Record of the Week: Lucius’ ‘Second Nature’

Hear a portion of my interview with Jess Wolfe of Lucius.

On Second Nature, Lucius’ first collection of all-new, recorded material since 2016’s Good Grief, the band fronted by songwriters and vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holli Laessig has gone full disco-pop. Produced by Dave Cobb and Brandi Carlile and united by glittery dance floor beats, the 10 tracks pull listeners’ attention toward relationships’ bitter endings and the intoxication of new love alike. As ever, the glorious, close harmonies of chosen sisters Wolfe and Laessig are at the heart of it. 

Highlights include lead single “Next To Normal,” featuring spacey/sexy “oooooooohs” and lyrics celebrating human connections that bring us closer to ourselves. The ballad “24,” which Wolfe told me was one of her favorites on the record, begins a capella and stays sonically sparse to elevate their otherworldly voices as they deliver lines like “You’re the heart attack I’m used to; It’s hard to breathe without you in my chest.” “Heartbursts” recalls Wilson Phillips’ ‘80s bopping and swaying with a sweetness. The funky but bright “Tears In Reverse” combines what were originally two separate song ideas; Carlile, herself a widely celebrated songwriter, encouraged Lucius to merge the verse of one with the chorus of another, and it worked better than the band anticipated.

Wolfe said that the pandemic-era songs are meant to move the bodies of people who’ve been cooped up, down and out, maybe isolated and aching for liberation — the kind of liberation that comes from dressing up and dancing, even if you’re dancing around your existential dread, your awareness of the darkness (see: “Dance Around It”). “[Cobb] wanted to make a dance record [and] we trusted his vision,” Wolfe explained, adding that she and Laessig brought more than 60 song ideas to the table after a most prolific songwriting period. That’s how they’d spent their time off the road, a welcomed slowdown after two enormous world tours supporting classic psych-rock legend Roger Waters. 

The past several years were a whirlwind for the Lucius vocalists. They’re weren’t only singing back-up for Waters — other heroes and peers tapped them for all sorts of diverse projects. They recently paid tribute to Joni Mitchell at the MusiCares Person of the Year ceremony alongside Carlile, John Legend, Yola and others. In just the past year, Wolfe’s and Laessig’s names have appeared in liner notes for records by The War on Drugs, The Killers and Sheryl Crow. Wolfe said that all of that guesting with other artists is good for Lucius too, because it “brings us to our own music with a new set of eyes, which I think is the whole point.”

Whether dancing around things or pushing right through, Lucius stuns with their synchronized voices and synth sounds on Second Nature, which makes me want to hear the other 55 songs that didn’t make the cut. The band plays Ryman Auditorium on Saturday, May 14.

On the Record: A Q&A With Jess Wolfe of Lucius

Celia Gregory: So pumped. I’ve got Jess Wolfe of Lucius here at 90.ONE WNXP because their new record Second Nature is our Record of the Week here on Nashville’s Music Experience. And you’re actually in Nashville right now, so thanks for coming up to our studio.

Jess Wolfe: So excited to be here.

CG: And are you so excited about the new record?

JW: Yeah, I can’t believe it’s here.

CG: Because it’s been a long time in the making?

JW: Yeah. And I just feel like time has been so warped and all of a sudden you open the door and you’re blinded by the light, in the best way. Like, you just want to feel it; you want to bask in it. But it’s also a little shocking: “Oh, it’s here now, we’re going to do the damn thing.”

CG: Tell me about writing these songs. Were most of them completed before quarantine or during?

JW: Most of them were during. We had gotten off tour with Roger Waters, who we were touring with for three years actually, so we knew we were going in to write. Actually we came out to Nashville to write with a couple writers, and while we were here, we were watching the news and pandemic slash lockdown was announced, so we had to leave our first writing moment in early March, not knowing at that time what was about to happen. And it’s weird to say it, but we sort of needed the time away from distractions to deal with feelings, to actually sit in it all and focus for a moment. And it ended up being a much bigger moment than we all anticipated. But we did make the most of it.

CG: Aside from not being able to come back here as often and travel to co-write, you and your bandmates, especially you and Holli, are very close and collaborate all the time, right? I mean, you can hear it in the songs. I think what is so special about your sound is the close harmonies when I’m like, “Wait, which one is that?” I can’t pick it out. But that reflects the closeness you two have, right? Like a chosen sisterhood that comes through in the music.

JW: Yeah, we’ve been singing together now for 17 years, which is crazy. We’ll listen back to a recording and not remember who is singing.

CG: Oh, even you can’t discern?

