Nothing's Lost If Nothing's Gained: A Conversation With Margaret Glaspy
Originally published on Slant.
Full disclosure: Margaret Glaspy is one my favorite new songwriters.
The only thing I don't like about Margaret Glaspy is how little of her music I've had to listen to since I first heard her play in October at CMJ.
If you comb the internet, you can find much more than the scant 5 tracks on her Spotify page. She's been at this a while now. But this summer, Glaspy will release her first full-length LP on ATO Records, feeding the hungry appetites of her fans.
For the uninitiated, Glaspy's raw, guitar-driven compositions leave her fantastically exposed, a conscious choice she's made to lessen the distance between artist and audience. Her lyrics are emotional and personal without being melodramatic. Her voice is brassy and bold without seeming like an affectation. The full package translates to something that transfixes you and propels you to hit the play button over and over, searching for textures you didn't hear the first 20 times in a guitar lick, or hidden meanings in a lyrical phrase.
I had the opportunity to pick Glaspy's brain ahead of her 9 shows at SXSW, talking about pros and cons of Spotify, advice she'd give her younger self, and her resistance to ever hide behind her songs.
SD: Where did you grow up?
MG: I was born in Sacramento. I grew up the first half of my life in Gerber, California, and the second half of my childhood in Red Bluffs, California. And both of those places are really close to one another. It’s about 25 minutes away from one another.
SD: When did you make your way over to New York?
MG: I moved to Boston when I was 18 and then moved from there to New York. And I’ve lived in New York for about just a little under 6 years.
SD: You studied at Berklee. What was that experience like?
MG: I studied briefly and Berklee and I’m really grateful to have gone to Berklee for the short time I had. I was only there for a semester. It really catapulted into this whole scene of people and musicians. It was a really cool environment of really passionate people. I have to say that I think that that was such an education. Obviously, taking classes. But I was socialized at Berklee, just being around a lot of musicians and people who are good at what they do.
I’m from a small town. I was in a small pool. There weren’t very many people who were trying to be professional musicians in my town. Once I moved to Berklee, everybody was trying to do what I was trying to do. It kind of just knocks you around a little bit. I didn’t think that I was the best musician on the planet, but I thought, "I’ve got something going for me." And then I went to Berklee, and I’m like, "I have nothing going for me." (laughs) It kind of knocks you down a peg or two. It makes you work hard and get excited about learning about all different kinds of music and how to interact with musicians. It was such a good learning experience.
SD: Backtracking a little bit, what were some of your first experiences playing music? How were you brought into all of this?
MG: All my family is really musical. There were always a bunch of guitars lying around the house. My dad had guitars out all the time. We had a couple of 12-strings and 6-strings. He had an electric guitar kicking around the house. My dad and mom sang around the campfire constantly. We went camping a lot and music was a big part of that. Both my brothers and sister were heavily into music. I did a lot in the music department in my schools as a kid. So I did band, I played fiddle at a young age. My band instrument was trombone (laughs).
I took the opportunities as they came when I was young. I really wanted to be an actress when I was young. That was a big thing for me. I thought for sure that was what I was going to do with my life. But once I started to sing and write songs, that really started to take over. Honestly, my first music experiences were very familial.
SD: When did you start writing music?
MG: When I was a teenager, I started to scratch the surface. Probably when I was about 15 I started to lean in that direction and play more guitar. By the time I was 18, I started to really get into it. Between 15 and 18, I would play guitar and learn a lot of other peoples’ songs, and I was singing, but then I was making my own little arrangements.
And after that, I went to Berklee, which was a big green light for me to just do my own thing. I sang jazz for a little while, I’d sing folk songs. I’d song lots of different things to dip my toes in lots of different water. But at the end of the day, I knew I was going to do something on my own. I wanted to create my own little path out of all the different ranges that I’d danced around in.
SD: Do you have a memory of the first record you purchased?
MG: It’s gonna not be a super glorious story (laughs). I think it was a Britney Spears record. I was really, really into pop music, just like a lot of young girls at that age. I was obsessed Britney Spears, I loved Spice Girls, I loved N*SYNC and Backstreet Boys and all that stuff. To be honest, I still keep my pulse close to the pop world. I find it fascinating. It’s kind of a love-hate relationship because I find it fascinating in a songwriting sense, and in terms of arranging. I just love the songs. I can listen to some Justin Bieber and enjoy it.
Growing up, my dad would take me to go see jazz concerts in San Francisco. We’d go to the auditorium and see “real” music. It was important to my mom and dad to expose to me really good, quality music. In my teeny-bopper phase, my friends took me to see 98 Degrees in Sacramento, which was pretty amazing. Then, my dad took my best friend and I in middle school to se K-Ci and Jojo, which was incredible. So those are good memories, for sure. Those kind of blown out pop shows, just like, "Wow."
SD: Pivoting a little bit, you were able to work with Shawn Everett on your upcoming album. What was it like working with Shawn on this record?
MG: I actually produced this record myself and Shawn mixed it. He did an incredible job. He’s an incredible dude. He’s got a very, I don’t how to describe it. He’s a real artist and we were able in the mixing phase to dive in and really figure it out together in terms of what the record really needed.
And as soon as he got into this zone, like after one song was done, he was like, "I know what all this needs." And that was really inspiring and really cool. It was really natural working with him. He’s just such a good guy, and really a risk-taker, too. I feel like I’m pretty anal about everything that goes on, and sometimes he would just be like, "What if we did this?" and pump the distortion up, and I’d go, "Wow, that’s really amazing." I feel in the mixing stages, he really brought the record to a cool place. He opened my mind up to different possibilities.
