How To Dress Well: Trials & Tribulations
“When you pay attention to your lover’s needs, or you pay attention to a painting or piece of music and really allow yourself to become absorbed in it, to attend to all of the details and the specific unity of this singular piece, only then can you have a true moment of connection, a true transformation.”
Conducted by Daniel Jones & Henning Lahmann
You’ve said that Love Remains wasn’t a real album as such, more a collection of songs that you had put out before.
I would say that the status of that album was ambiguous. I released something like 40 songs in seven months, after which there were a series of offers. One was a development offer which was basically “We’ll go back in the studio and see if you can make some good songs” and they wanted also take some of my writing and sell it to other people and stuff – it didn’t look like it would really end up with an album coming out from the material I’d written. They wanted to push me in a different direction. Then the other offer came through and they were like “We’ll pay for you to fly to San Francisco, go into the studio for three days, add some details and put out a record. Just cull what you think are the best songs but songs which resonate with each other thematically, and we’ll add some details, clean it up and make it special.” They wanted to do it straight away and that seemed like the best idea for me as an artist. So Love Remains both is and is not my debut album, and therefore this record is and is not my debut as well. I like the idea of every record being ambiguous whether or not it’s my first record or not. I love the idea of my next record just flipping the script completely again.
Every record is always your first record, because every record is always new.
Exactly. That would be the goal..
I really appreciated how you used your voice in this album, more so than in previous works, it felt more urgent and emotional. The yearning and the details …
When I was talking about Love Remains, I’d always talk about the voice being the most important thing. I wanted the singing on Love Remains to be heard in a way that I think I’ve achieved on Total Loss. Where the voice comes through as naked as close as possible, as an emotional conduit rather than a medium for signification and communication. I don’t want it to be pure a cappella music.
I really liked that a cappella that you did when you played here live.
That’s on the next record. A cappellas recorded don’t have the same feeling that they do live. Just recording an a cappella, you don’t get that nakedness. So I wanted to record the voice which got the nakedness and I found to go for that feeling that you get from a live a cappella in a studio didn’t just mean recording a cappellas. It meant recording the voice really close and really quietly. In the studio I sing really quietly, more quietly than I would be able to sing live. But when you record this really quiet whispering voice, the tenderness, the fragility and the experience of intimacy I think comes through, even if there’s a ton of instrumentation. No matter if there’s one acoustic guitar under the voice, nothing underneath the voice or a ton of harsh noise, I wanted to record these songs in a way that delivered that encounter with the voice which you experience with a live a cappella.
I’m happy with the response to “Cold Nights” that came out a couple of days ago, people are really keen on the voice and the way it’s recorded. The thing that’s annoying is that I feel a lot of people will just hear it as a sad Justin Timberlake song.
You really think so?
A lot of the response I’ve got is that “this is a banger”.
That’s legitimate as well, it’s the way people respond to music. Of course it doesn’t really matter about mainstream and underground anymore, it can be an artistic song and it can be a pop song.
I really love when people hear the recording techniques. With Love Remains it was so much about pushing the recording technique right in your face and hearing the songs after that. The people who come to my new record through Love Remains will have a completely different experience of it than the people for whom this is the first song they’ve heard of by this guy. It’s all good.
How is it being onstage with two other people playing the instruments – how does that change your approach to performing?
Not really very much. I still just try and really lose myself and really sing, but it also makes it easier for me to do that because the dynamic shifts across the live set are much more radical, it’s not just backing tracks. I’m able to focus even more on just singing and just trying to become a voice instead of a person.
What is the right environment for it – a small club or some acoustic space?
It’s hard to say. I used to think that ideal spaces were really specific but since touring more, it’s more about the people. We played a couple of weeks ago at the front room of Public Assembly in Brooklyn, a 400 person room that’s massive, stone and metal. It should sound terrible but it sounded great. The attention paid by the audience was amazing, it was so inspiring. They were absolutely silent so that during pauses in the music you could hear a pin drop. You could hear ice shift in someone’s glass. Then, when the song would finish the roar would be so intense, it was so exhilarating for us. Walter Benjamin quoted the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche when he wrote “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul” and that to me is a good atheist, secular mantra. When you pay attention to your lover’s needs, or you pay attention to a painting or piece of music and really allow yourself to become absorbed in it, to attend to all of the details and the specific unity of this singular piece, only then can you have a true moment of connection, a true transformation.
