Session 154: Margaret Glaspy // Cuddle Magic<- Back
May 17, 2017
“Emotions and Math” is not simply the name of Margaret Glaspy’s new debut album. That expression drills right to the heart of the New York singer-songwriter’s proper introduction, a mission statement both artistic and personal.
On its surface, the title track talks about being a touring musician and figuring out how to see your partner, looking at the calendar and calculating how you’re going to spend time together. But “Emotions and Math,” which ATO Records released on June 17, 2016 also sums up an epiphany she had while making the record.
“In a lot of ways, it’s kind of how I operate,” says Glaspy. “I’ve always considered myself a free spirit, someone who goes with the flow, but actually I’m not exactly like that. This record really taught me that I’m super analytical and process-driven. I think they really do go together, emotions and math. Nobody is just one thing.”
As introductions go, these 12 songs waste no time in cutting close to the bone. This is a young artist with something to say, one who has found her voice, as both singer and songwriter, after years venturing down a crooked path.
After cutting her teeth in New York and Boston, where she was a touring musician and played in other people’s bands, “Emotions and Math” signals an assured new direction for Glaspy.
Glaspy, who’s 27 and grew up in Red Bluff, California, self-produced the album, which frames her revealing ruminations in shards of jagged guitar rock. Building on its early buzz — Rolling Stone hailed first single “You and I” for its “hot barbs of electric guitar,” and BrooklynVegan declared it a “stomping rocker with a DGAF attitude”.
She’s a fierce believer in the power of specifics to tell universal truths, to capture emotions we’ve all felt but don’t necessarily hear reflected in pop music. Some truths are uglier than others, but Glaspy never backs down.
Take “You and I,” which opens with a sentiment so gripping that Glaspy initially worried it would send the wrong message. “Tonight I’m too turned on to talk about us/ And tomorrow I’ll be too turned off/ And won’t give a fuck/ About you and I,” she sings with a punk sneer that turns up often throughout her debut.
“A lot of the songs are so specific but also feel like they apply to so much of my life,” says Glaspy. “I realize more and more on a daily basis that if you’re given a microphone to share what you have to say, then I hope to God that I don’t encourage some fantasy of what we’re supposed to be or how we should live our lives.”
Glaspy would rather tell you the truth of the matter. On “Memory Street,” she envisions her past as a small town dotted with old relationships and memories both fond and painful: “Why remember all the times I took forever to forget?” She salutes her self-reliance on “Somebody to Anybody,” reminding both the listener and herself that, “I don’t want to be somebody to anybody/ No, I’m good at no one.”
Cuddle Magic is Benjamin Lazar Davis, Christopher McDonald, Dave Flaherty, Alec Spiegelman, Kristin Slipp and Cole Kamen-Green–a six-piece avant-pop band located between Brooklyn and Philadelphia. All six musicians are in-demand collaborators in New York’s musical community and work with a wide array of artists, from pop superstars like Beyoncé to critically lauded independent musicians like Will Sheff (Okkervil River) and Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls), as well as with respected figures of the avant-garde like Fred Frith and Ran Blake.
It's been a few years since the New Yorker labeled Cuddle Magic’s music "high concept chamber-pop.” At the time, that was a fair statement about a band known to utilize 12-tone rows, odd meters, and extended techniques; a band which had collaborated with new music pianist Phyllis Chen and Third Stream master Ran Blake. But with Ashes/Axis, the band’s forthcoming new full-length record, listeners are less likely to hear echoes of the academy. All sorts of heady compositional devices, both musical and literary, are still present, but the members of Cuddle Magic have learned to bury those influences deeper in the substrate of the music.
Ashes/Axis features songs written by three of Cuddle Magic’s band members–Christopher McDonald, Benjamin Lazar Davis and Alec Spiegelman–all of whom take turns as lead vocalist. In addition, Kristin Slipp, whose voice is prominent from the very start of the album, takes the lead on “Slow Rider,” “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. II” and “Voicemail.”
The album also features several co-writes: “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. II” was co-written by Lazar Davis and his brother Tim Davis; “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. I” was co-written by McDonald and Davis; “Voicemail” was co-written by Lazar Davis and Spiegelman; “Spinning” and “Round And Round” were co-written by Lazar Davis and Sarah K. Pedinotti of Lip Talk, and three of the songs on the album were co-written by Lazar Davis and longtime collaborator Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive. Those tracks, “Slow Rider,” “Trojan Horse,” and “Getaway,” are all pop songs hung over the frame of Bawa music from Northwestern Ghana. Parts of these songs were conceived just for the gyl, a type of wooden xylophone, and can be heard translated for this sort-of-rock band.
As with past Cuddle Magic records, the studio process for Ashes/Axis began with live full-band arrangements. Grooves were orchestrated with a set of unusual electro-acoustic timbres including a finger-picked, overdriven acoustic guitar, a bass clarinet with a cheap microphone nested in the bell, junk-shop percussion run through a vocoder, and a slew of Casio keyboards (bought, urgently, from an unnervingly tense family in rural Maine). After tracking the arrangements, several elements were then removed to allow for one final stage of recomposition. With Cuddle Magic’s Benjamin Lazar Davis at the helm, Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Swans, Antony & The Johnsons) and assistant engineer Adam Sachs chopped, distorted, distressed, and delayed elements in each song. The end result is a sound that is warm and precise, raw yet sophisticated–a set of infectious pop songs from either an alternate reality or a paradoxically familiar near-future.