Dirty Projectors: Painting Without Parameters
Last year, Dave Longstreth smashed any preconceived notions about what a Dirty Projectors album could, or should, sound like. Now, he’s pushing forward into a new, familiar musical universe.
With Dirty Projectors’ self-titled seventh LP, Dave Longstreth demolished and rebuilt his critically acclaimed project from the ground up. He stripped away the distinctive sonic threads—the African art-rock guitars, the stacked vocal harmonies—and all-hands-on-deck band approach that defined their most famous and celebrated work.
“I wanted to throw out everything I thought I knew about making music and writing songs,” he says a year and a half after that album’s release as he ushers in its sequel, Lamp Lit Prose. “It felt like a moment of starting from scratch.” So, he did just that, experimenting with a new electro-orchestral approach and overdubbing most of the material on his own. And, most notably, he recorded without the help of longtime collaborators like guitarist-singer Amber Coffman, whose very public breakup with Longstreth inspired much of the album’s forlorn, anguished lyrical content.
But where Dirty Projectors was a voyeuristic listen, often uncomfortably so, Lamp Lit Prose brims with unfiltered joy—arriving as a beacon of positivity and contentment after the bleakness of its predecessor. “I vaguely wanted this sort of counterpoint. I wanted a heavy album and one that was really light and effervescent,” Longstreth says of the spiritually linked records. “There’s an arc from emotional devastation to acceptance. I want Lamp Lit Prose to be an uplifting experience. Making it certainly was.”
The origins of this contrapuntal light-dark concept date back to the aftermath of Dirty Projectors’ sixth LP, 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan. Longstreth and company, for the first time, seemed to tread water on that album, exploring their reliable experimental-rock approach within a more bare-bones framework. At the end of that touring cycle, the band’s mastermind was a bit unsure of himself.
“Maybe I did feel a bit lost,” he reflects. “I did need a break from what I was doing. It is crazy when you say it—it was five years between Swing Lo and the self-titled album. That went by really fast. But I collaborated a lot in that period. I put Dirty Projectors down for a minute.”
Longstreth regained his confidence by putting himself in unusual or unexpected creative spaces: arranging strings for a song on Joanna Newsom’s 2015 album, Divers; producing six tracks for Solange’s 2016 LP, A Seat at the Table; helming Nigerien guitarist Bombino’s 2016 record, Azel; and, most famously, collaborating with Kanye West, Rihanna and Paul McCartney on their joint 2015 hit, “FourFiveSeconds.”
“I learned so much from doing all that stuff, just wearing a different hat in the room than what I was used to wearing as the bandleader-songwriter guy,” Longstreth says. “It gave me so much perspective on what we’re doing here. That was really important to me. And also just living—you do have to draw from experience, and I had to lift myself into a new place a little bit. It was a necessary and regenerative period.”
From day one, when he first started recording music in his college dorm room at Yale, he envisioned Dirty Projectors as a compositional “vehicle” rather than an eventual band. “I always imagined it would change as my life and world changed,” he says. And in his troubadour period, as he hopped from random project to project, the freedom of this working M.O.—collaborating with whomever he wanted, exploring a range of styles—started to feel pretty appealing. A broader thematic approach began to crystallize, too: “When I was working on the stuff with Solange and Kanye, I thought it would be cool to create a collection of songs that outlined a spectrum of feelings or experiences or something like that.”
So Longstreth holed up in his personal LA studio—a former cabinet factory dubbed “Ivo Shandor,” after the architect character from Ghostbusters—and started whittling away at new musical textures that relied less on his guitar and more on sequencing and rhythm. “I was really just throwing everything out—every prior assumption or habit that I’d taken with the writing and recording of the prior few records,” he says. “I wanted to make that a new, entirely blank-slate kinda thing.”
The self-titled album’s lead single, “Keep Your Name,” was a head-scratching departure, a fractured, gut-punching breakup ballad filled with pitch-shifted vocals and wobbling keys. (In the video, Longstreth smashes an electric guitar in slow-motion—a perfect metaphor for the metamorphosis.) And while most press coverage focused on the musician’s crumbled romantic relationship and Dirty Projectors’ scaled-back membership, the LP was far from a “solo” project: Guests included Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, violinist Rob Moose, synth player-producer Tyondai Braxton and frequent collaborator and drummer Mike Johnson, among numerous others. He was in the mood to collaborate, if not necessarily to celebrate.
But the vibe shifted on Lamp Lit Prose, and Longstreth planted a flagpole for his sunnier mindset with advance single “Break-Thru,” the polar opposite of “Keep Your Name” in every way. “What’s up? How’s it going? The unreal cheekbone; she is so dreamy” he gushes on the song over a tightly coiled guitar lick, later playfully referencing Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini and The Strokes singer Julian Casablancas. Clearly, the anguish that propelled Dirty Projectors had mutated into sweetness.
More of a vehicle than a band: Kristin Slipp, David Longstreth, Mike Johnson, Felicia Douglass, Maia Friedman, Nat Baldwin ( l-r)
White it’s easy to view Lamp Lit Prose as reactionary on a personal level—to read between the lines in Longstreth’s lyrics and scan for clues about his romantic life—those details are only tangentially relevant. “You have to work with what you have in front of you as a songwriter, but to interpret it as some kind of one-to-one or diaristic thing, either with the self-titled album or this one, is not really true to my experience of making them,” he says.
