It’s a strange and scary time to be a musician in New York City, but singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy is looking at the silver lining in these strange times. “It’s like the ultimate domestication,” she says from her apartment that she shares with her partner, jazz guitarist Julian Lage. “We’re touring musicians that are perpetually on the move. Obviously it’s a horrible context, but it’s been a really creative time.”
Glaspy’s newest record, Devotion, was also a homecoming in some ways. Released in March, it was written last year in a respite from over two years of non-stop touring. It is an evolution that that sees Glaspy expanding her palette beyond the crunchy folk-rock of her debut into bold and diverse new directions. We chatted with her about the creative fuel of going back to school, how Nine Inch Nails inspired Devotion‘s songwriting, and her early years as a kid Deadhead.
You just released your latest record Devotion, but it’s been four years since your debut, Emotions And Math, which is a fairly long time. What was in the interim between the two records?
I toured about two years straight for Emotions And Math. That was a pretty big change in lifestyle, and a pretty big stretch of perpetual movement. When that was done, I was pretty ready to change pace and figure out what excited me, not only as a musician, but as a person, you know? What was normal life like?
I think when you’re on tour for that long, I was creating so much output, and not really getting much input, in terms of just my brain. I was really just giving and giving and giving and I wasn’t really learning very much. I craved to kind of be able to pause and try to evolve a little more personally and creatively, so I started to study through Harvard. I’m still trying to peck away at my bachelors, which was a big deal for me in the interim. and kind of disorienting. I’ve always wanted to have an education, but I only went to Berklee College of Music for a semester and then just jumped right into performing and songwriting. So, that’s always been a childhood dream of mine; to really jump into academia and really learn and learn how to write well. Not just songs, but being able to write academically — prose, fiction — and be able to use my words.
We rented a house in upstate New York for a little bit, kinda got out of dodge, and that was when I started thinking about the new record and how to make it – what I even wanted to explore, the new sonic footprint of it, etc. So, the process for Devotion took a while for me to understand what I wanted it to be.
That gives that title Devotion a few different layers now: a devotion to your musical craft for so long and devotion to yourself in taking time off to learn and then create a record. Is that near where the title came from?
Just the very essence of the word “devotion”, and the act of being devoted, speaks for a lot of things in my life. It’s funny when you’ve been devoted to someone for so long, I think that you’re able to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. When you love someone, you can see yourself from the outside.
Another thing is that I’m kind of a completist. You could call me maybe obsessive. I really like to start and finish – close the loop, and see what I learn on the way. I’m used to having an idea for something, and all the sudden I’m learning the byproducts of that one thing. It stretches out, and this web gets made.
My partner, Julian Lage, is like that. He’s a guitar player and, because he does that for his living, you see how that affects so many things around him. He loves the instrument, he loves the history behind the instrument, etc. So, not only is he taking in the guitar, but he’s taking in all the things that come with it. I love seeing people that are devoted and have that kind of passion for what they do. So, I think that that has become kind of a through line in my life, falling deep and hard for these things. Whether it’s gardening, writing, reading, music, making sourdough bread — I’m kind of obsessed with sourdough bread right now [laughs] I get really deep into it.
I feel like you have to be obsessive to spend so much time writing an album, or going on tour, or whatever you do in expanding your craft.
There’s a great expansion beyond the folk-rock of Emotions And Math to the added textures of electronics richer production on Devotion. Was it a natural gravitation towards the new sound, or was it something you more deliberate?
Oh, it was pretty natural. I’ve been excited to work with different instruments for a long time. Even before Emotions And Math was out, it was really the next thought. It was kind of a long time coming, so it felt both natural and deliberate. It was totally calling my name to stretch out, and play with other tools and textures.
What was it like writing on new instruments and formats that weren’t included in the creation of Emotions And Math?
I was kind of a kid in a candy store! But, sometimes it was deflating. When I’m around a guitar, I’ve mastered my domain, in a weird way; I know my own tricks and how to make things effective. But then I let go, and that process can be a little frustrating. You feel like you’re always running uphill. It really challenged me to find my voice on something completely new. It always felt like there was something right around the bend for me. I just had to work through it to get there.
Something that strikes me about Devotion is that it feels so fluid despite encompassing so many different styles. How did you work to create that sense of cohesion?
That’s the merit of the producer, Tyler Chester. He had a hand in making sure that we can do whatever we want. There weren’t really any rules in terms of genre. We followed our noses and our hearts to get a heart beat out of every song. But at the same time you have to kind of apply yourself technically to make that so. With Tyler, engineer Mark Goodell, drummer Tim Kuhl and myself combining powers, it felt that it would round itself out in a sense. We all have such aesthetics anyway, so none of us wanted to micromanage too much. We had to reference certain songs with certain instruments and tie it together that way. It was fun puzzle.
That’s cool to hear that because the opener “Killing What Keeps Us Alive” and the closer “Consequences” feel so sonically similar, as well as a call-and-response to each other. They’re appropriately celestial bookends; an entrance in something unknown and an exit with something learned.
Yeah, they did feel from a similar world. It was conscious that we started and ended with those songs, for sure. I’ve written a short story that “Killing What Keeps Us Alive” is based on, but I wrote “Consequences” completely separately. Both those songs encapsulated that feeling of, ‘what is anything?’ It feels meta and big.
I think that’s the big difference between those songs and some of the others on the record. The other songs are capturing more finite feelings, but those two leave this little gap for everyone to kind of experience it for themselves.
Another favorite from the record is “So Wrong, It’s Right”. There’s so much energy and movement in that song. It’s like you turned up a tune from Emotions and Math to double time.
