Music Monday: An Interview with La Sera

How letting go helped La Sera's Katy Goodman get real.

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When I moved into my first apartment after undergrad, the first thing that I put on my wall was a La Sera poster. It felt like an accomplishment hanging it in place with plastic thumbtacks. As time passed, I arranged everything else around it, making it the centerpiece of my wall. It became an island in a sea of dried flowers, necklaces, photographs, and ticket stubs. Its initial placement was ordinary but felt sacred, as if it were predestined somehow. That poster and the countless hours that I spent listening to La Sera's songs in that room were vital. Thanks to Katy Goodman's dream-pop anthems, I learned how to turn a rented space into a home.

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From her harmonies on "Devil's Heart Grows Cold" to her captivating diction on "Take My Heart," Goodman's music has persistently served as an emotional anchor for fans since the mid-2000s. On her most recent album, Music for Listening to Music To, Goodman decided to take a different approach, opting to morph what started as a solo project into a full band, by collaborating with her guitarist and songwriting partner Todd Wisenbaker and Ryan Adams, the album's producer.

I spoke with Goodman over the phone about how collaboration taught her to let go of control and why being in bands like the Vivian Girls during her 20s helped her become the independent woman who she is today.

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Dianca Potts: La Sera started off as more of a solo project in 2010. At what point did you decide to transition it into a band?

Katy Goodman: When my other band the Vivian Girls was active, La Sera was more of a side project where I could play different styles of music. At the time, Vivian Girls' [sound] was more aggressive so La Sera's first album was more light and dream-pop-y. As Vivian Girls phased out, La Sera became my main band, and Todd [Wisenbaker], who is now also my husband, joined the band four years ago. He had a really crucial role in the third album [Hour of the Dawn] and our last album. I feel like a lot of people are like, You changed on this album, but I feel like it's actually been a pretty slow transition of incorporating Todd as a main guitar player and writer in the band so now it's like a couple band. [Laughs.]

DP: Has your relationship with your songs changed since finishing the album?

KG: My relationship with them has definitely changed. We recorded the album almost exactly a year ago, and I view them now as their own thing. This album feels very cohesive to me. On a lot of past albums I've written songs that didn't particularly go together, but I feel like on this album all the songs fit together, so the fact that we arranged them all similarly and put them on a record together makes it feel even more cohesive to me when I compare it to other records that I've done. I'm so excited because I feel like a lot of these songs are better now live than they ever were … songs like "High Notes" and "One True Love" are really fun to play now that Todd is singing with me. It adds another element to the set, which is fun.  

DP: A lot of your songs as La Sera center around harmonies that remind me of girl groups or early-'60s surf. Did you listen to a lot of music from the '60s when you were younger?

KG: My first concert I went to was the Drifters, which is an old-timey doo-wop group. I didn't see the original lineup, obviously. I was ten, so I've always been drawn to harmony since then. Girl groups and light-FM songs. I'd always sing the harmony with my brother when we were on road trips with my parents, and when I was in college [and] started my first band, that was still my role. I took that [role] with me into Vivian Girls. I've always enjoyed it.

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DP: That's so cool! Did you play music when you were a teen as well?

KG: I wasn't in a band in high school because I didn't know how to play any of the punk instruments like the guitar, bass, or drums, but in college my friend Ali Koehler — she was in Vivian Girls with me, then Best Coast, and she's now in a band called Upset — she was like "Sing in this band" when we were 20, and I was like "All right." I got dragged into it essentially because of Ali, and my whole life has changed since then.

DP: Which bands or artists were most influential for you while you were working on Music for Listening to Music To?

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KG: Arrangement and production wise, Ryan Adams, who produced [the album], and Todd had a lot to do with the overall sound. They wanted it to feel live, a little more raw than previous recordings, more stripped down. With older La Sera albums, we layered on lots of things, like keys and solos, but on this record there's not as many layers. There's guitar, there's bass, and there's drums, but the guitar and bass parts are so active and they move so much throughout the songs that they build each song on their own.

DP: What made you want to collaborate with Ryan on this project?

KG: We wanted to mix it up. Todd and I are both friends with Ryan, and years ago he said that we should record together sometime, so when [Todd and I] were trying to figure out what to do with this record, we were like, Ryan, obviously! This is the time. We didn't record for very long with Ryan, but we practiced a lot ahead of time because his main goal was to make us sound like us, if that makes sense. There's no real studio tricks going on, and there's barely any harmonies on the record because he wanted my voice to stand out as very strong and independent, kind of like how Morrissey's vocal stands out, you know? There's very few harmonies on Smiths records … Ryan's philosophy is that harmonies detract from what the singer is trying to say. So I feel like this record was a good balance of some harmonies but also of just belting it out and trying to say what I mean. His direction was really great for the record, and it turned out sounding more Smiths-y than it would have if we were left to our own devices.

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DP: I love Morrissey so much, and I'm so glad that you mentioned him. Did you draw any inspiration from his solo LPs or albums with the Smiths while you and Todd were working on the instrumentation for Music for Listening to Music To?

KG: Honestly, Morrissey and the Smiths have shaped a lot of me and Todd's life and relationship. It was the first thing that we had in common when we became friends years ago. After we got married, while we were driving away from the courthouse, Todd said, "I've found the only person in the world who likes the Smiths and coffee as much as I do," and I think that pretty much sums up our relationship. I would say for this record, Meat Is Murder was the main influence, because it's more of the rockabilly side of the Smiths, especially songs like "What She Said" and "Shakespeare's Sister." I think that our song "Time to Go" is a direct descendant of that [era] of the Smiths. I feel like the whole record is Smiths-y. "Take My Heart" has the arpeggiated guitar playing that is very [Johnny] Marr. I feel like everything I do is kind of Smiths-related in my life. We have pictures of Morrissey all over [our house]. It's kind of weird.

DP: You've been making music since the early 2000s. How has the experience of being in a band and working on solo projects helped you get through your 20s?

KG: When Vivian Girls was starting in New York City, it was such a scene of friends and friends' bands. We would play shows together every week at warehouses. I feel like that punk community was priceless in my life. It helped me figure out who I was and what kind of music I wanted to play. When I was in college, and I had never played ever, I started a riot-grrrl band with my friends, and there was an audience of other bands and friends, and everyone was just really supportive. If you're trying to figure out how to get started in your musical journey, it definitely helps to find like-minded people. Making music in a bubble isn't as fun. It's better to be surrounded by people who support you and who you support. It's a community.

It was super-crucial in my development as an independent woman in the world to be in a community of friends. I had so much fun in my 20s, and a big part of that was being in a band and touring around the world with my friends. Starting a band with them was one of the best things that I ever did. I have no regrets. I learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I'm really grateful for all of the musical experiences and relationships that I've made.

DP: The lyrics on this album felt less veiled than those on earlier albums, especially on songs like "One True Love" and "It's Too Late." Was it difficult to be more open in your songwriting?

KG: Lyrically I've become a lot more honest and direct. On this record especially, I've learned that people like that. I'm a pretty shy person in general, but I say things on this record that I would be embarrassed to say to the people that the songs are about, and it was really freeing to just say what I mean and be really clear about it. A lot of these stories on the record are fictionalized stories based on real-life experiences that I've had, and I've never done that before. A lot of my lyrics in the past were really abstract and kind of poetic and sounded [good] with the music, but in this case I feel like I'm way more proud of the lyrics on this record than I've ever been of anything that I've done. I'm going to try to take it from there and keep going in that direction in the future.

I learned about giving up control because I not only had Todd as my songwriting partner now, but we also had Ryan as our producer, who was really taking the reins in the studio, so I learned how to create the songs, write the songs to the best of my ability, and to let go and see what happens. When you do that in your creative life, it's really threatening and scary, but I feel like that's when some of the best results occur, when you let go and learn to stop micro-managing and just let people do what they're good at. And Todd and Ryan are very talented musicians, and I put my trust in them. I love the record that we all made together.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter. 

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