The Eyes Have It: An Interview with LP

[15 August 2014]

By Kelly McCartney

In the business that is show, there are various archetypes.

Songwriters toil away in anonymity, pairing catchy melodies with heartfelt lyrics in hopes of having a hit. Singers train their focus on their voice as their instrument, putting perfect performances above all else. Artists take a 360-degree approach, combining a skill for writing with a knack for performing. And then there are the rock stars. From Mick Jagger to Joan Jett, David Bowie to Patti Smith, rock stars are a distinct breed. They are all of the other archetypes rolled up into one irresistibly charismatic, implausibly appealing ball. If ever there was a box in which to put LP, that would be it. 

Ten years ago, LP released her debut record, Suburban Sprawl & Alcohol. Although it was overflowing with power chords and pop-punk swank, it failed to catch fire. Still, she worked hard and carried on, touring and writing songs. Soon enough, she was tapped to pen tunes for artists like Heidi Montag, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, and Vicci Martinez. That was a pretty good gig for someone who thought of themselves as a songwriter, first and foremost. But, then, someone got it in their head that there was more to LP than that and, sure enough, there was. Her new album, Forever For Now, proves it ... as does her live performance which is where this particular rock star really shines.

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“Swagger” is a term that gets applied to you a lot because you’re a rock star, in the truest sense. Like the love child of David Bowie and Patti Smith. Have you always had that or did you cultivate it as a persona?

Nice. Thanks! I’ve had this vibe for a minute. “Swagger,” the word, has been ruined by some people. I would never say, “My swagger” or talk about it like that. It’s like calling yourself an old soul.

Someone has to pin that on you.

Yeah. You can’t be like, “Well, I’m an old soul ...” I leave the conversation when I hear someone say something like that. But, I think it’s your armor when you’re on stage. It becomes that kind of thing. And not even some kind of lording it over people. Johnny Cash is one of my favorite performers and he’s just cool. You know it’s going to be alright. You’re never nervous. I don’t think an entertainer should, in any way, make anybody nervous about what’s going to happen ... except a comedian.

I’m not really answering your question, but ...

You’re answering some question, so it’s okay. Another part of your armor—or your persona—seems to be the sustained eye contact you make with audience members during your performances. It’s so intriguing and unusual. How did that come about and what do you get from it?

It’s funny that you say that. No one’s ever really said it quite like that, or explained what the performance is like. I guess I don’t realize that other people don’t do it. Probably because I’m so short and I’m always late, so I’m always in the back and I can’t see anything, so no performer ever makes eye contact with me.

I really enjoy people. And the reason I do it—it’s a connection for me. There’s nothing I like more than singing to a person or seeing a person who’s really enjoying it. I sometimes try not to look at the people now who are smiling because I’ve noticed that, if I look dead at them when they’re smiling and enjoying the show, sometimes they are cool with it, but sometimes they get freaked out. I guess it kind of takes them out of it, and I don’t mean it to. But, then, other people seem to be kind of looking to you like, “Hey, look over here!” And it’s really cute. I can see people from very far away see me looking at them, which is kind of fun.

I think, when I’m performing, I’m really into it being an experience we’re all having. If you’re digging it, if you’re here to see the show and you like the music, then I want it to be an inclusive process, not a pedestal, idol-worshipping, bullshit kind of thing.

It all kind of goes together—the swagger, the eye contact, the androgyny, even. Your Nashville audience, at least—and it is Nashville—seemed to be primarily white heterosexuals who were very, very into the show. So is it all just part of getting people to focus on the music and check any potential phobias or inhibitions at the door?

Yeah. Or it’s that I’m very attractive to white, heterosexual people. I have a white, hetero girlfriend, so ...

Well, there you go.

Never mind. Sorry! That’s way too intimate. I’m making verbal eye contact with you right now.

Yeah. That’s true. We don’t get the physical cues over the phone.

Ha!

How frustrating was it for you during the waning years between albums, when labels just weren’t paying attention and you were sort of sidelined as a performer? Was writing hits for other people enough?

You know, I have to say yeah, it really was. I was touring a bunch in that time, in the early time, and I got signed to a major label. I was stoked about that and I was stoked, especially, because there was some structure in my life. You know? You’re an indie artist and you’re doing it by yourself and there’s not a lot of direction. Then, when I was signed, there’s no comparison to how I’m being treated now at Warner Bros. compared to where I was with other labels, but, at the time, the structure ... people telling me to go write with this person or do this. I’m a songwriter at heart and that’s what I was truly interested in.

So, getting signed to a major label was just helpful in that it gave me more opportunities to write with different people and get cuts with different people. I was very busy during this time. Like you said, I’ve been writing songs for other people and it kind of was enough. Yeah. When I wasn’t touring from 2006 to 2011, I have to say—surprisingly, even to me—I didn’t really miss it. It wasn’t something I was pining away for, consciously. I was just enjoying what was happening. I’m kind of in the moment like that, so ... but it was nice to get back to it. When I started doing these little shows, just singing a cover or two with my friends, I enjoyed it a lot. Again, I never saw it coming—I didn’t see the whole new artist thing coming, but it’s been really nice. I haven’t worked a normal job in all that time, so I can’t complain.

