Goodbye Jazz, Hello Pop
Talking with the Houston-born and -raised musician Josh Mease about his new record—and his new alias.
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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 little sequencer that had some sounds on it, and I started writing silly songs again. And I realized I had a lot of inspiration stored up to do that. I’d been listening to so much jazz for so long it was really refreshing to just write something simpler with words, and singing. It felt a little more natural to me. I was a pretty good jazz guitar player, but I never felt quite as at home doing that as I did writing songs.
TM: There are some unusual harmonies in your songs. Is your pop influenced by your jazz training?
JM: Definitely. At first I think it was even more prevalent, as far as having 100 chord changes in a song and far-out harmonies. It’s gotten a little simpler over time, but that stuff is still definitely there. And I’m happy about that. There are a lot of people who come from a jazz background or have gone to school for music who decide to write pop tunes and they pretend they never studied anything, or have never heard of some different chords. I’ve always felt like it’s an asset that I went to school for music.
TM: My guess is if you wanted to you could pull out a pretty good guitar solo on some of these songs. But except for “On and On,” on your last record, you don’t really show the guitar solo side of yourself. Why is that?
JM: Maybe it’s my personality. It always just feels like, “Now I’m gonna show you what I’ve got!” Almost like an athletic mentality, which is something that doesn’t agree with me. That being said, people are always saying, “You’re a good guitar player, why don’t you show that a little more?” Maybe that’ll come back. I think it comes from a lot of years of soloing endlessly over jazz standards. I’ve run out of fuel for that for the time being.
TM: Is there a pretty cohesive community of HSPVA grads in New York City?
JM: I think certain little subgroups of people are still tight. I love a lot of those guys. I’m excited when they’re doing well. Watching the Grammys this year and seeing [my HSPVA classmate] Robert Glasper win a Grammy, I thought that was great. But as far as day-to-day interaction, I don’t really interact with a lot of those guys that much.
TM: So you’re not hanging out with Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Blue Ivy?
JM: [Laughs.] No, I didn’t know Beyonce when she was at HSPVA. I think she was my year, but I got there the year after she left.
TM: So the new album, Lapland, has a bit more electronic texture than the first one did. Is that a new area of interest for you?
JM: Yeah, a little bit. But synthesizers and electronic sounds have been something I’ve been drawn to for a long time. For this record, though, I had access to more different kinds of electronic keyboards. I like writing on a keyboard because I’m not as familiar with it, I’m lost a little bit more. I have to use my ear to write. On guitar, it’s easier for me to fall into familiar stuff.
TM: Lots of the songs on the new album seem to be about love gone very, very, bad. Some are about relationships that have just ended, some are about relationships that’d probably be better off if they did end. Is the album inspired by one specific relationship or is it a reflection of your generally dour view of romance?
JM: [Laughs.] Maybe the dour view of romance. It’s funny, though— I got married last year while I was working on it. A lot of that stuff, maybe some of it is more about people I’ve known where the relationship hasn’t gone the way I wish it had. Some of the songs, when I listen to them now, sound a little bit paranoid [about] what people are after in my relationship with them.
TM: You said earlier that you thought maybe it wasn’t really your personality to whip out a big guitar solo. How would you describe your personality?
JM: Musically, I’m always trying to think about what’s going to help the song come through the most. If that is a big guitar solo, that’s what it is. When I’m playing with other people, I love playing the bass, I like playing rhythm guitar. I like playing subtle roles that help the music sound better overall. I’m not as much of a “Let me step out and show you what I got” kind of person.
TM: It’s funny. On your records, your voice is light and kind of airy—you’re singing, I think, pretty high in your register—and in a lot of the pieces that have been written about you’re referred to as this sort of dreamy guy who wanders around Brooklyn, gazing out on the waterfront, looking at empty swimming pools. So I’m surprised, talking to you, that you sound very grounded. I’m not sure what my question is here, because I’m thinking it out as I’m saying it, but is this notion of you as being this dreamy guy — in the sense that you’re a dreamer, not that you’re a movie star — is that a role that you’re playing on the records or is it really part of you?
JM: I think it is part of me. When I’m sitting in a roomful of people, I end up getting lost in my own thoughts. I’m a pretty shy person, especially at first when I meet people. I grew up an only child. When I’m writing songs or when I’m in my most comfortable space, I’m by myself thinking about things. I know the music sounds dreamy, but that’s just the sounds I like. I like for things to sound not quite like real life. If I’m recording an acoustic guitar I want it to sound like a magical, spacey acoustic guitar.
TM: This is a pretty solitary record. You wrote and recorded most of it yourself, and the narrators in most of the songs all sound pretty lonely. But the people on the album sound not just cut off from other people, but even isolated in time. There are lots of lyrics about forgetting who you are and what has happened in the past and not knowing what’s going to happen in the future. It has this really desolate feeling. Am I picking up on something that’s there on purpose?
JM: I think it’s definitely there, not so much on purpose. Usually I write a bunch of songs and I pick the ones that I think are the strongest and it wasn’t until my wife and I were trying to write a description of the record that I \noticed that all of the songs are like that. It just happened that way.
TM: And yet, even though the albums so sad, the melodies are so pretty.
JM: I like it when, if you just read the words of a song on paper, it’d be pretty depressing, but there’s this light, almost happy, beautiful, dreamy melody. I think that’s an interesting juxtaposing of two things. If the melody was incredibly sad and minor and depressing and then you had lyrics that were the same way, it would make people sad to listen to it. They would want to avoid that feeling.