Photograph by Lauren Margit Jones.
As the band’s primary creative force Dave Longstreth describes it, the new Dirty Projectors song “I Feel Energy” is a departure. It’s a song he’s wanted to make “for a long time, but it wasn’t until now that I felt like I could.” It also wouldn’t have been possible without Björk and a very specific insect. “She sent me an iPhone movie of a cricket, a Japanese cricket called a higurashi cricket. She said, ‘Check out this crazy sound.’ I was playing around with it, and it really worked in the crescendo out of the bridge.”
Lamp Lit Prose, the band’s eighth studio album and second in the last 16 months, has the experimental spirit and mechanical sonic palate of last year’s self-titled album, but with a focus on upbeat love songs. It’s also a who’s who of music in the 2010s, with cameos from Haim (“That’s a Lifestyle”), former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes (“You’re the One”), and former Odd Future member Syd (“Right Now”). “I Feel Energy” features Amber Mark, a singer and producer whom Longstreth first heard on Los Angeles radio station KCRW. “I began working on this in a similar way [to previous albums], which is to say, I was pretty solitary,” he said. “At some point, I was like, ‘Man, this record feels like it wants other voices, and wants to be a conversation. It wants to be a party a little bit.’”
Longstreth realizes that delivering two albums in two years it a bit unusual in an era where the recording-promoting-touring cycle is usually drawn out to at least two or three years. “It felt manic,” he said. “As the self-titled album came together, I wanted to keep on writing, recording, and producing. So I didn’t go on tour and I just kept on making music.” Despite press appearances on the release of the album and his reputation as a strong live musician, Longstreth kept a low profile for the rest of 2017. He played two summer festivals, focusing on the new material and playing with backing tracks and only a few live musicians.
Lamp Lit Prose takes the elements and studied approach that made Longstreth an indie-rock success story in 2009 and blows it up to pop-music proportions. Both Lamp Lit Prose and the 2017 album arrived after the end of Longstreth’s relationship with former bandmate Amber Coffman and a subsequent three-year hiatus, from 2013 to 2016. “When the Swing Lo Magellan touring wound up, it felt like the end of something for me, and I needed a break from touring,” Longstreth said. “But really, the co-writing and producing I did after this gave me a different perspective on this whole thing. To me that was like being a different spoke on the wheel.”
Longstreth moved to Los Angeles, set up a studio, and began work as a songwriter for hire, composing the bridge on the Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFiveSeconds” and multiple songs on Solange’s breakthrough album A Seat at the Table. When he returned to his own music, he began working with a wider array of instruments than he’d used in the past, experimenting with new production techniques, and even altering his singing. “I changed the way I approached singing on the self-titled record,” he said. “I thought of it more like playing an instrument, whereas before I’d just been thinking of it as a wild id manifestation that I couldn’t control and shouldn’t try to.” It shows: there are many moments on Lamp Lit Prose where he takes on the vocal trills and acrobatics he might have previously given to someone else.
Since Longstreth recorded some of his first songs in a makeshift studio in his Yale dormitory in 2001, the Dirty Projectors lineup has changed consistently; Longstreth is the only person who has appeared on every album. But he still thinks of his new work in the context of what came before.
“I do have my more concept-y albums, and then I have the ones that are more about just collections of songs,” he said. “For me, the first Dirty Projectors record that I put out was like that, The Glad Fact. But [others] are just song records, there’s no overarching theme. Lamp Lit Prose is the same way. Let’s just make songs.”
To support the new album, Longstreth has formed a touring band for the first time in five years; the tour is an extensive one. He’s already played 30-some shows this year and has about 20 more in front of him. He’s back behind the guitar again, leading sing-alongs to the new songs and attacking the high notes with enthusiasm.
“I’ve come back around to this moment,” he said, “and the thing that interests me is writing music, playing it with people. To go on tour and to get to play it for people, and with people, has been really cool.” After a half-decade of working behind the scenes and one album where it seemed like he was on his own, he’s a bandleader again.