The career of songwriter Greg Laswell may seem atypical, yet it fits in with how the music world works these days. From early on in his solo career songs seemed to magically get placed on popular television shows and films like True Blood, Grey's Anatomy, and Glee. For a guy who was making records at home, it's been an interesting ride. I interviewed Greg over the phone when his album, Next Time, came out in 2018. He's since released a second, beguiling collection of cover songs, Covers II, and is likely hitting the golf course right now (when not writing and recording songs, or on tour, of course)!
How did you end up recording and mixing all of your own music?
My very first record [Good Movie] was kind of an accident. I was setting out to be a producer and a recording engineer for other artists. That's where all this started. I had a band in college [Shillglen] that was a glass ceiling sort of thing. We did as much as we could. Everyone started getting a little less serious about it than I was. I decided to break off. My initial goal was to start producing other artists. Long story short, I went through a divorce and then wrote my first record and recorded it, and here we are.
So your recording career got derailed?
You'd been in a band and had been writing and working on music before. Had you planned on subverting that, to a degree, and focusing on production and recording?
Not really. I'm not really entirely sure that I am good at it. I know how to make my own sound, I think. I like the ability to do ten tracks of bass guitar and then make people believe I'm a really good bass player. Or a drummer. The rest, I fake. But I love the process of being alone in the studio and making really embarrassing mistakes where no one can hear them and then keeping the good parts. I've always enjoyed that studio experience.
Is the studio an extension of the way that you express these songs, as opposed to saying, "I just wrote a song. Now I'll take it somewhere else"?
You know, more and more. Not as much in the beginning, but now there's no distinction between the two. I write and record at the same time. For instance, for Next Time, I don't think I finished a single song without recording it at the same time. I didn't finish writing "Royal Empress" and then say, "All right, now it's time to record it." I was recording and writing it at the same time. I was singing lyric ideas and recording my vocals as I was writing them. There are some B-sides on all of these songs where the lyrics are completely different from what they turned out to be.
Do you do phonetic phrasing, searching for the melody, when you're working like that?
Yeah, which can be a trap sometimes. A thing like a nonsense phrase or a nonsense word that does not exist, but I get hooked into the sound of that word, and then I have to find something that sounds like it. Meanwhile, I'm supposed to be a good lyricist, but if people only knew the truth! [laughs]
Well, rewrites and editing. It's important.
Of course. Every song is rewritten at least five times.
Do you find yourself spending a lot of time restructuring how many verses, or where the chorus lands, and parts like that when you're working?
No, not really. The arrangement has always been one of the more natural parts for me. On the rare occasion I'll go back and adjust or add a bridge. But with this last record there's very little of that. Songs just fell out. And I made a conscious decision to keep everything extremely simple, chord-progression wise. I think there's maybe one song that has more than four chords in it. The rest are four chords or less. There're not a lot of bridges.
It's an easy record to live within, as a listener. It's easy to get absorbed by it. Maybe that simplicity's a part of that.
I think so. I was talking about some pretty heavy subjects on this record. I think subconsciously I wanted to make the listening part of it easy on people.
On your Twitter feed you said this was one of the more difficult records to write and record. In what ways was that manifesting itself in the process?
I think a lot of the record, like a big chunk of it, was dealing with the loss of my dad. I think of all of the records that I've done, maybe this was not the one to do completely alone, if that makes sense. While in moments it was cathartic to write and record these songs, it was also a time in my life where I probably shouldn't have been alone, or isolated. I'm stubborn, so I had to see it out once I made the decision to do that. I feel like I decided to run a marathon and then didn't really think about training for it at all. A quarter of the way through it was like, "Oh, fuck! I have to finish this and I'm not prepared."
Would it be really disruptive to you to bring someone in part way, say a co-producer or what have you?
I don't know. I don't think so. It was more about being stubborn. I don't think it would have been disruptive, but I had to go through it alone. For the way I approach music, there's something that's more honest when I'm completely by myself than when someone's in the room. I wanted to be completely alone in the moment so that the most honest version of myself would be easily accessible.
We all seek approval, and that can make us less honest or less vulnerable.
Yeah, I think so.
When you start writing, especially on this album, are you starting with a set rhythm and keyboards? How do your songs start getting sculpted?
