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LAist Interview: Leona Naess
In one respect, Leona Naess’ current album, Thirteens, could be described in numbers. She spent four years crafting 13 albums' worth of songs from which she carefully selected 11 for her fourth album. But Thirteens could also be described in terms of raw emotion. For Naess, music became an outlet through which she could channel her grief after the tragic death of her father in 2004.
Thanks to unlimited time, supportive friends and some of the best songwriting of her life, Naess has created an intriguing, multifaceted record. From the rollicking “Leave Your Boyfriends Behind” to the reflective “On My Mind,” she takes the listener on a journey. In anticipation of her gig with Ray LaMontagne at the Wiltern this Thursday, LAist spoke with Naess last week to discuss the sheer volume of material she wrote for the record, how one uses coffee glasses as an instrument, and the 500 Polaroids she shot in London.
LAist: Does the name of your album, Thirteens, have multiple meanings?
Leona Naess: Yes, it does, and you’re actually the first person who has asked me about it. The thing is, there are so many reasons I chose that title that I knew if I said that in a press release or something, I’d have to explain it every single time. So I just left it at the simplest reason, but there are many of them. It’s a significant number in my life.
Leona Naess - "Leave Your Boyfriends Behind"
It’s good to leave some mystery sometimes.
Yeah, I think so, too. All the records and artists I’ve loved have always left me guessing and questioning, and I feel like I should do the same.
In an interview about your last album, you talked about how you wanted it to be like a vinyl record with an A and B side. Did you try to follow that same format with Thirteens?
For this one, I didn’t even think in those terms. It was such a different process from the last record, which was all done on tape and Ethan Johns [who produced Naess’ last album] is always very old-school in that way. So it lent itself to that.
This time it was pretty much four years in the making, so it became more about what songs made sense to go together. It was kind of a story.
Given the fact that you wrote 13 albums’ worth of material since your last record, how did you pare it down to just 11 songs? Did you pick the ones that went along with a theme, or your favorites overall?
I’m constantly regretting everything and thinking maybe I should have picked other songs. I don’t know. (laughs) But I guess they’re still there, so I can always use them.
It had to all make sense and there were certain songs that were great but just musically didn’t work with the rest of the record. So I think it was a combination of what the song was about as well as the instrumentation and style of it. For instance, “Unnamed” is very different from something like “On My Mind,” but there is a simplicity to it that works.
“Unnamed” almost seems to have an 80s flavor to it.
I left the 80s behind on the last record, so I wanted to kind of bring them back again.
I love that you did some hard audio panning in the middle of “Learning As We Go.” What inspired that decision?
Clever mixing, really. You just try a lot of things and see what sounds right. I wanted that to overtake you and bring you to another place. Everything that I think is great is usually is an accident, because when you think too much about it, you kind of destroy it. That was my fear with this record, because it was such a long time in the making. But the thing is, each song was done very quickly. It was all the little bits and pieces, the icing, that took a long time. The important parts happened very spontaneously.
And it’s not just the production—the lyrics complement the instrumentation so well, such as in “When Sharks Attack.”
That one came out really quickly and I wrote it while I was in Sweden. I was trying to do this thing where instead of late-night-drinking writing, I tried doing some early-morning-coffee writing. So I had this ritual of going to this amazing little coffee place in Malmö near Denmark. It’s this amazing music city. A friend of mine was also there, so we’d hang out, get coffee and go to the studio, and I’d make myself write a song a day. That one just came out and I have no idea where it came from.
I was intrigued when I read that some of the material on the album was inspired by The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying…
Well, the thing is, I never said that! This is what’s so annoying—I was asked in an interview what books I was reading at the time, and that was one of them. But the record was by no means influenced by that. I love that book but I never said that. It’s just so frustrating when people misquote you. I mean, I was going through a loss and I was reading books that would help me through that, but I didn’t reference the book or use it.
I think people have also quoted me saying that this album was influenced by Frank Sinatra, which is also not true. I just was listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra but I wouldn’t call the record a derivative of that.
Was writing music something that enabled you to deal with the tragedy?
Oh, for sure, because as they say, it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it. And I think that instead of me closing up, becoming manically depressed, drinking, taking drugs, or whatever it is that people often do to try to avoid the pain, I kind of really let myself feel it and used it to create something. And so in that way, I’m thankful for that.
It’s an amazing tribute, too.
