How Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth Found Beauty in a Breakup

Music Features Dirty Projectors
How Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth Found Beauty in a Breakup

Dirty Projectors is a BREAKUP ALBUM.” Dave Longstreth’s press materials for his long-running project’s eighth, self-titled album couldn’t be any more specific. The record’s lyrics are even more unequivocal, with references to abandonment, inter-relationship competition and diverging values. Most important, though, the Connecticut-born, Los Angeles-based art-rock figure grapples with the complete reconstruction of his life, both personally and professionally.

The 34-year-old’s follow-up to 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan never once tries to hide that it is directly inspired by the singer’s split from his ex-girlfriend and bandmate, Amber Coffman, who, coincidentally, is set to release a solo debut sometime soon (which Longstreth helped produce). He compares their partnership to a nosediving aircraft in the skittering “Death Spiral”; he recalls writing what might be the Projectors’ most famous love song, “Stillness Is the Move,” for her on “Up in Hudson”; he reminisces about sleeping in separate beds (him at the Ace Hotel, Coffman in their shared apartment) on the twitching “Winner Take Nothing.”

Coffman’s absence is felt in more than just the album’s lexicon. In place of the myriad harmonies the Dirty Projectors used to employ on a semi-regular basis (certainly the most on 2009’s resplendent Bitte Orca), here Longstreth sings alone, or sometimes with a guest (alt-R&B favorite Dawn Richard shows up on the reggae-tinged, Solange-penned “Cool Your Heart”).

In person, when we meet at the lobby of his Chelsea hotel, Longstreth is less candid. He’s clearly trained in answering the curious media’s questions, so instead of directly addressing lyrics like “I don’t know why you abandoned me” and “what I want from art is truth / what you want is fame,” he takes a more generalist approach when asked to talk about Dirty Projectors. Instead of touching on the breakup component of this record, he elaborates on playing around with recording methods, emulating Kanye West’s digitized style on 808s & Heartbreak, working with Yeezy himself on “FourFiveSeconds,” how Solange, with whom he also worked on last year’s A Seat at the Table, introduced him to Richards.

Not that any of that is dull or uninteresting—it’s merely in keeping with Longstreth’s reticence to, say, tell anyone that Dirty Projectors is more or less a solo project now. As for the rest of it, you’ll just have to draw your own conclusions. Below, the singer talks to Paste about the catharsis of writing a breakup record, collaborating with Solange in New Orleans and how working with West permanently altered his perception of fame.

Paste: Yours is a record that inspires many questions, to put it bluntly. Why was this the right time to release it?
Dave Longstreth: Well, I guess it was the right record for me to make because it deals with some of my experiences. It was just the music that was coming out of me.

As far as now being the right time? It was just kind of done. It’s not the kind of thing where you can plan for it, obviously, because the record is being planned for its release a couple months out usually, but it feels like the end of a lot of things right now, culturally. This being the last day of Obama’s presidency is just so sad. But yeah, there’s a kind of quality of looking back and something ending and a new thing beginning in my record as well. The beginnings in my album are a lot more positive, and creative and inclusive.

Paste: You’ve been in L.A. for a while now, right?
Longstreth: Yep, was in Hudson and Brooklyn for a while.

Paste: Are you warming to the L.A. lifestyle?
Longstreth: I like L.A.! I started going out there a bunch doing the Kanye stuff, working on the Amber [Coffman] record. It’s a different pace. I really love that I’ve been able to build a studio there. To be able to have a place to go every day to just make music, not worry about the neighbor, it’s a game changer.

Paste: I’m sure. Plus, there are a bunch of Kanye references on the album. You name-drop 808s, and I also noticed you playing around with Auto-Tune a bit throughout the record. Did your revisiting 808s have anything to do with the fact that it, too, is a breakup record?
Longstreth: I love 808s. Not only the Auto-Tune, but just in general the embrace of a kind of digital style of working. In some ways, because of the sound of it, this album reminds me most of an album I made in 2005 called The Getty Address because it’s super about just cutting up beats and putting horns and stuff on top of it. The Getty Address is actually more digitally like [beats fist into hand] bsh bsh bsh than this one is.

