London Grammar Talks Working With Adele & Sia Collaborators on Their Long-Awaited Second Album
At long last, London Grammar have announced the June 9 release of Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, the U.K. trio’s eagerly awaited second album. The record will arrive three years and nine months after the band’s acclaimed, sumptuous debut, the aptly titled If You Wait. London Grammar fans have waited all right, and their patience will be richly rewarded.
Working with a host of collaborators including Adele’s right-hand man Paul Epworth, L.A. pop Midas Greg Kurstin (Sia, Kelly Clarkson), and electronic savant Jon Hopkins, the ethereal band has doubled down on the atmospherics for an album that’s more sweeping and orchestral -- in the band’s words, “expansive” -- with vocalist Hannah Reid’s plaintive, crystalline alto reaching for the rafters more dramatically than ever. Any facile past comparisons to that other guy-guy-girl English trio The xx should effectively be put to bed, as London Grammar claim gorgeous new ground all their own.
Before today's release of the new album's title track, we’d already had two tastes of LP 2, and there are plenty of other gems to come, including the more propulsive “Oh Woman Oh Man,” its companion “Bones of Ribbon," and “Hell To The Liars,” a six-minute centerpiece that starts as a minimal torch ballad and builds to a perfectly cinematic climax. The lyrical melancholy that was so much a part of If You Wait, on songs like “Hey Now” and standout “Strong,” is once again in full effect throughout Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, though Reid says the songs aren’t all relationship heartache -- in some places, she bemoans the state of the world.
That melancholy -- and a musical maturity well beyond that of some of their young contemporaries -- has earned London Grammar a reputation as a “serious” band. But Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman and multi-instrumentalist Dot Major could hardly have been in better (even playful) spirits when I met up with them a few hours before a recent gig in the unlikely surroundings of a Polish disco-turned-live-music-venue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The famously wild-haired Major was nursing a broken collarbone from a skiing accident, but later soldiered through the show, a stunner which featured a handful of songs from the new album, and offered the rare treat of seeing a band whose sound is getting ever more epic in an intimate setting. Our conversation touched on that evolving sound; the importance -- or not -- of having hit singles; being seen as “cool” in one country and certifiable pop stars in another; and pacing oneself on the road.
It’s been three and a half years since If You Wait, which turns out to have been something of a prophetic title in that we have been waiting a while. Was there ever a point last year where you thought, “Yeah it has taken longer than we wanted to put out the second record”?
Dot Major: It didn’t feel like that long for us because we were touring for ages off the first album, and then when we went back in the studio it was probably about two and a bit years after the first album had come out. And we’d been touring before that as well, so it was a pretty intense process. We didn’t really have much time to really write or anything, so we were -- it’s felt in a way quite similar to the first album, if anything slightly shorter. But I think we’ve now come to a point where it kind of feels like it’s time.
Did any of the songs exist in any state before you got together? Or was it pretty much start from scratch working on these new songs?
Hannah Reid: Some of them had been floating around for a while, a couple of them. But most of them it was just from scratch. And touring, if you’re not the kind of band that can tour and write, and tour and write, it does take a while to get back into that process. Because you have to write like, ten songs before one of them is good. It’s like turning on a tap that doesn’t quite work properly. So I think it took a while to get back into it again. But we worked with different people on this album, some amazing people, like Paul Epworth.
How did that come about?
Our managers manage him as well. And I think he had just said that he was into it, and we were obviously very excited at that.
How much of the record did he work on?
Reid: A lot.
Dan Rothman: Yeah, more than half.
And then Jon Hopkins, on “Big Picture”?
Major: With that song we didn’t actually work in person with Jon. I mean we have met up with him a few times and discussed how we wanted to work together. But in terms of the song, we basically just kind of produced it and then we just gave him the project and he just added loads of stuff basically. He kind of produced over the top of what we’d done and turned it into this magical thing.
And there were other collaborators as well?
Rothman: Yeah Tim [Bran] and Roy [Kerr] who worked on the first record. And we did some work with Greg Kurstin as well. Which was really fun.
Major: Greg was quite a collaborative thing, where we kind of jammed. He was a bit of a fourth member.
Rothman: It was kind of an amazing surprise, really, how brilliant it was. I mean he’s obviously super, highly respected. But I think we didn’t realize just how brilliant a musician he is.
With “Rooting For You," that was the first people had seen of you in quite a long time. That video opens with this stark a cappella thing -- tell me about the decision to return with an unconventional choice. It's not what one would call the “poppiest” London Grammar has ever sounded.
Reid: No, no -- yeah. But the first song we put out on the first album was “Hey Now,” which kind of also wasn’t that poppy either, and we just wanted the first thing to be kind of special. Rather than maybe something that was going to be really catchy and played on the radio and -- I mean we don’t really know what that is, or how to make music to be catchy anyway. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But we just love the song and it kind of, the lyrics kind of fit with the timing of the release. “Let winter break…” and it was winter, and we just kind of thought it fit.
Major: Yeah Hannah just basically wrote that song as an a cappella kind of thing, like in the shower. So it was basically like, she used to sing that when we were sound checking in 2015-16. So we took the a cappella and we just arranged the music around it. But because I think the vocal just solo is so powerful that I think we wanted people to hear it like that.
In fact my impression of what I have heard of the new album overall is that you have gone even more of an atmospheric direction. People would call the first record “ethereal” or “haunting” and yet it still had some more rhythmic tracks like “Wasting My Young Years." This one seems less so -- it’s even what you’d call ambient in places. Was that a decision you made?
Reid: Not really, it was just, the songs had a different theme and kind of a different color to them. And which always, Dan and Dot will always match that, and then it all starts being like a loop, and the more something sounds like that, then the next song might sound like it as well. But I think there are songs on the album that deliver more rhythm.
