At the height of lockdown, SG Lewis did something unusual for an artist, even by pandemic standards: He finished his first full-length studio album, then immediately began making his second.
On a Zoom call two days before the 2022 Christmas holiday, Lewis admits with a laugh that he always intended to take a break from producing after wrapping that debut, 2021’s times, acknowledging that traditional touring cycles would “almost dictate a break from the studio anyway.”
But neither touring nor anything else in that period were traditional. If they had been, Lewis’ latest, AudioLust & HigherLove, simply “never would’ve been made.” Out Friday (Jan. 27) via Astralwerks after a six-month rollout, the sophomore album is one Lewis says he “just had to make — not just conceptually or lyrically, but as a singer-songwriter, because there was always that kind of question mark over that side of what I do.”
The process was fruitful, with Lewis (managed by Grant Motion of Motion Management) recently appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and on the announced lineup for this April’s Coachella festival, in addition to headlining shows at the Brooklyn Mirage and The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
“There was a lot of ground to cover and we needed the timeline to allow us to hit all these touchpoints,” Astralwerks President Toby Andrews tells Billboard. “In addition to that, we felt the album had a lot to offer fans with different features and themes, so we wanted a chance to showcase as much of the great music on the album as possible in the run-up.”
That Lewis, 28, questioned how he could unite what prior to the making of AudioLust &HigherLove existed as two relatively discrete parts of himself — one part producer (he calls production his “comfort zone”) and one part singer-songwriter — reflects the sense of introspection that not only informs this album, but distinguishes it from his debut.
Released in February of 2021, times, was a concept album born from Lewis’ study of the late ‘70s in New York and the rise of disco — inspired in part by Tim Lawrence’s text, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Music Culture, 1970-1979. Despite being released during clubland’s pandemic-era dark night of the soul, times won him high praise, hitting No. 11 on Billboard‘s Dance/Electronic Albums chart and raising his profile, even as he was stuck promoting it from his living room.
“My life was very uneventful,” he recalls. “I would close the laptop and go and sit in the TV room.”
It’s reasonable then that while times looked back at a past decade, AudioLust & HigherLove gazes inward, operating from a decidedly “internal, personal” place — “a more complicated vantage point from which to work” he says.
“Something I learned in the creation of this album is that it’s a lot easier to point to other people and eras and styles and be like, ‘Look at this, isn’t this great?’ and to present it to people through your lens. But to turn the lens on yourself and be like, ‘This is what’s going on’ is actually a more difficult thing to do, for me personally. I’ve never been an oversharer.”
As a dichotomous study of love, AudioLust & HigherLove certainly calls for a new level of confession. AudioLust, “is the darker, lusty, infatuated, short-lived and ego-driven version of love,” Lewis says. The album’s second half
is “a much deeper, actualized and fulfilled version of love,” which begins with track nine, “Epiphany.”
The LP’s theme materialized arrived subconsciously and somewhat slowly as Lewis did something many others were also doing during the pandemic: taking stock of their interpersonal relationships, both platonic and romantic.
“With the nature of my work and travel and how crazy the last few years had been, I hadn’t had any time to reflect on personal relationships, and I just started to think about patterns and the way that not only myself — but how we all interact in love and relationships,” he says. “I just started to divide [them] into these two worlds.”
It feels like there’s more to the story to which he alludes, but Lewis, at once candid and coy, does not volunteer specifics, instead redirecting towards the general. “I noticed that even in pop culture and music and movies, there were two versions of love and romance: one of them being sort of rushed and toxic and lust-orientated, and the other being a very actualized, fulfilled romantic version of it.”
Lewis acknowledges that the question of “Why concept records?” seems to follow him. AudioLust & HigherLove is his third conceptually driven project. Long before times was even an idea, he experimented with concept via his Dusk, Dark, Dawn series, on which he captured the sound and feel of an evening out via phases chronicled across three EPs. Released between 2018 and 2019, this triptych yielded early fan favorites like “Hurting” (featuring AlunaGeorge) and “Throwaway” with Clairo. (The former hit its apex on the Dance/Mix Show Airplay chart at No. 9, where it stayed for a total of 20 weeks.)
Lewis says he “finds it very difficult to finish a project without a set concept,” adding that grouping 12 or so songs with no common thread is “more of a crazy concept” to him by comparison.
To suss out AudioLust & HigherLove’s conceptual bent, he played the role of spectator to his own work. “It was really just sitting there and waiting for that thing to appear,” he recalls. “I would say I was maybe halfway through before I really had the concept dialed and was like, ‘Okay, here’s what is happening in front of me.’”