But I think you’re right, they are kind of related. From my time in the Kanye camp a few years ago, I wrote “FourFiveSeconds,” and something happened with that song that changed my way of thinking a little bit. Originally, that was going to be a Kanye song, but when they gave it to Rihanna, using this thing called “elastic audio” in ProTools, they just raised it a fourth to put it in her register. When I first heard it like that I thought, “This is so crazy! They didn’t replay the guitar in a different key, they just used this technology trick. This sounds so crazy, why would they do that?” And then I was thinking, probably because of Paul [McCartney] or whatever, that’s exactly what The Beatles would have done. Using whatever technology’s available and then pushing it to the limit to make the music that they had to make or tell the story that they had to make, get the sound that they were looking for in some cases but in other cases they’re just using the technology to its capacities and the artifacts in the technology become part of the sound of it. You hear those artifacts in “FourFiveSeconds,” and so that reminded me that it can be cool to use whatever tools are available to you, because they have something of the texture of life right now. It also pointed to something I’d stopped thinking about, where like if you’re making rock music there’s sort of a codified set of sounds you’re supposed to use, and it’s weird that rock music wouldn’t accommodate the sonic vocabulary and the tools of right now.

Paste: I was also psyched that you got Dawn Richard on there. How did you two connect?
Longstreth: I know, I know! I felt like as I got to know her and her music a little better I saw her as a kindred spirit in the sense as someone who doesn’t really see things in terms of “genre.”

I was down in New Orleans working with Solange [on A Seat at the Table]. Solange had rented a house on the Esplanade down there, and she had gone out. I was still working and she got back and asked, “What have you been doing since the last time we were together?” We had gone to Ghana, actually—

Paste: You and Solange?
Longstreth: Yeah, and Sampha and Adam Bainbridge and her engineer Blue—a bunch of people. So she was like, “What have you been working on since then?” So I played some instrumental music that I had just been working on, and “Cool Your Heart” was something that was two weeks old at that point. She was like, “Oh my god, this is so awesome! Blue, give me your mic,” And I was like, “Damn, okay!” She wrote her melodies right then and there. It was a song that we made together. She wrote the words of her part and harmonized her hook, wrote her hook and everything. It was going to be a duet between the two of us, but my album has been a long time in the making, and I’ve gotten kind of perfectionist with it. There was a moment where [my album] was gonna come out like a while ago, before A Seat at the Table came out, and Solange, I think it was important to her to make a simple, really strong, direct statement with her record and so she was like “It’s not right, it’s not right for me.” So she recommended Dawn.

Paste: I likewise noticed you experimenting with hip-hop elements on this record. What else did you do here that you hadn’t had a chance to previously?
Longstreth: I think a lot of things. I took the time to just really explore arrangement and production. And being freed of the idea that it has to be something that a rock band could perform live got me into this “studio as the instrument” headspace. That felt right. The songs are really interior, they’re personal stories, so to harness the studio it felt like we were just going inside of a world.

Paste: It does feel a lot more sparse, both instrumentally and vocally. So much of your previous work sounds more crowded—like there are a lot more people in the room. The fact that you’re by yourself for the most part here would lead one to conclude that you’re now alone in the band, which you’ve never formally addressed.
Longstreth: I think it makes sense that people are wondering about that and asking those questions. Certainly the last few records have been built strongly around some of these collaborators who I’ve worked with for a long time. We’re good, we’re family. Mike [Johnson] plays all over the record and I played a lot of the stuff as it was in progress for Nat [Baldwin] and we’d sit there figuring out what’s working. It’s helpful to just hear things through friends’ ears; people who know you well. I guess when I started Dirty Projectors when I was, like, 20. I always imagined it would be kind of like an amphibious vehicle; something that could go with me wherever I need to go. That kind of constant change has been in the DNA from the beginning.

