In an effort to dig deeper into the creative and personal influences behind new music, we recruit artists to tell us about five records that they consider "Essential" by any definition they like. This week, Spencer Krug a.k.a. Moonface gives us some of his favourite recent discoveries, heard without the heavy burden of context.
There's a word that comes up partway through my conversation with Spencer Krug that snaps me to attention: "brave." It's a word he's used many times before - Krug's last Moonface record is called Heartbreaking Bravery - but it's the perfect term to describe his most recent album, Julia With Blue Jeans On.
Whether solo as Moonface or with bands like Swan Lake, Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade, Krug tends to foreground a specific concept with each release: a certain instrument, a quality or a narrative. But where those devices sometimes let him distance himself from his material, Julia's concept strips him bare and exposes his vulnerability to the world. Krug's distinctive warble can be the biggest hurdle to getting into his music, but here it's front and centre, accompanied by nothing but an acoustic piano. A piano that he commands with the passion and skill of a virtuosic minimalist composer, sure, but still just a piano. It pays off. Julia is not only his bravest record, but his most stunningly beautiful, as you can see from his Noisemakers performance.
Speaking from Toronto with a Finnish cell phone (he moved from Canada to Finland a couple of years ago), Krug is reticent to pinpoint eight albums he would call "essential." Instead he chooses to focus mostly on albums that he's heard without context, letting himself enjoy music without the heavy burden of expectation. Ironically, it reveals more about his creative process than any plain old "best of" list could have.
Rachel Grimes, "Loretto" (2010)
Well, I was online, trying to listen to see what Grimes’ new album was. So through searching that I stumbled across this record by a woman named Rachel Grimes. I used to listen to this band called Rachel's back in my early twenties, and it’s like instrumental, pretty, schmaltzy, kind of emo, classical-infused music. It’s really beautiful, but it’s always sad. I kind of got over it. And I completely forgot that this person’s name was Rachel Grimes. That’s why they’re called Rachel's. So I was looking for Grimes’ new album online and I found Rachel Grimes. And it’s just instrumental piano music, which I’m kind of into right now. So I sought out the album and listened to it. And it’s beautiful. I listen to it all the time right now. It’s something I didn’t know existed at all and just stumbled across. I never read a review about it and it’s not like any of my friends told me about it.
I did kind of look around and listen to different things by people who were making just piano music [when I was making Julia With Blue Jeans On]. But nothing really sticks out right now as something I was going for in terms of sound or musicality or production or anything like that. The album we just talked about I probably discovered fairly recently, like pretty deep into my process of making this record.
Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man (1988)
If I’m thinking about music that I’m making and looking for inspiration, I’m more looking to listen to lyrics. I don’t often hear things and think "I want to make something like that." Except, again, lyrics, because I don’t consider myself a very good lyricist and I find them incredibly challenging. One of my favourite parts of the process is to try to write lyrics that are both beautiful and have an impact without being highbrow or exclusionary in any way, accessible yet still beautiful. That's an incredible challenge. I don’t think I’m much good at it. I might be getting better, I don’t know. Or worse, I have no idea.
And so it means digging up a lot of old singer/songwriter stuff that I like. Like Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man. Other than of course the song “Jazz Police,” which is one of the worst songs he’s ever made. The lyrics are amazing. The production is a little kooky on that album. You have to take it with a grain of salt. But of course he’s a beautiful songwriter.
Destroyer, Kaputt (2011)
Or, like, Destroyer’s Kaputt. Really anything that Destroyer does, it’s kind of wacky production, but then he just beats you over the head with beautiful lyrics. You just have to take it.
I know it is kind of weird to be talking about him because he is a friend of mine, but from both him and Carey Mercer [who I played with in Swan Lake], whenever I make a record I send it to them first. They’re sort of like my musical fathers. What I got from them was just knowing that you have to be brave and it’s okay to make a fool of yourself. It’s okay to be absurd and it’s okay to be extreme. It’s okay to be in people’s faces with your ideas. And they’re both very brave that way. And they’ve both made albums that have totally flopped. They keep doing what they do and I really believe they do it for themselves first and not for anyone else. And I admire that. I guess what I’m saying is they don’t try very hard to be cool. And neither of them are cool. But I also think they’re talented and what they do is sincere. And brave, for lack of a better word. I find that inspiring.
