Greg Laswell discusses his latest album Landline, the desire to break away from writing sad songs, marriage with Ingrid Michaelson, and not having a career backup plan.
Do you still do a lot of producing?
No, not with all this music stuff and since I started touring and doing my own stuff, about six years ago or whatever it was. But yeah, my first love is still being in the studio and producing.
Are you living back in California these days?
No, actually I moved to Brooklyn almost two and a half years ago.
That’s what I thought, but almost every article seems to be calling you a California singer, so I was like, what?
Yeah, I think they’re still pulling from old press releases or something.
So you decided to do this new album, Landline, in Maine, while your last record you did alone in a cabin in Flagstaff. Why did you decide to go to Maine and how did the experience stack up to your previous ones?
I like to be alone when I’m doing records. I just feel like I get more done. I’m easily distracted, so I try to find ways to completely remove myself from distractions. Obviously, I moved over to the East Coast, and my wife’s parents own an old church that they bought years ago in a small town in Maine. They’ve been turning it into a house over the last several years, slowly but surely.
I couldn’t really get this record going. My studio is in Brooklyn, but I couldn’t really get it going, so I had the idea of moving it up there for about a month. Once I got there, it was great. I actually didn’t expect to finish the entire thing while I was there. I just wanted to get a really good head start. I ended up finishing it while I was there. There’s little to no cell phone service, so I had to use the landline for all my calls, which is why the record is called Landline.
Obviously, a church isn’t anything like a studio. What were the acoustics like and did you have to improvise in how you recorded?
Yeah, it was cool because it’s been turned into a house, but one of the rooms that is still untouched is the sanctuary of this church. It’s this big, open, cathedral-ceilinged, cavernous, empty hall, almost. What I used as my control room was the old lobby of the church. It sounded great and it’s one of the reasons I went there. I had thought about going back to Arizona and doing it again there, but I thought it’s kind of a drive to move everything back.
I think it probably helped with the overall size of the record. I feel like this is the biggest record I’ve done sonically, and I think a large part of that is because I had these big, empty spaces to fill up with sound. It inspired me to use it to my advantage. I would put a microphone in one far end corner of the church and then put the guitar amp in the opposite corner. I came up with these really cool sounds I don’t think I would have come to otherwise.
Did you still play pretty much all the instruments on the record?
Yes, except bass. I played bass on about half of it, and then my buddy, Daniel Rhine, played bass on the other half. Then Jerry Roe played drums, but all the other stuff I played, with several takes. I can play just about every instrument if I have enough takes [laughs].
Also something a little different on the record was the guest spots you decided to do, which were partially inspired by hip-hop. What did you want to accomplish with that and how did it turn out?
Well, I wanted this record to be bigger than just me. I feel like I’ve done that before and I was getting a little tired of it. This was my way of making it less about me and more about the actual songs. Like you said, I had been listening to these hip-hop records. Just the way they treat duets is different than how singer-songwriters treat duets, where it’s usually background vocals or harmonies. I love how they pass the potato in hip-hip songs. There’s the verse, and then the girl comes in and just kills it, so it was an idea I kind of had early on.
The first track I did was with Sara, “Come Back Down.” Once I got the track back from her, I was like, “OK. Yeah, I made the right decision.” It allowed me to actually enjoy it. I enjoyed making this record more than my others just because I was able to get excited about the songs in different ways because I got to listen to these amazing tracks from these girls. They changed the dynamic of the songs. I think the songs might have come off harsh if it was just a dude singing, but the thing about a guy and a girl singing together is it adds a layer of empathy.
Had you had previous experience doing duets?
On all my records, I’ve had a girl sing. Ingrid sang background vocals on my last record and Molly Jenson sang on the previous record. I always like what they bring to it flavor-wise, but I had never done it to this extent to where they’re out singing by themselves on full verses and chorus. I’ve said this before but it actually raised my bar that I put on myself. My melancholy, easygoing vocals weren’t stacking up next to some of these amazing tracks I was getting, so I had to go back in and re-sing some of my parts just so it made more sense.
The first song you released off the record was the one you just mentioned, “Come Back Down,” with Sara Bareilles. It’s probably the most upbeat, energetic song you’ve done, with the handclaps and all that, and it definitely sounds different from the rest of the record. Was that written separately and how did it end up relating to the rest of it?
