Naomi Greenwald is very much my kind of a person. Ms. Greenwald is a heavy-hearted singer/songwriter and PhD student of the humanities, with a penchant for 90s alt rock. The LA-based songstress released Composite, an ineffably entrancing five-song EP, this March and, since then, a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay.” I could give you a little more background as to what Naomi’s been up to recently but, honestly, in a recent chat, she pretty much said it all.
Naomi Greenwald: I recorded this EP right after finishing my qualifying exams for my PhD in literature and these songs are definitely influenced by the Gothic fiction that I was studying during that period. While I was aware—and even excited—that I was finally learning how to incorporate certain literary themes that I have been tracing for so many years into my lyrics, and therefore to better reflect my various interests, it wasn’t until after the album was finished that I realized to what extent the music is also infused with a certain dark, even gothic, tone. Although I have wanted to keep my scholarliness under wraps, because I wasn’t setting out to do a concept album or anything, the EP’s title, “Composite,” refers to my relating to certain fictional narratives and my subsequent decision to tie them to my own stories in subtle ways in order to bridge the gap between these two distinct career paths. But on a more general level, I think that the word “composite” also speaks to my ongoing process to continue to derive my own sound from the various musical influences that I’ve drawn from over the years. I don’t imagine that this is a particularly unique approach to establishing a musical style, but as a singer/songwriter—as opposed to being a member of a band that writes songs together—it’s perhaps more of a challenge to find musicians and a producer that can help you materialize the sounds that you can hear in your head, especially when you hand over a rough demo with just guitar and vocals. I’ve been very fortunate to work with musicians that understand what I am trying to do and I am very happy with how the album turned out.
IC: Have you had any favorite reactions to it, whether they be critical, or courtesy of friends and family?
NG: I’ve certainly had my fair share of different reactions to the EP, from music reviewers, friends and family, to strangers who have approached me after a show. While many of them have been very positive, I have appreciated the more ambivalent reactions as well because, so far, anyone who has listened to the EP has not simply dismissed it, but rather really taken the time to sit down and consider the songs, even if ultimately he/she isn’t its biggest fan. But one of my favorite write-ups is from Lee Zimmerman, who also reviewed my first album, Darkbloom, in Blurt, so I feel like he knows my music well and isn’t thrown off by the variety that each album has offered. Here’s a snippet from his review of Composite in No Depression: “Greenwald shifts her template practically on a dime, fearlessly transitioning through an ongoing state of flux and varying degrees of ferocity.” I guess it’s pretty obvious why I like this one.
IC: Your backing band is quite impressive and has quite cool resumes. Were you fans of their work before you were introduced to them? And, for that matter, how did you all come together?
NG: They are super impressive and sometimes I still feel unworthy to keep company with such seriously talented musicians, even though most of us have been playing together for years! I met my drummer, Fern Sanchez, almost five years ago, when I was recording a demo the same year I moved to LA. I moved here from NYC for grad school and I didn’t know a single LA musician and so the producer I was working with introduced me to Fern and I loved his playing so much that I wanted him on stage, too. But I still needed other band members, so I started going out to see live music and I noticed a very young Nick Rosen on bass, playing at a club in Los Feliz and got his info through a friend. I’ve played with some great guitarists, but when I met Robb Torres through Fern a couple of years ago, we immediately hit it off and started a little co-writing project on the side and “One Season,” which is on the EP, is a result of that. Long story short, by the time we recorded the newest EP, the four of us had been playing together for a while and then we invited some other talented folks, like Dave Lang and Morgan Gee, to help us out in the studio. Even though I am a solo artist, I really don’t feel like I am on my own because my band is super creative and supportive and I wouldn’t be playing the same music without these guys. A bonus is that they have introduced me to an awesome LA music scene and I’ve gotten to meet and collaborate with some great players. For this reason alone I feel like I’ve come a long way since I first moved to LA.
IC: Do you have a particular favorite track from the EP, or one which you feel best captures your current musical mindset? “Portraits” is one of my favorite things I’ve heard all year and “So We Try” is not far behind. They really remind me of the “hippest” sounds of my early youth that I used to hear on 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation.
NG: Wow, thank you–yours might be my new favorite response to the album! And I also prefer “Portraits” and “So We Try.” While I think we put together a cohesive and strong five songs, these two best capture my current mindset and represent the new musical and stylistic directions I was trying to take when I set out to make the EP. For instance, while I wanted to challenge myself to write lyrics that really seek to capture specific moments or moods that are difficult to describe, I also wanted to push myself to get comfortable with simple chord progressions, if that is what a song calls for and not over-think the music. With “So We Try” and “Portraits,” I best accomplished this twofold attempt to write songs that are specific, yet accessible. Along this same line, you’re totally right that the songs are reminiscent of old school alternative because I was listening to a lot of PJ Harvey, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Black Heart Procession, etc. in order to understand how these particular songwriters and bands managed to create that perfect balance of nuance and simplicity. So it’s really no surprise that they influenced me stylistically as well.
IC: What are you most excited for in the second half of 2013? Any chance of a tour?
NG: While I am sad to say that I have no plans for a tour (as of yet), my reason is a good one: I have a bunch of LA shows coming up, including a July residency at Witzend. But the thing I am most excited about is the prospect of returning to the studio, before the end of 2013, to record an LP as a follow-up to Composite. I recently recorded a single of Rihanna’s “Stay”—it’s a super fun and slightly ironic indie-pop version of the ballad—and it felt so great to be in studio that I just want to go back. But first thing’s first: I need to finish writing my current dissertation chapter! It’s not half as fun as writing music, but I’m excited to see how it might, in turn, influence my next slew of new songs.