The National, Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
This comes back to this thing I was talking about, hearing music and not knowing what it was. I was in Helsinki, helping a friend paint his apartment, annd he listens to a lot of indie emo kind of stuff. A lot of things that he has to tell me what they are. And he put on this album and it started as, oh, it’s another one of these emo albums that he likes. But you know how when you’re painting you’ll actually listen to the music? He was in the other room painting the living room and I was painting the kitchen, so we put it on really loud and I listened to this whole album, start to finish, and just got more and more into it as it was going on, listening to the lyrics. The music was really simple, but the lyrics carried it. And you didn’t want the music to be more complicated. And it was great. When it finished I was like "what was that?" And it was the new National.
They've got one line on that album, something like "I was a television version of a person with a broken heart/I was a white girl surrounded by other white girls in a park." That was one instance, I heard that line and I was like "Yeahhh!" I don’t know why, it just really sat with me. I’ve never been into the National before. I have friends that are into them and I’ve listened to the Boxer album once or twice. And it’s not that I dislike it. It just didn’t move me. And then this last album, I think it’s fucking amazing. They just keep getting better. And it’s so great to hear it and not know. I just love hearing music that way. Maybe if you’d told me before "let’s listen to the new National" then I would have heard it in a completely different way.
I just think it’s impossible to hear something objectively when you know in advance what it is, once you can contextualize it. Your mind will automatically put it into some sort of context of what you think it’s going to be, or whatever the last album was, or whatever your friend told you about it. So when you see a movie totally cold or read a book totally cold or hear an album, it’s the best way to experience any art. It just resonates in the truest way possible within you. It hits you in a completely sincere way.
Neil Young, Le Noise (2010)
In that same way we were talking about of hearing things without knowing they had existed, I was in the studio one day and my friend put on Neil Young, the one that he did with just guitar in the church. Immediately on hearing it I knew it was Neil Young, but I didn’t know the album existed, and that was a pleasant surprise. So that was another one of those instances.
Zuzu's Petals, The Fire Breathing Dragon (2013)
There’s this band called Zuzu’s Petals. It’s these kids, they live on Vancouver Island. Or maybe some of them have moved to Montreal. They just gave me a CD. People give me CDs every once in a while. But this one was really cool. I was on vacation on Vancouver Island. I had borrowed my friend’s car, and those kids gave me the CD and I put it in the CD player and it stayed in the CD player for a week while I drove around the island. It just got better and better with each listen. I think they recorded it themselves, so the production is pretty shitty. And the mixing isn’t great. But the music is this sloppy, pretty rock, really reminiscent of Pavement. But I would say the lyrics are even better than Pavement. Lyrically it’s really kind of funny, but also beautifully poetic at the same time.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away (2013)
I love the new Nick Cave. His most recent thing. I think the lyrics are great on that, and the music and the production and everything. It’s an awesome album. It’s his delivery more than anything. I think if he tried to sing some of the shit he sings in a less melodramatic way it wouldn’t come off. He's one of these artists with a certain magic in mixing what he’s singing with the way that he sings it that forces the listener to swallow it. Sometimes [you] swallow it unwillingly, and then on the second listen you’re getting into it and you can’t help but want to hear it again. Because you know, some of the stuff on that album gets almost spoken word. But he gets away with it.
Lou Reed & Metallica, Lulu (2011)
You know, like Lou Reed tried to get away with it with that Metallica record and people just weren’t buying it. Like, literally. Even though some of the lyrics Lou Reed sings on that record are kind of cool. I listened to it once and thought it was kind of a cool undertaking. But I didn’t necessarily ever want to hear it again. Something didn’t work in his delivery. The magic wasn’t there. But Nick Cave, at least on his last record, he totally hit it. He nailed it.
But that’s something that’s a total example of what we’re talking about. If you heard that and you didn’t know it was Lou Reed and you didn’t know it was Metallica, it would be a whole different ball of wax. Some people might say "you know, this is totally interesting." Some people might think it was even worse than they thought it was, just total bullshit. But at least it wouldn’t be contextualized as just this burden of it’s Metallica and Lou Reed. Put those two names together and right away people are like "what the fuck?" Like even before they hear it, "this is going to be weird." And then you hear it and, yes, it’s weird. But I’m curious if I had heard that not knowing what it was, I wonder what I would have thought about it. I remember thinking the first song was cool.
That’s sort of why I started this Moonface thing. I was very clear with the label that I wasn’t going to be working within any set parameters, because being in other bands in the past I found that formula to be creatively stifling. Having to work within those expectations both musically and in terms of membership - the whole aesthetic needs to be a continuation from the last thing you did? Sometimes two years have gone by and you’re in a completely different place. You want to try something totally new. That's much harder if you’re in a band in the traditional sense of the word. So with Moonface it’s not like I’m saying every album has to be different. It’s just that I’m trying to start this precedent. If it is different, don’t be surprised. And hopefully people just leave me alone about it.