Raz Mataz‘s Mike Red had the chance to correspond via e-mail with the lovely Lauren O’Connell. You’ve heard her on the radio, you’ve read what we’ve had to say about her album, Quitters. Now, read this interview to find out her musical influences, the story behind her cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ (which was featured on American Horror Story), and her thoughts on sexism in the music industry.
Raz Mataz Magazine (RMM): What would you say are your lyrical influences?
Lauren O’Connell (LO): Well, my songs are pretty autobiographical – though people and events are sometimes skewed, magnified, or otherwise re-imagined, so my ideas for songs usually start as ideas about other things when I’m away from my guitar. It’s hard to pin down influences for that portion of it, but some of my favorite lyricists are Jeff Tweedy and Will Scheff (of Okkervil River). They’re very different writers. Scheff’s songs are often wordy and usually offer a pretty explicit narrative, but the way he drapes those words over the melody and the way he constructs these really extensive rhyme schemes is something I admire a lot. It’s hard to say that much and still makes every word feel important. Tweedy is a master of mood. I don’t always know exactly what he’s talking about, but his words just feel right. I never feel like I need to know more. I think about their work a lot when it comes to song construction, apparent effortlessness in storytelling (which requires a considerable amount of effort), and figuring out what needs to be said and what doesn’t.
RMM: And what are your musical influences?
LO: Again, influences are a tough thing to pin down. I have the things I’m consciously trying to pull from at any given time, but it’s hard to compare that to years and years of hearing stuff. When I was a kid I listened to so much Billy Joel. I knew every note of every song on whichever Greatest Hits album my parents had. These days I don’t listen to much Top 40, and I’m certainly interested in being a little more experimental with my own work, but I think I still gravitate toward pop structures quite a bit. There is a never-ending loop of ‘Uptown Girl’ playing in some deep, dark corner of my brain.
As for modern influences, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is definitely the album that got me interested in production, which has turned out to be a pretty big deal for me. For a long time all I wanted to do was write great songs without anything getting in the way and without “needing” anything else to make them work. That’s a very limiting way of looking at things, and I think YFH was sort of my gateway drug. The songs are 100 per cent solid, heartfelt americana songs that could have all worked acoustically without leaving anything to be desired. All of the weird production choices they made just feel so natural, though, and take it all to an entirely different level. It’s just such an inspiring record.
RMM: Overall, what would you say is your approach to writing music in general?
LO: General approach to music. That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. There’s the never-ending dilemma of waiting for inspiration versus forcing ideas, which is something I struggle with. I’ve always preferred the former, but sometimes that just doesn’t work. It worked when I used to drive a lot, or had boring jobs to let my mind wander. Recently I’m trying to find a happy medium by just setting aside time every day for goal-less noodling on the guitar or piano. If I don’t come up with anything, I don’t sweat it, and play again later. It’s still waiting for inspiration, I guess, but giving it as many openings as possible. If I get in a rut, I listen to other people’s music and get some different voices in my head. Brains are complicated. It’s like we have to trick ourselves into being creative.
RMM: You’ve been known to use, shall we say, less conventional instruments in your recordings, ranging from metal tool cabinets to garage doors, and even a humble deck of cards. Why is that, and how do you decide to include “this” or “that” sound on your recordings?
LO: When I was younger and didn’t have access to a lot of instruments, I’d try to find things around the house to fill in for drums and other percussion. Pretty much everything makes noise of some sort, and it was fun to just play with whatever I could find. Then I’d bring into Garageband or Pro Tools and chop it up, move it around, make loops, and see what fit. Most things wouldn’t, but I think I stumbled on some cool stuff. It’s hard to maintain that state of mind when you actually have drums available or a MIDI controller and a whole universe of samples. I’m trying to hold on to it, at least.
RMM: Your cover of ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ was featured on the third season of American Horror Story. How did that come about, and how did you arrive at your particular take on the song (musically speaking)?
