“I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel a little crazy, but I wanted to tell these stories,” Dirty Projectors leader Dave Longstreth tells Rolling Stone of the prolific art-pop group’s forthcoming self-titled LP. Due on February 23rd, Dirty Projectors is a self-admitted breakup record that chronicles in vivid detail the entirety of his ultimately doomed relationship with former bandmate Amber Coffman. Ranging from new-love giddiness (“Little Bubble”) to self-flagellation (“Winner Take Nothing”) and eventually acceptance (“Cool Your Heart”), the album is a deep dive into the musician’s life and heart.
After he and Coffman ended a multi-year romantic relationship following touring behind 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, and she subsequently left the band, Longstreth admits that he considered retreating from his own music. He dove into writing with other artists including Kanye West (“FourFiveSeconds”), Joanna Newsom and Solange. Eventually, that path led him back to Coffman herself: He recently co-wrote and produced her forthcoming solo debut, City of No Reply.
When he eventually returned to writing for himself, Longstreth says he had something of a creative awakening. Rather than bury his emotions, he chose to channel the intense sadness he felt in the wake of his breakup into his most soul-baring, emotionally jarring songs yet. “There was a period of time, before I got around to accepting this was what I was going to do, where I tried to not make this album,” Longstreth admits in a revealing conversation during which he discusses the decision to make himself vulnerable in song, how working on and listening to music with others has helped him immensely, and why in many ways his new album feels like a return to form. “But it’s the record I had to make.”
This new album is extremely personal and revealing. Was the intention always for these songs to be heard? Or did they start as a way for you to deal with life as it came at you?
You’re right. That’s exactly how they started. I didn’t know what they were really good for but it just felt like it was my way of processing shit. If you had asked me at the time, I felt very uncertain about where to go with music. I didn’t have answers for that. It was really helpful for me to work in a different kind of capacity than I ever had before. Working as a producer, an arranger and in some cases as a writer for some other people, gave me a super different perspective. But at that same time I was doing the Kanye stuff and working on the Solange album, I would go back to the music I was making. It was probably early sketches and versions of the music that became this record.
You’ve typically built your band around the songs you were writing at a particular time, but this album feels like a more solitary endeavor.
I think it’s true. When I started the band back in ’01 I always wanted it to be an amphibious vehicle. Something that could go with me wherever I needed to go. And that’s always been my vision for it. Just like any songwriter, the songs come out of where I am in my life and what I’m doing and who I’m hanging out with and the kind of sounds I’m imagining. I always loved the idea of it evolving in the same way that life changes.
You’ve made no bones about this being a breakup album. Did you ever second-guess the decision to be so open and vulnerable?
I don’t know if I’d call it second-guessing but yeah, definitely. A few things I’ve noticed about myself as a listener, and the music that I relate to and the music that’s continued to mean something to me since I was a little kid or a teenager, is that they’re songs that tell stories and songs that come from a place of experience.
After breaking up with Amber, did it feel like the future of Dirty Projectors was up in the air?
It’s sort of just the way that it took shape and based on the way life was at that time, I guess. I made like five records as Dirty Projectors before I got out of college. And then I put a band together when I got interested in going on tour around that time. And so to me this album feels like in some ways a return to a place that I knew very well. I feel kind of good about it. I’ve been in touch with everybody from the most recent version of the live band and everyone is kind of with me. And also, how we put it together live, that’s still developing.
You described an initial reluctance to record such autobiographical material. How did you finally come to the decision that this was the album you had to make?
It just felt like the natural thing to do. There was a bit of “the only way past is through.” One thing I feel like I learned from spending a little bit of time in the room with Kanye is how important is to him to listen with people; you get that osmotic thing going on of being able to hear the music through somebody else’s ears and get a sense of how they’re responding to it. It’s something I saw Kanye do a whole lot. That was actually the first thing we did when I got to his house. He sat me down and played me rough versions of songs that he and everybody that was there had been working on. And so I tried doing that more this time. And I loved doing it. I realized in some ways this music really wasn’t so different from the body of songs that I’ve written so far. That was something that I got out of listening with my brother or listening to it with other friends and other musicians.
Did you ever read that book I Love Dick by Chris Kraus? It’s a cool book. There was a profile of her in The New Yorker a couple months ago I was reading. Her book is kind of a similar thing [as my album]. It’s sort of a garbled, kaleidoscopic-almost-fictionalized memoir. I think she was relaying to the author how someone in an interview had asked her a similar question about ‘Do you feel uncomfortable sharing these personal details?’ and she quoted Gilles Deleuze: “Life is not personal.” I liked that. Because yes, this is all personal for me and heartbreaking and sad stuff and some of it kind of feels private. But in listening to the album with people like [Vampire Weekend’s] Ezra [Koenig] and other musicians you come to realize everybody goes through this stuff.
So in a way this personal stuff is not very personal. For me that was a liberating realization. Also in listening to it, I was like, “I really do think for whatever reason this music is coming out of a difficult place but I’m happy with the things I’m getting out of it.” So eventually I was like, “Maybe this is something I should show others.”
It seems like working on music with Kanye, Joanna Newsom and Solange was liberating for you.
It was like hitting a reset that I really needed. I’d never been in that capacity working for somebody else musically. I’d never written music or worked on music for another artist before. And so it just gave me a whole different perspective. What Joanna and Solange and Kanye all had in common was a mental image of what the sound is supposed to be. As a collaborator my goal has to be to help them get toward that mental image. That was cool. Realizing that sound is an image allowed me in making my own album to stay focused on the emotional places that first inspired the song and not get carried away with the music that spun out from there.
Did you learn anything from any of them in particular?
Technically I actually learned a lot just being around [Kanye’s producer] Mike Dean. He showed me a shitload of stuff about Pro Tools I didn’t even know about. So that was sick. Working with Solange, again, I was in a place where I was like, “What do I even do?” I was feeling pretty down. I’m really grateful that she included me in the work on her album because just being there gave me confidence in a moment what I kind of needed it.
Let’s talk a bit specifically about your voice on this album. On “Keep Your Name” you venture into a much lower register than we’ve heard from you before.
The song is in sort of a low register but it’s bent way down. Or about a third or something. In the past with Dirty Projectors albums my own voice was the last thing that went on the record. It was always like we’d already been recording for a while and we’re coming up against a deadline and I’m exhausted and I’ve spent a ton of time getting down the women’s vocal parts. And compared to them I felt like a terrible singer. So it was always like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll just do my thing and then we can move on to mixing.” A melody is like a path and this time I gave myself the time to travel the path a bunch more before I recorded those parts. I got to learn my own voice a little better and process it all.
From both a lyrical and production standpoint, Dirty Projectors albums are extremely complex works. It doesn’t sound like you had much help this time. Was that daunting?
I was talking to a journalist earlier and they were bringing up an article, maybe from around the time of Swing Lo Magellan or [2009’s] Bitte Orca, talking about the long practices that we had as a band and how full-on those were. For me, this record was about taking that certain discipline, or rigor I’ve had as a bandleader and I’ve put the band through before, and putting myself through that. I had it coming [laughs].