This clarity cracked open the previously “purely internalized” writing process, paving the way for Lewis to begin categorizing music based on feeling — and later, to open the door to an intimate number of artist features, with the album’s five guests including Tove Lo (their collab “Call on Me” also surfaces on the Swedish songstress’ 2022 studio album, Dirt Femme), Charlotte Day Wilson and Channel Tres (memorable for his appearance on “Impact,” from times), with Ty Dolla $ign and Lucky Daye (who previously lent his vocals to times’ “Feed The Fire”) rounding out the short-for-a-dance-album guest list.
For context, Lewis sang on only four of times’ 10 songs, at the time of the album’s release saying this work helped him understand how to use his voice as an instrument. The experience was not for naught — of AudioLust & HigherLove’s 15 tracks, Lewis sings on the 10 that do not feature another vocalist or are not purely instrumental.
Writing the new record has inspired reflection of binaries beyond love and lust: SG Lewis, the artist, and Sam Lewis, as he’s known when the lights go up. Via Zoom, both are unassuming and approachable, warm and receptive without being glib.
When the conversation turns to more personal matters (the stuff of Sam’s world), SG is open but reticent: He gets to take some time off for the holidays, mentioning only that he and his girlfriend will fly to London to see his family. If Sam wears his heart on his sleeve, as he seems to, SG is its arbiter. This is where the boundary between performer and person is clearest.
Yet, despite SG’s efforts to draw a line between these two parts of himself, it invariably still blurs, making Sam’s acute self-awareness, deeply feeling nature, high emotional intelligence, sharp wit and wry sense of humor apparent. (“The best part about DJing a party is that my socially anxious ass doesn’t have to talk to anyone,” he tweeted at the start of January).
The dynamic between SG and Sam also called for a system of lyrical checks and balances during the writer process of AudioLust &Higherlove. The process instilled him with a “fascination” and a “newfound sort of respect for singer-songwriters whose craft is to bear their soul lyrically.” “It’s a huge thing to share with people,” he adds, gesturing (naturally, some might say) to Taylor Swift.
Considering this aim, it doesn’t hurt that AudioLust & HigherLove is heavily influenced by yacht rock, that famously breezy and often confessional brand of soft rock popularized by artists like The Doobie Brothers, Toto and Steely Dan. Songs with the classification tend to be light and laid-back, polished and generally upbeat, without putting on airs or taking things too seriously.
The genre’s “commitment to delivering the sentiment of a song” and “full commitment to grand statements” appealed to Lewis, who sought to lyrically emulate this say-it-with-your-chest ethos. This strategy yields intensely vulnerable songs professing feelings that can be difficult to verbalize: I can’t stop thinking about you, I’m falling in love with you, our flame is dying, it’s over.
“You take a chorus from something like Toto’s ‘Africa’ and it’s just soaring and arms out, it’s very proclamative,” he says. “‘Lifetime’ is kind of like that, it’s a very heart-on-sleeve love song. I think I would’ve been scared of something that outwardly expressive in the past, out of the fear of someone being like, ‘Ooh, that’s a lot,’ or ‘Wow, that’s a corny thing to say.’”
AudioLust & HigherLove writing sessions were hosted at two residential recording studios in the U.K.: Decoy Residential, set in the verdure of the Suffolk countryside, and Angelic Recording Studio, perched on a rural hill 90 minutes outside of London. Lewis likens these residential experiences to academies for professional soccer players, where “everything that isn’t swinging their leg at the ball and getting better at that is taken care of” — food, laundry and everything in between.
AudioLust & HigherLove was crafted over six one-month stints at these studios, which he shared with keyboardist Ruben James, guitarist Jay Mooncie and co-writer Ed Drewett. (Andrews of Astralwerks notes the “demand for the world that [Lewis] inhabits — that bridges the alternative, electronic and pop space, along with acts like Bob Moses, ZHU and even RÜFÜS DU SOL – puts electronic music and the areas that surround it in the U.S. at a really exciting stage.”)
In sessions, Lewis refrained from touching his laptop until they’d made something potent, but not production-heavy. This approach would absorb most of the day and is the reason why AudioLust & HigherLove comprises mostly audio and analogue sounds, with very few software instruments.
“We would make music for 14 hours, minus eating and just conversation and other things,” he says.
“Sometimes we’d finish at 10:00 p.m. and other times, we’d finish at 5:00 a.m., depending on whether the magic had kind of appeared. There really wasn’t much else going on.”
Between sessions, Lewis found release in two complementary pastimes: fishing and drinking whiskey. With the rod he’d purchased upon arriving at the studio in one hand and a bottle in the other, he’d head out to the lake next to the studio and catch fish. (He always threw them back.)
“I think at first the engineers thought I was mental,” he recalls, “and then after a while, they got into it and started joining me.”
It’s not been lost on Lewis that the experience of crafting AudioLust & HigherLove in these rural-but-intense settings was also rare and special. He can’t imagine it happening again anytime soon, for understandably, it would require him to hit the pause button on just about everything now happening in his life.
Suffice to say, he caught something good.