Clarity and Complexity: An interview with Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth
Over the course of the many albums David Longstreth has released, he’s come to be seen as being a little aloof. As the de facto leader – and now sole member – of Dirty Projectors, Longstreth’s tendency to write polyrhythmic songs with multi-part melodies has encouraged the idea of a highly technical and unreachable mind; a kind of Mozart of American indie rock.
My own memories of immersing myself in Longstreth’s music are prefixed by years of skirting around it due to this misconception. Everything I’d heard about Dirty Projectors – who were emblematic of an adventurous spirit among US indie bands in the 00s – emphasised labyrinthine inaccessibility; I pictured Arcade Fire in a library, and was put off. But I’ve discovered that the overly-intellectual sound I’d imagined was a caricature of Dirty Projectors’ music, especially with this new self-titled record, the first Projectors album for five years.
Speaking to Longstreth over a Transatlantic phone call on a rain soaked London evening (and a wintery LA morning), my preconceptions of him melt away. Now more than ever, he seems happy to talk frankly, a sentiment that’s audible on the new record. Which is fortunate, because the new record is a personal one, focusing on developments with the line-up of the band and his break-up with former bandmate Amber Coffmann. But is the Dirty Projectors LP a statement of unremitting despair? Longstreth argues not. “For me the album says ‘yes,’” he says. “It affirms love. It affirms hope. It’s not a bleak thing or a hopeless statement.”
With tender songs like Little Bubble and the hopeful sense of resolution on closing track I See You, it’s a valid interpretation. But there’s also a huge amount of pain on the album which Longstreth sings of in honest terms. The changing nature of the line-up is something of a sombre topic.
“It’s always been reforming around the songs,” Longstreth says. “It’s been that way since when I started it, but the last couple records have seen a stabilisation of the line-up. I’m a little bit surprised by how people are like ‘ok this is business as usual’”, he says, in regard to the record being made by himself alone, “and I understand how there are other people who miss the version of the band that came before; Amber and Nat and everyone. They’re incredible musicians. Great, compelling.” Here, his words break down. “I get pretty bummed about it. I’m making an album that I have to make.”
Dirty Projectors is an album which pours out these feelings with naked language, and the difficulty of the breakup is not glazed over. The bluntness of the opening line alone, (“I don’t know why you abandoned me”) is a far cry from the poetic, non-literal lyricism he used to embrace. It’s part of a broader shift in Longstreth’s approach to songwriting. “I’ve learned so much from collaborations,” he explains. “Producing the Bombino record [Azel]. Working with Kanye and Solange. I couldn’t have made the album without any or all of those people, they informed a different approach.”
From the sound of the album, Longstreth seems to have opened up the Dirty Projectors formula to drink in a broader range of music. Single Cool Your Heart is a collaboration with the RnB star Dawn Richard, who has entered an experimental chapter in her career as D∆WN. The influence of Kanye West, who Longstreth worked with on Rihanna and Paul McCartney collaboration FourFiveSeconds, is also faintly present. Keep Your Name features an 808 and Heartbreaks-style sultry beat alongside an eyebrow-raising quasi-rap section (though if this had to be compared to one rap icon, it would probably be Kendrick.) Longstreth also sings about listening to Kanye on Up in Hudson, and Work Together references his own approach to music making in a way that resembles the stories about Kanye’s hyper-intense approach to work: “Complex plans and high ideals/ But he treats people poorly/ Is his ceaseless ambitiousness proxy for a void he’s ignoring?” When asked about what it was like to work with Kanye, Longstreth is straightforward. “Yeah, supercool, his level of commitment to what he was doing, in the moment [was amazing].”
“For me the new album says yes. It affirms love. It's not a bleak thing or a hopeless statement”
He’s equally praiseworthy of Solange, who he’s known since she covered Stillness of the Move, which appeared on the Dirty Projectors’ album Bitte Orca. It’s a song that’s intricately tied to his feelings for Coffmann, who co-wrote it with him, as eluded to on the new LP: ‘Maybe I could be with you, do the things that lovers do, slightly domesticate the truth, and write you Stillness is the Move,’ Longstreth sings on Up in Hudson. “It was 2009, before Bitte Orca,” he remembers fondly of Solange’s cover. “She covered it in the next weeks or months, and we played a little show with her that summer in New York, at a party for fashion week which is happening [again] right now. We played a version of that song Tell Me by Groove Theory. There’s a guy part that comes in at the end of that song. I had so much fun trying to harmonise.” Longstreth would go on to be a guest producer on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, and she features on Dirty Projectors album highlight Cool Your Heart.
At some point in Longstreth’s career, a fog was cleared. “I was happy with lyrics that were oblique and opened up a variety of meaning,” he says, “[but] I’ve realised that songs that stick with me as a listener, as a human, are the ones that tell stories and draw on the experience of the writer.” On Dirty Projectors there’s a sense of freedom in his ability to express himself. And even if some of those emotions are hard to digest, at least he doesn’t have to hide them.
“This is something that I learned from working on these collaborations with people who have a real strong vision for pop,” Longstreth concludes. “Having a mental picture, working towards an image. That’s what you’re working towards; you don’t need to be led by the music. The music is the wheels you’re spinning to get to the picture. That helped me feel a little less beholden to what the music was telling me to do. It gave me a different sense of who the boss was.”
Writer: Francis Blagburn
Photographer: Juan José Ortiz
Stylist: Cristina Planelles
Stylist assistant: Cristina Alguacil
Dirty Projectors is out now via Domino