With every record, for me anyway, there’s one song that usually helps everything get moving. It’s the first one that’s the most difficult, because it’s going to govern where the rest of the songs go. On the last record, it was “Off I Go,” which was the first song that came about and gave way to the rest of it. On this one, it was “Come Back Down.”
It took me awhile, because I’m in a better place now personally than when I did my previous records, but I didn’t know how my music was going to catch up to that. I didn’t know what sound I was going to attach to that. I feel like it still sounds like me, but I struggled to get it. Once I got that song, I was like, “All right, I got it. This is where I’m going the rest of this record.” It also reinforced the idea of having the girls on was a good choice.
As far as thematically, you’re in a better place now but you’ve always been known for that heartbreak type stuff. The last record had a little bit of that, and some angry stuff and happy stuff as well. How does this record compare with those? You’ve also described this record as a pivotal one for you personally. Can you talk a little about that as well?
I had a lot of heartbreak records. I listened back to a few of my first records a few months ago, for the first time in a long time, actually, just to see where I had been and how it stacked up against the new record. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss where I was when I did those records. I feel like I always wanted to do these songs, but I just couldn’t at the time. I tend to write pretty autobiographically, so it just wasn’t making any sense.
When I first started writing songs for this record, these were the ones that were coming out of me, songs with actual choruses in them and upbeat. There’s still some slower stuff on the record, obviously, but I feel like I finally caught up with what I really, really want to be doing musically with this record, whereas on the previous records they were more of a result of where I was personally.
You had an interesting quote talking about this record where you said that you have become almost universally ashamed of singer-songwriters who are always writing sad songs. Can you talk about that and how you got to that stage?
It’s funny because you tend to hate things that remind you of yourself, mostly because you don’t think that’s true [laughs]. Usually if I don’t like somebody, if I really think about it, it’s because they remind me of what I don’t like about myself. This record, lyrically even, the first three songs are universal in the way that they’re like, “All right, enough is enough. Move on, get over it.” It’s almost a tough love sort of thing. That became the holding pattern that I was in, both personally and musically as well.
I had a moment two or three years ago where I felt everything shift and I started making better decisions. I wanted this record to be less about poor me. I’ve been hoping to try and avoid those types of songs. I usually cut them out of the record because I feel like woe is me, but some of them still made it out. I’m just tired of some dude singing about sad stuff. I realize I’ve made a career out of doing it, but I didn’t want to do it again.
One of the songs I wanted to talk about real quick is “Another Life to Lose,” which I thought was really powerful. Can you talk about how that song came about?
I had that piano part for a while. Sometimes I’ll write songs at soundcheck while I’m waiting for things to get going, so I had been playing that opening piano riff without any real plans for it for a while just to kind of warm up. Then I remembered it when I was in the studio. Oh yeah, I have that one little piano thing that I’ve been playing around with. I put it up and recorded it. That song came so fast. It was done within a day. If there’s one song on the album that sums up where I am, both with my life and musically, I think that’s the song I would reference.
You are married to Ingrid Michaelson now. Did that marriage end up impacting the record at all?
I think so. It’s funny because we were married a week before I started recording. We got married, we had a week together, and then she went back to New York to start some promo stuff for her next record and I moved my studio up to Maine. This whole record, the four weeks I took to write and record, was immediately following seeing all my friends and family, and obviously getting married. I think I was still in the afterglow of all that, just naturally. It definitely helped my execution. Even my vocal tracks, I feel like they sound different than the first records, and I wasn’t consciously trying to do that. They’re a little bit happier-sounding, for lack of a better word.
Anytime two professional musicians get married, you’re always faced with the decision of how much you want to combine your music worlds and how much you want to keep that separate. How much did you talk about that?
We’ve toured together in the years past, and that’s actually how we met. We met at a show we were both doing in upstate New York about four or five years ago, and then we went on tour a few times together after that. We’ll probably be touring together later on this year, but then also at the same time we are mindful of keeping things somewhat separate.
Obviously, she has her own path and I have my own. We have some overlap in the people that listen to our music, but we tend to keep work as that – work. It’s funny because we don’t do music at all when we’re both home. It’s the last thing we ever think of doing. We usually just hang out, go to dinner and watch movies. It’s a very separate thing with us.
Can you talk about how you wrote the song “Landline” together?
