Greg Laswell doesn't have instant name recognition quite yet, but if you watch certain popular television shows like Grey's Anatomy, True Blood, Friday Night Lights and Dollhouse, you've probably heard his music.
Laswell came up in the independent music scene in San Diego and Los Angeles and played in the band Shillglen before stepping out on his own in 2003 and releasing his first solo effort, Good Movie. His singular talent lies in articulating and exorcising misery and grief in a deeply personal way. His 2006 album, Through Toledo, was a marvel of emotionally charged, quiet intensity. But it was Laswell's equally melancholic Three Flights From Alto Nido that propelled him to the attention of wider audiences.
As a live performer, Laswell's warmth, charisma and humor shine between songs, and his talent for telling a story to lighten the mood after soul baring passages of music is considerable. Much of which is more obvious on Laswell's latest offering, Take A Bow. We spoke with Laswell about his beginnings as a songwriter, as well as his already noteworthy body of work.
Westword: How did you first get involved with writing and performing music?
Greg Laswell: I can't really pinpoint it to one time. I wrote my first song when I was a senior in high school. They ended up asking me to sing it at our graduation ceremony that year. I was quite terrified of the idea of performing that song live, but I did it. The song was about how we were all going to stay friends. I think it was called "Friends For Life" -- it was pretty terrible, if I remember correctly.
When I went to college, I barely passed, because I kept writing songs. When I was supposed to be doing homework, I'd be writing songs. I started a few bands and did that whole thing and found out I was the most serious one in the band, and I decided to go solo.
Did you go to school for recording?
I didn't. I kind of educated myself. When I was still in the band, we kept going to recording studios and spending money and not coming up with anything we liked. So I decided to learn to do it myself. So I started building up a studio slowly and surely, and I subscribed to all the trade magazines like Electronic Musician and EQ Magazine and all that stuff. I obsessed over it and did it by trial and error.
When you were learning to do your own recording, did that help to facilitate your solo career in any way?
I think so. I wouldn't do it any other way. It's like a love hate relationship recording and producing your own record. I'm a control freak, and I end up bringing in musicians better than I am, and after they leave, I end up re-doing their perfect parts and putting my flawed parts back in, because I think it feels better. It's an advantage when things come up last minute, and I need to get a song done for a promotion or a TV show or a B-side for the record.
How autobiographical was Through Toledo, and has your ex-wife commented on what you wrote on that album to you?
It's pretty dead on, man. It's pretty autobiographical for sure. I always felt like -- and I've said this many times before -- it was like being in a classroom passing a note and having the teacher catch me and forcing me to read it out loud. With that record, especially, because it was pretty out there in terms of the stuff I told. We're on good terms now. She still can't wrap her head around it or listen to it. I think the only thing she says about it is that she can't really get beyond anything else.
Songs from Three Flights from Alto Nido have appeared on TV shows. I suppose they've licensed those songs but are you ever told why they chose those particular songs?
No. They just come to us and say they want a song for a scene, and a lot of times, we wouldn't see it until it aired. I think I've seen Grey's Anatomy ten times now. Usually I'm on the road or on stage when the shows air. We've been lucky in that regard because they keep coming back. I'm certainly not complaining. It's certainly strange to hear your song on TV.
Why did you cover "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun"?
It was kind of an exercise just for me. I was driving one day. I was at a stoplight, and that song came on. I'd heard it thousands of times, and for whatever reason, I decided to really listen to the lyrics. I don't think I ever really had. So I listened to it, and I said, "Whoa, I think that's a sad song underneath the production, the melody and the upbeatness of it."
As soon as I got home from that drive I went into the studio. I never had any intention of doing anything with it. Just for the fun of it, I recorded a piano-only version of it and showed it to a few friends as a joke. I showed it to my manager at the time and he flipped out said, "You have to release this!" I said, "We do? Are you sure?" But last year, it started as me fooling around and seeing what I can do with it.
You've written music for your albums, of course, but you've also written songs for soundtracks. How does your approach to the songwriting differ between the two, or does it?
One is easier than the other. When I write for other projects, it seems to come out a little quicker because I'm not putting it through my own filter of what I feel I need to say. So it's easier on that level. A little bit more liberating, and I feel like I might enjoy it more. That's the biggest difference.
On July 28, 2009, I got to see you perform with Elizabeth & The Catapult at The Walnut Room in Denver, and at that show, I vividly remember you telling one of the most profane and hilarious stories of misfortune I've ever seen someone pull off at a live show about how you had an accident in your guitarist's car because you couldn't pull over from a particular section of highway. Do you often tell stories from your life in your show, and is there a criteria for what stories you tell and when you tell them in the set?
I think I kind of owe it to the audience. I'm always so amazed that people come out to shows. I feel like I owe them more of me than just the songs, so I end up sharing as much as I can, and so they go away from the night feeling like they learned a little more about me than just the songs -- because I love that when I go to concerts. Plus my songs are always so sad that I feel like I owe it to the audience to make them laugh between songs.
On your earlier albums, it seems as though your songs were based more on misery -- I think you said that in an interview somewhere -- but for Take a Bow, you've said that you weren't as miserable in your own life. What changed in your life, and in what ways has that affected your songwriting?
Mostly, it was that I was personally and emotionally in a better place for this record. Most of the things I'd written about in Through Toledo carried over into Three Flights From Alto Nido, and I was still kind of going through it as I was writing it.
But, for this record, I was out of the woods, and I wasn't writing about subject matter as I was in it. It was more over my shoulder, from a behind me viewpoint, so it allowed me to get bigger, sonically, I think. There's a little more sarcasm on this record than the first two. And there are a couple of happy songs on this record that wouldn't have fit on the first two albums.
Do you know the turning point at which you went from being an artist that played mostly locally to being more of a nationally known songwriter?
There were a couple. I remember the first time we sold out The Troubadour in Hollywood. We booked it, and I remember thinking, in the weeks leading up to it, not knowing why we were doing it. It felt too soon. We showed up, and it had sold out a couple of weeks prior.
Up to that point, we played this place called Hotel Cafe, where everyone who goes there are our friends. Everyone gets in for free, and it's hard to register any upward movement. The sold out crowd was singing our songs, and I didn't know all of these people, and I remember thinking, "Who are all of you?"
The other is when we sold out the Bowery Ballroom in New York. It was a similar experience but even more so. I lived in L.A. at the time -- I live in New York now -- but when I played there, I asked, "What's happening here?!" I'm still not really used to it. Every time I book I show, I still prepare myself to play in front of ten people.