Weeks back, I had the absolute pleasure of catching up with Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius, two of the sharpest, kindest and most talented songwriters around. They were preparing for the release of their sophomore album, Good Grief (out Friday), and spent time discussing how the past several years shaped the writing and recording process — giving us music that contemplates and displays the intense highs and lows of their nomadic lifestyle.
After talking through recording, touring and embarrassing TV habits, Jess and Holly agreed to play a game of MASH in honor of their single “Born Again Teen” — the nostalgic game of fortunetelling via unrealistic outcome selection turned out pretty well. Granted, that’s always disappointing in MASH, and if you don’t know why, check out the rules here.
Lauren: A lot of the songs that I heard from last night were really high intensity, really high emotion. There was less of as sense of those sweeter moments that you guys had on your first album. Was there anything that sparked that –- a change in songwriting or recording? And can we expect more of that same intensity on the new album?
Jess: It’s definitely a darker record. We’ve been on the road for two-and-a-half years now, and I think that can be exhausting. Seeing so many people night after night and having to be on. Not seeing family and friends. Not ever really feeling the ground beneath you because you wake up in a new city every day. It was really hard, but it was amazing. There were so many special moments – we got to sing with Mavis and Roger Waters and open up for some of our heroes. We really grew up in the process, and all the while we were taking voice memos, writing in our journals and kind of collecting thoughts and feelings along the way. Obviously, we’re best friends, so it’s a lot of coffee talk and helping each other navigate through this process together. It made for a really unique lead up to the writing process.
Holly: I think a lot of the songs that came out most naturally were the heavier ones because we had so much to say and so much to vent about. Doing that was really intense, so we tried to counteract that with some intensely upbeat things to keep our sanity. That’s why there are these two extremes.
Lauren: So one is a little more intentional and one came a bit more naturally.
Holly: Yeah, I think we needed a release.
Jess: One is more a response to the other. It’s sort of like the title of the record, Good Grief. We were poking fun at our own bitching. We’ve had some really difficult experiences, and we wrote about them because we have a lot to say. But at the same time, shut the fuck up. More or less.
Lauren: In the midst of all this you moved cross-country. Did that also have a big impact on how things turned out for this album?
Jess: Yeah, let’s travel for two and a half years non-stop. Be at home for a couple of weeks. Then move cross-country. That’s a great idea!
Holly: We drove from New York to California, and it was actually nice because it was a different kind of drive. You didn’t have to be somewhere by 8 o’clock the next morning. It was very meditative, and we stopped at Joshua tree, which was like mars. It almost felt too open for me. It felt kinda freaky, and I think that feeling stayed when we first got to California. God, there’s so much space and it’s so beautiful and the sun’s out everyday!
Jess: I think we needed it. I think we needed the extreme in the other direction because we had just been over-bombarded and kind of overwhelmed. Then we got to a place, and we could just sit and be outside in January. And write. We had a convertible and were driving around with the top down in the middle of January and February. It was great. Too great!
Lauren: What were you guys listening to when all of this was happening? Anything that really stands out in your mind?
Jess: That Barr Brothers record, Sleeping Operator, was sort of the soundtrack of our road trip and the move from New York to California.
Lauren: How far along into the writing process was all this?
Holly: We had collected voice memos and lyrics and things like that, but we didn’t really sit down until we got to LA. Then we sat down for three months, wrote all the songs and sent the demos to the guys. They sent demos back of their interpretation of the arrangement, and we had this back and forth kind of thing before finally going to the studio. It’s nice to have them sit with it for a while without us breathing down their necks. Don’t do this! Do this! Just having them sit with the songs to see what comes to them arrangement wise.
Lauren: So you two write separately and send it to the guys?
Jess: The last record had songs that were already written, and we had pretty much recorded the whole thing by the time we formed the band. Holly and I got together with Danny to record the songs, and he brought in Pete to play on some of those earlier recordings. A year later, we met Andy, and we recorded a couple of those songs over, so it felt cohesive with our live show, and everyone felt like they were a part of it. This record was the first time the five of us went into the studio together, but Holly and I wanted to keep the writing process just the two of us. The guys are so incredibly talented and musical, but this was the place where we found our partnership and our songwriting relationship. It felt so sacred that we wanted to continue to nurture it.
Lauren: How did this affect the next step of going into the studio to actually record the final versions?