There's no real rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes it's as easy as going through folders on my computer. There's one called "Ideas." Some of them are months and months old. I'll listen back to them and think, "Oh, I forgot about that. That's cool. I'll finish that!" Other times I sat down and there was a keyboard sound that I found and started playing around with, and then it goes from there quite effortlessly. Other times it's like, "Oh, I want to write a song in 136 BPM," so I did that. There's no real singular method that I've found. It's all over the place. Often times, I'll go through voice memos on my phone where I'm singing nonsense during a drive, and it's like, "Oh, I remember thinking that was a cool idea. I'll flesh that out."
Do you find yourself capturing a lot of raw, simple ideas?
I do. I never sit down to write a song. I sit down to shop through ideas that I've had.
Were there extra songs that got thrown out during this album?
No. For this record, I wrote and recorded ten songs. Two or three records ago I was turning in 15, and we'd chisel it down to ten or eleven; but for this one I literally turned in ten songs.
This album also has the "Next Time (Piano Version)" extra take of one of the songs. Is that something that happens frequently, or is it just a version you really liked that you also wanted to present?
Well, that whole thing was born out of the tour before the last tour I did, which was me stripped down. I find myself "covering" my own songs, you know what I mean? Especially for this record, and the one directly before this record, Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet. I did that much in the same way I did this record. I didn't write these songs on guitar and then produce them. I produced them and wrote them at the same time. It was fun for me to go back and deconstruct them. It brings out a different performance. It almost changes the song, especially with the song, "Next Time." If you listen to the two songs side by side, I feel like it's possible to get two different interpretations of it.
I missed the backing vocal; the little melody.
Oh yeah, Molly Jenson. She's amazing. She's been on so many of my records.
With her parts, is she coming in and singing something you've already written out, or are you throwing ideas around together about that?
We've worked together so many times now. She came to the studio in California, and we worked there. She came over one night, and we both threw on headphones, "Hey, sing this." She'd sing that part, and it's like, "Yeah, that's cool." Or, "Try this." We write the parts as they come.
Are there any other vocalists or musicians who showed up on this record?
No, she's the only one. Actually, even on my last record, I had my friend Colette [Alexander] play cello on it, but this is the first record that I've done entirely on my own. There's no one else on it, except for Molly.
How did you build up mixing skills along the way?
I obsessed about it. Once I set my mind to something… I don't really do many things. The things that I do, I really obsess about them. I don't really do anything outside of music and golf! I obsess about both of them. People are like, "Oh, you want to go on a hike?" I'm like, "No, I don't!" I want to write a song. I want to be in the studio. I want to dedicate three hours to 7 kHz and what it does for me.
Those are obsessions that give you the 10,000 hours.
Yeah, exactly. I treat golf much like I treat music. Every once in a while I have the audacity to think that I've figured it out, when I clearly don't. It keeps me going. I think that's why I love both things so much. There's no real true arrival in my efforts. There's no destination of, "Oh, I know what I'm doing." There's always something that you can learn.
No one ever finishes a record and thinks they've got it perfect. You've got to abandon it at some point.
Absolutely! Oh, my gosh, if it wasn't for my manager, I'd still be working on this record.
What kind of a recording situation do you have now?
I own a house in Arizona and I rent a place in Corona del Mar, south of Newport Beach in California. The house that I own in Arizona is a three-bedroom. Two of the bedrooms are my studio. One is the tracking room, and then one is my console, and the computer, and all that. Two rooms in my house, and then I have the master bedroom. I think I'm going to change that soon. I feel like I need some separation from it. Especially when I'm working on a record, it's difficult to have a life – especially the way I approach things – when my work is right there.
You can't escape it.
No, you can't. Even when I want to, it's looming. If I get up from watching TV and go to the bathroom, I'm passing my studio. I feel guilty because I'm not working. But the benefit of it is that if I wake up at two in the morning and can't sleep, then I can start working immediately, pretty effortlessly. It's always been in my home; I've never had a separate space where I work. It's always been in my house, wherever I was. It was in my house in New York, in San Diego, in L.A. I did a few records in Flagstaff, [Arizona,] but my studio has always been in my home.
What part of Arizona do you live in?
In central Phoenix. I love it. The area that I live in has really developed a lot. There are amazing restaurants. I'm a golfer. There's no better place to be, as far as golf courses go.
What equipment are you using to record these days?