With the first record, for all the acclaim, there was a narrative about, “Does it deliver the pop singles?” kind of thing. Do you not really worry about that?
Reid: Well, you have to try.
Major: It’s always being put in your head by people you work with, but I think that we’ve actually never written singles ever. The ones that became singles on the first album, like “Wasting My Young Years” and “Strong,” it was never like a conscious effort to make something more commercial. That was just, some of them happened to be more commercial is all. So I think that it’s the same with this one. And that is difficult, because there is a pressure. But I think if you try and make something that you think other people will want to hear, and ultimately if it doesn’t work then you’ll spend the rest of your life kicking yourself that you didn’t just make exactly what you wanted to make.
It also feels like more than ever you’re not afraid to go bigger-sounding. “Hell To The Liars,” for instance, begins in this kind of minimal, simple piano way, but then by -- what is it -- the five-minute mark, it’s just epic.
Reid: Yeah I think that we could have gone maybe even bigger of a sound sometime. But I think Dan was often like, “No, no more strings, let’s tone it down!”
Rothman: It’s difficult because you’re sort of in those situations where we’re very lucky, where we have a lot available to us to use, especially working with Paul, because he’s basically got the best studio, with the best gear. And we’re very fortunate in that respect. So I think sometimes there is a bit of a strange thing that people often talk about, which is, “Is it wrong to do that?” -- to take advantage of all these things, because sometimes it can ruin what was there, like the simplicity of it. But I think we all just had ambitions to make it sound more expansive, and more wide-screen.
So Hannah, in 2014 you told The Guardian, “I don’t think the second album will be as sad.” Admittedly I have only heard about half of it, but I must say…
Maybe there are some laughs to come, but…
Major: Yeah the rest of it is pure comedy gold!
Rothman: Yeah she said a lot of things. She also there would be no more high notes too!
Reid: Yeah. I did say that, and a couple of the songs that I wrote after saying that were “Rooting For You” and “Hell To The Liars” [not happy songs] -- so maybe I just need to accept it. It’s never going to change, but it’s just -- I think the first album was kind of more relationship-y sad. Whereas this one is a bit, there’s some political anger in there. There are definitely songs that are saying something quite different.
“Oh Woman Oh Man” seems particularly heartbreaking in its lyric.
Reid: That song is about so many different things. A good friend of ours, who was touring at the time, actually had his marriage break down, and it was really horrible to watch someone else go through that in the way that he did. And so actually there is a lot of that in “Oh Woman Oh Man,” and then there is a lot about being a woman and the choices that you have to make, and kind of about socialized gender norms.
And then the imagery is quite similar to “Bones Of Ribbon” in terms of being quite apocalyptic and where-is-the-world-going? So there’s many layers.
Major: Many layers, like an onion!
There’s a tendency in some areas of music media to focus on artists who have the “cool” factor. For certain outlets it’s all about that. And I think you guys had that…
Rothman: Not any more!! [laughs]
Nah, you still do. But talking about working with Epworth, one thinks of Adele -- one of the massive talents of her generation -- but someone who probably sells a lot of records to an older audience. Do you think that your music skews older? Does it matter who is buying the records or coming to the shows?
Rothman: I would hope that we don’t care. I mean it’s not necessarily about positioning to be cool, I just think it’s -- we always like to do things that we feel like present us with a level of integrity about whatever we’re doing. We take it quite seriously, what we’re doing.
Major: And even if we were in the “cool” press or whatever, what’s interesting is going around to different territories in the world, and seeing that you can be perceived as a totally different band from one place to another. For example, like in France where we’re a much bigger pop band, and have had actual like hits that have gone quite high up in the chart, and we’re kind of less cool maybe, and our fans are probably younger. Whereas like in other places like America I find that we’re probably considered more “cool” because we’re more under the radar and that’s the way it is—once you get commercial success, the cool kids, that always happens, like with rock music, as soon as bands get well known, people think they’re not cool anymore.
So what is it about France? Because I know that you guys have had a lot of success there.
Major: I think the thing about France is, what’s amazing about French audiences is they don’t care as much about what is necessarily cool. In Britain it’s so cool-focused, the magazines and stuff, it’s almost like it matters more if they’re cool than what the music actually sounds like. Whereas in France I feel they don’t care as much about that.
Reid: The French also just love a good singalong song. But in France girls would just scream if they saw Dan and Dot!
Rothman: Well, that’s not really about me, to be honest.
Reid: That one girl went mental when she saw you in a restaurant! But in France more than other places I notice the whole girl thing. Like there would be a girl standing in front of Dot, girls standing in front of Dan. We don’t get that as much other places.
I know you guys will be playing live a lot this summer when the album is out, including Lollapalooza. Are you approaching touring any differently?
Reid: Yeah I actually think on this campaign we’ll be more careful and make sure that we take adequate breaks in between tours, because sometimes we ended up playing catch-up on the first album campaign. We’d work really hard, I would get sick and lose my voice, and then we’d have to cancel a bunch of stuff, and then it would actually get added on somewhere else, and it becomes like a domino effect. So this time we’re gonna really be sensible and probably actually do less.
Reid: I think less shows. I mean we’ll always work really hard, but we’ll so shorter spells of shows and have adequate time off, because it’s just pointless. If you over-work you end up letting the fans down.
Are the new songs even more challenging for you to sing?
Reid: Uh, yeah. [laughs] I don’t know what I’ve done! But I did it.
Truth Is A Beautiful Thing track list:
1. Rooting For You
2. Big Picture
3. Wild Eyed
4. Oh Woman Oh Man
5. Hell to the Liars
6. Everyone Else
7. Non Believer
8. Bones of Ribbon
9. Who Am I
10. Leave the War
11. Truth Is A Beautiful Thing