After her dazzling and direct ATO Records debut Emotions And Math dropped back in 2016, Margaret Glaspy fans have been eagerly awaiting her next body of work. A couple of EPs before her debut and one after, 2018’s Born Yesterday, did little to slake the thirst for more sharp, glistening songwriting from the New York-based musician. Good news came at the top of 2020 — a new full-length was dropping in March, and Glaspy’s sophomore effort, Devotion is now just a few days away. The first surprise of the album is a sonic shift: while Emotions And Math was defined by guitars, Devotion takes a synthy and glitchy turn, introduced with the whispery, Autotuned first single “Killing What Keeps Us Alive.”
Speaking with Glaspy about what she’s been up to over the last four years, it becomes clear that she hasn’t been resting on her laurels by any means. Aside from extensively touring behind her first album, she’s also been taking college classes at Harvard since she missed out on earning a Bachelor’s degree since leaving Berklee School of Music after one semester to jump straight into life as a working musician. The time away from a life focused strictly on music created space for the focus of Devotion, which true to its name features twelve love songs that unflinchingly delve into the tender heart and dark underbelly of relationships, commitment, and romance. Discussing her continuing education, shifting from guitar to synths, and the ins and outs of songwriting behind the album, Glaspy offers a fascinating insight into her artistic process. Read a condensed and edited version of our recent phone conversation below.
A lot of people have said they feel like it’s been a long time, and that people have really been anticipating your return. So I wanted to know, does it feel like it’s been a long time to you and sort of what’s been happening in between the two records?
I came off tour from the last record and was pretty tired. So I took a little hiatus, and yeah, I think that I kind of just needed to take the time that it took for me to feel normal again. I think I was just on tour a lot and it was fun and exciting and I’m very lucky, but at the same time, I just needed to get some ground again. So coming out of that it felt necessary to chill out for a little while and do work in other areas. Since I released my last record, I stayed up in the Hudson Valley for a little while, stayed upstate for about six months and kind of retreated there, and then I started to write a bunch of new music and re-approach the writing process in a lot of different ways.
That was ongoing for the last two years, and then on top of that I started to study and take classes at Harvard. I never got my Bachelor’s degree because I just went straight into music — did one semester at Berkeley College of Music and started to work as a musician after that. There’s so much output when you’re touring, it’s nice to get some input and learn new things and be inspired to write more. That’s kind of what I needed, was just a moment to gather things to even write about.
What are you studying at Harvard?
Right now I’m pecking away at my Bachelor’s at Harvard. So the concentration is humanities right now, writing, and I mean I have to do it from the ground up. I’m doing all of my core courses before I really touch my major, so I’ve just gone through a few classes now. I can only take about one class at a time usually, because I’m a working musician so it’s kind of hard, because when I start to tour and in a bunch of different time zones and it’s very hard to schedule.
I can see that. As far as your new album, as I was listening I was thinking the album title is about being devoted and then the early single, “Killing What Keeps Us Alive,” is a bit about being devoted to the wrong thing or in the wrong way. So I’d love to talk a little bit about the tension there.
I think that still feels like a devotional song to me in a lot of ways, because I actually wrote a short story that that song is born out of, and the backstory for that was kind of a little bit of a futuristic, slightly post-apocalyptic about two young people that had a very short life expectancy and are kind of looking at their situation and saying, ‘If I know when I’ll pass, then I might as well go for the things I want now.’ It’s kind of a reality check and just looking at our timelines and knowing that tomorrow is not a given, and so I think that there is a devotional aspect there, to me, because it’s like being devoted to a mindset and being devoted to being present in that. It is a little bit of a nod to global warming and understanding the effects, and then also a love story looking at people and how they interact and knowing that tomorrow is not a given.
Well, a huge part of your debut album Emotions And Math is obviously the emphasis on guitars. What prompted you to sort of switch everything up on this record toward a more synth-influenced approach?
I think really my time off and having had to kind of build the experience with a certain setup for a long time made me want to shake things up a bit and just really try things in a different way.
How did working with the producer Tyler Chester play into that decision? What was the relationship like with you two in the studio?
