Margaret Glaspy isn’t new to making music, which makes the accolades that have been showered upon her debut, Emotions and Math, extra rewarding.
Don’t try and get her to acknowledge the record’s considerable charms, though. Asked if—after two largely overlooked solo EPs—she finally realized she’d locked onto something, she’ll admit to nothing more than pride at having completed something that was a long time coming.
“It’s not out of trying to be humble or something, but it’s more that I was so close to the record that there was a sense of accomplishment at it just being done,” Glaspy says, on her cell from a tour vehicle headed to Toronto. “Since I’d had the songs for so long, it wasn’t like there was some sort of aha moment. And in terms of there being a revelation about it being good, I think I was more proud of myself just for finishing it. To talk about how good it is, that’s kind of hard.”
Let’s do that for her, then. Now based in New York, the 28-year-old has crafted a record that draws on everything from discordant indie pop to deconstructed math rock to sweetened postgrunge. Bleeding through songs like “You and I” and “Somebody to Anybody” is the sense that Glaspy has crawled out of the wreckage of more than one painful relationship.
As noted, she didn’t come out of nowhere with Emotions and Math. After attending the famed Berklee College of Music, the California-raised singer did time on the Boston folk scene, both as a solo artist and as a member of the old timey country-folk unit the Fundies. Her two solo EPs—Homeschool (2012) and If & When (2013)—put the emphasis on spartan acoustic guitars and the jazz-drunk vocals that fell somewhere between Billie Holiday and Beth Gibbons.
At some point that changed. Many of the songs that ended up on Emotions and Math have been on Glaspy’s set lists for years; hop on YouTube and you’ll discover a version of “No Matter Who” more geared to Norah Jones fans than the K Records crowd. Acknowledging that the version we hear on Emotions and Math is rawer and more discordant, Glaspy credits the work of Elliott Smith with her decision to change things up.
“I had to find my way with the harmonic choices that I was making, for sure,” she says. “I listened to so much Elliott Smith when I was making this record, and it really changed my life a lot. It changed the way that I perceived chords and their function in songwriting. I got obsessed with his records, and then I made this record.”
One of the hallmarks of Smith’s work was, of course, the intensely personal nature of his lyrics. It’s only fitting, then, that Emotions and Math is unflinching to the point where it seems confessional. Consider the distortion-tinted “Love Like This”, where Glaspy starts out singing “People lie, cheat/Kill for love like this” and finishes with “There’ll be too much time spent/Wondering where your heart went/Have mercy on me/Take your things from the apartment.”
Asked if she was working with some difficult stuff while writing the songs on Emotions and Math, Glaspy responds by politely taking the Fifth. As someone who’s not exactly new to the game, she knows nothing strips away the magic like pulling back the curtain.
“I don’t really talk about it,” she says, bluntly but honestly. “I don’t know how other songwriters work, but I think sometimes people would be surprised as to where songs come from. It’s not always personal, but it’s not always impersonal. It really runs the gamut—it’s a very wide net.”
Margaret Glaspy plays the Biltmore Cabaret next Friday (August 11).