Yeah! That was a fun one, just like cranking everything to eleven and being able to go all out. It’s more of a dance song than others on the record, which was really the sentiment.
There were other tracks we had to be more tempered with, to really figure out the angle. But, “So Wrong, It’s Right” let us play our asses off for four minutes straight. Often, I’m looking at arrangements and trying to find how to sculpt them really well. But, this one just grows and grows and grows and grows and then it ends. That felt exciting to me.
“You’ve Got My Number” is a song that stands out as a totally new, but fluid experience. It’s a jittery electro-pop that builds into a blues stomper. That’s a direction that a fan might be surprised you’re bringing them in…
Were you wary of introducing listeners to something so different? Or did you go full throttle and make whatever you wanted?
Oh, I think you always have to. Especially as an artist, you always have to follow your nose hardcore. There can’t really be any other options, in a way. Sure, you go through those options in your head sometimes, but it’s kind of fake. It’s just the voices trying to manipulate you a little bit. I’m pretty dedicated, in fact, devoted – to be apropos – to the mantra that artists’ jobs are to stay dedicated to the things that make them curious and then show people around them what they found. So I’m excited to stay on that track, really go to the places that I think are interesting, and then show listeners those places. That was really the only option for me on this record.
What was the most surprising place that you found yourself on this record musically?
Working with my friends on my first record was super fun, but I did feel a little more isolated in it. I had written all of the songs completely by myself, and I produced the record with the help of a great crew of people, but it did feel like only I just made this thing and decided what it was.
Devotion felt different, as it was really exciting to share it and collaborate more. There’s a couple songs that I co-wrote with some friends and then just to have Tyler involved as a producer was super exciting. So, really collaborating, knowing that my community is real and that I’m not alone all the time was a big revelation for me.
I’m curious where your influence came from for the record. What are some of the specific records or artists that pushed Devotion to where it ended up?
A song that really inspired me for this record was Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”. I really love that song. It feels like a masterclass in arrangement. I got back into Sade pretty intensely. I listened to Sade as a child a lot. My sister and I shared a room and would always play them.
I’m always listening to Mary Margaret O’Hara. She’s Catherine O’Hara‘s sister. I’ve always really absorbed her music. She just has this very wild sense of musicality and creativity that I’ve always really looked up to.
I recently heard it for the first time, but there’s a Rufus Wainwright song called “Sometimes You Need” on one of his newer records that’s called Out of the Game. He’s incredible. It always just kind of kicks my ass to know that you can write great songs, and I’m always reminded with certain Rufus songs that I gotta work harder to figure out how to do it well. So that was a big thing.
Missy Elliot‘s always kicking my butt to understand how to do it right and really get to the heartbeat of things. So she’s a big deal. And it’s so hard to hear of his passing, but Bill Withers has always been a really big inspiration to me. My dad used to pick me up in his pick-up truck at school and just be blasting Bill Withers. I have really deep memories with his music, and got into that music all over again when I was making this record, so he was a big part of it too.
Going back to your youth, what were the records that initially brought you into the world of music and got your interest brewing?
Oh gosh… when I was young, there was a lot of music passing through our house. There were jokes about me when I was really young that my two favorite bands were the Grateful Dead and the Spice Girls, at the same time. You know, I was a little kid obviously and I still had totally young girl preferences liking boy bands and Spice Girls, so that was all normal and on track I suppose [laughs]
On top of that, my family is super musical, and a little obsessed, so I always had a pretty cultured and intellectual musical background in my home. My dad’s a really big jazz fan and my mom is obsessed with Aretha Franklin and that style, as well as the Laurel Canyon scene of songwriters — a lot of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Cat Stevens, etc. We were listening to The Beatles a lot, listening to Ella Fitzgerald a lot… Michael Jackson was massive in our house.
And then at the same time, my siblings were listening to No Doubt, The Presidents of the United States of America, Beck, Lauryn Hill, Weezer, NOFX, Rancid and Rage Against the Machine. There was just so much music, it was bursting at the seams in my house. I got a pretty rich education very early on that really colored my sense of everything around me.
I think it was kind of one of the biggest assets to who I am now, knowing that I was surrounded by people with opinions. It wasn’t just ‘turn on the radio’. If you turned on the radio, everyone is going to tell you what was either bad or great about that song. I’m glad that the people in my family take it seriously. They’re not just along for the ride. I’m not completely unique in my family that I’m so into music and do it all the time. It’s a pretty normal thing for them.
If you had to pick only a few albums for your desert island, what would you pull off the shelf?
Oh, I wanna choose wisely… I don’t want to mess this one up. One of them would be Ravel’s String Quartet. Another would be a Björk‘s Vespertine. A really interesting record I’d add is Bonnie Raitt’s Self-Titled. It’s a very musical, very beautiful record. And then honestly, I’ve listened to ¾ of this one heavily and still have to finish the entire record, but I might choose the new Fiona Apple record, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. I’m pretty knocked out by it. That one’s pretty wild. And then maybe a jazz record. I think I would add Undercurrent, which is a record by Jim Hall, the jazz guitarist. It’s a duet with Bill Evans, so that record would probably be the last one.
With Devotion, you’ve opened up new doors sonically and creatively. You’re writing new music already, so where would you like to go next?
Oh goodness, the sky’s the limit. I would tell you if I knew, but it’s a daily unfolding. Some days it feels like you’re gonna make the next record with just you and an acoustic guitar, then other days it shifts. I’m not sure, to be honest with you, but you’ll find out.