On April 24, Seth Glier released his fourth studio album, If I Could Change One Thing, and the 26-year-old took a big step forward by flying to Los Angeles to work with well-known producer, Bill Lefler. Despite this whirlwind for the Grammy-nominated artist, he respectively kept the heart, tenderness, and originality within his works, while testing the bounds of where his writing could end up. This month, we spoke with Glier about his experiences in writing his latest album and his “to be or not to be” approach to stepping out of his comfort zone.
Cliché: What made you want to step outside your comfort zone in terms of tone for If I Could Change One Thing? Did you feel that the folk writing was becoming stagnant?
Seth Glier: No, not at all! I think the essence of what folk music had taught me was the attitude of a storyteller and the importance of each story in music. I really set out to keep that—to continue to tell stories. However, I wanted to do it within a different medium. I wanted more people to hear my music and it felt like somewhat of a fairly natural transition because I love pop music. I love Katy Perry and I love music with big melodies. I’m a huge Frank Sinatra fan and that was pop music in that time. There were really great melodies that were easy to sing along to and they had simple lyrics; it was a simple story. I tried to take my existing audience and push them into that direction. I had also hoped that I was creating music that would bring in a new audience as well!
This record unfolds in a few different stories. What made you want to write from a narrating point of view?
Going into this record, I knew that content was going to be key for me. That was the ultimate decision on what songs were going to make it on the album. I worked with a really great producer and a really great team of people that was going to stylize the songs in a poppier direction, but with that I still thought it was my responsibility to make sure that they were great songs, and that were the best that I had put onto this album. Normally, I will go into making an album by taking the last 14 songs that I had written and I will put them on the record. This time around, I wrote a hundred songs in preparation and by the end of it, it turned out to be a two-year writing process. I wiggled down from that hundred to the ones that spoke the most to me.
I heard that you took an acting class and learned about Shakespeare while preparing to compose this album. Why did you choose to focus on those elements for this record?
I’m a boy from a small town of a thousand people in western Massachusetts. The idea of having to take my songs and open up and trust these people in Los Angeles was intimidating. One of the things that I had to make sure was that this album sounded authentic, that it wasn’t just me trying to make a pop record. It had to sound like me. That was something that I was really concerned with.
In turn, I took acting classes—specifically on Hamlet—because when talking about authenticity, what better example is there than the whole monologue of “to be, or not to be”? That is the very question of how can you remain true to yourself, but to experiment with your passions, your dreams, and your sensibility? That is what I was going through. The acting classes changed how I sang, especially in the studio. For me, it was a scary place because I was under-prepared. That’s where the acting classes came in. I wanted to be prepared for myself.
“I felt that part of myself, where all of a sudden we can recognize that something out there in the world is broken and we become indifferent to it.”
There are a number of musical appearances on this record. Aside from the expansion of your own musical demeanor, why did you reach out to include these other artists?
It’s a lot more fun to make music with other people! Collaborating became a really important part of this process. It kept things moving and it kept things from becoming stale. The other musicians and instrumentals ultimately had to do with the producer and his army of very different musicians for very different parts. In a way, we were making an album of singles. It was one song at a time and each day there were decisions being made based on what was right for the song, not for the whole cohesive album.
Did you find it difficult to let go of your creative control?
Yes and no. I really trusted Bill in that process. We had dinner that first night in Los Angeles and I told him then that this was a big deal for me. I’ve always co-produced my albums. I was fighting for certain things, but I think if anything I was the one advocating for “more synth!” [laughs] I was the one that was having so much fun that I think that we balanced each other out in that sense. Choosing Krystle [Bowersox], I was really really lucky to have her voice on this record. She’s amazing and just a super powerhouse, but also just a really good friend and I can barely do that song without her because she really brought herself to the table. It really became a true duet in every form and she really does own 50 percent of the emotional integrity within that song.
You took a different approach to the recording process with the song “You Wear It Well.” Where did you conjure the inspiration for recording it ‘Elvis-style,’ so to speak?
I’ve never done anything like that before. I always admired those artists that what you heard was exactly what it was. In a way, I think I gave myself permission to do it this time around, because everything did have a lot of sparkle and production around it that I kind of was like, well, “if there is one song that would be nice to not have nothing, that would be ‘You Wear It Well.’” It is still so special and so fragile.
How many takes did you do?
Oh, boy. [laughs] It was a 7-hour day, but there is no post editing when you decide to record this way. You can’t go, “Oh, well we didn’t get the guitars right, but we can just record that tomorrow!” A lot of that is pre-empted in getting the right sound. You have to make sure that your chair doesn’t squeak and then the hardest work of all is to get yourself out of the way to let the performance take place. It’s sort of capturing the right vibe and the right moment. I probably wound up playing the song 40 times that day and Elvis would have gotten it one take!
It’s almost depressing that recording in a room with a microphone and a guitar is considered “vintage.”
I tour and travel with a 63-year-old saxophone player. He has a whole other wealth of knowledge on how music used to be and the technology. The differences are astounding. We were in a guitar shop a few weeks ago in Chicago and I was asking about a particular pedal. The guy behind the counter was describing the effects and he said, “It’s really cool. It’s pre-digital.” What he was referring to was the era before computers. I was amazed that he called it pre-digital, when it is actually called analog!
I’ve noticed that you talk about writing material in regards to how you felt, not thought.
I think in my level of consciousness, I found that the more I write, the less I know about the process. For me, I think I started to sense some craftsmanship in my own songwriting. I’m not saying that the craftsmanship was bad, but I was hearing in my own songs the craftsmanship before I was hearing the heart or the artistic statement that I was trying to get across.
It got to the point that I was able to show up in a room and just say what was on my heart, whether it was stressing me out or it wouldn’t leave my mind. For instance, one song that I am really proud of off this album is “Standing Still” and I didn’t think about writing that song. I felt myself over the course of a week, during that Newtown shooting. One morning I went to the gym and I found myself looking at the television where there was another shooting and I said to myself, “oh, just another shooting.” I felt that part of myself, where all of a sudden we can recognize that something out there in the world is broken and we become indifferent to it. I went over to write with Steve Seskin and it was on my mind and on my heart. We were never writing something that needed to be a hit, or writing because we needed a love song for this record. I was writing what was on my heart and I wrote a lot of songs. I didn’t get it right all the time, but hopefully I got it right 12% of the time! [laughs]
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Seth Glier Interview: Photographs courtesy of MPress Records