Tucked away in the back corner of the Walker Hotel’s lobby in New York’s East Village, Dave Longstreth sits amid a humdrum media crush. It’s an odd routine he’s grown accustomed to: Over the last few years, Longstreth’s life has oscillated between long stretches of isolation crafting the new Dirty Projectors album — appropriately, a self-titled solo experiment — and then working at breakneck speeds in writing and producing camps creating songs for Kanye West, Rihanna, and Solange.
The back and forth was a change of pace needed to snap the 35-year-old out of a crisis. Despite being the lead and driving force behind the NYC indie staple Dirty Projectors since his 20s, Longstreth got comfortable having a revolving door of bandmates for almost a decade — never the same faces until singer and guitarist Amber Coffman joined in 2006. Then the group quickly gelled into a consistent lineup, and eventually Coffman and Longstreth started dating. All was good until it wasn’t; a couple years ago the two broke up, shattering Dirty Projectors along with the relationship. Longstreth ran for the hills, moving from Hudson, New York, to Los Angeles to work with the stars. But as much as he loves collaborating with the superstars of his newfound orbit, he’s still the center of his own universe.
On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Longstreth, less reticent than he’s been in the past, opened up with Vulture about the emotional toll the breakup took on him, the circumstances that led to their end (as he remembers them), how Drake’s music helped him embrace his petty in the aftermath, and why he thinks fame is such a necessary evil.
When did you start writing the new project? Was it while you were working through the emotional trauma of the breakup and your depression, or later, once you had some clarity?
It started in the former and continued through the latter. It started very much in the thick of it and not really knowing what I was doing. I was just making songs as a way of processing experience, feelings, and emotion. The process of doing that was cathartic and helpful. I finished it while in a retrospective state: This is how I felt and I want to honor it. I definitely had moments later on where I was like, This no longer applies. This is not my life. Why would I do this? But it’s honoring where I was and seeing it through.
This reads like your most linear album. You’ve done concept albums, but they never felt like they had a narrative arc in the way Dirty Projectors does. Was that the only way you could properly translate the emotional journey of a breakup?
Yeah. Pretty early on, when I realized there might be an album here, putting it in that order felt like the natural thing to do. Also, I wanted to end on a note of acceptance. I want it to affirm in the end. I want it to say yes to love and hope. Because the beginning is real fucked up and sad and angry.
If there’s no resolution and you learned nothing from the pain and anger, the work feels incomplete.
It’d be sad.
It’s a chicken or the egg question, but what came first: Your breakup with Amber or the breakup of the Dirty Projectors? And was there any causality between the two events?
It’s a difficult question to figure out. I think since I started the band when I was 20, I always wanted it to be something that would evolve – be this amphibious vehicle that could go with me where I felt like I needed to go. There’s actually not been two albums with the same lineup on it. It definitely solidified over the last couple of years as I had a core crew that I felt real good about. And so maybe it felt like the band was outgrowing the protean character of its beginnings. But the breakup definitely catalyzed a little bit this turning over and becoming a new thing again.
I read that Rick Rubin pushed you to go this alone and make a solo record still under the Dirty Projectors name.
The first musical stuff I worked on was after the tour for Swing Lo Magellan had ended and I didn’t really know what else to do. I didn’t know what music I would write. I just did work for other people — arranging, producing, writing — and all of that seemed to be in L.A. I’d drop in on Rick and play him little things that I was working on. I was really torn up about what it was and what I was gonna do, and there was a way of it resolving where Rick said, “This sounds like what you’ve always done.” Sometimes it was just a matter of playing music for other people and getting in there to see what it sounded like to them. I saw Kanye do this a lot.
Get the hive mind buzzing.
I just realized that life is not that personal in this way of “Oh, these are super-sad, vulnerable songs.” We all know those feelings.
There have been comparisons to Lemonade based simply on the idea that it’s an album about monumental heartbreak. Of course, that’s because most people have short memories. What were the album’s actual influences? Joni Mitchell shows up a lot both visually and lyrically.