LO: About a year and a half after I’d posted my cover on YouTube, I was contacted by the music supervisor (or at least I think that’s who it was) for American Horror Story. The song is obviously pretty famous, and it fit the setting of the show, so I can only assume they were perusing YouTube for a suitable version of it and found mine.
I was actually commissioned to do just one verse of the song a couple years earlier for a video game trailer. They were looking for something kind of sparse and spooky, so I did the one verse with just bowed banjo and my voice with that sort of graveyard reverb feel. I was pretty pleased with it and wanted to see where else I could take it, so I ended up doing the whole song. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had working on a cover. When a song has been covered so well so many times, it just makes you want to push harder to do something different.
RMM: It’s always hard to balance “real life obligations” with making music. This often discourages many new artists. So, how do you balance your music with other obligations, such as friends, family, etc…?
LO: I think it’s very hard to write songs if you spend all of your time making music. I get antsy if I’m away from it for long, but stepping away and doing other things, both alone and with other people, has always been an important part of the whole process for me. I think that hardest part for most musicians is balancing making music with making a living, since the two don’t easily go hand in hand. Over the years I’ve bounced though a few part time jobs, lost a couple for skipping shifts to play shows, that sort of thing. It’s tough. Fortunately, I’ve ended up in a place where I can do music full-time and nothing else, but there’s been a lot of luck involved in that.
RMM: What are your dislikes, either musically, or in the music industry, or even in real life?
LO: Oh boy. Dislikes. In typing out this answer, it kinda turned into an essay. Aren’t email interviews the best? Here we go.
As a woman making music and posting it on the internet, I’ve grown pretty weary of the different standards applied to men and women and the contrasting reactions to very similar products from both. The older I get, the less patience I have for it. I’ve put a lot of videos on YouTube over the years (which one could say is “asking for it”, but fuck that), and it’s unfortunately been pretty illuminating.
Sure, there are people who are trolling and say awful, sexist, sometimes violent things, which is inexcusable. Everyone knows this. What I’m more bothered by is the people who think they’re being complimentary, or at least neutral. It’s mostly comments about my appearance. When I’ve put so much work into this song and video, arranging and playing these parts, mixing and mastering this song, it blows my mind that anyone can think it’s appropriate or relevant to talk about my hair, or weigh in on which of my outfits was the cutest. Tell me the vocals were too loud. Tell me the bassline sucks. Tell me you loved/hated the song and you don’t know why. The visual element can matter, sure. Watching someone perform and be expressive can affect your reaction to the song. But my hair? I’m trying to communicate something, and it has nothing to do with hair. To tell me that you walked away from my video thinking about hair is to tell me that I’ve failed.
But how can I change this? As a musician who is trying to present music to the world, it begins to feel like a lose-lose. How do I make all of this stuff not matter? Is there a way to dress on camera in order to not have people comment on my clothes or my body? My guess is no, but if there were, should I have to conform to that in order for my work to be front and center? It’s hard to know if I’ve succeeded with a message when it’s inevitably weighed down (or raised up, or dragged a thousand miles east or west) by something else that I never wanted to communicate at all.
If a woman desexualizes herself entirely, then that becomes the focus. If a guy is playing music in a hoodie or his pajamas, he’s down-to-earth and it’s awesome (no really, it probably is), but for a woman to dress in unflattering or frumpy clothes is for her to somehow spit in the face of the universe and its gifts (e.g., gossip magazines shaming Ellen Page for wearing sweatpants to the gym). The gifts imparted by the universe unto a woman, it is understood, are intended for the entire world and for her to hide them is selfish and ungrateful (unless of course she’s ugly, in which case a shapeless outfit represents the merciful gift of invisibility). The desexualized woman is either lowering herself or unworthy of interest in the first place.
I also hear from people saying that I should show my face and smile more. If you are my grandmother, this request is acceptable. If you are not my grandmother, I can only assume that you’ve never heard my music.
