Analogue Music | Murray Lightburn

Murray Lightburn

By Matt Conner

It's all about "threading the needle."

The music industry has always come with its fair share of cruel stories—from label woes to payola scandals. Ugly wrecks at the intersection of art and commerce. Murray Lightburn has been around long enough to know it's getting worse in the digital era. That's why it comes down to threading that needle.

As one half of indie rock darlings The Dears (along with his wife Natalia Yanchak), Lightburn has been writing, recording and releasing music for over 20 years. Along the way, he's learned a thing or two about longevity in an industry filled with burnout. Positive mental health is hard to maintain unless one has learned to focus intensely on the only thing that matters: a meaningful connection with fans.

For Lightburn, that's what it means to thread the needle. It's staying in touch with the artistic heart that has something to say and focusing on channeling that energy to those who want to hear it. The rest is bullshit.

It's that intensity of focus that makes Hear Me Out such a brilliant album. Lightburn's latest solo venture speaks to important issues with integrity, a wisened artist willing to share lessons learned. What makes the Dangerbird Records release so exciting is the dazzling sonic display surrounding Lightburn's lyrics—a blend of genres and eras that dance with inspiration and invention.

When I read your description of this album, it all sounds so clear that you knew what you wanted to do. Is that typical for you to work that way, to have clear thematic ideas going into another round of writing and recording?

Over the years, I’ve tried to get better at articulating what I think I’ve made. But I think in The Dears world, it’s a lot more difficult, but I’ve gotten better I think over the years at describing what we just made and what it’s meant to be, etc. The nature of how those records come together is very experimental, and we don’t know what we’re making until it’s finished. You listen to it and it’s like, 'Oh, that’s what this is. That’s what the identity of this record is.' But when we’re making it, there’s not a lot of intention.

Photo Credit: Richard Lam
Photo Credit: Richard Lam

With what I was doing with this project, I knew what I was making the entire time. I knew what I wanted to say, because I was addressing something in my life at the time. I think my identity as a solo artist is addressing my role as a man. I know some people want to be more ambiguous in their identity of man and woman, non-binary, and I get that, too. That’s fine. but I identify as a man.

I’m a man, and I’m not afraid to say that I’m a man, but what I definitely reject is some of that stuff that comes with being a man that has a negative effect on our relationships with others. As a father, as a partner in a marriage, I’m trying to promote and actively work on those things because I haven’t lived a perfect life. I’ve definitely been dumb and said dumb things and done dumb things and I reject them completely. I reject the idea that men have to fall into certain traps, and that’s what I’m trying to promote in my son, who’s 6-years-old—to kind of be a gentleman but also not let himself get pushed around. There’s a balance, I’m working on that balance, and what I know, I’m going to pass on to him.

I think that there are a lot of men out there who are struggling with how to communicate and how to be a man because our fathers have failed us. It’s up to us to pick up the slack as we move forward and not fall into the traps that are laid out for us. I guess, in a way, I wouldn't say that that’s what this album is about, but it’s my perspective. It’s definitely one of the filters that I’m singing through and writing through.

My first solo album was kind of similar in that it was mostly about fatherhood. This album is addressing relationships as a whole—like they could be romantic, they could be with your family, or with friends. But I think communication within those relationships is utterly crucial, and I think it’s something that we take for granted.

As an outsider, it feels like these songs are important in the way that we need artists to address these sorts of subjects yet it's hard to find them. It's easy to find songs about love found or love lost, about youthful joys or experiences. It takes longevity and experience and wisdom to reach an album like this, at least it seems. I'm curious how you'd respond to that. Do you feel that importance, or at least a sense of responsibility to speak from a different vantage point?

Over time I think I’ve come to know what my role is as a writer and what I bring to the table. It’s self-analysis and self-awareness based. Not many people are ready to face heavy stuff about themselves. A friend of mine called it a brutal mirror, and some people will completely reject anything that resembles accountability or will avoid it as long possible. Never mind the people who aren’t aware of anything at all.

It definitely takes some maturity perhaps to face some stuff head on. And jeez, the growth that comes out of it can be exponential. I think this where i think a lot of the songs I write are coming from whether it’s my own project or The Dears.

I love the varied instrumentation on this and the way some songs seem to span decades or eras in the musical choices you've made. Did you have guiding musical principles going in?

I knew I wasn’t going to work with synthesizers or drum machines. I imagined a group of musicians recording in a room to tape. Some days in the studio the computer wasn’t even turned out. To make a record that way, in 2018, is a blessing, absolutely.

The addition of strings was a little more last minute. But once I heard that in my head, there was no turning back. Originally all the bells were glockenspiel. Howard [Bilerman, producer] utterly hates that instrument and calls it a children’s toy. [Laughs] So instead I ordered these giant tubular bells to be delivered to the studio. When he saw them I could tell he was excited to record them.

What’s happening is kind of sad, because everything is quantified and comparable for all to see and it’s fucking destroying the soul of every artist I know, whether they admit it or not.

What does support here look like for you? Is this something you’re putting out and then putting out other music, or will this get tour dates, etc?

Excellent question, really, because I want to tour. I am doing quite a bit of touring myself. I did a tour in the U.K. with Clap Your Hands this October, which was really fun, and they were wonderful. So I’m going back to the U.K. later in the spring—I guess in April or something. I'm doing a smattering of dates in the U.S. and Canada, but I gotta tell ya, the landscape and the opportunities, for a guy like me in my situation, they’re not making it easy.

In the old days, you could do some cool stuff, but it’s definitely more challenging. When I first started out in the business, an agent would never let you go—ever. You would never get let go by an agent ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. Now, I have friends of mine who are like, 'We’re going to get dropped. Our tour didn’t do great.' It’s like now, the tables have turned in such a way where it’s like we’re working for them. They don’t work for us anymore. If you’re not producing, if you’re not posting numbers, they’re moving on to something else. They’re going to drop you. That’s what’s going on.

So that makes it tough to put together what you’d want to put together.

Well, I mean I’ve been very lucky. I’ve managed to still get out there. People are still willing and want to work with me, and I’m lucky. But I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be that lucky if I’m not playing stadiums. For me though, I look at it so differently, because the business right now is completely designed to enslave and beat down an artist.

What’s happening is kind of sad, because everything is quantified and comparable for all to see and it’s fucking destroying the soul of every artist I know, whether they admit it or not. This fucking rat race that we’ve been thrown into that did not exist before is fucking destroying every single fucking artist. Guaranteed. Even if they’re on top, they’re terrified of their numbers going down. And if you’re on the bottom, you’re just constantly riddled with anxiety of 'everybody has bigger numbers than me.' It’s all out there to see.

This shit on Spotify—monthly listens—and then of course Spotify for artists, you can see everything. You can compare your numbers to other artists. It’s fucking depressing, dude. It's absolutely depressing and nobody knows any of this shit. The biggest challenge for all of us is blocking all of that BS out and singing our little song to that person whose life is going to fucking change from that song and zeroing in. It’s like threading a fucking needle. That’s what I focus on, Matt. Threading the fucking needle every time.

So getting back to your question about touring, I want to play everywhere. I want to do everything. As long as I’m invited, I’ll be there. And that’s it. That’s all I can do. At this point, that’s all I can do. Keep your stick on the ice, as they say, and hope the puck comes to you.