Dirty Projectors are an ever-changing band.
The eclectic US pop collective has witnessed its share of ups and downs over the years, but so far 2017 has been a time of positive progress. However, as the band’s founder and sole remaining original member Dave Longstreth explains, after all the effort and work that goes into a new release, things can still feel a little strange.
“It’s been a good year,” he says. “The video for ‘Cool Your Heart’ has just come out, and you know, it’s always a surreal thing to see the thing you’ve been working on for months or years is finally something everyone can see.”
Dirty Projectors’ self-titled new record is, without question, a break-up album. The themes, lyrics and melodies all point towards anguish, heartbreak and eventual healing. After the demise of her relationship with Longstreth, vocalist Amber Coffman left the band, leaving a crevice in the group’s music as well as Longstreth’s personal life. Painful though it was, Longstreth set out to create an album that tested both his own emotions and musical abilities.
“I think the story the record tells is of starting in complete emotional devastation and going through these various trials and tribulations,” he says. “I think of the album as a three-act structure, and each of the acts is three songs – the last act is very forward listening, about opening your eyes again to the world and letting air in your lungs and thinking about what it would mean to love again. I see it as looking back at the past with acceptance and reconciliation.”
The departure of Coffman became both a topic for the songs and an engine for creative leaps. In taking a new approach to his vocals, Longstreth sought extreme diversity. “When I was writing these songs and realising they were different to other releases, it felt like something to explore, that absence, and a reason to explore my own voice.
“One thing I did was to take time with the vocals. ‘How do I wanna sing this?’ ‘What if I push this harder here?’ ‘What if I sing this whole song pretty quiet?’ Experimenting with the performance in that way is something I haven’t given myself the space to do in prior records – my own performance in the past has been somewhat of an afterthought.”
Encouraging as it is to hear that Longstreth is finally able to focus closely on his position within the group, he speaks as if he has become a solo artist, though Dirty Projectors are ostensibly still a band. So after surviving through so many lineup changes over the years, why has Longstreth never thought about striking out on his own?
“I feel like with Dirty Projectors, something I started when I was 19 or 20, I wanted to make a musical home that could accommodate any exploration I wanted to go on, and I figured I wanted there to be a lot musically that I wanted to try. There still is, actually, and so yeah… There are no two Dirty Projector albums that have the same qualities. It’s always been what you’re describing, a self-exploration within a group. I feel very free in it.”
Free the new album may be, but the heavy subject matter explores prayer-like overtones, like a pleading gospel of self-retribution. Longstreth, however, still declines to put a genre or label on his work.
“I feel like one of the best things about the internet is the way it sort of showed us that what we thought of as hard and fast walls between different genres, different communities, are not walls at all,” he says. “It’s just vapour, and styles are much more porous – a lot of the genre affirmations aren’t as clear as you would be led to believe.
“Just hearing about rock music or soul or indie … the way we’ve been living so much in a short time, our old analogue institutions feel out of step and incapable of dealing with the things our culture are going through. I feel like that about genre: these words don’t describe the music that’s being made right now, they’re inadequate, they’re not useful.
“That being said, genre as a concept, I think it’s useful to put a frame around something that people, musicians, listeners can say, ‘This is the approximate world of what you’re going to hear, this is the general area of what you’re going to feel and these are some of the instruments that are going be used in the creation.’ That being said, I think there are so many genres now we don’t have names for.
“A lot of this album is a meditation on nostalgia and sorrow and longing and things of that nature. It would be useful to define it as one thing, but the risk is being reductive. But then the risk of not defining it would be that it just has no shape. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m trying to leave it up to the listener, that people will think about what I’m bringing.”
[Dirty Projectors photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg]
The self-titled Dirty Projectors album is out Friday February 24 through Domino.