Greg Laswell is sort of like J.D. Salinger.
When it came time to write and record his fourth album, Landline, Laswell relocated himself to a place where he could not be disturbed. A place where he would be free to create his art without the distractions of his everyday world. A place so peaceful that his cell phone literally couldn’t even ring to disrupt the tranqulity.
As it did with Salinger, the whole hermit schtick proved to really work out for Laswell. Landline is a gorgeous and expertly crafted record from start to finish. And it’s easily the indie singer/songwriter’s strongest and most musically sophisticated body of work to date (just think of all the possibilties, Grey’s Anatomy music-picking-people!).
Gearing up for this coming Tuesday’s release of Landline (via Vanguard Records), Greg spoke with me about the album, the various ladies he collaborated with on it, his recent foray into dance music, what animal stands no fighting change against him, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Landline has a much larger and richer sound than your previous releases – in that there seem to be many influences and musical styles on the record that haven’t been prevalent in your repertoire thus far. What inspired this musical evolution?
GREG LASWELL: I’m in a good place in my personal life these days. I think these songs reflect that. Plus, I had gotten a little comfortable with knowing how to make a “Greg Laswell” record. I wanted to start over in a way.
AN: Since you self-produced the album, what were some of the biggest obstacles/challenges you faced while crafting this expanded version of your signature sound?
GL: My problem is always knowing when to stop recording. I can be quite the perfectionist and more often than not, perfection is not what a song needs. There’s no one in the room to say, “that’s it! that’s the take!” But I love being alone in the studio. One of these days I’ll work with a producer, but not yet.
AN: You’ve mentioned that Landline is heavily influenced by hip-hop records that you were listening to while writing and recording the album. Specifically which musicians/albums were you referring to?
GL: Method Man, Eminem, Kanye, Nas, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G.
AN: You left Brooklyn to record the album in a small church-turned-house in a Maine lobstering town. Is it safe to assume that you can now cook the meanest lobster in New York?
GL: No, but it is safe to assume that I am a stone-cold murderer of them.
AN: After hearing the vocals that Sara Bareilles recorded for the album’s lead single, “Come Back Down” (which I reviewed here), you went back into the studio to re-record your own. What about Sara’s vocals triggered you to rework yours?
GL: The melody and phrasing all stayed the same, they just needed a slight energy boost next to hers. It’s easy for me to ease into what I know works for my vocal range, she helped me out of it momentarily.
AN: Your album features a wide roster of guest vocalists, including Sara Bareilles, Sia, Elizabeth Ziman (of Elizabeth and the Catapult) and your wife, Ingrid Michaelson. What triggered you to work with so many female vocalists on this record?
GL: It was an idea that I had been throwing around for years, and I’ve always had female vocalists somewhere on my records (Ingrid sang on a few songs on my last one). I thought Landline was the record to take it a little further on. I wanted these songs to be bigger than just me, and with the help of these four amazing singers, they are.
AN: Hypothetically, if you were to re-record another four of your songs as duets with male musicians, whom would you ask to sing with you and on which tracks?
GL: Honestly, I wouldn’t want to re-record four of my songs with male musicians.
AN: Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process behind the stop-motion video that Entertainment Weekly premiered for “Back To You”?
GL: It was a laborious one … 1500 pictures. However, it was by trial and error to get the motion right, so I ended up doing it three times (4500 pictures altogether). Take a picture, move everything an inch or so, take another picture. That, 4500 times.
AN: You recently collaborated with producer Morgan Page on “Addicted,” a track from his new album, In The Air. How did the experience of working on a club song differ from what you’re used to? And can your fans be expecting to hear your voice on any more dance tracks in the future?
GL: It was different because all I had to do was write the melody and sing it. Morgan did everything else. I didn’t have to obsess over the parts or the mix, or the song itself. I just got to come in, write lyrics and sing them. It was like taking your friend’s dog for a walk – you have a great time and then give it back. No responsibility.
AN: In a world run by cell phones, social media and instant on-the-go web access, imagery of a landline almost seems a bit antiquated. Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the title track and why you felt naming your album after it was the most representative name for the record as a whole?
GL: I think the age of landlines and answering machines was romantic. I miss it. I’m thankful that I got to grow up without cellphones. That aside, the reason the album is called Landline is because there was little to no cell service where I recorded the record in Maine. So I had to use the landline. Easy title choice.
AN: As a songwriter, what’s the most moving response you’ve heard a fan have to your work?
GL: More than a couple times now, I’ve had someone tell me that they played “What a Day” during the birth of their child. I suppose there isn’t a better compliment than that.
AN: If you were to open your fridge on any standard day, what would you find inside?
GL: Another, smaller fridge. And one inside that, etc..
AN: This spring, you’re embarking on a national headlining tour. How will your shows supporting Landline differ from your previous tours? Any cities you’re most looking forward to playing in?
GL: Well, I’m taking out the largest band I’ve ever had. There will be six of us up there (including a cello player). And Elizabeth, who sings on the record, will be playing and singing in the band as well. Pretty excited for these shows. I always look forward to playing my two hometowns, LA and New York.