Name: Abigail Lapell
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Abigail Lapell's Stolen Time is out via Outside Music.
If you enjoyed this interview with Abigail Lapell and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She is also on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I think of it as a force of nature, like a storm rolling in.
My songs tend to come from an emotional place – so personal relationships, books I’ve read, current events, the weather, it’s all in the mix, if not always in an explicit way. My songs also draw a lot from natural imagery: the four elements, the night sky, bodies of water.
I’m also inspired in a meta-way by the mysteries of writing itself; I have a lot of songs about songs (about songs), it seems.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
My songwriting process leans more towards “chance.” I rarely have a concrete idea or theme going in – more of a mood I’m looking to capture.
For recording, on the other hand, I’ve always had a pretty solid plan for the finished product, either from rehearsing with a band or recording demos on my own. But it’s nice to leave room for things to grow and change. So in the studio, maybe 75% planning and 25% surprises and happy accidents.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I definitely like to record songs in the process of writing to solidify the song structure and lyrics – and add a million layers of vocal harmonies, which is one of my favourite things in this world.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Lately I’ve been working on more deliberate warm up and practice routines – like vocal exercises and learning guitar scales and studying piano. I’m a self-taught musician, so I haven’t had tons of experience with these kinds of formal practices, and the ritual of it really appeals to me, getting in the right mindset.
Especially with COVID and being confined to a small live-work space, I’ve been trying to incorporate little rituals to kind of break up the day and differentiate various kinds of work. There’s a specific type of Tibetan incense I like to burn when I’m working on music, and beeswax candles.
Going for long walks is also really helpful. I tend to work on lyrics and humming melodies while I’m walking, which I find very meditative.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
For me, starting is the easy part – probably too easy. Any time I sit down to write or play, I have dozens of new ideas. Finishing, on the other hand, is more of a challenge.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I usually start with a melody, singing in gibberish basically, and lyrics come in toward the end of the process. I often record those nonsense versions and listen back to decipher pieces of syllables and assemble whatever sounds seem to fit. So for me the words are super closely tied to the music, and usually reflect a certain mood or feeling rather than, like, an explicit narrative.
In all honesty, though, sometimes I prefer the original gibberish versions – to me the songs emerge from this wordless place, and in nailing it down to a specific meaning, something is always a bit lost in translation.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I think “good” lyrics are ones you almost don’t notice – they sound timeless or natural, like they just emerged organically and fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Personally I tend to be a bit of a formalist; I normally write for a specific melody, so I’m always chasing a certain kind of vowel sound or stress pattern or rhyming scheme to click together with the musical phrasing.
One of my goals as a writer actually is to loosen up a bit on that stylistic impulse, and write more freely, more from the heart. I love complex internal rhyming, for example [song examples: “shape of a mountain” or “jordan”?] – it’s a bit of an obsession for me – but sometimes I feel it holds me back from being more vulnerable or experimental as a writer. So I’m trying to break out of that comfort zone.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Sometimes slowly, sometimes effortlessly, it’s always different. Sometimes it’s like what they say about the tide coming in: slowly, and then all at once.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Songwriting has always felt more like a force of nature to me, something I can, at best, try to harness. So my process definitely involves a lot more following things where they lead.
I’ve heard this kind of thing described in terms of “art” vs “craft”, and personally I lean more towards the former – self-expression, letting things flow. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more interested in the craft side of things, but for most of my life as a songwriter I felt I had very little control over the process.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
For sure, I think most of my process involves following these roads around, sometimes in circles, chasing competing impulses and just trying to stick with it and see where it leads. Sometimes that’s nowhere, sometimes it’s a whole new dimension, it seems.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I think of music and art as a way of connecting with other people and the world and myself – possibly the most fundamental way. It’s the closest thing I know to the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Having infinite options can be a nightmare as a creator, especially if you’re a perfectionist. I find it’s really helpful to impose some limits on the process, to bring it back to a more human scale.
So for example, in the studio for the most recent album, we recorded all the bed tracks live off the floor, as opposed to overdubbing all the instruments and vocals separately. I mean, there were still tons of options as far as editing things together, choosing from different takes, etc. But it was helpful to have that sense of just capturing a moment in time, and letting the performance be what it is – including those little imperfections that, in many cases, can ultimately serve the finished work way better than something that’s totally clean and perfect but lifeless.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
As far as the recording process, someone once said the longer you wait to listen back to a recording, the better it’ll sound – and if you never listen, it’ll be perfect. So I try to give it time, but it’s easier said than done – and I know I’ll always be way too close to be “objective” about it anyway.
That said I tend to prefer fairly minimal production and arrangements, so it’s not too hard to call it. When in doubt I trust my collaborators to weigh in as well.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Sonically I generally know what I like (or not) when I hear it, but I’m not a huge audio buff and don’t tend to have super strong opinions going in. I’m much more interested in writing and performance, so I’m happy for someone else to take the lead on the technical side.
I’m always trying to become more literate in terms of gear and audio, though, and I tend to like certain mics or guitar sounds. And I’ll weigh in throughout the mixing process for sure.
Like most guitar players I usually want my guitar louder in the mix. But beyond maybe a vocal level here and there I tend not to weigh in too much.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Personally I try to move on to the next thing almost right away, in part to keep myself from judging the new thing too much – it helps keep things in perspective and keeps me chipping away every day.
Before the album is even done I always think “the next one will be better” – which might sound super negative, but for me it’s actually a really positive way to see things, because it takes the pressure off and helps me focus more on the journey than the destination, so to speak.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Well, if making music is both an art and a craft, I suppose it could be viewed from different angles. Like, maybe on the craft side playing music is more in line with making that cup of coffee – getting the technical elements dialed in, having the right tools and using them correctly. But then the artful side is almost like an emergent property, something greater than the sum of those parts. Some people are pretty devoted to coffee, too … so it might just depend what you’re into.
Personally I find value in practices like mindfulness that bring a quality of attention to seemingly “mundane” tasks. But arguably what makes art special is that it’s non-utilitarian, something done purely (or impurely) for its own sake – so yes, to me that separates it from other activities and other ways of being in the world.