I love Joni so much and I love that she told these stories that feel like weird kaleidoscopically rearranged broken mirrors of her experiences. That was a big deal to me. God, I guess a lot of stuff. I loved Nothing Was the Same so much. For me, that was the first Drake record that I got into.
I wasn’t feeling the first two albums. I’ve since gone back and got super into it, but for me, Nothing Was the Same really blew me away for its emotional high-definition way of making the case for why he’s feeling a certain way. Why he feels slighted by this person or that person. But then he’ll also turn it around and demonstrate why it’s not reasonable or fair for him to feel that way without considering what he’d done to the other person. It just felt like: Has this level of specific emotional detail ever been in a song before?
There’s an inelegance to the way Drake processes his feelings in song. Emotional work isn’t pretty or flattering. I get the sense that, like Drake, you weren’t trying to be.
I’m definitely not trying to do anything other than describe feelings, and that’s a very subjective world. But letting myself look petty or stupid, it’s something I thought about. Sitting here now, I’m not sure why [laughs].
You indirectly bring up Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreaks twice on this record.
I love that album but I wasn’t trying to mirror it on the level of specific sounds. But working in his camp was really inspiring — you got a sense of this person who was really committed to exploring his reality, telling us these stories, and marshaling all these different collaborators in service of that.
Have you and Amber achieved the resolution you sing about at the end of the album? You produced her debut solo album, so you must have made amends.
We spent like a year making her record, which I’m super excited about. It’s next level. We’ve been on better terms than we are now, if I can be totally honest with you. But she’s a dear friend, brilliant musician, and deepest collaborator I think I’ve ever had. The road is long.
There are lyrical moments of self-doubt where you question if you ever loved Amber. Did that line of thinking ever bring you to wonder if, in turn, you also ever really loved the music you made with her?
That had never occurred to me. If you’re talking about the line in “Keep Your Name,” I definitely meant it more rhetorically on some dumb shit you say to yourself when you’re feeling a certain way. I guess I’ve never thought about that.
The interesting challenge of going this record alone is the loss of a familiar female presence. I assume that’s partly why Dawn Richard wound up on “Cool Your Heart.”
It wasn’t super conscious. I was down in New Orleans with Solange and I ended up playing that song when the beat was brand-new and she liked it so much, she made some melodies over it. So we wrote the song together — she wrote all her words and vocal parts — and then as I was finishing, I got super perfectionist. There was a moment when it was looking like my record was gonna come out a while ago, even before A Seat at the Table.
It’s been done that long?
I finished it in August. I know, it’s not the contemporary style of you finish it and press send. I think, for Solange, it was important to make a super-strong direct statement with A Seat at the Table, and she thought “Cool Your Heart” was kind of a summer jam that didn’t really fit [her moment]. I think it was the right move. She wanted her simple album statement, so she recommended Dawn and Dawn slayed it.
Timing-wise, you worked on your album and A Seat at the Table concurrently?
Mm-hmm. I started working with Solange on her album in 2013. It’s been a long road with both our albums.
“Keep Your Name” was a risky return. No one expected you to rap.
[Laughs.] I cannot rap. But it definitely sounds like I’m rapping on that part.
It’s sped-up spoken word.
It just feels like what the song required. I can’t rap, but I did that part and I don’t know what it is. I went there. I wanted another contrasting character in it because the song had been sitting there for a while when it was the three verses and it didn’t feel like the whole reality. I know Vulture was not kind to that part, though. Was it you who wrote that?
Maybe. [Ed note: Guilty as charged.]
Ahhh! Oh my god.
I was surprised “Keep Your Name” wasn’t the album title because it feels like its mission statement. There’s a line where you talk about the commodification of art and you have a go at that Gene Simmons quote, “Your band is your brand.” What’s your specific gripe with branding and monetizing art?
