Interview

Q&A: Margaret Glaspy On Her Breakout Year, Songwriting For New People, & What’s Next

Margaret Glaspy has had a big year. You could maybe even call it a huge year. The New York-based musician recorded her debut full-length, Emotions And Math, in her bedroom, fully intending to self-release it. Instead, she got picked up by ATO Records, put out the album, and has been touring throughout the US and Europe ever since. Emotions And Math is a dexterous collision of genres. It’s bluesy, yeah. Folky, kinda. But it’s also just a straight-up excellent rock ‘n’ roll record, a bold and career-defining debut that leaves you feeling like you really get Glaspy, even if you’ve never met her. Glaspy’s lyrics are simultaneously open-hearted and gruff, and she sounds very much like someone who has figured out exactly what kind of artist and person she wants to be going forward.

It goes without saying that Glaspy is one of the year’s most exciting breakout acts, and we included her on our list of the Best New Bands Of 2016 earlier this week. The first stop on her European tour went down last night at Iceland Airwaves. Glaspy performed in Reykjavik for the first time ever at the city’s art museum. I met up with Glaspy in the city center before her soundcheck, and we talked about her crazy year, songwriting for other people, and her ambitions for 2017. Read our Q&A below.

STEREOGUM: This has been a really big year for you. How did you go from recording in your bedroom and self-releasing stuff to signing to ATO?

GLASPY: I suppose it’s a long story in a certain way, but I was a musician when I was really young. I played fiddle at a really young age. That was my first instrument, and then at 15 or 16 I got really into guitar and started to mess around with writing songs. I started doing covers of songs I liked as well. From there I got a grant to do whatever I wanted musically, but I used it to go to Berklee College Of Music. I went there for a semester, but stayed in Boston for three years, worked a lot of jobs, and just wrote a lot of music. I got really into songwriting. Then I moved to New York and I’ve been there for six years. I moved there when I was 21.

STEREOGUM: I didn’t realize you lived in Boston for such a long time.

GLASPY: Yeah three years, which was good. Then while living in New York I toured in some other bands, but for the most part I worked a lot in New York and just kept writing songs and played constantly. I made two EPs in the city. One called Homeschool, which I made inside my room in Brooklyn. Then the other one is called If & When, and that was made with my friend Dick Connette, who owns a record label called StorySound Records. After that, I had a few songs that I still hadn’t recorded and was continuing to write. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and made all the songs that are now on Emotions And Math. I demoed those on an iPad. Then I decided I was gonna make the record myself because no one cared about what I was doing. So I bought some gear and made it in my house. Then, right as I was finishing that up, ATO got in touch. They had known who I was through just playing in town so much and also I had a couple demos on SoundCloud. Really quickly after they got in touch, they asked me if I wanted to make a record and I said, “Yeah sure.” I went back in the studio and made the record all the way over again. By that time it felt like we were covering my own songs because I had already recorded them twice and had kind of a pretty specific idea of production. I produced the record. It took us three days to record in the studio. It was really quick. I did all the vocals in a day.

STEREOGUM: Oh wow.

GLASPY: Yeah, and now I’ve been touring all year long.

STEREOGUM: How has that been for you?

GLASPY: It’s been great. It’s been really fun. It’s been a blast. I get tired. You can hear that in my voice now. I kind of see touring as an Olympic sport. You have to take such good care of yourself and just learn how to live your life in a particular way so you can have some stamina and longevity with it, and not just burn out every night. It’s been a long year, but I’ve been so grateful for it. It’s been a blast.

STEREOGUM: Is it going to peter out after Europe or do you have another tour coming up?

GLASPY: This is the last tour of the year. I play one gig in Birmingham, Alabama in the middle of December, opening for Jim James, which is gonna be rad. This is the last hurrah.

STEREOGUM: Are you working on any music right now?

GLASPY: Yeah, I’m working on a new record. I haven’t had time to sit down and put all the pieces completely together but there have been a few coming together. I plan on taking some kind of hiatus — right now there is a month allotted for just chilling at the end of the year from mid-December to mid-January. Then mid-January I start touring again, which should be pretty full-on next year too. Right now I’m just trying to find the time, because you have to claim it now, otherwise someone takes it from you. [Laughs] I’m getting excited about the prospect of writing for other people too.

STEREOGUM: Tell me more about that.

GLASPY: I’ve been songwriting for a long time, since I was young, and I’ve got songs hanging around. I’ve been me for so long. Everything has always been under my name, and to kind of be a little more incognito and write songs for other people is an exciting thing for me.

STEREOGUM: Have you landed anything yet?

GLASPY: That I won’t say. [Laughs] Not a chance.

STEREOGUM: Whenever I’ve seen you perform, you always include a cover or two. How you go about choosing those for your set?