Forever For Now is so very different from Suburban Sprawl and Alcohol. When and why did you take a left turn away from straight-ahead rock and roll?

I don’t know. I’m fascinated by pop and always have been. There are some elements of that—like “Wasted” was an attempt at a pop song, I guess. But I also think you just change—you’re a moving and constantly evolving human being. From the time I wrote Suburban Sprawl and Alcohol to the time I’ve written this one, there are probably 600 or 700 songs in there. Maybe more. So, you change and you evolve and you like different things.

Assuming you write primarily on the ukulele ...

I do. I’ll write also on guitar or sometimes to beats and keyboards. The way in which I write is always different and I kind of enjoy it that way. You wouldn’t believe it, but I’ll write to crazy, crazy urban dance tracks at times, as well. It keeps me fresh and on my toes.

When you were crafting a song on the ukulele, how could you imagine what epic productions Rob Cavallo would make out of your songs?

To be honest with you, with “Into the Wild”—PJ Bianco and I wrote it—I feel like we kind of set that ball in motion as far as the epic-ness of it all. And if I hadn’t done a recording of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over”—which was a few months before I was signed ... Billy Steinberg, one of my writing partners who has a couple of songs on the record with me, has always wanted to do a Roy Orbison record with me. But, then, he got tired of waiting and was just like, “I want to do one song. I’m going to pay for it all and we’ll do one song.” So we did “It’s Over” and he got some of the best players. The lineup is very similar to what my record sounds like right now. It was inspiring. I was also signed to a big producer right before I signed to Warner Bros. I was signed to RedOne, the producer, and he kind of got the ball rolling with me as an artist again, too. I wanted to get in close as a writer because all that Lady Gaga stuff and, as a writer, I thought it would be good to get in with this guy. He wanted to write a record with me, for me as an artist, and it attracted people to my project.

But I wasn’t taking it seriously as an artist thing with him. And then I got my new management and they said, “We think you’ve got good stuff. We think you can do this as an artist.” Right around the same moment, Billy wanted me to record this Roy Orbison song and then a lightbulb went off. I was like, “That’s the kind of big, epic sound I want with strings and big, sweeping melodies.” So that’s where it all began was the Roy Orbison tip.

That’s interesting because “One Last Mistake” is very reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, while “Free to Love” has a distinct U2 sound ...

Yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff. Older U2 was in my head, too. Big time. I felt like “Into the Wild” kicked that off, you know?

Digging deeper into the writing a bit, the Billy Steinberg cuts are fairly different from the Isabella Summers ones, but they still feel like you, though.

I know. Yeah. You know, Rob Cavallo said to me, when I thought I was almost done writing this record, he was like, “Can you write more songs like you write for other people ... for you?” And I was like, “Oh, you mean pop commercial songs?” I didn’t really say that, but I knew what he meant. You know, you’re making a record with the chairman of a major label, of course they want those kind of songs. And I love those kind of songs.

But, yeah, the Billy Steinberg stuff ... we go a little different, but it’s nice to have different kinds of songs on the record. To me. With Billy, I’m always hoping we’ll hit on—and maybe we will at some point—an “I Drove All Night” kind of song. Or “Alone” or something like that.

There’s a line in “Free to Love” which is “I don’t wanna be part of mediocrity.” Is that just a lyric or is it also a credo?

It’s a credo, for sure. And, at the same time, sometimes I feel bad while I’m singing it. It’s funny you say that because I feel bad about singing it because I hate trying to look down your nose and be like, “I’m fabulous and different. And you’re mediocre.” But I think it’s less about what we put on ourselves than what we put on other people. I mean, everybody’s always putting labels on other people all over the place.

Well, we always have to strive to bring our best, right?

Exactly! And to not get swept in with all the people who are telling you to be a certain way. Even the people who are writing terrible things on YouTube about anything that’s different or something they don’t like, as if to say, “You should do this because you’re a dick and this isn’t good.” It’s like, “Good for you!”

Writer Kelly McCartney remembers listening to Kenny Rogers, the Stylistics, and the Carpenters as a kid. Nowadays, she's more likely to be caught with Ashley Monroe, OK Go, and Matthew Perryman Jones in her ears, although the Stylistics still hold up nicely. Kelly currently contributes to No Depression, Curve, PopMatters, Shareable, GOOD, and Elmore magazine. On the side, she is collaborating with some wonderful musicians on a multi-media theatre series while also developing a couple of music-related video projects. Twitter: @theKELword


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/183954-the-eyes-have-it-an-interview-with-lp/