What was it that ultimately led to your four-year music hiatus?
I came out of Brown University in ’99 and went to New York with the very naïve goal of saving rock and roll. At the time, I think Third Eye Blind was the most popular band, or Spacehog, maybe. That is when the Strokes and Interpol and all of these bands sort of exploded out of New York. I was in the middle of that with Elefant. I made several albums with that band and then I went solo in 2009 with an album called Laura, which really was dedicated to the woman who now is my wife. It’s a fairytale ending to write an album about a breakup and then have another chance with that woman. And then I followed up in 2013 with a record Paradise that was driven by having this woman back in my life. It felt like I had everything. I had a child, a second one on the way, but after that tour in 2013, I came off the road and just knew that I needed to do something different. It just didn’t feel right. That is when I re-evaluated everything. I put the guitars away because anyone who has ever done this knows it’s not some hobby. As much as we’d like to think of it as something we can do part-time, grabbing a guitar for me is always the beginning of a song.
And what was the inspiration for picking up the guitar again?
I had some free time while transitioning into the position with Conservation International. We moved from an apartment where I had everything in storage in New York City into this brownstone in Harlem and that move allowed me to have guitars out for the first time. I know that sounds so unromantic, but physically having your guitars staring at you increases the chances of writing a song. I went into the studio and recorded some songs with no intention whatsoever to do interviews or tour or to even release them. But one of these songs got over to Tomas Cookman over at Nacional Records, who put out my first record, Laura. He said “Listen, I’d like to release it.” I said, “I doubt we’ll tour or do anything heavily around it PR-wise.” He was totally cool with that. So it’s just really all very cool to me to be able to make music without that drive. And it’s helping me grow my platform to talk about my new role working with Conservation International.
“Don’t Go” is about your struggles within the music industry. What is the message that you are trying to convey with the song?
Listening to the song again recently, it dawned on me that it might just be my subconscious begging music not to go into my life again because all of the pain that she caused me. Being an artist by default is a pretty selfish calling. You have to put yourself first. It’s a privilege to be able to do this kind of stuff but it’s also very hard to maintain. That struggle I think a lot of artists share [is] wanting to create but also having a bit of stability in your life, whether that is a relationship or a family. So music for me was always this tension, and in 2013, I had put my calling to be a father and a husband first and that’s sort of what caused me to step away from the guitar and consider maybe another direction, another calling, another chapter.
There’s a line in the song: “Something tells me I should retire, lay my weary head down, I should. Every time she ignites a fire, I find myself up to no good.” There is this side of making a song in your boxers and being inspired and there is that beautiful romantic thing of being an artist. Then there is the business. There is the touring, the publicist, the promoting, the photos, the videos. It’s all beautiful. It’s all fun. It’s the best job ever but it’s consuming. And it really takes a toll being on stage and having to be someone’s escape for their night. It’s draining. So “Please don’t go into my mind again. You know all the pain that you’ve caused.” When I was touring a lot, I probably was not the happiest I’ve ever been. The lifestyle is grueling.
Are you going to make more music now that you’ve reawakened the beast?
I’m going to treat this as a one-off but there are talks of doing a second one. Maybe we can just keep this conversation going as I put out music but there is no big plan here. There is nothing more than really releasing music. I am just taking it as it goes. It’s the first time in my life with music where I don’t have any world domination goals. I have never released a song where there is no physical release. I’ve never released a song in the streaming age. So here I am with a single going straight to Spotify and Apple and Pandora. I guess there are no rules anymore. It’s cool.
My kids are now of age where they may be able to see me do a show if I play a show. There are talks about me doing Central Park SummerStage next summer, so there are things to look forward to, but ultimately my head right now is consumed by my new gig with Conservation International. But when I went into the studio, I was blown away by the amount of stuff that came out. I definitely know there will be a few more, for sure.
How did you hook up with CI?
I was invited to their gala in New York in 2013. Hillary Clinton was speaking at the time. It was that night that I fell in love with CI and their mission, which is really dedicated to protecting nature and the natural ecosystems that we all rely on for food, water, a stable climate, a steady income, which is pretty front and center of what our generation is facing right now. So if I wasn’t going to do music full on, which I always felt was my original calling, I felt like saving the planet might be a good second.
Have you found a way to merge music with your fight to save the planet?
In this new position of mine, I’ve been blown away by the support from the creative music industry, from the indie industry, of wanting to get involved. Karen O offered to do a song where all the proceeds go to Conservation International and the protection of nature. We might do a thing with Julian Casablancas at one of our galas. I know the guys from the National are interested. The list goes on and on. It’s really incredible. So I think music might play a bigger role in my mission to educate people on what CI does, going forward. I wrote this song, it just came out, and “Don’t Go” is what it is but if I do more of this going forward, I am going to definitely touch on all the beauty in nature in my music.
What are some easy ways in which people can advance the efforts of Conservation International?
The Conservation International website offers a carbon calculator, and that’s a good start to understanding your footprint. And CI offers you an opportunity to donate so you can literally offset your carbon as an individual or as a family. The other one that I love is coffee. It’s really important to buy sustainably sourced coffee, and CI is leading the sustainable coffee challenge. I think my last few albums were fueled by espresso. We musicians love our coffee. A lot of trees are being cut down so that they can grow corn to feed cows. So another great way to make a difference is with Meatless Mondays where you try to refrain from eating meat one day a week. And try to eat grass-fed if you are going to eat meat.