If you thought you had a solid 2014, it more than likely pales in comparison to how well Leighton Meester‘s year went; for example, she played opposite James Franco and Chris O’Dowd in a Broadway production of Of Mice and Men, starred in Susanna Fogel’s Life Partners, AND dropped her debut album Heartstrings (which, let it be stated, IS FANTASTIC) via Hotly Wanting, her very own record label. I caught up with Leighton over the phone a few weeks back and (now that the dust has had a chance to settle in 2015) we had a little retrospective of her numerous professional accomplishments, focusing in large part on her music and her creative process. (We also briefly touched on the topic of dogs drinking out of the toilet, because really, what good, thought-provoking conversation doesn’t do that?)
At the time of our phone call it was beautiful where Leighton was situated in LA, and was snowing and horrible outside my apartment window in Brooklyn; judging by the looks of today we are in for a repeat experience, only NOW Leighton is about to be in it to win it with us, first at The Birchmere in Alexandria tomorrow night (2/18) and then at Irving Plaza in New York on Saturday (2/21) // if you haven’t purchased tickets yet, I highly recommend you grab them before they’re all gone. In the meantime, feel free to internet-eavesdrop on our conversation below, and grab a copy of Heartstrings while you’re at it, yeah? HERE WE GO:
So I don’t know where YOU are right now, but it’s blizzarding up a storm in New York. It’s disgusting.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m in LA…it’s like, seventy-five degrees here and SO NICE! [Laughs]
(I mean, I had a feeling.)
That’s kind of always the case here, though. Like, I remember the first winter I lived here as an adult; winter’s such a bummer for me, but I remember the when people were telling me how much it was snowing, and I didn’t even think about it. It was crazy how easy it was to adjust to not having blizzards all the time, and not being uncomfortable outside.
I bet. I have a couple of friends who have fairly recently made the move to LA to do comedy writing, and a lot of them haven’t adjusted to the LA “scene”, necessarily, but the weather is one thing that they have zero complaints about.
I know, I think it depends. I like LA personally, and I love living here, but I guess if you’re not from here then it might be difficult. (I mean, I’m not “from here” either, but I’ve lived in LA on and off for a big part of my life.) It just makes me feel happy to be here; I have a real affinity for it.
Well I’m glad! It’s always ideal to feel happy in the place where you live. And 2014 was SUCH a big year for you…obviously we’re in 2015 now, but looking back, were there any moments where you were overwhelmed by how much you had going on?
No, not really. I mean, I feel like in my work I get so much time off, which is kind of the nature of it; you work and might be super busy for a couple months straight without time off, but then suddenly you’re not working, and you don’t know when you will be again. So then you have a huge hiatus of two months of not working at all, which is always really nice…it’s not a normal schedule by any means, but by this point I’m used to it. (It’s actually less than I’ve had in the past, though.) I haven’t scaled back, necessarily, but at some point I came to the resolution that I needed to do one thing at a time. I was always feeling the pressure (solely from myself) to just work and keep going, which was enjoyable, and I think that it worked for me at the time, but now I can’t do my best at anything if I’m doing everything at once.
Obviously I did a play last year for half the year, and I didn’t do anything else at the time; I wasn’t trying to do movies during the day…I barely had anything else going on. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t exhausting at times, but that’s exactly what I needed, and it gave me the chance to really focus and figure out that particular project, which allowed me to move on with clarity when it was over.
Well, I’m sure with any project you get involved with you want to be fully focused, but especially with something like Broadway…I mean, I just can’t even imagine trying to multitask in that situation, because the performances are SO different every single night.
Yeah, I mean, I’m sure if I had to I could have…a lot of the people I was working with had TV shows or were filming movies during the day, and they also had to plan for their next job, so they were auditioning as well, but I had the joy of not having to do that. It was just an insane, awesome experience that I still can’t even believe happened, though. (Like, when I think about it I still think, “Whoa!”.) And at this point it’s been almost a year since I started it, but it really seems like yesterday. It’s hard to describe; I’ve never experienced anything quite like that, but I loved it and I’d love to do it again at some point in the future. I don’t know if I can match that particular experience or level of inspiration that I got, but I’d like to try.
Oh I’m sure! And then you’ve got this OTHER huge accomplishment, which is your record! (And it is SO GOOD, by the way…I remember someone sent me “Heartstrings” and told me I had to listen to it, and so I did, and it ended up on repeat for days on end.) Now, how long did it take you to write it when all was said and done? Were you sitting on some of the tracks for a while and waiting for the right moment to use them, or were they all written as part of a fairly cohesive process?
It was all (as you say) a cohesive process, just sort of unpacking experiences into one specific compartment. But it took me so, so long (partly because of myself, and partly because of circumstances in other work); I started the process of writing the record about four and a half years ago, and then I was going back and forth between LA and New York working with bands and musicians to put music out there in a live setting, but I’d never recorded anything because I wasn’t going to have time to do a proper tour or promote it. I also felt as if I didn’t have the time or resources to really produce the sound that I wanted for the record, and it was very bare bones at the time. But it was good, because bringing it out on the road before anyone had heard it in any other medium actually helped me to find what I needed.