Then there is the assumption that women are incapable of (or uninterested in) anything requiring technical prowess. When I recorded an EP with my friend Nataly Dawn a few years ago, people were asking who produced it. We did. The recording process was transparent as we filmed it in our home studio, but some viewers assumed they were missing something. If you observe other examples of this video format (known as a “VideoSong”) on YouTube, this is not a question that men are asked. It is assumed, usually correctly, that it is a format for the DIY artist. Apparently DIY for two women just means that we did our own hair and makeup.
To be clear, the world has plenty of people who are listening to music intelligently and not perpetuating these issues. I’m fortunate enough to have many of them as fans. A lot of them do post thoughtful responses to my music on YouTube or on other forums. What’s more, I also try to remind myself that a large number of these listeners who “get it” are not people who comment on YouTube videos, so perhaps the observable ratio of relevant to irrelevant feedback does not represent people’s reactions on the whole. All of this gives me hope. Still, we have a problem.
In conclusion, I dislike that it’s difficult for a woman to have her work be valued as a separate entity from her appearance or sexuality. To be visible at all as a woman, it seems, is to encourage people to miss the point. None of this is news, obviously, but dammit, I dislike it.
Also olives. Never been a fan of those.
RMM: So, what can we expect from you in the future? Any plans for a new album?
LO: Yes, I’m working on a new album. It’s probably about 80 per cent written, and 10 to 20 per cent recorded. I want to record this one at home as much as possible, so I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. I have no idea when it will be done, but so far I’m really happy with how it’s coming along. Working at home of course means that I can operate on my own schedule, so I’ll have a lot more time to experiment than I have on past albums.
RMM: If you could perform a duet or a collaboration with any artist in the world, who would it be?
LO: “Dream collaborations” is a tough one, because the thought process is always something like this: “I love Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Wow, I would kill to work with them,” which gives way to “but wait, I’m a singer/songwriter, and they’re some of the best folk singer/songwriters alive! Could I even contribute to our collaboration?” to which the conclusion is always “Okay, so the dream plan for my dream collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings is to sit quietly and just let them make their magic so I don’t ruin anything. PERFECT.” – which is obviously ridiculous. What I’ve learned from the collaborations that I’ve done is that it’s such a personal process. It’s so hard to know who you can do great things with. A brief study of the history of supergroups demonstrates that “great musician + great musician + great musician” doesn’t always produce the best results. The world is so full of talented people with an infinite number of potential collaborations, and they’re always full of surprises. It’s more trial and error than anything else.
RMM: What new artist are you excited about?
LO: I like Angel Olsen. Her songs are pretty distinct and feel modern, but her vocals sound like they’re from another time. I think that’s really cool. I dig Lydia Loveless a lot as well. She’s got a powerful classic country voice, but her songs are very ballsy and raw and un-Nashville. It feels like she’s using modern country sounds but calling back to when popular country was actually badass.
RMM: What’s your Friday night jam? What song gets you pumped for a night on the town?
LO: Friday night jam… Man, I don’t know if I have one of those exactly. ‘Civilization’ by Justice, I guess? It’s more like a “get pumped for cleaning my house” jam. I’ve also found that listening to Justice on a treadmill feels like a Star Command training module.
RMM: What’s your Sunday morning song? What song gets you out of bed on a lazy Sunday?
LO: Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is a great album for a day off when the sun is out. If the sun is not out, something by the National is probably more appropriate.
RMM: If an asteroid were hurtling towards the earth, and was about to destroy life as we know it, what three albums would you save, and why?
LO: If an asteroid were hurtling toward the earth, I think life on other planets (or life as we don’t know it, shall we say) will find all of our music to be completely incomprehensible. Maybe I’d preserve for them a copy of Rosetta Stone. Am I choosing the most important albums to me or the most important albums to the cultural history of humanity? If it’s the latter, I’d probably have to choose a collection of Gregorian chants or something…
Okay, if we’re assuming I’m the elected representative of humanity and I’m also extremely self-centered and just picking the three most important albums to me, I’d probably choose the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, R.E.M.’s Document, and then maybe the American Folk Anthology (I’m still thinking about the cultural history of humanity and I have to throw it a bone).