As a guest vocalist, Sara Bareilles belts a great opening line on "Come Back Down," the first track on Greg Laswell's new album, Landline. It goes, "All of your wallowing is unbecoming/You have to take it on your own from here/It's getting pathetic." The brash sentiment is self-directed, part of a self-inventory that prompted Laswell to try to ditch or at least downplay the "woe is me" sentiment.
"It came from just 'enough is enough' in my personal life, and my music just naturally mirrored that," Laswell, New York-based guitarist and vocalist, says. "I had this moment three years ago where it was like, 'OK, time to get better and time to apply some tough love to yourself.' Then I struggled from that point on to find songs that would go along with that."
More than simply self-actualization, it's a risky move for a singer/songwriter who'd made his bones on the type of lingering melancholy/heartbreak misanthropy at the heart of adult pop. Few were better at it than Laswell, who turned TV drama song fare into a personal cottage industry. He's placed 17 songs (all but four on multiple shows), and nearly half of them appearing on Grey's Anatomy.
But Laswell, who married fellow singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson last summer, was anxious to push beyond his comfort zone, and in large measure that's the source of Landline's success. From plush production to a greater craft in the arrangements to spending more time in his upper register, Laswell challenges everything he's done up to now, and the ambition pays off with an intriguing, unpredictable effort. And it all began with "Come Back Down."
"I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm going to swing for the fences and write a bombastic pop song,'" he says. "I almost wrote it so I could throw it away and get it out of the system. Once I hit the chorus, I was like, 'There's no way I'm going to finish this now. I'm just having fun.' Then it dawned on me. That's the point."
Laswell recorded the new album in a Maine church that Michaelson's parents are turning into a residence. The sanctuary was the one unfinished room, and Laswell took advantage of the vaulted ceiling to capture a big spacious feel. "If you play an acoustic guitar in a garage it sounds big," he says. "But if you play acoustic in a big room, it's like, 'I have to fill it up.'"
This prompted Laswell, who had self-produced each of his three prior albums, to go for broke from the production standpoint as well. It's much more plush. He also brought in a host of female singers to accompany him, including Michaelson, Bareilles, Brooklyn-based indie songwriter Elizabeth Ziman, and Australian pop singer Sia.
"I definitely operated on a narrower scope on my previous records," Laswell says. "Whereas, on this record wanted to sing really loud and way up high and I'm going to write actual choruses and have these girls join me. I feel on my previous records, I was meticulously painting within the lines and on this one I was throwing the brush around."