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Interview: Margaret Glaspy

18 August 2023

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

For her third full-length, Echo The Diamond, Margaret Glaspy took a simple and efficient approach, letting the songs flow through her rapidly rather than laboring and fretting over getting every word right or spending tons of time and money with adding layers to the recording. She says that often times she can write a full song in 15 minutes and while you might think that something of quality can’t be conceived that quickly, one listen to the ten tracks on the album will prove otherwise. Similarly, when recording the album, the philosophy was to make the songs sound as live as possible, aiming to complete the tracks in one take when possible. Again, the quality of the music doesn’t suffer in the least and recording in this style ensures that when you Glaspy perform live, you’ll hear the songs nearly identical to how they sound on the album.

While this conversation was not the first I’ve had with Glaspy, it’s the first time I’ve officially interviewed her. We talked about the general look and feel of the album art work and how the music reflects the photography, how much of herself she puts into lyrics, the excitement of playing live in front of another artist’s audience, and how the grief journey inspired the song “Memories”.

The album cover is in black and white. It’s simple and aesthetically pleasing. Was that a conscious decision?

MARGARET: It was a conscious decision. I love black and white photography, and I was excited to work with that photographer. Her name is Ebru Yildiz. She’s incredible. I’ve worked with her in the past. I’d always wanted to do a film shoot, and a large majority of that shoot was done on film and in black and white. It was inspired by a lot of Debbie Harry photographs. That was where I was coming from.

Who decided which photo to use?

MARGARET: I decided, but we had a real intentional kind of look in mind, and we shot it all in a venue in Brooklyn. I was excited to capture a live feeling for the photography.

Does the imagery give listeners an idea what to expect with the music? Or, were you trying to go with something that was eye-catching to draw people in?

MARGARET: Those two ideas definitely play together. The way the record was made was very live and it was made really quickly. It was done in about three days.

We had the luxury of being able to play live in a studio with all my favorite people – Chris Morrissey on the bass and Dave King on the drums. Patrick Dillett was engineering it and my husband, Julian (Lage), was the co-producer. It was really a cool dream team, and the point was to capture as much of the first-take energy as possible.

I think my favorite part about making music is the risk that’s involved, and that’s what I’ll probably always be excited about. What can we do if we put this combination of people together and just throw music around and see what happens? That’s the point.

The album opens with “Act Natural,” which has a killer hook, one that has an earworm quality to it. Did you want to open the album with a bang? Did you know when you wrote it that it would be the first song?

MARGARET: I had a feeling that that was probably going to be a single just because of the riff energy on that song. So yeah, I thought it was going to probably have some prime real estate on the record. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the first thing, but it was definitely fun to open the record with a riff, and it feels like it’s a good representation of what’s to come on the rest of the record.

If the album was a book, would I find it in the fiction or nonfiction section?

MARGARET: Oh, gosh, I would probably say nonfiction, maybe like historical fiction.

How much of yourself do you put into the lyrics and how much is made up?

MARGARET: I’d say this record is pretty real for me for the most part, but I think I tend to astral project or something. There’s a feeling that happens quite a bit where I will write songs, and it’s from someone’s perspective, and I’m not quite sure where it’s coming from. Obviously, I can’t help it, it’s going to have a lot of my experience in it. I think that people would be surprised, maybe more so in my past records, there’s a lot of songs that aren’t necessarily from my perspective but coming from something that I recognize in humanity or a situation around me, but I’ll say it from the first person. This album is pretty real. Of course, there’s snippets in there that are some projections and some embodiments of something else that I don’t really understand.

There are some songs where the lyrics sound like you’re baring your soul to a therapist while there are other songs where the lyrics seem like a form of protest or activism. Are you hoping listeners take some sort of message or action out of your songs?

MARGARET: I don’t have any control over what the audience gets. There is a real kind of narrative about songwriting where it becomes this place where I’ll get rid of all my stuff. There’s an aspect of all art that I think is cathartic and that’s what it’s meant to be, a sense of catharsis and connection for humans. There’s also an art to songwriting like there’s an art to writing a book or making a painting. I get to tap into where I am trying to make something just so. That doesn’t really have to do with my feelings, necessarily, but does have to do with the craft of making it happen.

At the same time, there’s all this mystical stuff that’s involved, too, that I have no clue about. I couldn’t pretend to understand what’s happening when a song gets written, because it’s just complete magic.

Usually, if I sit down with a guitar for 15 minutes, there will be a song at the end of the 15 minutes. It doesn’t really feel like gushing emotions, but it does feel more like a channel gets opened. You kind of sit there and you let something pass through you, and as long as you get yourself to the chair to let something pass through you, then it’ll happen. But I don’t sit down and go, “Gosh, I’m really sad. I’m going to write this right now.” Often, it’s like, I’m going to sit down and see what happens, and then something happens. But the intention isn’t to sit down and purge feelings. It’s usually to sit down and think, “I wonder what’s in the air right now?” Something’s going to happen and it’s going to be so exciting if I sit down and let it happen. And then it does.

When I saw you open for Ruston Kelly, you performed a song called “My Body, My Choice” that felt very topical at the moment.

MARGARET: Some songs are certainly written out of a completist point of view, and I am communicating very clearly what the intention is. And those songs happen to get written very fast, because in a song talking about something like body autonomy and abortion rights, it writes itself. And there’s a song like that on this record called “Female Brain” that was very easy to write.

There are songs that, to me, aren’t protest music, but I think that is probably the category they get put into. And I don’t mind that at all. For me, it’s just being alive, I’m here. And these are the things that are happening to women, to non-binary people, to trans people, and I can’t help but talk about it. So I suppose it is protest music in a way. It totally is. These are things that are on my mind because they’re happening to the people around me and to myself.

