David Longstreth, the visionary behind the art-rock enterprise Dirty Projectors, has returned with a personal – and rivetingly disruptive – eponymous album. Shaped by avant ‘n’ B and trap, it reviews his break-up with lover and bandmate Amber Coffman.
There’s a precedent in R&B for startling break-up albums – Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear rendering a divorce settlement as art. Longstreth’s could be the rawest indie exemplar since Noah And The Whale’s The First Days Of Spring (Charlie Fink lamenting his ex, Laura Marling).
Longstreth grew up in rural Connecticut, listening to punk. The vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/producer devised Dirty Projectors as a fluid, DIY project in 2001 while studying music at Yale University. His various early outings were hyper-cerebral – The Getty Address an “opera” about the Eagles’ Don Henley in a parallel universe.
Transplanting to New York, Longstreth developed Dirty Projectors into a ‘band’. Amber Coffman, co-vocalist/guitarist, entered his orbit ahead of 2007’s Rise Above – an eccentric Black Flag covers album. Dirty Projectors premiered on Domino Records with Bitte Orca – home to their first ‘hit’, the alt-R&B jam ‘Stillness Is The Move’, performed by Coffman. In 2012 Dirty Projectors presented Swing Lo Magellan, their poppiest ‘post-genre’ album. However, the relationship between Longstreth and Coffman strained on tour (they visited Australia in 2013). The pair split – and Coffman quit Dirty Projectors. A devastated Longstreth fell into despondency. But, as he fought writer’s block, Longstreth was offered work from #zeitgeist artists.
Longstreth’s new mentor, Rick Rubin, facilitated a meeting with Kanye West. Longstreth would co-write and co-produce ‘FourFiveSeconds’ – featuring Yeezy, Rihanna and Paul McCartney. More crucially, he contributed extensively to Solange Knowles’ acclaimed A Seat At The Table. The subversive Knowles sister was a Dirty Projectors fan, having covered ‘Stillness…’
These urban exchanges fed into the visceral, rhythmic and textural songs Longstreth was now demoing solitarily – initially for his own purging/healing. Knowles co-penned his delicate duet ‘Cool Your Heart‘ with Dawn Richard of Danity Kane fame. Longstreth also engaged collaborators as diverse as the former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton, Yeezy’s “narrative designer” Elon Rutberg, and Timbaland’s fabled engineer Jimmy Douglass.
Ironically, the media – and fans – were largely unaware of any drama in Dirty Projectors, Coffman’s departure never officially announced. But, last September, Longstreth issued the (mutually) recriminatory comeback, ‘Keep Your Name’ – sounding compellingly like a chopped ‘n’ screwed joint. (He sings, “What I want from art is truth/what you want is fame.”) A fortnight later, as if in response, Coffman aired ‘All To Myself’ – a LEMONADE-sweet, self-affirming ballad. Yet, curiously, Longstreth has produced Coffman’s upcoming solo album, City Of No Reply. Perhaps because his own music is so exposing, he remains cagey.
Regardless, Longstreth is upbeat – even as he suffers “a terrible sinus infection” on the promo trail. Today he’s living in Los Angeles and he’s making a mark with his music – on his own terms. “I always maintain this fantasy in my head that no one will ever hear it and I just do it for myself,” Longstreth laughs honestly. “I feel super-grateful and super-lucky that people are listening to these songs and connecting to them.”
Dirty Projectors – Keep Your Name
Music Feeds: The thing that struck me about this record is that, even though it has an electronic R&B orientation, it feels so organic and so close. It could actually be playing live in the same room. It’s incredible how you’ve achieved that intimacy.
David Longstreth: Oh, thank you – thanks so much. Yeah, I wanted to mix that digital space and the intimacy that you can create with a sense of real instruments. So it’s a real piano; a lot of those are real drums and guitars and stuff like that. I wanted it to have this kind of uncanny tactility – this presence.
MF: I think the biggest surprise for us is we did not know this story at all. I don’t think people realised that you and Amber had parted ways and that you’d taken time out and that the Dirty Projectors had been reconfigured…
DL: Right, yeah… I don’t know (laughs) – I’m not sure how to respond! But it’s the album that I needed to make. It’s the album that came out of me in this time period – so it’s organic in that way, I guess.
When I started Dirty Projectors, when I was 19 or 20 or something, I always imagined that it would be a moveable feast. It’d go with me wherever I wanted to go musically – and I wanted to go everywhere musically. So I figured it would entail a lot of change and growth and different collaborators and things like that. And it has – there’s been no two albums that have the same lineup. It really has been that kind of journey. That said, the last couple of records have had a more stable line-up and the aesthetic has just sort of congealed around that kind of guitars/rock band aesthetic a little bit.
So when I started making these songs, and they seemed so different to me emotionally and arrangement-wise, it took me a second – it took honestly playing the music for friends, other musicians, kinda mentors and things and getting the feedback from them that, like, “This is what you’ve set yourself up to do; change.” I realised that to be in this position of having these songs, and basing just everything around the songs – the arrangements, what does the song need, the collaborators, what is the song asking for – is a position that I knew well in making albums like The Getty Address. I was feeling it for the first time in this new way. So that’s how I got to this place where it felt like self-titling it was a really natural move.
Dirty Projectors – Up In Hudson
MF: From what I understand, Rick Rubin was really important in encouraging you to proceed with the actual release of these songs. What kind of advice did he give you? Because he’s emerged as the granddaddy counsellor to musicians!
