There are several important ingredients for making great music. One of the most underrated and most essential is making sure you are creating for the right audience. And who is the right audience? Yourself.
Lucius - the group led by the duo of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig - nailed that on their fourth record, Second Nature. Working with friends and producers Brandi Carlile and Dave Cobb, Wolfe and Laessig set out to make a record to make themselves feel better. In doing that they have crafted a candidate for the feel-good record of the year.
Speaking with Wolfe and Laessig they say the record's joyous sound really started to take shape with the song "Dance Around It," which features Carlile and Sheryl Crow.
I spoke with Wolfe and Laessig about songwriting, the songs that bring them joy, playing the new music live and singing "Jingle Bells" with Joni Mitchell at Mitchell's "Joni Jams."
Steve Baltin: Is it nerve wracking singing in front of Joni Mitchell, which you did at MusiCares?
Jess Wolfe: We've been singing in front of Joni in her living room for the past three years now, so I think we have a little more comfort in her company at this point than we probably would if that weren't the case. But she's the greatest, the greatest of all time in my eyes.
Holly Laessig: It was definitely still nerve-wracking when we were first meeting her. The first time we went over at her house, it was only one interaction that I had with her, there was food there and I had happened to grab some deviled eggs, and she said to me, "Oh, I've always loved deviled eggs." And I said, "Me too." And that was it. [laughter] But now every time I think of deviled eggs, I think of her. [chuckle]
Wolfe: The first time we went there, my first interaction with her was sitting next to her. She was wearing a Christmas Santa hat and a like a twinkling Christmas light necklace, and we sang "Jingle Bells" together. We were sharing a lyric sheet, and then she told me about how she started singing because I said, "Gosh, she sounds so beautiful, even singing 'Jingle Bells.'" And she said, "Oh really?" I was like, "Yeah, you're Joni Mitchell, you're one of the greatest singers of all time." And she goes, "Just as great as Smokey Robinson?" [laughter] And I was like, "Yeah, you and Smokey. Doesn't get better than that." And she's like, "Wow." And she said, "I'm actually an Alto, but when I was a kid in the church choir, they didn't have any sopranos and they saw that I could sing any note, so they asked me to be a Soprano. But I'm actually naturally an Alto." Anyway, it was all over "Jingle Bells." I'll never forget it.
Baltin: You can anticipate a Grammy, you can anticipate the first time an audience sings a song back to you. But I'm going to guess that in a billion years, never would you have imagined singing "Jingle Bells" with Joni Mitchell.
Wolfe: Yeah, that whole night was a fantasy because I remember we walked into the kitchen, we entered in and we heard this crazy voice in the other room singing. And we walked further into the house, her house is a bit of a maze, compartmentalized. Her paintings are just all over every single room, like almost as wallpaper. And we get to the living room area, where we play music, and there's Chaka Khan standing at the piano singing "At Last" with Joni Mitchell across the room in her jingle bell hat. And you're right, you could never have dreamed about that
Baltin: Was it Brandi who took you there the first time?
Wolfe: Yeah, it was. And we sang with Brandi on her Blue concert. And so after the first one, which was at Disney Music hall, she invited us. But we were playing the very next day at Radio City with Kacey Musgraves, so we had to fly the night of the Walt Disney show to get to New York in time for the Radio City gig. And so we missed the opportunity to go to Joni's house after the show. Of course, it was Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Brandi Carlile, and it would have been us but we missed it. And I was almost contemplating cancelling because it just felt like, "How could you say no to this evening?" I think Herbie Hancock was there as well. But Brandi was like, "Well, we're gonna have a Christmas hang," which was just like a month and a half later. Sure enough they did and we were invited and it was just a dream. And since then, even through pandemic, we did several Joni Jams and some of the more memorable nights of our life, just in a living room with some of the greatest songwriters and singers of all time. No big deal.
Baltin: Having gone through Blue, which is one of the most vulnerable albums of all time and getting to be around Joni, getting to sing those words, you're coming to the source of what it means to open yourself up as an artist. Have you found that influenced your own writing?
Wolfe: I think when a strong enough life experience, or multiple that happen around the same time, come at you, you can't avoid it. Because for me, I went through the worst right at the onset of lock down. So it was a double whammy like, "Here you are, hardest moment of your life, we're gonna make it even a little bit harder, we're gonna make sure you can't see your friends and your family, and you gotta sit in a room and look at this experience head on and face it." And thankfully, I have a best friend confidant, who's my co-writer and my second hand which makes things a little bit easier in figuring out how to digest it and how to put these feelings into words, and it's a melody, but we had to face the music. I think it started off pretty heavy, it was pretty dark, but at some point we got to a point where it didn't feel good to just delve into the sadness and have the song also, the experience of listening to the song also be sad. "We need to write about these things that are difficult and gut-wrenching, but how about we do it in a way that actually feels like not just cathartic, but gives us some hope and something to feel light and joyful about somehow. Is there a way to bridge those two worlds?" And that was really our anchor for Second Nature. How can we take something that's so dark and difficult and painful and turn it into something joyful. .