The album isn’t easy to describe. There’s some ‘90s indie rock sounding songs. There’s some songs that I kind of think of as jazz adjacent. There’s some singer-songwriter stuff.

MARGARET: It’s really like whatever you hear in it is what you get. I’ve never heard someone say jazz before, but that’s super cool.

If I slipped into a cool underground jazz club in a big city, it wouldn’t surprise me to find you performing “Turn the Engine.” Maybe it’s not a straight-up jazz song, but it’s got those elements.

MARGARET: That’s awesome. All of those things you described are chapters of my life and the music that has surrounded me.

Is it difficult to take all those different influences you hear in your head, translate them, and turn it into something cohesive?

MARGARET: No, I don’t think of it that way. I don’t think of genres at all. I think that something that has been on my mind has been the guitar. That’s the only thing that really pointedly has been a mission for me in terms of using the guitar for good. I feel like an ambassador for the guitar these days, the more guitars I see, the more excited I get in modern-day music.

That was a mission of mine, to get back to guitar music and I love the thrill of being on stage with a guitar as my weapon. Not a weapon, but a shield. It feels very empowering to be on stage with a guitar and play with a trio because it’s kind of like a tightrope walk. I don’t think, “This is kind of a folky/ jazzy/rocky song.” None of that comes to mind. I follow my nose as much as possible, and then I get what you’re hearing now.

The song “Memories” seems very personal and emotional. I don’t know if you’ve ever played it live, but do you think it’ll be something that is difficult to play live because of the subject matter? Is it something that you’ll have to sort of disconnect from when you’re performing, or will you dive into the grief and let that guide you?

MARGARET: That one’s tough for me to play, but I kind of like to show up to it and see what’s going to happen that night. I have played it a little bit live, not a whole lot. I played the actual recording for friends, and it seems to get a lot of intense reactions with everyone having their own definition of that feeling of grief.

Grief touches everyone. It’s really hard. You don’t go through the world without ever meeting it. It’s an interesting song because it does conjure up feelings for people that have heard it. A lot of people have their own stories that I think get inserted with that narrative. I certainly have my own, and I think playing it live thus far is hard, but I remember hearing that with grief, the grief stays the same, but your ability to cope gets bigger.

I don’t ever want to shy away from it because it’s part of my life. But playing it every night, I feel like I get a little bigger because of my ability to show up to it.

I know that there is a connection for people that hear that song that might need it in a certain way. I certainly needed my own things in the grief process and still do.

You’ve opened shows for artists ranging from The Lumineers to Ruston Kelly to Wilco to Spoon. You are what stands between the audience and the headliner. How do you work up the nerve to go out and play in front of any audience that, for the most part, isn’t there to see you?

MARGARET: It doesn’t really feel like a nerve to me. It feels pretty natural. That’s a place that feels very at home for me. There’s other things I’m afraid of, but playing live is not necessarily one. I think that, over time, there’s been a muscle that I’ve started to try and build up, and that is one of pretty deep compassion for myself and for the audience in that situation, in really every situation, but especially when I play solo.

It’s a total tightrope walk, and that just invigorates me. And I’m very excited to do that walk. I think compassion is the biggest thing I take away from being a performer. In order to do it sustainably, you really have to have so much compassion for yourself. You also have to have so much compassion for everyone that’s there too.

Everyone’s just kind of like staring up at a stage of one to twelve people, whatever, and it’s kind of an unusual environment and a magical one. I feel like everyone’s feeling their feelings in very different ways. There could be a drunk couple on one side, there could be someone bawling on the other. There could be someone totally tuned out, someone getting their life changed. It’s just a real mishmash of humanity. I think that that’s really thrilling. And if I think of it as this 100% compassion zone, it just makes me want to get on stage even more because this is the one place where I get to just really embrace everything that’s going to happen tonight. From my side, from their side. It’s like somebody could faint one second, the next second the sound could go out. The next second, I could play something really great. The next second, I could play something really bad.

That’s a pretty exciting environment to be in. Live music and live performance, there’s really nothing like it. And I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it in any way, shape or form. Of course, I get nervous sometimes, but I really love it and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What percentage of your live shows are just you with a guitar versus bringing a band out with you?

MARGARET: I play mostly with a band. Before I was releasing records, I always played solo, but then I started to get a trio together. I like to embrace the solo shows as not a lesser than but it’s just a different experience.

For this record, all the touring will be as a trio which will be very cool. We’ll perform live with the same amount of players as the music was recorded with. That’s exciting. They’re different beasts but, in some ways, very similar because I think of a solo show as me having to create the sound of a trio with just my guitar in some way, shape or form. How can I create a low end? How can I play lead and provide rhythmic aspects and also deliver a great performance?

I think a good place to end is with the last song on the record. Do you feel like “People Who Talk” puts a bow on the record? Is there a reason it’s the last song?

MARGARET: I think” People Who Talk” was an interesting song because that song, to me, in putting it last, felt like I kind of wanted to start the record over again. It doesn’t completely announce this is the end. It kind of feels like, “All right, what’s the next thing?” It makes me want to go back to the beginning, and it almost feels like the first song ties the bow on it in a weird way.

It might have been a little bit devious, wanting you to stay there a little longer, which feels kind of cool. And who knows if that’s actually how it’ll hook people? My feeling in listening to it that way was that you can kind of really announce or put a bow on it, put a period at the end of the sentence, but leaving it in this middle zone felt kind of cool because it made me want to hear something that was a little bit more declarative, which is at the beginning of the record.