“I just got a second wind,” says Glenn Donaldson, speaking of the burst of creativity he experienced during the pandemic. “I’ve really been doing this for myself,” he says. “It’s an experiment in becoming the star of the band. Well, maybe not the star but the center of it. The source of something.”
Locked down and working from home, he wrote more than 75 songs in 2020 and 2021. He put himself at the center of his art for the first time, writing wistful, sometimes funny lyrics on his iPhone notes app and painstakingly recording all the parts.
The result: two lovely albums so far (and two more on the way): last year’s wonderful Uncommon Weather, which made a surprise appearance on multiple best-of lists, and this year’s Summer at Land’s End, also radiantly jangly but including a couple of instrumental tracks. Donaldson says that the Reds, Pinks, & Purples has been by far the most commercially successful project he’s ever undertaken, a surprise to him as much as anyone.
“I guess I could say it’s by accident, but I also am a student of pop, so I was trying to make great pop music that could be universal,” he says. “When it started to connect with people, I was sort of like, ‘Oh, I guess my weird lab experiment is working.'”
From Punk Rock Halls to the Jangle Rock Underground
Donaldson came of age in the California punk scene of the 1980s, and the energy and passion of punk rock still resonate with him. But though the music he’s made has been mostly underground — the skewed and beautiful lo-fi folk of the Jewelled Antler collective, the breezy psychedelia of the Skygreen Leopards, the tuneful post-punk of the Art Museums — he says, he’s always been interested in good pop.
“My friends were all skaters, so I wouldn’t necessarily admit that I liked the Culture Club, but that was one of the first bands I was into,” he admits. The Smiths, though, changed the game for him and many punk rockers around him. “The Smiths came along in the mid-1980s and influenced hardcore big time. All the Dischord bands and a lot of the straight edge hardcore bands did more melodic music after they heard the Smiths. Like Minor Threat and Dag Nasty. So yeah, it was probably the Smiths,” he says, that got him hooked on pop.
Donaldson keeps up with commercial pop, mostly to hear the sounds that people are using and the influences that come in and out of fashion. He doesn’t love most of what he hears. “But I do, honest to god, love Lana Del Rey. She’s one of my favorite songwriters. She’s one of the few contemporary songwriters that I really keep up with,” he says.
What is it about her? Donaldson gets fired up when he describes her appeal. “First, her songs are great. She references all this classic songwriting that I’m influenced by, too. She loves Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and Phil Spector production,” he says. “But I wanted to write vivid songs, and her songs are really vivid. They seem to be about her or some version of her, and they’re brilliantly drawn pictures of her life or some imaginary life somewhere, and that’s basically the same thing I’m doing. I listen to her music for inspiration. The more cringe-y it gets, the more I love it. The more she talks about her daily stuff, I love it. I don’t know why. But I think she’s just a great singer-songwriter, too. It’s unironic, my appreciation.”
Donaldson has also learned a lot from Leonard Cohen. “As far as lyrics go, Leonard Cohen is the master. The rhyming schemes and the humor on the first two records are great, and then he’s kind of self-obsessed in a funny way, at times. Leonard Cohen is a big influence,” he recalls.
“The Jam was another inspiration,” he says. “A song like ‘That’s Entertainment’ is kind of the blueprint for what I do. Very simple chords, an anthem with very simple strumming patterns. I love that song. It’s a list of very mundane things. ‘A police car and a screaming siren / A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete.’ It’s just a series of images.”
But Donaldson’s knowledge of pop is broad and deep. “I also like the classic songwriters. Country songs. Girl groups. The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’. I’m not reinventing the wheel as far as structures go,” he says.
He draws ideas from genres you might not expect listening to his strummed, melodic gems. “I mean, I don’t just listen to jangly pop music. Although I love that, too, it’s probably what I listen to least, to be honest,” he explains. “Metal and hardcore. I like anything that gives me that feeling of a rush, I think. That’s what I’m going for with this project, too. I don’t think there’s much difference, to be honest.”
Coming Into His Own
“Growing up, I only ever wanted to be ‘in’ the band. I never wanted to be the center of a project,” Donaldson says when asked about his long history of collaboration. “I always tend to admire other people’s work and not my own. I’ve been blessed to work with other great songwriters. It seemed like they had the fire to be writing the songs, so I would just follow that.”
Still, he admits, it’s not always easy to work with other creative people. “I mean, a lot of the bands and projects I was involved in had personal problems. There would be conflict. I think it’s any artistic venture. It’s not unique to music. But any collaborative adventure into the psyche is going to turn into a small hell at some point,” he says.
Donaldson suddenly found himself with more time and no one else around during the pandemic. Working from home, his commute was instantaneous. There were no parties, no bars, no get-togethers with friends. He subsumed himself in songwriting. Though he thought at first that the lockdown might make it harder to get work done, he settled into a productive groove. “It was a combination for me of finding this home recording sound that I was looking for and just getting comfortable with my voice and how I wanted to deliver the lyrics,” he recalls. “I just stopped being self-conscious, and suddenly I had tons of song ideas.”
Donaldson got into a flow that made the pandemic almost irrelevant. “Songwriting is like time travel. You start recording at 10:00 am, and suddenly it’s 3:00 pm, and you have no idea of what you’ve been doing. You’ve been just working on a single three-note guitar part for two hours, trying to get just the right feel. That’s what I tend to do. It’s just meditative, and when you do accomplish it and get the song together, it’s just like this buzz that lasts for a couple of days, you’re like, yes, I did it,” he says.
Donaldson would get ideas while walking around his neighborhood, rushing home to write them down. Some of the songs came easily. The extended instrumental title track, “Summer at Land’s End”, was recorded in a single take; it took about as long to make as it does to listen to. Others required more time, as Donaldson meticulously worked and reworked the lyrics. Though breezy, strummy, and superlatively pretty, the songs on both albums have layers of emotional content, funny asides, and startling moments of insight. Says Donaldson, “When I was conceiving of this project, I took stock of indie guitar music, and I just thought there really isn’t anyone that is digging deep. I wanted to do that. I thought I would just make my psychic pain the special sauce.”
He adds, “I’m not a particularly good musician or singer, but the thing that you realize when you’re like that is that no one else can be me. So, I’m just going to draw on my own experiences and just try to make it as truthful as I can as a writer.”
Donaldson says he has the material for two more albums already, and he’s still writing all the time. A reissue of two Vacant Gardens albums, made with the Los Angeles singer Jem Fanvu, are planned for later in 2022. But primarily, he’s focused on the search for those gem-like pop songs that stop you from whatever you’re doing and seize your attention.
“Pop is all about that cathartic moment when you’re in the car, and you’re about to shut off the engine, and you stop because you hear a song that makes you think back to something great that happened to you or something really painful. I’m gunning for that moment every time,” he says.