Baltin: Were there songs or artists that you sort of looked at as the blueprint or just inspiration for being able to bridge those two worlds?
Wolfe: I feel like David Bowie does a pretty magnificent job of capturing the dichotomy and the discrepancies of feelings. Stevie Wonder too. I don't know if there's one song that sort of sets the inspiration, but Holly and I have always used the yin and yang in life in our visual aesthetic as a means to express and find balance in our art. So it's not a new idea for us. It's always been the way that we've approached our artistic partnership.
Baltin: Were there things early on in the writing of the record that shaped the sound?
Laessig: Yeah, I think "Dance Around It" was probably the turning point. When writing that song it was like, "Ooh." It was just hitting the right note of that lyrics and this feeling of release and joy and wanting to dance. And I think we wanted more of that. That was the first moment I was like, "Ooh, we need more, whatever that is, we need more of it." And, yeah, that was also a few months into the pandemic, I guess, because at the beginning of it, nobody knew how long it was gonna last. And then by that point, you're like, "Okay, it's time to feel a little relief here, still dig through these feelings and still try and put them on paper and write this group of songs."
Baltin: How early in the process was that one written?
Laessig: No, that was a couple months in, right, Jess?
Wolfe: I think it was maybe second or third month into lock down.
Laessig: Yeah. "Next to Normal" came before that, and that was funky and feel good. But I think "Dance Around It" was the second.
Wolfe: It was sort of like an aha moment. The subject matter was clearly relevant throughout the entire record. But the feeling it gave us sort of made it easier to talk about.
Baltin: Are there new songs in particular that you are very curious to see how audiences respond to them when they're done live?
Laessig: We played a handful of them recently in Mexico. And it's just so hard to know which ones people are gonna gravitate towards or not. And I think that's like the first chunk of tour, the first week or something sort of discovering like, "Oh, that's hitting differently than I thought it would." Or, "They really liked this one part that I wouldn't have even thought twice about. So let's hand that up a little bit or that kind of thing."
Wolfe: Yeah, we're always sort of adjusting as we go in response to people's reaction and enthusiasm. But once you get into a flow everything sort of takes a different shape and that's an exciting process in itself. It's one thing to learn the set live as you would do it after the record's been made. And then it's another thing too once it's in motion, like how it takes on a different life.
Laessig: There are a couple of tracks, I guess "24" is a little bit of an outlier, curious to how people will like that one. I love that one.
Baltin: How was the mix of songs you did in Mexico?
Laessig: We did five new songs, and then probably a couple of covers and five older songs. So it was a nice mix. It was a good introduction into the new set, but we have since been really focused on putting the show together, and it's feeling incredibly vibrant and exciting. I'm really thrilled to see how people react and to see if this is what people in fact are needing. It seems like it is what people are needing. I know it's what we feel like we're needing. So I'm confident that it will resonate in that way. I'm hopeful. We all need joy together again.
Baltin: What are the songs that bring you joy from others?
Wolfe: "Dancing On My Own."
Laessig: Yeah, the Robyn song. And then also that PJ Morton song, Jess?
Wolfe: Oh yeah. There's this song, I think that's more of just like Holly and I finding this song at a certain moment in our lives. But every time it comes on, it just feels like summertime. "I think I'm falling." And probably Gimme Shelter. It makes me feel alive. It's so like raw at the same time. It's a masterpiece.
Baltin: What would be the best compliments that you could get from people who have heard this record and taking it to their life, the way that you've taken some of these records we've talked about into your own lives?
Wolfe: It's a good question. I think it's in some way, lending a hand in helping people lift out of the darkness in some way, whatever that darkness looks like to the individual. If it can in some way help lighten a difficult moment or bring light into a dark part of your life. I think our ultimate goal is to bring people joy, make people know that we're all experiencing difficult moments and difficult times together, all to varying degrees. But if we can somehow meet and spread some kind of light and love and joy through that darkness, we can overcome a lot. I think we've all been in this very sort of depressive state for the last years. I think we all need to break through the clouds. I know I have, and I know I do. This record has given us that gift already, just in the writing and the making of these songs. I'm hoping that that is felt and heard and experienced by other people.
Laessig: Yeah, there's even been a couple of comments for songs that have come out already where people have said things like, "I didn't even realize how much I needed this." And it's so true, because the last couple of years, the nature of this pandemic, there's been no definite end to it. It's been really hard to identify your feelings around it and identify how to get out of it. And I think that when you find something, it's like, "God I didn't even know how much I needed this and it's really helping me get to the next place."
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