Jess: Having two separate demos definitely isn’t the most traditional way of going into the studio, especially when some of the demos are wildly different and some are pretty much the same. In the studio, we basically would listen to both demos, take the best parts and write out or speak out about what it is we wanted to achieve in the studio. From that point, we were taking different influences from different songs or people or coming up with a sort of visual code for what we wanted to feel and experience in that song (as backwards as that all sounds). It actually managed to make for a really collective interpretation of each song.
Lauren: Can you dive a little deeper into what you mean about making a visual code for each track?
Jess: We wanted everyone’s voices to be heard, but this can be hard when you have strong voices and five of them. So Sean had the brilliant idea that we would each pick an inspiration song before recording a new track. Could be anything. We then read out and discussed each inspiration song, but never revealed who submitted what song. Now we have these boards that were basically maps for each song before we ever recorded it. We couldn’t directly follow them (it was like dancing dolphins!!! or twinkling guitar lines!!!), but it was remarkable how much we stayed to those boards as maps. It was through the filter of Sean, so everything was oddly poetic.
Lauren: Are you planning to share the images from those boards?
Holly: We’re putting together a book with photos actually. He had done a bunch of painting and illustrations of different instruments that we used and kind of documented everything in a visual way from when we were in the studio.
Jess: It’s all about making the record because it really was a sort of backwards approach to recording. It ended up being a very interesting experience. And wonderful.
Lauren: Visual elements are obviously very important to you guys. What’s your process for putting all that together?
Holly: It’s kind of like collecting lyrics in a journal or collecting voice memos, but instead we collect pictures and look books of things we like. Then it’s just a matter of finding everything and putting it together. We just started working with Christian Joy who did the clothes from last night, and she’s so awesome. It was a lot of fun working with her.
Jess: There’s no strategy other than to try and have fun with it. To put us into a space that feels other-worldy and exciting. Something that makes us want to move and captures light. Because seeing those things on stage when you’re performing is just another way of enhancing our own experiences and therefore other people’s. We like sparkles.
Lauren: At this point it must feel like putting on a uniform before a game, though. You put those outfits on and you are those people on stage.
Jess: I think it’s really helpful for us, for our own peace of mind. As important as it is to put it on, it’s important to take it off and feel like we’re putting it to rest for however long (whether the next day or not). Just to feel like there is some disconnect from it. From that feeling of vulnerability and intensity and excitement and joy and all of these extremes. I think it’s really important to rest that part of yourself.
Lauren: Slight tangent. How did it feel to hear yourself during every NFL commercial break?
Jess/Holly: We don’t watch TV!
Jess: I got texts saying “I’ve seen this 5 times during the football game.” I realized how many people I know watch football and keep track of it. I didn’t know!
Holly: I get those during the Kardashians all the time and during The Bachelor. See this is how you find out what people are watching.
Jess: You know what’s funny though. They never say turn it around! The YouTube comments we’re seeing are great too. Something like: I had to Google search this 15 times because I misheard the words on the ad.” I saw one that just said, “It’s wrong online. It says telescope but it’s kaleidoscope.”
Holly: There’s this really good book I had when I was younger all about misheard lyrics, and it was called Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and Other Misheard Lyrics. It was a ton of pages like “Baking carrot biscuits every day.” It would be really cool if we were in one of those.
Lauren: So you talked a lot about being on tour and the grind of that. What do you seem to always make time for or the thing you always make a commitment to?
Holly: I think journaling would be it for me.
Jess: Good meals. Seeing if we’re in a city with close friends and making time to connect. And for me, baths. Always. Whenever possible. For a long time, we were sleeping on people’s floors on the road just staying wherever we could. And now we’ve graduated to hotel rooms, and that is the greatest joy! Lock the door. Sometimes I’ll bring my laptop in there and watch some trashy television.
Lauren: What’s your trashy television?
Jess: Oh here we go. I love all the house hunters shows. HGTV. Holly and I were really into The Bachelor for a while but now I can’t. I just can’t. I can’t stand it. It’s so boring, and it makes women look so dumb. American Pickers, though. That’s one! I haven’t been watching that much TV other than Transparent.
Holly: I just watched The Killing and I love it!
Below is a photo of their game of MASH. You can see how Holly’s love of The Killing played a pretty big role in her husband and career choices…