In many ways, Josh Mease is a typical graduate of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. After spending years studying jazz guitar under the highly regarded teacher Dr. Robert Morgan, Mease moved to New York City to continue his musical training and take in the city’s bustling live jazz scene. The number of HSPVA grads who have made some version of that trek in recent years is staggering—one thinks of the pianists Jason Moran (a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and subject of a recent New Yorker profile) and Robert Glasper (who won a Grammy this year) and the in-demand drummers Eric Harland, Jamire Williams, and Kendrick Scott, just to scratch the surface. (Of course, the most famous HSPVA-grad-turned-New-Yorker of all, Beyonce Knowles, isn’t a jazz artist.)
But somewhere along the way Mease, now 32, turned away from that well-trod path, giving up jazz guitar to write and record deceptively gentle pop songs. His first album, Wilderness, came out in 2009 and drew acclaim from NPR and Paste magazine for its odd chord changes and distinctive melodies. Four years later, he has released the follow up , Lapland, which is also the name he now records under. It is, if anything, an even stronger and stranger record than Wilderness, full of burbling electronic textures, prettily strummed guitars, eerie harmonies, and bleak lyrics about failed romance. It’s a woozily atmospheric record, but one grounded in the sort of musical foundation that any pop fan or jazz musician would recognize.
Mease spoke to us about his career and his new album by cell phone from his car and then, after he had parked, from his Brooklyn apartment.
Texas Monthly: You released your first album under your name and now you’ve put out your second album under the name Lapland. Why the change?
Josh Mease: I was trying to think of a moniker, just to have some kind of buffer between myself and my music, but I was never able to think of something. Then my wife brought home a book about Lappland, and it just came to me. Part of it is me not wanting to seem like a singer-songwriter sitting on a stool in a coffeehouse; if you use your own name people tend to picture that. Of course sometimes I am sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar playing my songs. But I try to evoke something else.
TM: Is it supposed to echo “laptop," because you’re making your music on a laptop?
JM: I am making my music on a laptop or a desktop, but it’s more just the sound of the word. It doesn’t make me picture any specific place, it just sounded like an imaginary place that might be interesting.
TM: Have you ever been to Lappland?
JM: Not at all. Now I intend to check it out. It looks beautiful, like an otherworldly place. Especially in the winter it’s very surreal.
TM: So is this is your recording name from here on in?
JM: If I can keep using the name I’d try not to switch horses again midstream. It’s like starting over every time you do that.
TM: You've made two switches in your life. You listened to a lot of pop as a kid, and then you switched gears and focused on being a jazz guitarist, and then you shifted again and started writing and playing pop songs. Let’s start with the first stage. What sort of stuff did you grow up listening to?
JM: My parents’ old records, a lot of Beatles records and Paul McCartney records, and some other stuff—eighties country, late seventies country, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton. In addition to that, I grew up watching a lot of MTV. So, all that 80s and early 90s music. I soaked it all up.
TM: Were you in bands or anything like that?
JM: I wasn’t really in any bands. I didn’t have a lot of experience playing with other people. One thing I did do, I convinced my parents to buy me a 4-track cassette recorder when I was maybe 13. I didn’t totally understand how it worked at first but I would make up silly songs and multi-track myself, or take a Beatles song and try to play the parts and sing all the harmonies.
TM: And then you went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
JM: Yeah, and there was no rock music program there. The closest thing was jazz, which I didn’t know anything about. When I used to hear that stuff on the radio I thought it sounded like noise. But as soon as I started going there, it was great because I was able to finally play with other living, breathing musicians and I learned a ton very quickly.
TM: And you became a jazz guy?
JM: Yeah, I just went for it. It was all I listened to. Maybe partially, at first, out of peer pressure, because nobody was really listening to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin there. That was almost a punchline for a lot of people.
TM: You were a jazz snob?
JM: A little bit, yeah. I went through a phase when my Dad was always saying, “Don’t get too snobby about this because you’re gonna come back around to it”—to other forms of music. And he was completely right.
TM: Then you get to New York. Did you specifically go to New York to study music at The New School?
JM: I thought about going to Berklee [College of Music in Boston] and I got a scholarship there, but I wanted to be in New York. The New School was an excuse to be here and be able to see all these people I’d been listening to for years.
TM: So when did you decide to switch back to pop?
JM: For Christmas one year -- I think it might’ve been in my sophomore year of college -- I got this