And then I met my producer in 2012 (Jeff Trott), and he and I just sat and talked about my vision and the music I like, the meaning of my record and what I wanted to say. He’s very understanding and compassionate (and obviously incredibly talented and really easy to work with), so we got in the studio on and off for half a year. It was really interesting, because I’d leave and go do work and come back, and it was just such a slow process because I had a day job; if I got a movie I’d have to leave, or if I had to travel for something I’d have to leave, but I’d always come back to his little studio. Then in 2013 we actually were done with demo-ing everything, and so the whole process took almost as long as it’s taking me to describe how long it took. [Laughs]
So that was it, and then once I was done with the record and happy with where it was and just had very minor tweaks to make, I said, “Okay, I want to put the record out in the spring.” But then I got this play, and I really didn’t want to pile them on top of each other or rush anything, so I did the play and finished that up. And I didn’t feel like I “met my quota” or anything, but I did feel like I had worked enough for the year in that way to accommodate three or four months off to focus on music, which I’ve done (and more), because now I’m doing a little tour around the northern part of the States this spring. (I’m really excited about it, because I’ve done a few shows in LA, but not since the record has been out, so it’s going to be really cool to play to a crowd that’s actually heard the songs before.) [Laughs]
Well it really does feel like you genuinely went about it the right way in terms of not rushing things…I mean, I know some people WILL try to just kind of throw it out there for the sake of getting it out, but it seems like the slow burn approach has really paid off for you. Now, on a bit of a tangent, I saw Life Partners and I thought it was GREAT. It was also interesting that your character in the film is a struggling musician…she obviously figures out that that’s not necessarily the path she wants to continue down by the end, but before that realization she’s grappling with writer’s block. I know that most people have experienced writer’s block in some way, shape or form, but was this something you were able to relate to when you were playing that role, and if so, do you have anything that you do to shake it off?
You know, it’s interesting…I think maybe the issue in the movie with my character is that she’s just uninspired because she doesn’t want to do it. I think that’s a big part of it. I think it sounds fun…I mean, it IS fun, performing, playing music, collaborating, putting out your message and your vision, putting out a record…I mean, it’s been the most amazing experience EVER. The process has been so cool from start to finish, but if you don’t want to do the work, it’s not that fun. It’s not possible. And I really do feel like it’s a lot of work.
It’s hard to equate work with inspiration in this sense, because I never put pressure on myself to write, and I can’t, because when I do nothing happens, or I’m not happy with the outcome. It’s the same thing with anytime I’ve tried to write with somebody and have set a time and a date and said, “Let’s meet in the studio and come up with something.” A lot of the time it’s self-judgment because there’s somebody else there or there’s a deadline and I’ve put pressure on myself to finish it or come up with something really good. So I think it’s a matter of sitting down and saying, “I don’t care what it is, but something will come out.” But that’s just me; everyone’s different. (Some people just need to smoke a joint or something, I don’t know.) [Laughs]
And so do you feel that releasing it on Hotly Wanting was necessary for you, then, with regards to partially taking the pressure off so you could create at your own pace and on your own terms? (You know, as opposed to not releasing it independently?) It’s certainly a lot of work to do it on your own, but it seems like it’s really paid off for you.
Yeah, it’s been interesting. I’ve really enjoyed it, there’s ultimate freedom, but at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure coming from myself. I need to do the legwork to get everything done that I need to, you know? I’m not having somebody pushing me from behind saying “Go, go, go!” But that’s also wonderful; I’ve been in another situation years ago where it wasn’t like that, and I didn’t have control, I didn’t have freedom, I wasn’t being creative…wait, hang on one second…my dog is drinking out of the toilet. Sorry, I just poured a big bowl of water for her, but it’s really hot, so maybe…I don’t know.
You know, that’s just how it is with dogs. You put it out for them, and they’re like, “I’m going to do this thing I know I’m not supposed to do.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m just like, “Why would you want to drink out of the toilet?” ANYWAY, but yeah, I’ve been in the opposite direction and done a totally different thing, but if I had to choose, I like this better. This is much, much better. The people behind it (the team, the musicians and everybody I’ve been working with) and just being able to plan and do what I want both creatively and business-wise has been really cool. And it’s definitely interesting, because I think when it’s YOU, you have to come up with everything and find the drive to make it happen, but luckily it’s all happened pretty smoothly. I don’t know, I used to have a different record deal that was much more standard; it wasn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not for me.
Remember to grab tickets to the shows (Birchmere tomorrow night, 2/18, and Irving Plaza Saturday night, 2/21), and in the meantime, be sure to follow Leighton on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest news.