festivities.
“You know, when we get back and play shows, I want to make sure they’re good shows,” says Edwards. “I’ve played a lot of shows that could have been better, because I felt like, I’m dying. I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to kill myself to make it work anymore. If I can get my shit together and go play shows, that’s what I like doing, and I miss it. I’ve sort of spent my whole life destroying myself physically and financially and everything else to make music. I’d like to hold on to what little bit I have left in the health department.”
He spends time hanging out with his daughter, who sang on the Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset track “Rolling, Rolling, Rolling.” She is part of why he doesn’t want to go out and tour like he used to.
“I don’t want to be away from her for months and months at a time, unless I’m making something,” he says. “It’s one thing if I’m away for two months making something that will last forever. It’s another if I’m not around her for two months because I’m playing shows.”
By “something that will last forever,” Edwards means Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, which brings a constant audio undercurrent that is very different from the sparse soundscape of Margot, the band he left behind to put himself out front for an album that is more honest and direct than anything he has done before.
“I hope it sounds like being lost on an ocean,” says Edwards. “That’s what 2016 felt like to me.”