On the stunning new album This Is Another Life, Case Studies’ mainman Jesse Lortz shows a masterful understanding of how shadow and light can’t exist without one another, whether it’s in stark contrasts in tone or subtle gradations of mood. Fittingly, Lortz describes This Is Another Life as his “gray” album, as his piercing singer-songwriter compositions move out of the bleaker, more serious tones that shaped Case Studies’ debut, The World Is Just a Shape to Fill the Night. As Associate Music Editor Matthew Fiander wrote of This Is Another Life, “In these dust-coated yet shimmering songs, Lortz gives us that dark, but it’s his ability to reach for the tiny bits of light, the end of that darkness, that makes This Is Another Life special, and Case Studies a surprising and wide-open project from a great songwriter.” PopMatters touched base with Lortz to find out about the making of his latest effort and how Case Studies was originally meant to be anything but a singer-songwriter project. PopMatters is pleased to premiere This Is Another Life, which comes out via Sacred Bones on Tuesday, June 11.
Photo by Angel Ceballos
PopMatters: Like The World Is Just a Shape to Fill the Night, the new record feels steeped in singer-songwriter traditions, though perhaps totally different ones from its predecessor. What new influences inform the making of this record that set it apart from Fill the Night?
Jesse Lortz: Lightening up and not taking everything so seriously. This Is Another Life is still a serious record, about serious things, but not nearly as dire as the first one. The World Is Just a Shape to Fill the Night was me with my head on the block. I was holding on to a lot of guilt and childish feelings and fantasies. That head is gone now, and a new one has grown there. Hopefully this will keep happening with every record until my head is free to think about other things. This record is about letting go and recognizing where I am and where I need to be not to just simply survive, but to flourish. If the first record was the black record, this one is gray. I am excited to hear my white record and to hear what songs I can write in color.
PopMatters: Part of the new feel and warm tones of these songs comes in heavy use of piano, which wasn’t as present on the last record. Were these songs written on the piano, or did that decision come later? How did the piano—either as songwriting device or as element of recording—help shape these songs?
Jesse Lortz: Jon Parker handled the piano arrangements. He is also an extremely talented guitar player. We worked together on the piano once I had the songs in demo form. I knew I wanted to have a countermelody to the songs that wasn’t just a guitar line or backup vocals. He created the space for the drums and bass to exist. Other than the content of the lyrics and the basic melodies of the songs themselves, I can completely attribute the collaboration with Jon Parker to this overall new sound.
PopMatters: This is a very personal album, but it also seems at times like it takes part in conversations, so to speak. There’s the duet with Marissa Nadler, the road song (which sounds like a response to the tires’ hum), and “From Richard Brautigan”, among others. What about the inner life of the record do you think these conversations illuminate? What do these outside forces add to this “other life”?
Jesse Lortz: All of my songs are literally conversations with myself in a moment of indecision or danger. I didn’t really completely understand this until choosing a song to do with Marissa. “Villain” jumped out at me immediately. “When will you break down? When will you call out? When will you lie down?” It helped to have her ask me those questions in song so that I could actually answer them. I don’t want to be a villain, I don’t want to do hurtful things, but that darkness is what activates my art, unfortunately. It is impossible to function on that level when you are raising a son, being good to your woman, holding down a job, but whenever I fill up inside and absolutely need to create something, there it is again, that fucking darkness. A bottomless pit of inspiration to draw from.
Another thing to keep in mind is the damage that a song can do to real lives. Some little thing you thought of for an instant, something bad or hurtful, once set to a melody, can happen over and over and over until you believe that it was the only way you ever thought, it can become the only reality that ever was.
PopMatters: The album is lighter—even more rollicking in places—than its predecessor, but it perhaps renders its themes darker as a result. How do you strike that balance between the emotion of the lyrics and the energy of the music itself?
Jesse Lortz: These are pretty heavy songs. Adding an upbeat quality to the music makes it more palatable. It’s the spoonful of sugar. Would you rather die while fucking or be bludgeoned with a stone?
PopMatters: Like other singer-songwriters, you have what seems like a solo project in Case Studies, but yet you play under that moniker instead of your name. For you, what’s the reasoning behind that? What’s the difference between Jesse Lortz as a performer and Case Studies, and has it changed on this new album?
Jesse Lortz: The original idea of Case Studies is that it wasn’t really a band in the traditional sense. My plan was to write some songs, create video tutorials of the music posted on a website and have whoever wanted to learn the parts learn them on the instrument of their choosing. People could register to perform each part and I would base a tour routing on those registrations. Each performance would be completely different. Maybe there would be a tuba playing a bass part, or ten children singing the lead vocals, etc. The performances would be documented and posted on a website and released as an album. After the album was completed, all parties who had contributed would vote on and seek out a different songwriter to do the next “Case Studies” record and then hand it off to them, as a way for artists to interact with their fans on a different level.
I started on that path, to a degree, with the songs for the first album. Just handing out cards or having friends inviting friends to my apartment, I would make a pot of spaghetti or soup, and we would eat and drink wine and learn a song. This ended up being the recording group for “The World”. But for me, that aspect of the project was too unfathomable logistically and financially to execute. Hopefully I can put that together in the future. If anyone is interested in helping me develop this aspect of Case Studies please feel free to contact me.
Still, Case Studies can be performed in any configuration, by myself or with full band. I don’t really consider myself much of a performer, the shows have mostly just been me sitting there trying to get through these songs in one piece. These songs are my memories, my lessons. It is really difficult to be constantly returning to the place I was when I wrote each song in order to perform it. Now I have a full band of really talented people with good, positive energies helping me flesh out the songs and share the stage with me. Changing the overall sound and adding the band takes the songs out of the realm of therapy and into the realm of music and musicianship, which is where this stuff belongs, really.
PopMatters: The core personnel—yourself and producer/musician Greg Ashley—didn’t change on this record. If your work with Ashley is another conversation that informs this record, how did you arrive at such a wholly different sound on this record? Once you had the songs, what work did you do together to set this apart from the first Case Studies record? Do you guys plan to keep working on these records together in the future?
Jesse Lortz: I love Greg’s music and he is a close friend. He was the only choice for me on this project. My good friends Joe Haener and Oscar Michel, who were kind enough to play drums and bass on the record, played in Gris Gris with Greg as well. His working methods are a little questionable at times, but he always helps me get the record exactly to where it needs to be. He is not afraid to say exactly what is on his mind, even if you don’t want to hear it and even if he is completely wrong, which is rare, and I wanted as much input as I could get on this record from everyone involved: Jon, Oscar, Joe, Carey, Shawn, and Marissa. Greg facilitated that through his patience and good ear. I will work with Greg Ashley as long as I can.