DL: It’s true, it’s true (laughs). I mean, for me, I found myself in uncharted waters. It was a moment at the beginning of writing these songs where I was looking for mentors. I was looking for people who had seen everything, who have been through this whole thing – this music game – and kept their eyes open and stayed inspired the whole time, and come out with wisdom and something to share. Rick is definitely one of those people. I was really grateful to be able to go and hang with him and talk with him. Jimmy Douglass was another mentor figure for me. He mixed the record with me. I’m really glad that I found those people. I couldn’t have made the record without ’em, I don’t think.
MF: It’s interesting how artists like Drake and KiD CuDi introduced this new mode in urban music with a focus on the interior life, as opposed to the exterior. I wondered to what extent you feel that has influenced you, if indirectly?
DL: Yeah, we keep on returning to this moment at the very beginning of starting all these songs – but I guess that’s good ’cause we’re talking about the album! After we finished all the touring for Swing Lo Magellan, I just didn’t really have a melody that I wanted to write. I wasn’t thinking of songs – which is a little bit of a new feeling for me. So I was very grateful that I could be a listener in that moment. There were all these records coming out that were hugely inspiring to me – and you’re talking about two of the artists that I’m thinking of. Yeah, Nothing Was The Same, the Drake record, and [Kanye West’s] Yeezus were coming out around that time, and the Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, mAAd city and, maybe most of all, the Beyoncé record, the self-titled record from 2013, was just important to me. To me, all these records are musically very ambitious, adventurous – kind of like labyrinthy, complex, original pieces of music that are also incredibly honest and direct. That was water, that was life, for me in that moment…
MF: You worked on one of those ambitious records in Solange’s A Seat At The Table. And she’s even co-written a song, ‘Cool Your Heart’, on yours. What did you learn from being involved in her album? Because I think you were working on that almost contemporaneously with yours?
DL: Yeah, we both took our time (laughs). It was incredible to be involved in that. I’m so grateful for her inviting me along for those experiences. [It was] very valuable – [it] definitely informed making this album. I’ve admired Solange’s music for years and years. So, just to get a little insight into her creative process and actually be able to be useful to her in going there, it was so cool… She had such a clear picture of where she was going and what she wanted, and the strength and passion with which she held that…
Other ideas would come along musically that were good, and that she would like – she’d make up a melody for one verse and I’d be like, “Whoa, that is incredible” – and it wouldn’t be right, ’cause she had something really specific that she had in mind. And that went for other aspects. If I’m making up a keyboard part or a bass line or something, I might present her [with] something that’s pretty cool but, if it wasn’t right, it’s not right. So fiercely holding onto the original inspiration, as vaporous or undefined as it might be, and just pursuing that, is something that I learned from her.
Dirty Projectors – Cool Your Heart feat. D∆WN
MF: I’m intrigued about how you might approach this record live. Have you thought about that?
DL: I have, yeah – I’m excited to play the songs live. I don’t know how I’ll do it yet ’cause the record, the production, is kinda varied. So I’m not totally sure. I’ve got a couple of different ideas for approaches; ways of doing it. I’m gonna pursue multiple paths at once until it becomes clear as to how to do it. But I’m excited to play live. I love coming to Australia, so, hopefully, I’ll get the chance.
MF: Ultimately it’s not a bitter record. It’s not like a Here, My Dear. I guess ‘Keep Your Name’ has got that aspect, but there’s a real arc to this record. Do you feel better for making it – and putting it out there?
DL: I do! Yeah, in the sense that the record follows this arc – starting with ‘Keep Your Name’ and just being devastated and all up in my feelings in the most contradictory and incoherent way, through all of these different kind of emotional states or whatever, and ending up with the last three songs: ‘Ascent Through Clouds’, beginning to open your eyes and look again at the world and feel inspired by it, ‘Cool Your Heart’, thinking about being interested in love again, and then ‘I See You’, turning back to the inciting incident and coming to some sort of acceptance or reconciliation with it… I feel like that’s an arc that I went on over the course of making the album. So I feel like I’m in a different place now than when I began making it, for sure (laughs).
MF: You probably can’t – or would rather not – go too deep into this, but I did read that you’ve actually worked on Amber’s solo record. Is that right?
DL: Mmm, mmm. Yeah, you’re right. It’s really her story to tell – and I want her to tell it. I’m so excited for it to come out.
MF: You’re based in LA now – that’s so different from the East Coast. How has that changed things for you – and how are you enjoying being there?
DL: I’m liking it a lot. Yeah, it’s very different from NY. For me, the huge advantages of LA for music is that there’s a lot of space and there’s the light – things are slightly more open out here. I have this studio here that I’ve made. I can make noise at whatever time of day. I have a place to go, instead of just wandering the streets forlornly, trying to figure out some lyrical couplet while I’m waiting at the crosswalk. I can be in a zone where the Rhodes is right there and the guitar is right there, the piano’s right there… So that’s a radical difference for me.
MF: What prompted you to move – was it to be able to work with other people, or did you just want a change generally?
DL: Yeah, I think I had been in NY for a while and I felt like I was ready for a change. A lot of the collaborations that I was involved with, that kinda work, there’s a lot of that out here in LA. So it was a natural move.
MF: I really do hope you come to Australia. But what do you have lined up for this year? Will it be all touring – are you doing any other studio work?
DL: Well, I’m gonna play some shows, for sure. But I hope to be able to stay connected to the studio and do some writing. It’ll be all about balance, I hope.
Dirty Projectors – Little Bubble
‘Dirty Projectors’ has arrived a few days early and is out right now. Stream it or purchase a copy here.