You know, it's depressing. I used to be a gearhead. I had a [Universal Audio] LA-2A, an [Universal Audio] 1176, an Eventide Harmonizer, and a Lexicon PCM91; all the iconic gear. Then Universal Audio came out with their UAD?platform plug-ins; I A/B'd them, and they're so good. It's crazy! And it's depressing, because I love blinking lights, and meters, and knobs, and all of that. The sexy part of the recording studio is all that bullshit. But man, they've gotten so good. I think reverb was the last thing that made me go, "Wow, I think we've finally arrived." There's a Lexicon 224 plug-in. I've always been a reverb snob. They have the EMT-240 plate reverb. This is a record that's been all inside the box. I have a Dangerous Music monitoring system, so some mixes go out that I bring back in on the 2-BUS; but even then, I found myself not using that. The plug-ins have gotten so damn good. The API EQs are outrageous; they're so good. I was a plug-in snob for years and years and years. People were like, "Whoa, check out this Waves plug-in." "Eh, not good. Not close." And I was right. But with this, they're [UA] nailing it.
So you mixed in the box on this record?
On this one, yeah.
How were you working before on previous records?
I still use all my same preamps going in. But when I was mixing before I was going out and hitting an [Universal Audio] LA-2A, or a pair of [Empirical Labs] Distressors. Even an EQ. Then coming back into the box. I started staying inside the box on the previous record too, but not as much as this one. On this one, I never came out. Once I was in, I was in.
Interesting! Do you find that makes the process a little easier in some ways, or is it also that you're not committing to sounds?
Yeah. I think I was working really quickly on this one. I wanted to get it out. I didn't want to spend a whole lot of time doing this record. It's like the holidays. I love the holidays, but I can't wait for them to be over.
What would be the difference between this and your very first solo record, as far as the technology and the work environment?
Well, my very first record was on [MOTU] Digital Performer with a Mark of the Unicorn interface. A lot of it was MIDI, but I did a lot of recording of amps. I recorded a real piano. There was a lot more actual audio recording. I was pretty green at the time. I spent so much time obsessing about the EQ of the fucking snare drum, when it doesn't really matter. Now, when I'm recording and mixing, if it sounds good I move on. I don't spend a whole lot of time taking my mixes all over the place and listening to it in my car or on my buddy's speakers. I don't do any of that anymore. I think the genre of music that I do doesn't make that a necessity. It's slightly on the indie record side of things, where I don't have to sound like whoever's big now.
A lot of your music has been used on television shows and movies. I assume that's providing a steady part of your personal income?
Oh, for sure. It always has. It's been the strongest part of my career. I don't make a ton of money on the road. I turn a profit, and not even really from record sales anymore. It's all from online streaming royalties. My placements have sustained me over these last ten years as well. I've been very lucky, in that respect.
Are the placements usually songs from the album? I gathered you sometimes have to write to order a little bit for films?
The big majority that have been used have been songs that have already been written. There's a song called "Off I Go." Grey's Anatomy came to me years ago and they said, "Hey, we want to use a Greg Laswell song, and we want it to be like this one that we already used. Can you write another one? We don't want to re-use that one." So I wrote "Off I Go" and recorded it. They used it for the season finale. That ended up being the genesis of my next record [Take a Bow].
That's pretty nice in a shifting music business to have something that's stable to help get by.
Absolutely. Within my career, the whole paradigm has completely shifted. This is the first record that I'm not printing. I'm not getting CDs made.
Nothing? LPs or anything?
No. I think we'll do vinyl at some point, but I'm not doing CDs. There are no physical copies. It's bizarre. It's funny that, as musicians, we're still expected to turn in our product in an album form, yet it's not consumed like that anymore. People buy songs they like, unless they're a super fan; then they'll buy the record straightaway. But it's weird that if you go on iTunes, there's this popularity bar next to each song. You can tell which song has been bought more than others. It's bizarre. Gone are the days where you buy a record and bring it home. If you don't like it on the first listen, but you've bought it, so you listen to it a couple more times, and then, on the third or fourth listen, you discover it's one of your favorite records of all time. Or song seven, when you've skipped it the first few listens, it then becomes your favorite song months later. Some of my favorite songs on records, on iTunes, are the least popular.
That tells us something about ourselves.
We're a little more knee-deep in the music. Have you been releasing music in between albums, one-offs or odds and ends?
Not yet. This is the first record I completely self-released. I have my publishing deal still, but this is the first one without my record label. It was difficult to do that before. If I wanted to up and write a song and put it on iTunes, there were a bunch of hoops we had to jump through. Now I can. I think I'm going to get into that more. If I want to write a song and put it out there in the world, I can do it. I released a cover of "Silver Bells" just because I wanted to. I put it out there and tweeted about it. "Hey everyone, check this out!" I think it's never been more difficult to be an independent artist, and yet it's never been easier at the same time.