Yeah, I mean, sometimes it’s hard to express how you feel, and I can barely say things in conversation, but somehow I seem to be able to piece things together in song. So I guess that was my job.
Now, I didn’t go back and look at your previous production notes, but I am pretty sure this album features more instruments than anything you’ve done before. Is that’s something you put a lot of time into figuring out during the years it took to produce the album?
Oh yes, totally! And it started really simply because it was just me at friend’s house and each of us had a guitar. I didn’t have any time restraints, and I didn’t have a label or anyone breathing down my neck, so I just became obsessed with the record and it was just neverending. It was like, “Oh, I have to be in New York, so let’s take this laptop and go to your friend’s place in Woodstock cause she plays the cello and piano and we can record her.”
It just kind of became this thing, and it’s really hard to abandon that. They say you never really finish something; you abandon it. And I really had to abandon it because otherwise I’d probably still be making the record right now.
Leona Naess - "Heavy Like Sunday"
You yourself have become quite the multi-instrumentalist and it looks like Sam Dixon is one, too. Do you have a favorite instrument?
Well, I’d probably say guitar…or singing, really. I couldn’t call myself anything other than a singer. I think I’m crap at everything else. (laughs)
In the album credits, you even have “coffee glasses” listed as an instrument. How does one play those?
You do what you can! Sam just improvised that. It’s one of those things where we were in the front room and it just kind of needed that on the song “Shiny on the Inside.” We didn’t have drums, so we had to make our own kind of rhythm.
I always love looking at the design of the liner notes and packaging of an album.
I do, too, in trying to figure things out…
It seems to me like the designs on the first two pages of your liner notes are mountains and a city skyline.
Yeah, it is. I guess I feel like I have those two in me—nature and the city. It’s the combination.
When I first listened to the album, I hadn’t yet read the liner notes…but as soon as I heard the mandolin, I knew it had to be Chris Thile. He has such a unique sound. How did the two of you meet?
I’d once toured with Nickel Creek for a bit—for a week or two—and he happened to be in New York when I was doing some recording. He came in and played those parts so quickly, and it was perfect.
And is it true that another special guest, Ryan Adams, joins you on a version of “Leave Your Boyfriends Behind”?
Yes, it’s a bonus song on iTunes version of the album. Ryan’s a friend and he’s just amazing.
On that song, you’re also joined by “Harry’s Tribeca Alcoholic Choir.” Can you tell me more about that?
My friend Harry had a party just so we could record that part of the song. Everyone got very pissed [drunk] because it’s really hard to fake that—it had to be real.
The music industry has changed drastically in the past five years. What have you found to be the biggest change in the scene since you released your last album?
I’ve kept out of it on purpose. I haven’t picked up a music magazine or listened to the radio in a long time. It all just freaks me out because I think that, before when I was doing it, I was really aware of what was going on and would judge myself and all that stuff. Now that I feel a little older and wiser, I feel like I just need to make the music and do the shows and not worry about that other stuff because it kind of clogs your brain.
I noticed that you’ve started blogging on your myspace page. Have you found that this has helped a lot in connecting with your fans?
Yeah, that took a lot of persuading and a lot of pushing because I already feel like I give so much through the songs, and now I have to talk about what I’m doing with my day. But I can’t do it superficially, so I somehow end up spilling all these things out and I ultimately find it really embarrassing and kind of uninteresting. (laughs)
Your website says that each person who buys a limited edition vinyl copy of your “Heavy Like Sunday” single will get one of 500 exclusive Polaroids taken by you. How long did it take you to shoot 500 Polaroids?
Well, my friend Zakee Shariff, who did the artwork on the album, and I spent a week going around London taking Polaroids. At first we were being really creative and trying to take beautiful pictures, but by the end I was taking pictures of gum on the street.
Do you have any advice for touring musicians?
Try to stay healthy, because it’s pretty grueling. We just basically go from town to town and from Whole Foods to Whole Foods. Almost nobody drinks on this tour—I’m the only one who drinks wine—so we’re pretty grown up and boring. It makes it a lot easier because waking up with a hangover on tour is not fun.
Have you already started to work on your next album?
Oh yes. I want to do a lo-fi bathroom record, a dance record, another record with Ethan Johns, a record where I don’t use my real name…I’m working on, like, five different records now!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Leona.
Photos by Rachael Warner