I don’t like the way it seems to narrow our expectations for what something can be, to a kind of bullet point list of attributes that you can account for. And if it has these things, then it’s on brand. As opposed to something that’s more experiential, that requires a deeper level of engagement. No one has asked me that question yet and it’s an awesome one. There’s a lot there.
It sounds like your perspective is informed a lot by the author and activist Naomi Klein, who’s been writing about anti-capitalism for nearly 20 years. You go as far as to say on this album that you are Naomi Klein.
I became aware of her as a teenager in the ’90s when she had that book No Logo. People like to put music and art up against the dehumanizing character of commerce and business corporations. People trying to sell you shit. People trying to poison the ground and community for their own ill-gotten gains. And we keep that separate from the conversations and community that music can engender. Her book was really a moment of rejecting that. So I wanted to put Naomi Klein up against Gene Simmons, in the same way that the “Keep Your Name” video starts with [portraits of] Missy Elliott, Joni, and Beethoven. Here are these two figures and they’re not seeing eye to eye.
There seems to be a tug of war with fame on this album, possibly between you and Amber. Is that why you keep your work with big pop stars and rappers mostly separate from Dirty Projectors?
The thing is: It’s a personal album and it tells these stories that come from my life, but you couldn’t really read it like a newspaper or a journal. A lot of this stuff is from the point in a breakup where the line is blurry between me and you. So a lot of the “I’s” and “you’s” are formulated dualistically or antagonistically throughout the album. So maybe that’s Amber talking to me, or maybe that’s me talking to myself.
To a projection of you.
I could understand why people might think Amber wanted to be more famous, but it’s not like that. Everyone has asked me about that.
It’s hard to know how literal to take your writing.
I guess there are a series of questions about the interlocking character of art, fame, and truth. I don’t know how those things fit together. I come from a situation where I know every lyric on [Fugazi’s] In on the Kill Taker by heart, and my older brother’s involved in the West Coast rock of the ’90s; that music is what I was steeped in as a young person. In that, there’s this oppositional character of telling the truth and being successful, or having any relationship to showbiz. To suddenly be working with Kanye and feeling inspired by the way he tells his story, it does seem like the Warholian fulfillment of fame as the ultimate art form. Kanye’s a fast-moving train so where we are now with him I don’t even know. What Kanye is on the record is a different thing than where he is now. I hope he’s well.
But fame and art feel symbiotic up to a point. They’re both about storytelling. Fame can amplify the message of art in this incredible and very meaningful way. On the other hand, the relationship of fame and truth — the Braindead Megaphone is a real thing. There’s distortion that happens when messages are amplified across so many orders of magnitude. There’s reason to distrust messaging at that level. The truth is vulnerable, unpopular, hidden. So I wanted to set up fame and truth being antagonist in that couplet — “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame / Now we’ll keep ’em separate and you keep your name” — because they are. But then where does art fit into that? I don’t want it from journalism. I don’t want it from my parents. I want music to tell me the truth in a subjective way. So how do all those things fit together? What do I want with Dirty Projectors? I haven’t figured that out.
You played Iowa on the campaign trail for Bernie Sanders, which feels like a lifetime ago. As someone who made that kind of personal investment in a Democratic candidate, how have you then processed the outcome of the election in the months since?
I’m still in denial. I’ll be focusing on something at the studio and I’ll get into a place of good concentration, and then I’ll get up to make a cup of coffee and it’s like, “Oh fuck, I’m still in a world where Trump is president.” It feels so fucked up. We’re gonna have to be active and very fucking engaged. I think it’ll inform the music that I’ll want to make from here. We were talking earlier about the album wanting to say “yes.” Despite all the sadness and negativity, I want it to affirm on a core level. I didn’t want this to be the outcome where the motherfucker’s being sworn in tomorrow. But if the two events are simultaneous, I don’t know what to make of that other than that we have to say yes to a vision of a community that is inclusive. We have to fight for a progressive vision of the democracy. Local government matters. Let’s engage on that level. Democracy is incumbent on us participating in it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.