JW: It’s not infrequent. [Laughs.] But yeah, there is a very close sisterhood in writing and in voice. I feel very lucky to have that, especially because we are witnesses to each other’s lives on the road. We’re best friends, obviously business partners, bandmates, so to watch and witness each other’s lives in this close way that we do, and then be able to go into a writing room and sort of dissect our experiences together, it’s a very unique thing. You really are able to get the perspective of somebody who’s been there.

CG: And both of you have been through some heavy-hitting transitions: divorce, new parenthood, a pandemic. And it’s all in this record, but embedded with these great beats and this hopeful tone. And it’s not linear. Lyrically and thematically, you jump from the intoxication of new love to the death of old love. When you were assembling the tracks, was that conscious?

JW: Not necessarily, like, the order of events. That’s how life is. It isn’t linear. I mean, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know until you’re in a divorce, even though it might have been a long time coming or might have been necessary, until you pull the Band-Aid off and actually go through with it, you don’t know what your feelings are going to be or how you’re going to cope, you know? And then exploring new relationships and love. There’s a lot to dissect.

CG: In the song “Next to Normal,” “High without the paranoia” is one of my favorite lyrics of the year so far. It’s like this high that you’re on, but it seems like that’s really authentic to your experience.

JW: Yeah, and I think it’s also just like finding your tribe. That song in particular is sort of like a friend anthem, even for Holli and me, finding someone who has a unique perspective on life or who sees you for who you are and you see them for who they are, and you champion that.

CG: You mentioned ripping the Band-Aid off. “Dance Around It” is so much fun. And yet when you hear the lyrics, it’s really about avoiding connection with a partner, when you know that it’s fizzling out and you’re just dancing around it: “A whole lot of space with nowhere to run.” Wow. Meanwhile, the video you made is a super celebration of your fans, and with your friends Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile.

JW: Also my mom.

CG: Why did you guys decide to do that? Have you really been missing your fans and this for a long time away from performing?

JW: Yeah, I think that “Dance Around It” particularly was sort of like the anchor of the record. We knew we had a lot of heavy things to sort of dive into, but we also felt this urge not just to connect, but to feel alive and to feel some joy somewhere. How can we help one another out in seeking that feeling? It really sort of inspired the direction of the record. I mean, the song is obviously in some ways about avoidance, but we’re not avoiding talking about anything in the record. I think we just want to do it in a way that’s like, “OK, how am I going to deal with this intense feeling or this intense moment? I’d rather do it in a way that somehow tries to lift me up through talking about it.”

When the pandemic started, we were trying to find ways to connect with our fans. And one of the ways we did that, like many others, was through Instagram Live and finding little activities to do together. And we were doing these open mic sessions on Instagram Live and actually hundreds of people would sign up to sing or to tell a joke or to read a poem or whatever it was. And it felt really cathartic and really beautiful. It was a joyful experience. Another activity we did was this disco night where everybody could submit songs to the playlist. It was called Jukebox. It’s this app, and you can be listening to the same playlist at the same time. So everybody had two devices. One was with a muted Zoom call so we could see each other, and the other was with Jukebox, so we could hear everything at the same time. So we were creating this dance party in our own living rooms and seeing each other. And that was truly the inspiration for the “Dance Around It” video. We wanted to bring everybody together. They each got a snippet of the song, supremely sped up or slowed down, and they only got a moment of the song. So they didn’t actually know what the song sounded like until we delivered the final product, which is really cool.

CG: Have you found that you’re experiencing the higher highs and maybe lower lows in these last music-making years? How did the confessional lyrical style help you funnel your emotions about how everything was going down? Was there stuff that you left out because it was far too personal?

JW: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we wrote a lot of songs. I think in the end it was just what was the strongest, both lyrically as a group of songs and as a landscape. There was nothing left out. We wrote, like, 65 songs in the first few months of pandemic, and then I think we were like, “OK, we got the record. There are at least ten in here.”

Our approach to this record was very different than previous ones, strangely sort of juxtaposed against the time, when we were all in this very slow-moving, weird, warped moment. But we wanted the record process to be not precious and to move with a swiftness, to still have attention to detail, but without being, again, too precious about it. We wanted to feel the urgency of it.

CG: How did introducing Dave Cobb and Brandi Carlile into the mix push your thinking about some of these songs? Do you have an example of “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought to do that, but I’m really glad they suggested it”?

JW: Yes. First of all, the two of them as a duo are so strong and dynamic and they’ve worked together for so many years and they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I think they were really able to bring out the best in what it is that we do. We had two songs, two demos, that we had sent that Brandi thought could be a combined song. It ended up making the record as “Tears in Reverse.” Originally, it was a song called “Turn Into Love,” which we wrote with Lori McKenna, and the song “Tears in Reverse” we wrote with Trent Dabbs, who lives in Nashville. She really felt like the verse of “Tears in Reverse” needed the chorus of “Turn Into Love.” At first I was really not convinced, but you’ve got to trust somebody like Brandi Carlile. You have her in your corner. And she had a very strong feeling about it. And once we sat with it and sort of worked on the arrangement and sang it out loud, it did feel like the right mash-up.

