Local singer’s pandemic anthem signs off on 2020 with ‘See You On the Other Side’
Watsonville’s Michael Gaither looks back ruefully on shelter-in-place in a tribute song to 2020 that evokes the spirit of the late John Prine
“Auld Lang Syne” is probably safe as the reigning go-to sentimental song for New Year’s Eve. But at least in Santa Cruz County and at least in 2020, there is one new song that will be more immediate and relevant to locals in a reflective mood this year.
Michael Gaither’s gently meandering “See You on the Other Side” is a pandemic anthem, likely to evoke memories years from now about the current period we’ll all be thankful to have forgotten. But it also cleverly functions as a kind of evergreen New Year’s ballad, a song to put to bed a tired year and to embrace a new one still full of possibilities.
The Watsonville-based singer/songwriter has just released a video of his new song, and everything about it — masks, home deliveries, hand-washings — screams 2020. Gaither and his songwriting partner John Cirillo first wrote the song back in the spring, in the early days of shelter-in-place.
“When we were first closed down back in March and April, I kept hearing people say, ‘Well, see you on the other side,’ as a way to say, we’re going to get past this somehow, at some point. And that phrase was rattling around in my head.”
Throughout much of the pandemic, Gaither has continued to play live — albeit, outdoors and socially distanced — at El Vaquero winery near Corralitos. It was at El Vaquero that he performed and refined the song and, as the end of the year got ever closer, Gaither began to feel that it was a good fit for a moment when big changes — a COVID-19 vaccine, a new presidential administration — were coming into view.
The track was recorded last summer when percussionist Henry Chadwick, a San Lorenzo Valley resident staying with Gaither temporarily to escape the fires of August, agreed to engineer the track and play drums on it, with a band that included Chadwick, Gaither, guitarist Joe Bac, accordionist Laura Hall, bassist Greg Abelar, and vocalist Eliza James, all “recording in place.”
Enter videographer Richard Newman. He and Gaither decided to re-enact the sense of isolation and dashed plans that characterized 2020, shot in black-and-white, and featuring the singer in various poses of anxiety and dejection from being cooped up a bit too long.
The song plays on the multiple meanings of the phrase “the other side,” and though Gaither insists “obviously, we’re not talking about death,” there is a faint sense of mourning in the song. Around the time that the song was first being conceived, COVID-19 claimed the life of beloved singer/songwriter John Prine, an artist who, among countless others, was a foundational influence on Michael Gaither.
“Prine was special,” he said. “Even when he was being sarcastic, it was sweet.”
In that sense, in its easy front-porch tunefulness and wry winking humor, “See You On the Other Side” is an implicit tribute to Prine, one of the music industry’s most prominent victims of the pandemic. Gaither thought fleetingly of dedicating the song to Prine but decided to let the tribute remain oblique.
“He was a big hero and a big influence,” said Gaither, “and if I can do something that leans that way even a little bit, I’ve done my job.”
Gaither, who also works as a part-time radio programmer at KPIG (107.5 FM) has been an active member of the Santa Cruz Americana music community for 20 years. Earlier in the pandemic, he shepherded a major musical project, a shelter-in-place rendition of the Grateful Dead song “Ripple” featuring an all-star team of Santa Cruz musicians including Keith Greeninger, Tammi Brown, Jamie and Kellen Coffis, Dayan Kai, Steve Ucello, Sherry Austin, Sharon Allen, Jimmy Norris, Shelley Phillips, Anthony Arya, Henry Chadwick and Patti Maxine.
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Looking ahead to 2021, Gaither anticipates that the largely dormant musical community is poised to blossom. “If nothing else, it’s been a pretty good year for songwriting. Most people can’t get out to the clubs and workshop a new song. But I know there’s a lot of new material out there. People are doing a lot of home recording, and they’re itching to get out there and play those new tunes to audiences.”
As for the music scene returning to what it once was, Gaither strikes a cautious note. “It’s going to take a while to get there. Going out, into crowded rooms, dancing, all that’s a ways off. I definitely want to get out there and play more and be around people. But like everybody else, I’m just waiting until it’s safe.”