GLASPY: I just like the song usually or it provides a good platform for performance. We’re here at Iceland Airwaves and I have a Björk song that I’d love to play, but I am a little…I don’t quite know if that is going to happen yet. I may or may not do that. Only because the pressure would be highly on. There is a Lauryn Hill song I cover sometimes, “Ex Factor.” That one is kind of an emotive roller coaster; it’s so long and epic that it just provides for a cool live experience. I like its length and how everyone has to submit to the experience of being taken for that long. There’s a Lucinda Williams song that we do sometimes. There’s a bunch of different covers that snake in and out of each set.

STEREOGUM: You own them so well that it sometimes takes me a minute to figure out if you’re covering or performing an original. I read an interview you did a while back where you said that it’s important to move away from your inspirations at some point, or that you start out as an imitator and then you have to come into your own. When you were younger, who the people were that you especially wanted to be like?

GLASPY: This record that I made was really inspired by Elliott Smith. I was in a deep, deep Elliott Smith phase when I finished all of it and put it all together. Production-wise, he was a pretty big influence on me, as well as his songwriting. Elliott Smith was more of a recent discovery and love of mine. When I was really young I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. Louis Armstrong was huge. I was always doing Louis Armstrong impressions when I was young, and trying to sing like him because I thought he was really, really great. Who else when I was really young? [Pauses] Paul McCartney. The Beatles in general were really big. I would watch A Hard Day’s Night over and over again because it was just really cool. I was a really big J. Geils Band fan when I was young, which is hilarious. Joni Mitchell was huge, too. James Taylor was huge. Cat Stevens was huge.

STEREOGUM: What’s your creative process like when you actually go about writing lyrics? What kind of place were you in when you were writing Emotions And Math?

GLASPY: I suppose when the songs get written, there are often kind of little ideas, but big sentiments come along with them. Those are the heart of the song. Those come along all the time when you’re doing stuff and going about life. Then you have to put time in after that and carry those little ideas through. That’s the work aspect of it for me. The little idea is kind of the bread and butter of the song, and then in a day of running around and doing an interview or going to the gig and driving seven hours it’s like, “How am I going to it get from point A to point B where now it’s an idea and now it’s two verses and a chorus or something?” That’s a marriage of the right chords and the right melody and the right lyrics and the right instrumentation. I produce the records, so I usually start thinking about what it’s going to sound like. Usually it’s just working off of little recordings from your iPhone or whatever and taking those and running with them.

STEREOGUM: What are some of the rituals that you have when you’re doing show?

GLASPY: A lot of vitamins. I don’t really drink either. Lots of water. I burn palo santo wood in my green room sometimes. Often having my own music at my show as walk-in music helps. I just want to create an environment every night that I really like to be in. That is really important to me. If you feel weird by any aspect of a show, it kind of gets you off your game a little bit. It’s important to conserve your energy, and conserve your emotional energy, too, because you’re meeting a lot of people every night. Sometimes at the end of the night it feels like you gave everything you had and you’re just flat.

When you feel tired at the beginning of a tour that’s a month long, it’s like, “Oh no. I’m totally screwed.” You have to just take it one day at a time. That’s what everything is — just taking it one day at a time and not thinking all the time, “I’ve got three more weeks to go.” It’s so not about that at all. It’s about being present. I’m here. I’m in Iceland now [focused on] what’s going to happen today, rather than worrying about something that is happening three weeks in advance. It just messes with your tour and puts you in a weird space. There’s also complaining — that can’t happen really either, because you’re in these weird circumstances all the time, so if you complain about one thing it’s contagious. It
gets everybody in a weird mood. You just gotta stay really positive. Sometimes stuff sucks, but for the most part it’s all pretty great.

STEREOGUM: What is a particularly memorable show you had this year and where are you most excited to go play in Europe?

GLASPY: I have to say that in the States recently, our Boston show was really, really memorable and really cool. It was one of the bigger shows we’ve played. It was at the Sinclair. The vibe was really special. I used to live there, and everybody was just very excited to see me doing my thing and I could feel the love from everybody so intensely. That was really cool. In the UK we played in London and it was kind of insane. We had never been to London before and we showed up and people were so excited. It’s kind of a surreal experience when you go abroad with your music for the first time and you have just people waiting. London at the Moth Club in 2016 was rad.

STEREOGUM: It must feel totally wild, because if you’re playing locally you build a following playing gigs around town, but then you just show up and there’s a crowd waiting.

GLASPY: All year it’s been like: “How do you know about this?” [Laughs] It’s wild to just watch it grow. It’s all been a really beautiful, gradual process. Seeing the fruits of your labor — there’s nothing better than that.