Paste: Of course. There are also some really personal lyrics and stories on the record. In the opener, “Keep Your Name,” I think I was most struck by how you positioned your and your ex-partner’s juxtaposing views on fame. You say what you want from art is “truth,” but your ex wants “fame.”
Longstreth: There’s definitely a lot there to unpack. I guess one thing that’s important to me to say is that I didn’t want to tell personal stories. The songs do draw on my experiences but it’s not a newspaper and it’s not a journal. It might feel very real, but in some ways it’s very much a kaleidoscope. A lot of it, for me when I began writing it, came from the headspace of a relationship where the lines between the “I” and the “you” are broken down a little bit and some of those “you”s I imagine are her talking to me and some are me talking to her. Some are me of myself.

The “art, truth and fame” line—I mean, everyone has asked me about it. It’s sort of like a “Ohhh! No he didn’t!” kind of a moment, but I think that for me I had been thinking a lot about the relationship of those three things, and I was spinning around and around on it and I still don’t know how I feel. Coming from where I started making music and the music that originally inspired me, which was a lot of West Coast indie rock from the late ‘90s and before that, and my brother was involved in that scene when he was in college, bands like Dear Nora and Wolf Colonel, The Microphones, Mirah, K Records in general, that crew. Then East Coast looking at like Dischord [Records], Fugazi. In that era of indie rock there’s a real opposition between being honest and the part of the music business that involves success or showbiz and it’s kind of a toxic value system in that way, because there’s no way to grow in that. I’m, like, sitting in Mexico working with Kanye and so inspired by looking at him thinking “Is this that Warhol-ian idea of fame being the highest expression of storytelling and of art?” Looking at Kanye, he’s someone who’s somehow marshaled all of this media to tell his story.

Paste: Say what you want about Kanye, but he is a marketing genius.
Longstreth: Right, but he’s also a brilliant lyricist and an incredible producer, and the idea that at the end of the day he’s telling a story about himself and that story has significance for America, because of his identity as a black man in this moment and in lots of moments in the past. So I guess I was just thinking about those things; there’s “fame” and then there’s “art.” What is the relationship? If I strip away my prejudicial indie-rock mindset, it seems they are both about storytelling and they’re symbiotic up until a point.

Paste: If you utilize fame in a smart way, then absolutely.
Longstreth: Then there’s another side where I do distrust what I’m being fed. Think about the braindead megaphone that George Saunders talks about; the kind of distortion that comes with the reproduction of the message to this crazy order of magnitude.

Paste: When I was parsing through the lyrics on this record, I felt like I was getting a real close-up view of your value system as an artist and how that would play into a romantic partnership with another artist. Have you felt that relationships with other artists have pushed into that competitive territory?
Longstreth: Right. Nat [Baldwin], around the first time he was getting into the bass in high school, was an amazing basketball player, but I think he felt like he was never tall enough to go pro but basketball was totally his life for a number of years, and he still loves it. At some point when he was younger I think he felt like he had to stop. At some point he super burned out on basketball and he would always talk about how what’s super amazing about music is that it’s not a competition. Sports are a competition, music is a conversation.

Paste: I was impressed at the way you leaned into calling this a breakup record. Not every artist is so forthright. Was it cathartic to use that term?
Longstreth: As far as that being the term that gets used, I think that’s okay. I mean you’ve gotta come up with something. But here’s another thing: In a moment where I don’t feel like genres really very adequately describe how music sounds or the people who are making it— like country music, what is that? You’re gonna tell me that Jason Aldean and Sturgill Simpson are the same? Likewise with rock music. But the cool thing about a genre and why it’s a useful thing for writers and for listeners is in setting up sort of a canvas. A frame. Like, “this is approximately how you’re gonna feel and these are some of the subjects in this body of songs.” And in that sense I don’t know if “breakup music” or “breakup album” or whatever is a genre, but in the way people are using the term around this music, it’s like a genre descriptor.

Making [Dirty Projectors] was definitely very cathartic. Initially, I really didn’t know what I was gonna do if I was gonna do stuff. When I realized that I was making all these songs that maybe they fit together in this way I guess at that point—and also just playing things for people and getting that feedback—you really just realize that life is not so personal. Everybody’s been through this.

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