Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth: ‘The new album says yes to love’

The band’s latest record is a journey through heartbreak, from anger and grief to despair and liberation. Is it about Longstreth’s split with former bandmate Amber Coffman? It’s a metaphor, he says

Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth has a new beard and wears an old jacket – one of those fashionable blue French worker’s shirts – the same one he wears in the video for Keep Your Name, the strange, sad, machine-made ballad that opens the eighth, self-titled Dirty Projectors album. The record is a journey through the spectrum of heartache: anger, grief, despair and liberation, but without the mellifluous female harmonies of Angel Deradoorian and his former bandmate and ex-girlfriend Amber Coffman, who appeared on a number of Dirty Projectors’ previous albums. Shorn of their contributions, the music sounds more masculine, industrial, sample-heavy and hip-hop-inspired.

While Dirty Projectors have had a rotating lineup for many years, Longstreth now functions less as a bandleader and more as a creative director, enlisting guest vocalists, producers and advisers: Kanye West’s “narrative designer” Elon Rutberg, experimental R&B star Dawn Richard, Battles’ Tyondai Braxton and Solange Knowles are all listed in the new album’s credits. Essentially, Longstreth’s just like any guy who’s gone through a major breakup, had a makeover and found himself a fresh set of cool new mates. He is alone, amended, anew.

We meet in his room in the Ace hotel in east London, resplendent with vinyl player and muted, minimalist furniture. It feels as though Longstreth would like to contain the extent to which the new record is analysed, and sometimes his intellectualism buries the specific topic being raised (during one recent interview he managed to cajole one journalist into spending a few hours flying around Iraq in a VR headset).

His breakup with Coffman appears to have happened in 2013 (when asked, he tells me it was “a while ago”, wafting his hand across his face). It is referenced in the accompanying pages of text that I am sent to read before the interview, but he has since joked that the failed relationship at the centre of the album could be a metaphor for anything from the band’s new lineup to Brexit.

The record is about the “experience of being in this band for the last couple of years, being in this relationship,” he says. “The album as a whole is not a journal. It’s not a newspaper. Even when it feels very real, it’s more some sort of shattered cloud of impressions, feelings and experiences. My goal wasn’t anything other than telling an emotional reality.”

At the risk of jumping to reductive conclusions, however, direct references to his relationship with Coffman are pretty explicit at times. On Up in Hudson, he describes love at first sight – “First time ever I saw your face, laid my eyes on you, was the Bowery Ballroom stage, and you were shredding Marshall tubes and I knew” – an encounter one sleuth traced back to the pair’s initial meeting at a show in 2006. The lyrics of Keep Your Name could be interpreted as the internal monologue of an artist concerned with compromising integrity for popularity (“A band is a brand,” he raps). But it’s the song’s sample of the refrain “We don’t see eye to eye” from Impregnable Question – a track he and Coffman sang together on their 2012 album Swing Lo Magellan – that is hard to pass off as creative embellishent. Unlike the original song, the sample omits the crucial, kind caveat: “But I need you. And you’re always on my mind.” It’s a powerful and raw callback.

Longstreth worked on Coffman’s debut solo album, due later this year, both co-writing and producing it. But he says they have not been in touch much lately.

“Since making her album … we have not been. As much. As much as I would like,” he explains, quietly.

I ask about how he felt when in 2016, Coffman broke her silence over the sexual harassment she encountered at the hands of the music publicist Heathcliff Berru. Her statements about Berru triggered what Billboard called “a watershed moment for sexism” in the music business, giving confidence to other women in the industry who came forward with similar stories. Berru resigned from his job, and issued a public apology for his “wildly inappropriate, hurtful, and terrrible” behaviour.

“Sexual harrassment and abuse is intolerable,” Lonsgtreth says. “I am proud she spoke up about Heathcliff, that guy was a piece … Yeah, a strong move. I am proud of her.”

Following the release of Coffman’s first single All to Myself – a lonesome love song that sounds like a sister track to Keep Your Name (although Longstreth doesn’t believe it was written about him) – fans started to gossip about possible animosity between the pair. He says he was “somewhat surprised” by the degree to which “the response was like: ‘Oh! Shots fired’” after his track’s release.

“I would really encourage playing down specific relationship drama because we didn’t make our relationship public as we were in it,” he says. “It’s very often a metaphor for things that I am thinking about.”

In the wake of 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth had a period of depression and was unable to write. His talents as an inventive songwriter had not gone unnoticed, however, and with the help of Rick Rubin, whom he had met in Los Angeles, he was given access to rap and rock royalty: Longstreth wrote the bridge of FourFiveSeconds, featuring Kanye West, Rihanna and Paul McCartney; he also contributed extensively to Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Away from R&B, he also composed a 70-piece arrangement of Time As a Symptom from Joanna Newsom’s Divers, produced the album Azel by Bombino, as well as working on Coffman’s forthcoming album.

Much like West’s frequent collaborator Bon Iver, an indie artist elevated into the upper echelons of mainstream music, Longstreth has borrowed from his recent musical experiences. He says he learned a lot from the time he spent in the rap world, “looking over [West’s producer] Mike Dean’s shoulder and having him tell me about technical things with the software”.

His affiliation with musicians such as West may have also led to a preoccupation with fame – its transient nature and its opposition to “art” (“What I want from art is truth/What you want is fame” he sings on the new album, and “Now I’m shining like tears in the rain and you’re shining like 15 of fame, babe”).

Given the DIY past of Dirty Projectors, those themes are understandable, but he’s not being dogmatic about it – he says the way the internet has brought down the walls that separated communities in music has made the concepts of “selling out” and credibility more obsolete.

“I was thinking about art and fame and truth and I wanted to set up an equation where those things were in conversation,” he says. “Stripping away my prejudiced indie rock values with respect to fame and material success – fame and art feel symbiotic to a point. They’re both about storytelling. Fame can amplify the message of art in a remarkable, meaningful way. Art can contextualise and buttress fame. So rather than being antagonistic in the way Fugazi would have had it in 1989, particularly in the present, maybe they are one – they belong to one another.”

When Longstreth first began releasing music in the early noughties, it came as an alternative to the stadium rock of the same period. While each of his albums have varied in mood and tone, they always possessed a kind of bucolic beauty and delicacy. The new album, however, is markedly more experimental, a little ugly, even.

“It felt like throughout making that album I was trying to make it as present as possible. Trying to turn everything up to the degree of almost unableness. Or something,” he says of the album’s more chaotic tone.

“This is a terrible analogy but I was having a conversation about how everyone says that dogs smell so much more intensely than humans, but what does that even mean? The smell is just louder in their nose? Someone said if you are cooking a stew in the kitchen, it’s not just that the smell is super loud up in their nostrils but even after several hours in the kitchen their nose would separate out all the compounds, the celery, the onions, the tomatoes, the potatoes, the oil – whatever else. A song is about heartbreak – but what are the constituent feelings? What are the aspects: there is anger, there is guilt, there are all these different things. I guess putting those voices into dialogue together just felt real.”

He is keen to stress that in spite of its moments of bitterness or disturbance, Dirty Projectors arrives at a place of clarity – the end of a process.

“On a fundamental level, the album affirms, the album says yes. To love. And to hope. The arc of the album in the end feels a little like the experience over the course of time that I made it. Starting out super salty and sad and going through all different shades of being bummed and winding up in a place of resolution and newness,” he continues, the closest to emotional clarity he comes. “That’s how I read the album.”

Dirty Projectors is released on Domino on 24 February


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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