CG: I love “Heartbursts.” I feel like it’s like spacey pop, but then sounds almost like Wilson Phillips, like the ‘80s. I love that joy that’s coming through. What’s been bringing you joy musically, not just in the making of this record, but personally through your transitions? What kind of sounds are you drawn to as a listener right now?

JW: I guess anything that doesn’t, at this moment in time, make me want to sink back into negative, difficult moments. I just want to live. I just want to feel good. I want to move my body. I want to be around other people moving their bodies. I think it’s really, for me, about the groove. And that was very intentional from the beginning of the record as well with Dave. He wanted to make a dance record, he wanted to make a disco record, which you wouldn’t think Dave Cobb at RCA would want to make a disco record, but he had a vision and we loved the sort of unexpectedness of that.

CG: It meets the moment. I think everybody wants to move their bodies right now. It’s a fun record.

JW: I love “Heartbursts,” too. It’s one of my favorites.

CG: I can’t wait to see it live at the Ryman Auditorium. Are you excited about touring again?

JW: So excited to get in front of an audience and again, bring these songs to life and actually feel people’s energy and movement with them. There’s going to be so much sparkle and so much movement and hopefully joy in that in that room. And obviously playing the Ryman, I mean, it’s a dream come true.

CG: It’s my happy place.

JW: My mom and dad are coming. It’s going to be good.

CG: And speaking of performance, I got to see you on one of the Roger Waters tours. Talk about production and you channeling all of your gifts into this timeless music, some of the best recorded music of all time. And of course, Roger Waters entrusting you two with those vocals. What did you learn through that experience that, now that you’re going back on a headlining tour with new music, you’re hoping to remember and tap back into?

JW: Roger is the king of rock ‘n’ roll theater. He is the one who really invented what production looks like, especially at a time when it was really challenging to do something like that and really dangerous and really expensive. Not that it’s not still very expensive to do anything like that, but at the time it just had never been done before: these tricks and explosions and incredible visuals were not something that traveled. The way that he thinks about every moment of the show and the way that he brings that to life, there is no missed moment. He would arrive at soundcheck every day with notes on the show from the previous night, notes musically, visually, aurally. I mean, he would watch the show every night after.

CG: Like, sports tape?

JW: Yeah, like Prince did. I mean, he was so dedicated in every way and cared.

CG: Which you might not expect if you’re the centerpiece of a production, that you’d also be the director that’s making sure everybody else meets their mark.

JW: From every angle. He’s been doing it a long time. At at some point you’re like, “Oh, it’s fine,” right? But not for him. He never settles. Never. Not till the last very last show on tour. It was a wonderful learning experience and the way that this massive audience is just there with baited breath and it’s the soundtrack to their lives. It’s so important, especially in a place like South and Central America, where a lot of the people going to that show saved for an entire year to buy that ticket. The passion and the intensity and the care for being there was so palpable and I’ll never forget it. It was an incredible journey we all took together.

CG: For better or for worse, but I think for better, that’s how many folks are experiencing live music of all kinds right now. Every show is like the best show they’ve ever been to because they were afraid they would never see a show again.

JW: Yeah, and people are giving more because they’re not taking for granted the fact that we’re actually in front of people again.

CG: I want to speak one more time about collaborations, because you, you and Holli especially, are called on often. So between the albums you’ve released as Lucius, you’ve been really busy. I was thinking about our former #RecordoftheWeek from The War On Drugs. Have you all been appreciative of sort of every chance to collaborate? I know you can be choosy at this point.

JW: I mean, we don’t do everything, but we have been very lucky to be asked to be a part of the sound of many different types of records. I think that’s what’s the most exciting, because it’s a broad span of records from War on Drugs and Brandi Carlile to Harry Styles and Ozzy Osborne, Roger Waters. I mean, it keeps things interesting. It keeps us on our toes. It makes us think about sound and the sound that we create together for different music. It just makes us think about it in a way that we wouldn’t have, and it makes it brings us to our own music with a new set of eyes, which I think is the whole point.

CG: Is there any other song in particular you’d love to highlight?

JW: I really love “24.” I wouldn’t say it’s an outlier on the record, but it really calls you to listen. It’s moody, but also breaks through the clouds. I love that it starts off a cappella and it’s really about the voices. And it was the last song we wrote for the record.