The last tour was amazing, the attention was so beautiful. The last show on the tour was in Calgary at this proper theatre, seats, amazing sound, massive IMAX sound visual projection and because of the culture of theatregoing, sitting in seats and someone going “intermission will be over in five minutes” people were silent and the attention was awesome. But I don’t think I have to play spaces like that, because in Brooklyn it was a bar, it was a Saturday night and everyone was wasted and yet the attention was there and the experience was so fucking incredibly profound for me and so many people came up to me and were so thankful and so positive. I think it can happen anywhere now.
How did you you start working on Total Loss? Did you have a concept like ‘I want to have this narrative’ or was it again recording songs and then thinking about what fitted together?
That story I told about Love Remains, that relationship where it’s totally new, is also not entirely true because there’s a development between Love Remains to the Just Once orchestral EP into Total Loss. I did Love Remains and then this offer was lingering in my head about going into a proper studio and redoing some songs. I never wanted to redo them, like, take “Suicide Dream 1” and make it into a pop song – to me the essential criteria of whether or not music is working for me is if it’s like beautiful and affecting and emotionally resonant. With the offer of studio production lingering in my head I was like yeah I want to do a revamp of “Decision”, “Suicide Dream 1”, “Suicide Dream 2”, I’ve just written this other song “Suicide Dream 3” which I think could be a cool little song suite. “Suicide Dream 3” I wrote all on pad synth orchestra sounds and I thought ‘oh cool, we’ll do the whole thing orchestral’. That record is, for all intents and purposes, a totally hi-fi and conventional recording. So then Total Loss came on the heels of that experience and Love Remains so I wanted to do some kind of synthesis of the two experiences.
The recording processes were totally different, on the one hand I was like holed up with this almost autistic absorption in the creative process and in the emotional experience and textures of songs, again like an autistic listening and creating process. On the other hand, dealing with 18 string players, going through this mediator of the composer and the conductor, going through the engineer, is so much more of a controlled, social process. I wanted to do something way in-between. The creative wellspring for all the songs was that I’d just gone into a phase of long distance with my girlfriend; it was quite rocky and I was still really fucked and sick from both my good friend my uncle having died, which sent my mother into absolutely crippling despair from which she hasn’t recovered at all. It’s quite disabling, she’s lost the ability to speak to a pretty extreme degree and she’ll spend four week periods just speaking in a baby voice. Her dad died when she was two and then Uncle Jerry, her older brother, raised her and so he had got Parkinsons and they said five or six years, but in eight months he went from totally sharp guy to complete invalid, and it just ravaged my family. I wrote out of that experience.
In the winter I became very, very depressed and I looked at these songs and thought I can’t just become this really depressed artist, this super dark guy, I looked at “Ocean Floor” was an exception to this writing period and I decided to put it, in my mind, at the end of an album and try to write my way to that point. I’d written two songs “When I Was in Trouble” and “Cold Nights” that I thought were more open, hopeful and optimistic and I kind of wrote from there in the direction of “Ocean Floor”. By the end of the spring I had about 25 songs written and the album came into view for me. I also thought that I didn’t want to tour singing the saddest songs I’d ever written for a year; I thought that would be quite devastating right on the heels of the emotional experience. But if I put that dark album out a year from now, have a bit of perspective on it, I thought that it could be fun to tour those songs. I don’t have a narrative in mind; the narrative is borne of me navigating my emotional experience. My own personal psychic goals.
There was the feeling I had when listening, in some ways it’s more optimistic than Love Remains but still you’ve called it Total Loss, a title that is much more bleak, hopeless.
I think it’s ambivalent. My friend Cameron recently gave me a tarot reading. He’s this really insanely spiritual guy, very powerful and sexually ambiguous. I think in a different era we would call him two-spirited and he would be exalted and used as a spiritual guide. He read my tarot and the card which was supposed to represent my station, my agency in life, was the Death card. This card can represent both cutting ties which are inhibiting growth and freedom, but it can also mean literal death, loss of self and so forth. To me Total Loss is ambivalent in precisely that way as well. I wouldn’t have written the album I’ve written if I hadn’t gone through this period of quite intense bleakness and loss. To me, a song like “And It Was You” is meaningless unless it’s in the context of Total Loss. It would just be a happy pop song, and on one analysis it is, but to me it’s not an achievement. You haven’t ‘won’ happiness in a truly authentic way unless you’ve really gone through trials and tribulations. And I do feel more positive, optimistic and self-aware, ready for relationships and challenges more than I ever have been before, in virtue of passing through this period which I would call total loss
Published September 28, 2012. Words by Henning Lahmann.