For Foster The People, the antidote to writer's block was hiding on the coast of Morocco.
"There's something mystical that floats in the air there," says frontman/multi-instrumentalist Mark Foster, calling in from somewhere between France and London on the band's recent tour. "Everything around us had a golden haze of beautiful, Dr. Seuss-like strangeness."
Foster decamped to Essaouira, a city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, for eight days with Grammy-winning producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence & The Machine, Coldplay) to begin work on the Los Angeles group's second album, "Supermodel" (released March 18 on Columbia) — and to conquer the anxiety that plagued him about following up the runaway success of the trio's hit single, "Pumped Up Kicks." Foster, a former jingle writer, released the song for free online in 2010 and it caught fire, landing the group (which also features bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius) a label contract, hitting No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and selling 5.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It was later released on the band's 2011 full-length debut, "Torches," which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 1 million copies.
Foster, 30, had already been traveling extensively around the Middle East and India searching for peace and inspiration, but to no avail.
"I was at war with myself to keep the fear out," says Foster. "Fear just crushes creativity, and if I let fear into the studio and into the songwriting, I was going to let it kill the artist inside of me."
But in Essaouira, with Epworth, Foster finally found an oasis. "Those eight days recording were so creatively alive," says Foster. "There was no judgment in the room — only expression. It gave me the courage to write honestly instead of letting my ego serve as the gatekeeper to my innermost thoughts. It's a really vulnerable record."
You can hear that artistic sigh of relief, the grateful exhale of a shipwrecked soul who finally catches a glimpse of dry land, on the anthemic lead single "Coming of Age," a hopeful mix of hand claps, reverbed guitars and stacked vocals. The song, released in January, jumped 5-2 on Billboard's Triple A chart dated March 29. It has sold 82,000 through the week ending March 16. Foster says "Coming of Age" served as "a good bridge for our fans from our first record" — heavy on keyboards, vocal effects and dance-rock drum-machine beats — "into a more human, guitar-driven album."
Album highlight "A Beginner's Guide to Destroying the Moon" is indicative of Foster's shift from electronic to organic textures: It begins with a hazy, stuttering sample of ASAP Rocky's "LVL" (a return favor of sorts: Rocky recorded a freestyle over "Pumped Up Kicks" in 2012), which quickly gets obscured by a massive, muddy wall of bass fuzz, guitar grunge and Foster's soaring falsetto. Instead of the hip-hop and dance tempos of "Torches," Foster looked to the North and West African rhythms he heard on his travels, most evident on the opener, "Are You What You Want to Be?" (Foster compares the album's international tones to those of The Clash's 1980 classic, "Sandinista!")
Will any of the album's 11 songs share the surprise crossover success of "Pumped Up Kicks"? Probably not, but Foster seems to have deeper, more personal goals for "Supermodel." "It was painful," he says. "I went through a lot personally on this record. But it's always more interesting to write about the things that make me uncomfortable than to write about the things I've already figured out."