Yukimi Nagano wants you to take in, and take from, as much as possible.
“If you’re just starting off as an artist, steal as much inspiration from everything you like, as much as you can,” she says with cool, sincere laughter. “Take from books, from poets, from musicians. Just steal stuff from all over the place and then mix it up to make something of your own.”
It’s early on a Friday morning, and the firebrand vocalist and figurehead for Swedish electronic band Little Dragon is half awake when I reach her over the phone. She’s in a hotel room somewhere in between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles – she can’t exactly remember the name of the town – a stop along a ten-hour stretch of road that could easily pass for the surface of Mars, interrupted only by Las Vegas, Nagano’s sage advice manifest in the form of a city.
As an iconic bandleader, songwriter, and performer, Nagano has been through and seen it all in the music industry: from contract disputes and early struggles, to reinventing her musical style several times, to landing major hits of her own and in collaboration with a broad range of artists including Odesza, Gorillaz, Big Boi, and SBTRKT – all while maintaining her idiosyncratic style and identity. And it’s clearly no accident.
“As an artist, let the creativity be the priority as often as you can, even though we all understand that there are bills to pay,” Nagano says, her voice hardening briefly with echoes of lessons learned. “My favorite artists are those who have always kept a strong creative image and their vision for their art at the forefront.”
She takes a long pause to let the words sink in, before whirring back into gear. “But I don’t know that there’s any specific thing that I would have told myself, because all of these mistakes are an important part of the process.”
Little Dragon play several shows in Chicago on August 3 and 4, including Concord Music Hall and Lollapalooza Music Festival, as well as a DJ set at Berlin. They play Washington DC’s 9:30 Club on August 8 and 9, and Terminal 5 in New York on August 29. Season High is out now on Because Records.
Brightest Young Things: How was the show in Salt Lake City? Did you hit the road already?
Yukimi Nagano: We were in Salt Lake City yesterday and we’re somewhere called…eh. [Pauses] OK, I just forgot the name. It’s a day off. I woke up a little bit ago and I’m totally out of it. [Laughs]
The show was good! It was the first show of the tour, and it was a really nice atmosphere with the crowd. It was kind of outdoors, although it was super hot.
BYT: I’ve seen you guys perform a couple of times over the years, but always indoors in a club. Is there any sort of difference as to how your show translates to an outdoor venue, at least from your experience?
Nagano: Yeah, I guess sometimes. I think when we have more of a festival vibe we change the scene around a little bit. It’s another atmosphere. With clubs you can go deeper and really jam out, but outdoors you feel like being more direct and take your moments head on. We’re heading to LA next to play FYF.
BYT: Do you ever get to enjoy music festivals from a fan’s perspective? I know that Frank Ocean is headlining FYF – do you ever have the chance to make time to see acts you’re excited about when you’re performing at a festival?
Yukimi Nagano: Not as much as I’d like to, to be honest; usually you see what goes on after and what goes on right before. But sometimes there’s that artist you really want to see and you make an effort to get to that stage.
Last time I saw something I really liked was at Glastonbury in the UK. I saw…what’s his name? [Pauses, laughs] I’m so sorry, I just woke up and I’m jet lagged, and so my brain is a little bit slow this morning. And the Free Nationals? What’s his name? Something and the Free Nationals?
BYT: Anderson Paak.
Nagano: Anderson Paak! Yes. That was really, really good – I enjoyed that so much.
BYT: You know, there was a ton of hype surrounding his album Malibu, but I wasn’t sold on him at first. But then I watched his NPR Tiny Desk and it changed my entire perception of him as an artist. It’s incredible how seeing certain acts play live can shift your opinion so radically. I’m a huge fan now!
Nagano: I have to say the same, actually. I liked that album, but as a version of a lot of other good stuff that I like. But then I saw him live and he really came across as novel and something original. I was super inspired, actually. I felt the same way. And I love when that happens – unfortunately I feel like it isn’t as often for me, because a lot of acts just play a backing track and it has that karaoke feel, you know? But it’s good to see musicianship – make people sweat and move.
BYT: As a band – and an individual artist – you are incredibly prolific, putting out an album every two and a half years on average, and constantly popping up in features. What drives you to create? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Nagano: I think we [Little Dragon] are all addicted to creating. It’s something we would be doing somehow no matter what our life situations were – no matter if we had a record deal, or we weren’t successful. We’re all creative people and it’s important for us to get that out there, kind of like eating food. It’s something we need to do to feel happy. It’s some kind of drive and I don’t know how to explain what the reason is, but it’s something we have a need to do – all of us in the band.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. It can be something specific, like seeing Anderson Paak live. It’s that “oh, shit” moment. [Laughs] When you just feel it really strongly in your gut – those moments in life can come from music, or having a conversation with your grandma and she says something that just hits you in that way. Oftentimes it’s just the lives we lead, and what we pass by and experience. We’re not always aware of what’s inspiring us and then it comes out in the writing process.
It’s not always a conscious thing – we’ve never been that artist to come to the recording session with a concept of an album; we’re a lot more intuitive. We usually start with the music and try to catch a feeling, a gut feeling. And then you need to do interviews and explain yourself more, in words. [Laughs] But during the process it’s really about the gut feeling, and it’s hard to explain. You’re trying to find those moods that make you feel something, I guess.
BYT: On that front, you’ve collaborated with a very broad range of artists. I hear you talking about that “feeling” and trusting your gut – how do you reconcile that with working with someone else who is also bringing their feeling, and gut, and perspective? How do you fuse these differing points of view to work with someone you maybe don’t know that well?
Nagano: Yeah, and it can be super vibey and natural, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s more structural. It’s weird with making music – you can have no vibe while you’re working on something and recognize that the music was special afterwards. And it happens to us while we’re working on our own music, as well! One minute you hate it, and then a few years you’re obsessed with a little beat you did, and the opposite.
Working with other people is always a little bit scary because you’re putting yourself out there in an unsafe place – it can feel vulnerable. When we did the SBTRKT thingy [2011 hit song “Wildfire”] we liked the beat that he did, but I couldn’t really think of anything, and I kept working on it. I wasn’t really sure if it was something to keep or not. But then everyone seemed to really like it! [Laughs]
BYT: I’m glad you kept it!
Nagano: [Laughs] Yeah! And sometimes it’s the other way around – I feel like we did something amazing and it doesn’t get any love or attention that you’d expect. It’s always a bit risky, when you put yourself out there with somebody in a collaboration, but I think we learn things every single time, and we come out of it with a new perspective on writing because everyone’s process is different. Unfortunately we don’t always get to spend time in the studio with those artists – oftentimes it’s just sending files online. But both can be liberating and productive in their own way. Some of the best collaborations happen when you’re all in a room together.
BYT: You have previously spoken about the importance of taking breaks from music – at least from viewing it as a job – to help stay sane and to regenerate creativity. What do you do in those quiet moments? What do you turn to when you need to refresh, emotionally and physically?
Nagano: Partly I think it’s always a challenge to travel a lot. If I could choose to never travel again but still do all my shows – I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? That’s the work aspect of it. Maybe people don’t think about it this way, but it makes it feel like a job when you’re playing late and getting up really early for a lobby call, and flying around. I think the balance between touring and being home is definitely important for us – we’ve done that nonstop touring for a few years, and you suddenly realize you haven’t had dinner with your family for so-and-so long, and you’ve lost touch with friends from home, and you live in a bag, basically.
And then I just think it’s a pressured job. When it is busy, it’s super busy, which is great. But you also don’t want it to be too quiet because everyone around you in the business starts getting anxious. There’s this feeling that you’re always trying to catch something – always trying to go somewhere bigger, all the time, or trying to play at a bigger venue; I’m speaking from the business perspective. For us, as artists, our goal isn’t to forever try to play at the biggest venue ever. Our goal is to make music and keep pushing ourselves creatively, whether it gets attention or not. If we get to do that without being broke? That’s our goal. And that may not mean that’s going to result in us playing the biggest venue in the world. [Laughs]
Maybe you’re just trying to keep your fan base, you know? Keeping your sanity is sometimes stalling the business aspect of things and being OK with saying no to certain things. Sometimes I just need to be home and write in my diary every day and take long walks. Or just dancing – I have a few dancer friends, and I go to their places and drink tea, and put on these long electronic mixes; maybe smoke a joint, you know? [Laughs] I like to be in nature, and swim in the Swedish sea, and spend time with family. You want inspiration to come in a natural way and let it happen when it’s going to happen. The last thing you want is this ghost looming over you saying “it has to be good” – remember that feeling of loving what you do, and don’t let the business aspect murder that. It takes away the creativity for me.
BYT: You obviously alluded to it in this past answer, but what do you think are the necessary elements to foster art or a creative movement? What’s the key?
Nagano: When I say “down time” I really don’t mean doing absolutely nothing – I mean just doing the fun stuff! But yeah, to foster creativity, I think a little pressure can be good, but stress isn’t good. Knowing that you have a defined window of time and you’re going to dedicate your attention to it is a positive – but you can’t think of it as needing a track that’s going to change your life.
That’s where you need to be headstrong as an artist, and be clear on your path as to what is important. What does success look like for you? Maybe your definition of success is too different from what the label defines as success. Perhaps your definition of success is simply being able to live off your art for the rest of your days. Don’t get caught up in this crazy business. I’d say that’s one of the most important things.
The second one is keeping at something even when you don’t feel inspired. Don’t wait for inspiration! I write a lot of songs that are terrible, in the hopes that one song that has something special comes out of it. Just stay at something, and write every day if you’re writing lyrics.
BYT: I completely agree. I’ve been writing about music for five or six years, and I look back at some of the work from my early days and laugh sometimes. Practice certainly leads to improvement.
Nagano: Right! And maybe in six years you’ll look back again and discover something beautiful – looking at it so fresh and new.
BYT: Little Dragon have been performing together for almost twenty years – you’ve grown up together. Is there anything you know now you wish you knew then? What advice would you share with young musicians or artists just getting started, beyond just keep going at it?
Nagano: [Pauses] OK, well I’d say definitely don’t sign any contract without a lawyer reading through it first. See, I’ve done that – that’s not a good one. And obviously, I said this already, but have your own definition of success. Figure it out for yourself. If you really want to be the next Rihanna or whatever you’ve got to understand what that takes. Or if you want to be the Brian Eno – or whatever it is – who knows? Define for yourself what success means.