Yeah, we were in Maine. This was maybe two days before she left, and the power went out, actually. There was this really big storm that was blowing through, so the power went out. We were there in this big church and were like, “We never really do. We always talk about it, but we never get around to doing it.” I started playing this guitar part that I kind of had lying around on the cutting room floor and she started humming along to it. We wrote each verse to the other person. Then the next day we got the power back, and I recorded it that day and then she left. That was one of the first songs that was finished.
I know before your solo stuff you had been in a band before. Was this the first time you had co-written something since back at that time?
Yeah, this was the first song I had co-written on any of my records, ever. It was cool. It was very easy, of course. It wasn’t a struggle at all. Sometimes I struggle with writing with people because I’m a bit of a control freak. But yeah, it was cool. It’s something I want to get over as my ego decreases. I want to do more of it the next time around.
One interesting thing I thought was how Ingrid released her new album earlier this year, which was a little more on the darker side of the things she’s done. You’re obviously more known for that than she is. Did any of your influence wear off on her?
I don’t know. It’s funny because we talked about that. We’re on opposite sides of the spectrum. She had made a little niche for herself by being the quirky, upbeat, pop song girl with glasses. For this last record, she was like, “All right, I’ve done that. I want to make bigger statements and break out of that.”
I was the exact opposite. I had gotten known for dark sad songs, and I wanted to break out of that and make poppier upbeat songs. We kind of crossed over. It’s been cool because she really likes my new record because it’s a different side of me, and I actually like her record a whole lot because I like hearing that side of her.
When people go to your live shows, one thing they might not expect is you have a very big sense of humor. You’re very funny onstage and have really dry humor, self-deprecating a little bit, which obviously doesn’t come through on the records. Are people surprised when they meet you and hear you for the first time?
I always felt like if people are coming to my shows, they listen to these sad songs, I should make up for it in between songs and still find a way to make it an enjoyable evening. I feel like if my onstage banter matched my songs, it would make for a very dreary couple of hours. So there’s that, but also it’s who I am. It’s a large part of who I am outside of music.
I always like it when I go to a show and feel like a hung out with the person onstage for the night. I try to be as transparent as I can while I’m up there. I never really take it for granted that they’re there in the first place, so I try to do my best to connect with them, not only with music but also with how I am. I always show them a little bit more of who I am and where I’m coming from.
You started your music career a little later in life than most, recording your first album in your late 20s, and went on from there. How do you think that impacted things, starting later on?
I don’t know, actually. That’s a good question. I feel like it’s all relative, I suppose. I’ve been doing music since my early 20s. I had a band right out of college. It turned out I was the most serious member, which was frustrating, so I never really went anywhere ultimately. That was definitely valuable, in that it was the first staple in allowing me to realize it was something that I wanted to do.
Then my life kind of turned in a different direction. I started staying at home and producing other people’s music, which I was perfectly fine with. Then I went through a pretty rough time, and writing about it threw me back into the possibility of actually touring and recording again. It was kind of a lucky accident, really. I’ll say this, I’m glad that I’ve done it later in life. I’m better than I would have been in my late 20s, and the things I was writing about then aren’t as good as what I’m doing later in life. I think there’s something to be said about wisdom that comes with just living life.
When you were growing up and in college, what did you envision yourself doing?
I was always pretty taken with music from a very, very early age. I never had a plan B. In interviews, people ask me, “What advice would you give to another singer-songwriter, or another artist or whatever?” It’s always if you have a plan B, then that’s a pretty good indicator you should probably go ahead and skip to that and do that instead. It really does take a lot. It takes everything you have to do this sort of thing.
I never really had one. It was always music or bust. It allows you to have those huge, catastrophic failures, but you don’t have the choice of walking away from it. You have to get back up and you have to keep trying. Whereas if you do have another option, it’s after those failures that you’re going to go to what’s next on your list. It was always in my plan to either be a producer, or score for films and television, or actually be a singer and play live shows. It was always in music. There was never any other thing I was going to try to do.
So real quick before you go, you have this headlining tour coming up soon. Are you pretty much going to be on the road for the rest of the year?
Pretty much. We have six weeks starting in the middle of May. We come back and go out again in the middle of July, which will be announced I believe next week. Then we’re going to try to get over to the U.K., and then we’ll probably come back and do yet another tour in the fall. Ingrid and I will see other if there’s time [laughs].
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk