La Sera

La Sera on Singing Like a Child and Her Secret Album

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

Contributor
on 10.02.14 in Features
@mstobivail

If Katy Goodman’s first group, Vivian Girls, embodied the spirit (if not the sound) of late-’70s Ramones — pretty, primitive guitar-based pop with a nihilistic edge — her third record as La Sera, Hour of the Dawn, is like late-’80s Ramones. A great singer skillfully executing hit melodies derived from ’60s girl groups, Goodman is backed by aggressive yet controlled guitar playing and slick production. The songs themselves cover a range of emotions with complexity and nuance that is so often lacking in mainstream pop, which gives the album a darker edge — like if California hardcore guitar hero Rikk Agnew’s post-Adolescents solo work had been collaboration with Belinda Carlisle.

Tobi Vail reached Goodman by phone to talk about Stephin Merritt, writing a secret record and her new album.


Where are you right now, Katy?

I’m in L.A. I’m from New Jersey and I lived in New York, but I moved to L.A. four years ago.

How does where you live affect the music you make?

I don’t think it does. A lot of people have been asking me about that, where they’re like, “Do you think moving to L.A. makes you make, like, chiller music?” and I don’t think so. My life in L.A. is pretty mellow, it’s true. But in general I think that my life experiences and other factors affect songwriting way more than like, the actual city that I live in.

‘I’m in a constant experiment to figure out what can I get away with doing.’

Maybe that’s something that used to be truer — like regionalism or something?

Yeah, now it’s like, we all live in one big internet. I feel like maybe in the ’80s different regions were more isolated and had more of their own culture, whereas now it’s kind the same — I’m having the same sort of experience here that I probably would have in New York.

You probably get asked about this a lot, but I noticed a quote where you describe your music as “Lesley Gore fronting Black Flag.” What did you mean? What is it that you want to combine from each of those artists?

That was about the first song on the record, “In the Dark.” That quote has now been used in so many different contexts that people think that’s just what La Sera sounds like. But I was just referencing that song. It’s kind of like a hardcore song with crazy Black Flag guitar distortion all over it, but then sweet, ’60s girl-group-style vocals. I don’t think there’s an all-encompassing description. We were just trying to make a rock record.

I listened to your record a bunch before I read anything about it. I tend to do that. I don’t always like to read everything that’s already been written about an artist before I listen to their record, because I’m trying to figure out my own opinion — maybe especially when I’m going to write about it. Do you ever feel that way — wanting the music to remain mysterious and speak for itself rather than have it be filtered by someone else’s interpretation?

I mean, I have a relationship with music journalism. I like it when music journalists get what we’re trying to do, but as soon as they don’t, I’m like, “I fucking hate this.” And of course the one review where I think the writer definitely doesn’t get it will become the most popular and most referenced, and then I’m like, “Why didn’t you read any of the other reviews? They all hit the nail on the head.” Most reviews, especially for Hour of the Dawn, were pretty accurate — they hit all the references we were going for. It’s always a good feeling when people get what you’re trying to do.

I noticed that people tend to talk about your songs as being autobiographical and I tend to resist making that kind of an assumption with female songwriters. It’s similar to literature, or literary criticism, where women’s writing is traditionally categorized as confessional or emotional and men get credit for being more imaginative and abstract. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Stephin Merritt is considered a craftsman — a great formalist — where he’s “exploring the form of the love song” from every perspective or whatever, and he’s not seen as just a lonely sad guy writing directly from his personal experience. Whereas with a female songwriter, there’s this assumption that she is writing about her own life, or things that have happened to her, even when she might be doing the exact same thing as Merritt. With female songwriters I think a lot of times people are like, “This is a sad girl with a guitar,” and they think that sadness is her life, like Lili Taylor in Say Anything at the party, sitting on the floor singing songs about her ex-boyfriend.

The first [La Sera] album was not super confessional. I wrote a lot of characters. I tend to write songs from other people’s point of view. Not all the songs from Sees the Light or Hour of the Dawn are from my perspective. It’s the opposite of confessional. I’m not singing from my own point of view. I guess I’ve never really thought about that.

‘I used a lot of different kinds of chords and songwriting techniques — these are the best songs I’ve ever written. But I don’t think the reviews reflect that, and maybe that is because I’m a girl.’

But I haven’t seen anyone writing about you in the same way they write about Stephin Merritt or whatever. He’s like “The Craftsman” — that’s how he gets written about. But he’s probably just a lonely, sad guy.

I love Stephin Merritt. I love his songs. He is a lonely, sad guy. I like that about him. I was just telling someone the other day that I think he’s probably one of my favorite songwriters. But I’ve never made an album and expected people to react to the lyrics a certain way, or even write about them. I’ve never written an album and expected people to talk about the lyrics, because they never really do. The whole time I was in Vivian Girls, Cassie’s lyrics were really good, but I felt like people didn’t talk about them very much in reviews. I never even thought about that — that maybe if I was a guy, people would be writing about the lyrics and song structures. Because that’s actually what I’m the most proud of on Hour of the Dawn — I used a lot of different kinds of chords and songwriting techniques — these are the best songs I’ve ever written. But I don’t think the reviews reflect that, and maybe that is because I’m a girl. I don’t know if that’s true or not — if songwriting proficiency is not the quality that is examined when it’s a girl musician as opposed to a guy musician. I don’t know.

Do you like Blondie?

Yeah, I love Blondie.

I was thinking about how both Blondie and the Pretenders reinterpreted the ’60s girl-group aesthetic in the ’80s — Hour of the Dawn evokes the “’80s” idea of the ’60s to me. Would you say that’s true?

Exactly. That’s kind of where that Lesley Gore fronting Black Flag quote comes from — the fact that I have a high voice, and my go-to singing voice is like [sings very high] “la la la la.” So there are only so many things I’m going to be able to do with my singing voice, and I just want to explore all of the territory that I can. I’m in a constant experiment to figure out what can I get away with doing — what sounds good. I don’t want all my records to sound like [sings very high again] “la la la la.” Although maybe on the next record I’ll sing like a child the whole time and then that will be that.

What’s an influence on your songwriting that might not be as obvious?

Patience and Prudence. They were two sisters from the ['50s], they were like 10 and 12 years old and they sang songs like [singing] “I know I know/ that you belong to somebody new/but tonight/ you belong/ to me” —

OK, yeah, I know that one!

They are an influence on me, because they sing how I sing. I’ve written songs that sound like Patience and Prudence songs, because apparently I have the voice of a 10-year-old girl. When I sing — on demos especially — I think I sound like a child. So, yeah, I relate heavily to child singers, which is funny. I’ve written an album of songs where I kind of sing like that, but I’ve not actually pursued that yet. One day when I’m sitting around doing nothing, I’ll sit down and record a bunch of folkier songs.

‘I have a secret album already written that’s very childlike and calm.’

Folkier?

Quieter. Just guitar. Guitar and maybe some handclaps. Just very minimal, and let my singing take the priority — have it be just my natural voice. My natural voice is just kind of sing-songy. On Hour of the Dawn, I was experimenting with different singing voices. Especially on “Losing to the Dark” and “Running Wild” — that’s the first time I’ve ever yelled on a song, so that’s new territory for me. But I do have a secret album already written that’s very childlike and calm. But songs that are slow aren’t as fun to play. I would put that out now, but I don’t think I would play shows for it.

How come?

When it comes to live music I just like fast, loud songs.

Yeah, my band [Spider & the Webs] never want to play the sad songs either. I’m like, “Can we start with a sad, slow song?” and they’re all like, “No!”

Yeah, I like high-energy fun songs. That’s why on Hour of the Dawn there are no slow songs. I was like “Fuck that, I wanna have fun.”

Just put out the album of sad songs, you don’t have to play them live.

Sees the Light starts out with the slowest song I’ve ever written. What’s so funny is that song ended up being on Rocksmith — you know that video game? It teaches you how to play guitar. There are all these super fast, AC/DC-type songs, and then the slowest song I’ve ever written.

That’s cool, though. I like that.

It’s bizarre. Guitar shredder dudes come to our shows now and they’re like, “Love That’s Gone”! And they’re cheering for our slowest song. It’s so weird. We stopped playing that song for a long time and just started playing it again. For a while we were only playing half of the song, because I was like, “I can’t — this song’s too long and slow and I don’t wanna play it.” So we were playing half of it into a medley with another song. But as of the last two weeks of our most recent tour, we were playing the entirety of “Love That’s Gone.” The song won in the end. I couldn’t contain it.