In the past three years, California-based singer-songwriter M. Lockwood Porter has released two critically-acclaimed albums and performed all over the US, sharing the stage with acts like American Aquarium, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, and Aaron Lee Tasjan, among others. His latest album, How To Dream Again is a collection filled with honest, reflective songs dealing with relationships and social justice. In advance of the album’s release on September 16th, Lockwood Porter graciously took the time to answer some questions via email about the record, including the story behind the songs, and more.
Before we dive into the record, I wanted to ask how you came to music as you have degrees in English and History and were a teacher at a middle school. Was music something that was always there or came later?
Music has always been my first passion. I started playing piano in fourth grade. I was in the school band. I spent most of high school playing in punk bands. In my late teens and early twenties, though, I think I had kind of given up on the idea of becoming a professional musician. I think it was only after spending a few years in the real world that I realized, “I won’t be able to live with myself unless I really try to do music full-time.”
Your last record, 27, was critically embraced. Is this record different from it and if so, how?
This record is different from 27 because I was in a different place, both emotionally and intellectually, when I was writing it. 27 was about heartbreak and disappointment, and about trying to pick yourself up after failure. When I was writing the songs for this new album, I was in a very different place. I was starting a new relationship and it felt really great – very stable, but still exciting – and I was asking myself all sorts of questions about how to live in accordance with my values.
Were all of the songs written specifically for this album or did you have some in the pocket that fit as you put the record together?
I seem to have developed a pattern as to how I write the songs for an album. I start with nothing, and just try to write from the heart. Once I have a handful of songs I think are strong, I start to think about the themes that are emerging in the songs, and I start thinking about ways that I can write songs that approach the same themes from different angles, or that help create a sense of narrative flow. To me, a great album has no filler and a diverse set of songs, but also has some sort of thematic and sonic unity. That’s what I’m always striving for – not just great songs, but a great album.
Social justice and activism seem to be things that are important to you; how did specific topics find their way into your songs and why was it important for you to include them on the album?
I would say that my two biggest priorities in life are to be able to nurture and make use of my creativity, and to do my part toward making the world a better place. As I’ve gotten older and become more experienced as a songwriter and performer, I’ve become interested in fusing those two parts of my life. I wrote the songs on this album over the last two years, and social and political issues have been at the front of my mind for much of that time. There was a period last year when I realized that I wanted to write songs that touched on issues and themes that could be seen as “political”, but I was initially worried that it might turn some people off. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s always best to follow your intuition when it comes to songwriting. I started to see it as an interesting challenge to learn how to write songs about bigger topics – topical songs, political songs, protest songs, social commentary, or whatever your chosen term might be. It’s also pretty clear to me that, at least in the US, there seems to be a collective yearning for more thoughtful public discussions about political issues right now. People feel frustrated and angry about the state of things, but many people don’t seem to know how to express this. This can come out in ugly ways, and that’s certainly happening right now. But I think that desire for protest comes from a real place, and I wanted to try my hand at making a record that reflects this feeling that’s in the air right now.
Other songs on the album deal with love, focusing on the uncertainty of lasting love. Are they written from personal experience, the experience of others or something totally different?
They come from personal experience. Like a lot of people, I grew up with divorced parents and didn’t have many examples of what a healthy, loving relationship should look like. I’m in a very healthy relationship now, but I still sort of feel like I’m making it up as I go. I think that, in both the love songs and the political songs on the record, I’m sort of exploring two sides of the same question, which is “How can I get closer to becoming the kind of person that I want to be?”
Can you share what inspired or the story behind “Sad/Satisfied?”
“Sad/Satisfied” kind of sums up the lessons I’ve learned over the past two years as I’ve written the songs on How To Dream Again. It’s about evolving into a slightly more mature, more courageous, wiser, more loving version of myself. On a more concrete level, it’s about deciding to write songs about something other than my own darkness and sadness. Those kinds of songs can be very important and powerful – that’s what the blues is all about – but I also think they can be a crutch for songwriters, myself included.
You bookend the album with “American Dreams Denied” and “Dream Again,” was that intentional and if so why?
It was only intentional in that I was trying to create a narrative arc through the song order. “American Dreams Denied” is about being angry and frustrated with the way things are, and about realizing that the American Dream – the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become successful – is basically a lie. If the process of writing this album is a kind of science experiment – where I’m searching for something to replace the “American Dream” in my own life – then “Dream Again” is the presentation of my findings: that you can find a sense of purpose by committing to the hard, thankless work of being a loving, open-hearted person .
What was the significance of the using How To Dream Again as the album title and the darkness of the album artwork?
As I mentioned earlier, the album is at least partially about my own moral and emotional evolution. But it’s also about the moment we’re living in. Millions of people are struggling, and even dying, because of the way our current society is set up, and we’re becoming more aware of that fact every day. I think that, as a society, we’re beginning to ask ourselves how we can “dream again” – or how we can create a system that works better for a larger number of people. I’m not suggesting that I have any idea how to do that, but I think that the process starts with individuals asking themselves the kinds of questions I ask myself on this album. To me, the title refers to both of these processes – the individual and collective process of asking yourself tough questions in order to grow.
As for the cover, that was just an intuitive choice. I did a photo shoot with my best friend and designer Joe Casey, and that photo just immediately jumped out at us. Even though it’s technically not a great photo – the lighting is horrible – there was something iconic about it, and it seemed to fit the mood of the album.
What are your professional plans for the rest of 2016?
Lots of touring!
Finally, is there one recent release that you cannot stop listening to and recommend people check out?
I’m really loving Courtney Marie Andrews’ new album Honest Life. She writes fantastic songs, and she has the kind of voice that can just create an instant connection with the listener. Also, my good friend and occasional touring partner John Calvin Abney has an excellent new record, Far Cries And Close Calls, that comes out next week.
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