Tyler is a really good friend of mine. He and I did a tour together that was just a duo along the west coast and I didn’t play anything, I just sang and he played a lot of different instruments. He’s kind of a genius that can play everything. It was probably eight dates or something, it was a pretty quick tour. But out of that, I think I really craved to be able to just stand up and sing and not have any other job other than deliver the message. It was really freeing to approach it that way, and that was also a really big inspiration for putting the guitar down and working with Tyler. He’s a really great musician and can capture music in a very special way, so it was cool to be able to work with somebody that’s coming from a musician’s perspective, because not all producers are necessarily well-versed musicians, and he is and he plays all over the record. I think it was good to be able to speak the same language in that way.
When I can’t talk to someone musically, it feels like too much of a disconnect. Tyler and I were able to talk through all the songs very musically and aesthetically at the same time, which was a very good fit. He and I get along really well and can communicate without too much ego. We can share ideas without someone being wrong and right. It’s just a good vibe when you can share your opinions and no one is going to get mad or get their feelings hurt. It’s more about serving the songs. It’s fun to communicate with him and get to the bottom of songs, because there’s a lot to communicate when you’re making a record.
When you were writing the songs for this album, were you writing them on guitar first and then sort of translating them over, or was it sort of in the studio working with him to write them?
I wrote a lot — about half the songs, maybe a little more than half the song — on the computer and on synthesis, and then maybe four or five the songs on the guitar. So the work I did with Tyler was to blend each song in the opposite direction. A lot of the more synthesized songs we worked toward creating a live approach to those songs, and then a lot of the songs on the guitar we trended toward creating more of a produced approach. I think we were able to blend all those worlds together toward the end so it felt more fluid.
Well I think albums that are full of love songs are definitely not lacking, but were there specific records that you had in mind as touchpoints as that sort of emerged as the theme for your next work?
The biggest centerpiece for the record is a sense of vulnerability and earnestness. There’s a part of me that was worked on and revealed in this record that shows me being earnest. My little corner that I found was most interesting was being vulnerable, where you can just say how you feel and not create boundaries around it, living in the gray area intentionally. That was definitely the intent for it, and then in terms of my inspiration, I was trying not to be too clever, tongue-in-cheek or ironic, I suppose, and I think of the people who do that well… I was inspired by Bjork. I think that Bjork does that well in living in a gray area, for sure lyrically.
I was watching a lot of McQueen runway. I’m really inspired by Alexander McQueen and I really love his work, that was a really big inspiration for me to make things that felt as masterful as I can make them and also with a soul to them as well. He was very inspiring for me, and also just making music that I felt like he would want to put in a runway show or would want to represent his clothing. It was a compass for me, making the record, I’d make a song and I’d be like, ‘I feel like McQueen would hate this song,’ and then toss it to the side and make a new song. He was in my mind a lot.
One of my favorite ones on the record was “You’ve Got My Number,” I think because it’s such a swaggering song. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing that one?
Yeah, that was a fun song. That was a fun opportunity to make something that felt a little less serious, I suppose, it’s message and a song that says ‘you know where to find me.’ That’s the message on that one, and it was a fun one to translate. I had made a driving demo and we translated that at the studio in a way that did mix the acoustic and drum machine programmed drums all together. That was a really fun process. I think that was one that I actually did play electric guitar, and it’s also fun to really sing and dig in as a singer on that tune as well.
I’m sure it’s changing all the time, but maybe this week or currently, do you have a song on the album that’s your favorite at the moment?
I like “Devotion” a lot. I’ve always really loved that song. That’s stayed my favorite for a while. It came as an album title later. We recorded it and I had a lot of different versions of that song that I’d made. The one that we ended up with was a happy culmination of almost accidents. We created this vibe for the song for that one in the studio where the percussive feeling that you hear on the record is just the drummer playing in his lap. And that was that. It was a great vibe and we took that and ran with it. My vocal was the scratch vocal for that song, and we weren’t intending on keeping it, I just sang to have a placeholder for the voice, but in the end it was our favorite vocal. It was kind of a first take on that one.
Devotion is out 3/27 via ATO Records. Get it here.