In producing the record, I’d written the songs a little while back and had honestly made this record before. I’d demoed it before on an iPad one time through, all 12 songs. And then went and got some recording equipment with my partner Juilan, who’s an amazing guitar player. I made the record again on proper recording gear in my house. And then ATO reached out to me to be on their label, and I made it again in the studio. So by the time I go to the studio, I knew exactly what I wanted. I entertained the thought of getting a producer on it.
But really at the end of the day, it was a no-brainer. I already knew what it needed, the arrangements were done, I knew the stylistic choices I wanted to make. Producing it kept me up at night, but it was also really intuitive because I had all this stuff in my hands before I recorded it in the studio.
SD: What’s it like being on ATO Records? How have they been in terms of supporting you?
MG: They’ve been amazing. ATO is an incredible label. I feel like they sign artists that they feel really excited about, which makes it a big relationship. I’ve heard this from other artists that work with ATO, too, that it’s not like they sign you and they’re like, "Okay, here’s what we should change about you." They sign you for a reason. They’re like, "Go make a record, we’re excited about it." It feels just really natural and healthy that way. It feels like everyone’s in it for the right reasons. Musically, them and I have been a really good match.
They’re just excited about what I have to offer, so it makes me comfortable in my own skin. It’s been great, honestly. They’re kind of an anomaly right now in terms of being a label that is successful, and that’s staying current and putting out cool stuff, and not really having a chip on their shoulder. Some labels, things can get kind of hairy. And with them, it really isn’t. It’s just a really good working relationship. I’m excited. I feel like a lucky artist right now.
SD: You record music under Margaret Glaspy, which is your name. And a lot of the artists that I’ve been talking to in the run-up to SXSW, it’s en vogue to pick a pseudonym that sounds like a band name. These plural band names that are really just solo people. Is it a conscious choice to go out there and be Margaret Glaspy?
MG: I would say in a roundabout way, yeah. There is a conscious choice. I think that maybe — and that’s not to say one is better than the other, in any way shape of form, because a lot of my absolutely favorite bands go under stage names or pseudonyms — there’s a through line for keep things boiled down to their "true" state. That’s a lot of what the record was about conceptually. It’s all about stripping away any kind of "you-can’t-hide" kind of thing. Don’t shroud the song in anything unnecessary. I think that’s kind of how I work in general. You don’t cover anything up. You distill things down to the very last fundamental element.
Using my own name, I feel comfortable in that because it’s the last stop before anything else that is who I am. I feel comfortable in using my own name. I think that sometimes it is tempting to separate your own life from your work life. I think it’s a good move. But I also think that keeping my own name and using my family name, I’m proud of my family, and I think it’s important to know where I’ve come from. I want to make work that makes them proud, too. I feel very comfortable using my own name and I think it is a conscious choice. I’ve considered having a different name before, but I think using my own name and letting me be exposed a little, I like that.
SD: Do you think streaming services like Spotify help artists or do they hurt artists?
MG: It’s very complicated. I think that what musicians do is make music, and that’s the most important thing. And us being paid is very important as well, because otherwise it’s tough to make music anymore. I think where we get paid shifts around a lot. I do think that it’s a shame that the music gets, I don’t want to say marginalized, but in a way, I think it does. Once the standard kind of gets low enough as far as what you accept for what you make, then it’s kind of hard to return from that.
At the same time, I think just like anything, something like Instagram used to really bother me. Things kind of evolve. It’s not that it doesn’t bother me anymore, but it’s just something that’s there. It’s just another thing that someone’s made. Whether you want to use it or not, it’s in the hands of the user.
Do I have to be on Spotify? I don’t have to. I have a choice whether I’m on Spotify or not. In some ways, since I’m on a label, that’s not always true. But as far as independent artists go, whether you want to put your record on Spotify or not, that’s a conscious choice. It’s not like music just goes up there magically.
So I think that when you’re navigating through your career, you have options of ways to release music, and you can go for the more lucrative ones for yourself — and those options do diminish. People don’t buy music the way they used to. People music listen to music more than ever, but they don’t buy it like they used to. So, as an artist, you have to make a decision in terms of how you release your music and that’s in the hands of the artist because no one’s forcing you.
Are the prices people pay on Spotify incredibly low and kind of a joke? Totally. You know, we don’t make money off of Spotify, really. But I think there’s also a side to it where you don’t have to do it. There’s pressure, in certain ways because there’s so much music on there. It gets confusing as an artist because I don’t think that anything creates more exposure than another.
I do think that Spotify creates a platform where it’s very easy to check out new music and see it and hear it. It like couldn’t be easier. It could not be easier to find new artists right now. It’s kind of amazing.
So I think that’s a pro, and the con is just not getting paid enough. I do think it’s a choice and whether you want to go with them or not, I think that you can’t be on it and then complain about it because you signed up for it. There are pros and cons to it in terms of what it does for your career.
SD: What advice would you give to yourself as a younger artist. The artist that’s leaving artist to pursue this. What would you tell that Margaret now?
MG: Probably practice (laughs). I would say just get better at what you do. Don’t ever question yourself and practice more. Write more. Work on what you’re doing every chance you get. Make sure that things that you’re saying mean something and they mean something to you.
I feel like sometimes you can get locked in the riffraff of the music business or the logistical things that surround releasing music. This was my first time putting out a proper record on a label. There’s a lot that comes with it. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the details. Really, you just need to make music. It keeps you healthy. That state for me has been my go-to.
At a young age, I think everything happened for a reason and then I have no regrets in any way, shape or form. But if there’s one thing I would say, it would be to practice. Make music every day.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Ebru Yilidz