The creative process actually began with a similar approach to the previous release. Choosing not to tour and instead jumping straight into the recording, Longstreth figured out a bare- bones arrangement for each song, brought in Johnson and Refosco to redesign his beats, and gradually stacked some overdubs—Wurlitzers, horns and strings—into a sonic collage. But given the album’s brighter, more outward tone, he wanted to chase a more communal, interactive approach for the vocals.
“I got to a certain point and was like, ‘This shouldn’t feel like a monologue,’” he says. “It wants other voices in it. These songs want to be together and party a little bit. I invited a mixture of old friends and voices I’d been listening to a lot of over the last year or two to complete the songs with me.” Those voices range from alt-soul singer Syd (on the swaggering electro-folk of “Right Now”) to pop-rock trio HAIM (who appear on the artsy sing-along “That’s a Lifestyle”) to the all-star indie-rock duo of Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and former Vampire Weekend member Rostam (who join in on the lullaby “You’re the One”).
One of the album’s standout guest spots comes via Dear Nora’s Katy Davidson, who appears on the atmospheric noir-jazz jam “(I Wanna) Feel It All,” crooning breathy lines over Nat Baldwin’s thumping double-bass, muted brass and reversed drums.
“I became friends with Dave’s brother Jake Longstreth in 1995—we met because we lived in the same dorm building at Lewis & Clark College [along with Marianna Ritchey, one of the original Dear Nora members],” Davidson recalls. “Jake played the four-track recordings he had made with Dave back at their home in Connecticut, which I found inspiring and awesome. I met Dave in person for the first time in about 2000 or so. I’m familiar with all the music Dave has made—since he was about 15 years old to the present day.
“I love the song and the recording,” she adds. “It gives me somewhat of an Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book vibe. I probably would have written my own unique lyrics if it were my song, though—the song has been making me think a lot about what it means to truly ‘feel
it all’ and the validity versus invalidity of feelings in general.”
The intimacy of Davidson’s performance underscores the clarity and, relatively speaking, simplicity of Lamp Lit Prose. While Longstreth shrugs off the idea of the album as a “conscious return” to a “classic” Dirty Projectors style—and he questions whether that exists anyway—fans who fell in love with his inimitable guitar playing on albums like Bitte Orca will relish the fretwork of tracks like the distorted, lurching “Zombie Conquerer.”
“It’s rock music,” Longstreth says with a laugh. “You gotta have a little something on it. I like the idea of it being kinda clean but also kinda fucked up at the same time. On a nerd level, that one’s in drop-C, so the guitars are just out of tune because they’re so low.
“I love the guitar,” he adds. “It wasn’t my first instrument, but it was the first one I fell in love with. With the self-titled record, it’s not like I was making a conscious effort to get the guitar out of there—I would throw guitar tracks into those arrangements, but I couldn’t figure out where they lived in that ecosystem. They would just kinda fall out a lot of the time or take on a subdued role in the songs. There’s a lot of guitar on ‘Keep Your Name,’ for example, but it’s not where the focus lies. With these songs, it was like the guitar was speaking again. It was back in the language. It was super fun to play. And live, it’s really fun to play this set. It’s guitar front-to-back, and it’s pretty awesome.”
Another crucial collaborator was Baldwin, who played on “You’re the One” and “(I Wanna) Feel It All” and co-wrote the latter, adding more of a “band feeling” to the LP. “I had an eye toward touring on this one. So, as they were coming in, I always thought these major-key songs would feel great to play for audiences,” Longstreth says. “I’d recorded all the basic tracks with Mike, so I thought, ‘Damn, we gotta get Nat in on this.’”
In a superficial sense, Dirty Projectors have come full circle: the guitars, the collaboration, the full-band approach, the touring, the surreal zeal that defines their best work. But Longstreth observes that Lamp Lit Prose is more of “push forward” than a backward glance.
“The self-titled album is a bit like [2005’s] The Getty Address, in that it’s a lot of horn arrangements and string arrangements and vocal arrangements that are kind of thrown in a collage-like way over a sequenced, digital rhythmic grid,” he says. “And The Getty Address is a concept album, too. I have concept albums and albums that are more about songs. And Lamp Lit Prose is more of a ‘songs record.’ But, even though it’s not a concept album in that Getty Address way, it resolves that Getty Address/self-titled style and more of the digital collage and composition—this spectrum of electronic and chamber music that those albums have. And then, the style of writing and arrangement lends itself more to the live music that characterizes [2007’s] Rise Above or Swing Lo Magellan. This album fuses those two things. To me, it really wraps up a lot of where I’ve been in my years as a writer in Dirty Projectors. Maybe it’s the narcissism of small differences but, to me, it’s not a ‘conscious return.’ That would be something that wouldn’t appeal to me, but it’s more like figuring out how to wrap together everything that I’ve been chopping away at.
“I love bands that have a super well-defined aesthetic and just hammer away at that or live in that bandwidth. There’s definitely a sense where by narrowing the parameters you can create a wide emotional, musical universe,” he adds before offering with a laugh, “but Dirty Projectors is not that kind of a band. It’s a wide canvas.”
This article originally appears in the October/November 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interview, album reviews and more, subscribe here.