Greg Laswell: A Surprisingly Kindred Spirit

So I’m sure you’ve realized that it’s relatively rare that a male subject finds themselves covered in Philthy Blog’s music department… and that’s not a coincidence.  However, Greg Laswell has...

So I’m sure you’ve realized that it’s relatively rare that a male subject finds themselves covered in Philthy Blog’s music department… and that’s not a coincidence.  However, Greg Laswell has proven to be an exception (And for somewhat ironic reasons.)  I’ve come across Greg and his popular indie folk (You know, it has its simplicity and its rootsy soul, yet has proven to be a great soundtrack for the likes of Grey’s Anatomy and House) several times in recent years, as he has the tendency to take some of my favorite musicians on the road with him as his support acts, such as Rosi Golan and Elizabeth Ziman (of Elizabeth and the Catapult)… both not males.  His latest, Landline (which dropped this April), even features guest appearances courtesy of Sia, Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, and Ms. Ziman (The best of which is Greg and Sia’s “Dragging You Around,” although they’re all quite good.)  Landline is Greg’s fifth full-length record, and fourth to be released on Vanguard Records.  The album was recorded on Greg’s own portable “home recording studio” in a former church owned by his wife’s (The aforementioned Mrs. Michaelson) parents in a desolate lobstering town in Maine.  The album’s title is derived from the uselessness of cell phones in this very town.  Despite the conditions, the album is actually Greg’s most optimistic to-date, with fewer “in love with my sadness,” tunes than any before… although there are still a few there.

I must admit, the first time or two I attended a Greg Laswell concert, to see whichever chanteuse was opening for him on that tour, I likely left before his set even began (Sorry, Greg), but after a while, I did begin to stick around and I certainly didn’t hate what I heard… not by a long shot.  I mean, I’m not going to say I hold him quite on par with Elizabeth Ziman, my favorite of his peers, but few are.  His latest album is his best yet (even those not featuring any female contributions).  Greg is currently nearing the end of his initial touring behind the album.  In fact, the tour (which includes Ziman as both the opening act and part of Greg’s band) wraps this coming Friday, June 22nd, with, not one, but two shows at World Café Live.  Greg will be playing the venue’s weekly Free at Noon concert (If you’re not familiar, that means it is a concert that is at noon and is free… you just have to sign up on WXPN’s website to attend.) and then, later, returning to the venue (Upstairs, this time) for a full performance, along with a set from the incredible Ms. Ziman.  I got a chance to chat with Greg recently and found out that we actually have quite a bit in common.  We both enjoy solitude, we both have a prominent taste for female singer/songwriters (romantically and otherwise), and… a profound distaste for male singer/songwriters… go figure.

Izzy Cihak: You¹ve been to Philadelphia quite a handful of times over the past few years. Since this is a Philadelphia-based publication, I¹m inclined to ask if you have any particularly prominent memories here or any thoughts about the city in general.

Greg Laswell: I’ll always remember the first time I sold out a little venue called the Tin Angel on 2nd. There’s a room called Lestat’s in San Diego which is very similar, and where I had learned how to perform live during my first record. I was still pretty new to touring and was pretty taken by Philly. It was snowing that night, too, which thrilled this southern California boy.

IC: Keeping with the theme of geography, you have said that, historically, you¹re inclined to navigate the country quite regularly (even if just to do recording). What is it about this transient lifestyle that you find so appealing and what impact do you feel it tends to have on your work?

GL: I like being alone. I always have. However, I’ve always lived in big cities (San Diego, Los Angeles, and now New York). So I like taking chunks of time and disappearing. It makes a huge impact on my writing and producing, mostly because I am easily distracted when I’m at home. I slow way down, and the two-day act of moving and setting up my studio somewhere has a way of putting me in a certain mindset.  It has become a joke among my friends… “Where will Greg record his next record?” It’s a little ridiculous, I know. I’m not nearly as eccentric as it might make me seem.

IC: How do you feel like your latest, Landline, compares to your previous releases, in terms of the sounds you’re currently embracing?

GL: I have never been more proud of anything else I have done. I feel more in control. I think my first few records were so reactionary to what I was going through at the time.  I’m in a good place these days personally, and it had a way of freeing me up in the studio, however, it was difficult to get started. I had several false starts.  I caught myself writing songs that I had already written. I had to quit for several months. And then one day I wrote “Come Back Down,” almost as an exercise. I thought, “I’ll just write a huge pop song, the biggest I can muster, and then maybe it will knock something loose.” It ended up framing the rest of the record.

IC: The majority of your LPs have been released on Vanguard Records. What are your thoughts on the label and label peers? I’m quite a big fan of Isobel Campbell and Jesca Hoop.

GL: I love those two artists. Jesca Hoop is actually one of my all-time favorites. There are other artists that I think are absolute rubbish (I won’t name names.) The label has been very good to me over the years. They continue to be excited about every record I turn in. I’ve also made genuine friendships with many of the people at the label.

IC: Is it just me, or do you seem to have a penchant for working with female singer/songwriters? Your latest album includes collaborations with a handful of female musicians and you’ve also toured alongside a number of singer/songstresses. And, based on your Covers EP, you seem to have a number of prominent female influences. Is there anything to that? Do you feel your work better, collaboratively, with females, or do they just happen to be your friends in the business?

GL: I don’t like male singer/songwriters. Or, I shouldn’t say that, I do sometimes, but they have to jump through several hoops for me to believe a word they say. I understand that it’s not fair and that it’s probably more about me than them, but I start out disliking every male singer/songwriter I hear and they have to work up from that. Women, on the other hand, start out with an advantage because I just love the sound of their voices. It’s really that simple. And some of my favorites can’t be touched by dudes, in my opinion. As far as the girls on this particular record, they are all friends of mine (one is my wife). And I’ve been a fan of all of them through the years. It made for the most enjoyable recording experience having them on the record.

IC: I have to ask what your thoughts on Elizabeth Ziman are, in particular. She¹s touring with you as your support and she’s also an acquaintance of mine and pretty much my favorite individual in music for about half a decade now.

GL: Me too.

IC: You¹ve been touring your latest for a while now. What have been highlights thus far and what can fans expect of your upcoming Philadelphia appearance?

GL: Having six people in the band is a highlight every night. I cared so much about this record that I really didn’t want to cut corners on the live show. I wanted all the parts covered, from Colette Alexander, our cello player, to Elizabeth playing piano and singing. I think this is the best sounding tour I have ever done. They (my band members) are spoiling me.

Band Interviews

During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.