Musician and writer Paul McComas has been in many bands and written many books over the years, but one character —Dayna Clay — has continued to talk back to him. The protagonist of his 2002 novel Unplugged, Clay is a fictional 27-year-old bisexual rising rock star and survivor of childhood rape who may become a member of music’s infamous “27 club,” whose members include Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse.
Originally written solely as a novel in 2002, Clay has stayed with McComas for years, prompting him to first write a few songs to go along with the book; then eventually years later, collaborating with singer/songwriter Maya Kuper to create what they are calling an “Alt-Rock Musical” consisting of 12 original songs (performed by them and a full band) that go along with the novel, dramatic scenes acted out, the projection of short movies shot in the Badlands and a modern-dance number.
The mission of McComas, who lives in Evanston, and Chicago resident Kuper, together known as The Dayna Clay Project, is to entertain, raise money for charity and most importantly for them, to raise awareness. Eventually the show may be turned into a big-screen movie (McComas has written a screenplay), but for now the pair are focused on their show which will take place October 22 at City Winery, along with the simultaneous release of the updated 15th Anniversary edition of the novel and the soundtrack. McComas and Kuper recently sat down with Bob Chiarito of The Chicago Ambassador to talk about their project.
CA) You wrote this as a book 15 years ago. Did you always have a musical in mind?
McCOMAS) No. When I did the first bookstore tour, as someone with a performance background, I wanted to do more than stand and read. I memorized a lot of the text and I brought in a female singer, a drummer, and my guitar. I turned it into a 40-minute mini rock concert with some songs alternating with readings from the book. Then the project lay dormant for several years. I had some other books. But four years ago I decided that the best thing that I’ve done has been Unplugged. So I got together with Maya, who ended up becoming much more than the singer/actor of the roles. She is a 50/50 full-on collaborator of the whole project.
CA) What’s the difference between the original book and the 15th Anniversary version that is coming out on the 22nd?
KUPER) It has me on the cover and all the sheet music that we wrote for the show.
McCOMAS) I wrote and added 60 pages of extensive Author’s Notes. Also, there was a typo that was fixed. I also found a place where I was telling instead of showing and went in and fixed that. When we addressed LGBT issues, we focused a little more on gender non-binary to update the evolved consciousness.
KUPER) Fifteen years ago, even 10 or 5 years ago, the idea of trans equality wasn’t on the radar. It wasn’t until a year or two ago.
McCOMAS) Let alone gender non-binary.
KUPER) The book was ahead of its time when it came out. In the ensuing 15 years, we’ve had things like Brokeback Mountain and very popular pieces of pop culture and pop culture stars who have put into the mainstream LGBTQ culture.
McCOMAS) The book is about a bisexual protagonist. This book is not about her sexuality. She’s not defined by her orientation.
CA) How long have you two known each other, how did you first meet?
McCOMAS) Nine years.
KUPER) I used to work at a recording studio that doesn’t exist anymore. Paul would come in and bring tapes to digitize and we would talk. I became aware of the Dayna Clay Project really early on because of that. Paul also introduced me to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which is the organization that benefits from this project [along with The Kennedy Forum].
CA) You use the Chicago Tribune quote about it being inspired by Kurt Cobain’s death in your marketing. How influential was Cobain’s story to you when you wrote the book and to the project as a whole?
McCOMAS) A year after Kurt’s death, as a big Nirvana fan, I got some some friends together and formed a band called Lithium. The idea was to pay tribute and say here are our Nirvana songs that we love. And in between the songs for the kids who showed up, we’d have spoken soundbites for the kids who showed up about symptoms and warning signs of depression. For five years, we did these mini-tours and do free concerts in public areas and work with mental health groups and put on rock against depression shows. One thing that we made sure to make clear was that we were not judging Kurt. As someone who lives with this, I can tell you, it is this illness that took him from us.
Halfway through that project, which was going so well, and I’m a depression survivor; I realized that I have addressed this issue effectively through someone else’s art. ‘I’m a writer, I’m an musician, I’m an actor. Why am I not addressing this through my own art?’ That’s when this idea came to mind of a young rocker — she’s 27 at the start, and this was before Amy Winehouse joined the 27 club — I made the character female so it would be further away from my own experience. She’s 27 and edgy and kind of alt like Kurt. And with empathy, so that everyone’s pain becomes her own. I wanted to write about someone who tries take their own life and is not completed and who extricates herself of all the bad influences and all the money men.
KUPER) We aren’t glamorizing it either or romanticizing it.
McCOMAS) We’ll help you take the steps that he was unable to take because fame kept him from doing it.
CA) Maya, was your first exposure to Unplugged the book or the songs?
KUPER) Probably the songs and then Paul gave me the book.
CA) What was it that caught your interest and sparked your involvement?
KUPER) The fact that Paul wanted to write more songs. In the book he had song titles mentioned or ideas for songs mentioned but he actually hadn’t written them yet. He had written half the songs and as you read the book, you’ll see some lyrics from them. The song Jack-o’-Lantern, Paul had the title and some bass line ideas but that was it. As a songwriter, I love to fill in the holes. It’s like being given this thorny problem to solve. I had this novel, rich with source material to draw from. We did that on Jack-o’-Lantern, we did that on Second Storm, Ready to Bloom. And then there was Paul’s song Hand Over Hand, which he wrote before the book was published.
McCOMAS) The writing of the songs informed the writing of the book and vice-versa. It was a conversation.
KUPER) It was an important song for Paul. It was actually played at his wedding. It also captured my imagination so I did my own arrangement. I was super worried because I didn’t know if he was going to like it, but he liked it and we made a reprise.
CA) Paul has said that he’s dealt with depression. Maya, how close to home is the story for you?
KUPER) I lost a good friend a few years ago and the sad thing is that his family doesn’t want us to talk about the fact that he committed suicide. I respect their wishes and don’t say his name and suicide in the same sentence, but if the reason they don’t want it talked about is the stigma that’s attached to it, the way that stigma is propagated is through that silence. What can we do to stop that? Talk about it out loud.
McCOMAS) My first girlfriend, Julia, I’d known her since I was 13, when she was 20 she was raped by a stranger, so that’s the other issue we are trying to address — six months after she was raped, she went to the tallest building on her college campus and stepped of.
CA) Was that the influence on the book regarding the rape angle?
McCOMAS) It took awhile. It was always living inside me and I think I always knew I was going to address it. There’s a scene in the novel and the show where Dayna climbs to the top of a very tall formation in the Badlands and looks over the edge. I didn’t know consciously when I writing it that I was writing about Julia.
CA) One thing that I find interesting is that most of your work over the years, including Unplugged has some charitable goal.
McCOMAS) I’ve been fortunate enough to be born into a few different categories of privilege. I’m not rich, but I’m not starving. We do raise funds, but our fundraising is secondary to an awareness project.
CA) The show deals with serious issues – are you concerned that it’s too heavy for a Sunday afternoon?
KUPER) It is and it’s not. It’s an uplifting show and an inspiring story. This stuff needs to be talked about because it’s everyday stuff.
McCOMAS) It deals with serious topics, but I’m not going to call it a heavy show. To make the hopeful, positive ending work, there has to be some serious struggle along the way to make it seem merited.
Unplugged: A Survivor’s Story In Scenes & Songs takes place 1 p.m. October 22 at City Winery. For more information and for tickets, click here.