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Long Beard’s music moves with the magic of dreams.
Maybe that’s because the project’s mastermind, Leslie Bear, has been moving in between the dream of being a musician — and avoiding the subject entirely by pursuing a straight job as a computer programmer — for many years now. A lengthy hiatus between her debut album, Sleepwalker, which came out in 2015, and this week’s release, Means To Me, means that a few of Bear’s former indie contemporaries have seen their careers grow by leaps and bounds in the intervening years. Of course, that’s the tricky thing about creative work. Sometimes it’s a smooth, steady progression, and other times, it’s fits and starts, and unexpected left turns.
Whatever the shape of the journey, one thing about Bear’s current trajectory is undeniable: Means To Me is one of the finest independent releases of the year, a gossamer, surrealist artifact of aching that represents the pinnacle of dream pop in 2019. Slated for release tomorrow by the excellent East Coast indie label, Double Double Whammy — who’ve put out work by artists like Frankie Cosmos, Hatchie, and Yowler — Means To Me catapults Long Beard into the musical ranks she always been destined for, drawing easy comparisons to her labelmates and other contemporaries like Japanese Breakfast, who recently brought her out on tour.
Actually, when we met for coffee in Bushwick last month, Bear told me that Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner was instrumental in helping her find the way back to making music as Long Beard. Zauner invited Bear on tour with the band to play bass, listened to new songs, and encouraged her to pursue releasing this album. Regardless of who supported her, Means To Me is an accomplishment that Bear can call her own. We talked about her early interest in music, how touring with Japanese Breakfast sparked her to leave a toxic corporate job, and the album’s themes of home and self. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.
I feel like it was a very long time between records, but I could just be speaking as a fan there. Does it feel that way to you?
Yeah, I mean it’s been four years. It’s a while, definitely.
Why don’t you start off by telling me a little bit about when you started getting into music, when it started to get serious, and how it eventually became Long Beard?
I started playing music at a pretty early age. I was playing piano and trying to figure out melodies that I hear from songs I liked as a kid. One of the first ones I remember was in The Land Before Time, and I didn’t even know until kinda recently that the song — “If We Hold On Together” — is by Diana Ross, which is pretty cool. When I was ten or eleven I took piano lessons and I really learned a lot from that. Then when I was a teenager I started dabbling with guitar. My friend had a guitar that she never played, so she let me borrow it and I played around until I figured it out., started writing songs, and found people to play with. For Long Beard, I’ve been doing a lot of the songwriting for a long time, since I was around 18, maybe. But I didn’t start to actually play shows under the name Long Beard until like 2013. Then I made a record and I put it out with Team Love Records, and that’s the story of the debut.
So Sleepwalker came out in late 2015, are you still working with the same band? What happened after it was released and what additional is there context leading up to this new record?
As far as the band goes, I’ve always had a rotating cast of friends and people I’ve met through music. For Sleepwalker it was Stefan Koekemoer who played drums on that record — and for several shows following the release — and Tom Christie played some guitar parts and bass. I do wish I got to tour that record, but at that time I was more focused on getting a job. I’d recently graduated college so I felt a lot of pressure to put music on hold for a little bit and pursue my career as a computer developer programmer.
That’s part of why I didn’t really get to tour or promote the record that much. I went to Rutgers, and then I was looking for a job for a while and found one at a firm like a year later. That job was in my hometown in New Jersey so I moved back to East Brunswick. I was doing corporate, full-time work for a while, and then I got an opportunity to play bass for Japanese Breakfast on two of their upcoming tours. I feel like that reawakened the musician in me to keep doing music and continue writing songs, and be able to put out another record.
Had you played bass before?
I had played bass a few times nothing serious, but that was the first time I had to really double down and learn how to play bass. Which, like, for me it wasn’t like a huge transition. Fewer strings. It’s a completely different instrument though, it’s way more rhythmic and you just have to feel so much more of the song, more than when you’re playing guitar. It was a lot of fun. I didn’t know her before that, she contacted me on Facebook about it. I think one of our mutual friends, Gabby Smith (fka Eskimeaux), who she did a solo tour with, told her about me and then she listened to my music. She really liked it and was really supportive and just threw out the idea if I was interested. It was the tour right before Soft Sounds came out, when she was supporting Slow Dives, and then I did another shorter run with them when they were supporting Tegan And Sara.
So touring with Japanese Breakfast as a bassist is what brought you out of computer programming and back into the music headspace?
It was really nice and refreshing to be on tour with other musicians that I really admired, and to see how hard they worked. And to see how enjoyable it can be. I felt like…. I’m more of a musician than a business worker, you know? So I was definitely more inspired to be writing songs and pursue music again to see where it takes me.
How did you feel working that corporate job?
I was pretty miserable. It was a toxic work environment. The work itself wasn’t terrible or grueling, it was more of just like why am I here? Like, I didn’t feel like I belonged there and I wasn’t really appreciated there, which is the complete opposite of how I feel when I’m playing music; it makes me feel like I belong, and it’s more affirming of who I am.
So over the last four years were you working on these new songs the whole time?
A lot of them I started writing soon after the last record. Not a lot, some of them I started writing before the last, or right after the last record. But at the time I wasn’t really sure where my music was necessarily going, so I put in on hold for a while. But I’ve been slowly working through those songs and writing more songs — especially after touring with Japanese Breakfast and with the support from Michelle. I felt more ready to just finish a record and finish writing all these songs.
This record feels like it’s a lot about home and stability and sense of self. How do those themes play out for you with moving back home?
There’s definitely a big theme of home and what home is, or can be. I think a lot of that came just because since the last record came out I’ve been basically moving almost every year, navigating adulthood and figuring out where I belong and where I can feel comfortable. I’m physically moving to different locations all the time, and also realizing my friends are separating and growing further and further away. I felt like home isn’t just the place that you want to be, but who you want to be surrounded by and people that can be really comforting to you in spirit.