Music Monday: Whispertown's Morgan Nagler Rediscovers Her Voice

The musician and actress talks with Lenny about Whispertown's next album, life without insurance, and her enduring capacity for optimism.

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If one thing causes Morgan Nagler to hesitate, it's the Internet. More specifically, the way an "illusion of community" has shifted the processes of communication. "People are so mean on the Internet," she says with a laugh. "They forget they're just talking to another human."

The musician, writer, and LA native is preparing for the release of I'm a Man, her fourth record as the band Whispertown. The new album's messages of empathy, openness, and the pursuit of understanding have come to be the tenets of Morgan's core philosophy. "The more we communicate, the more we understand each other," she says. "The more we can understand each other, the more sympathy and empathy we'll have for each other. That feels like the key to an elevated universe." Positivity and heal-the-world hopefulness are not uncommon for a lifelong Californian, but this attitude feels more crucial to Morgan now than ever before. "Time passes, and I get older," she says. "That's why I keep making music. To communicate."

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Even so, the playful, mysterious lyrics of I'm a Man are often hard to pin down. At times, the album conveys an existential melancholy; at others, it displays Morgan's signature "hippie optimism." Throughout, she weaves together themes of wanderlust, communication, and connection, creating a sonic tapestry of longing and love and hope.

Morgan and I talked on the phone about her new record, unexpected health challenges, and empowering oneself through empathetic connection.

Sophy Ziss: Whispertown's last release was the Parallel EP, back in 2011. How long has I'm a Man been in process?

Morgan Nagler: Let's see. It started about five or so years ago, and we had a totally different sound then. Full band and everything. We were almost through with recording, and I had even finished most of the vocals, when I started to lose my voice.

SZ: While you were singing?

MN: Not just then. I would be out to eat, or just talking with a friend, and my voice would start cutting out completely. I literally couldn't speak.

SZ: That's scary.

MN: Terrifying. So, without health insurance, it took me a while to get to the doctor. For my first doctor appointment, my friend Mandy — who I had grown up with and went to high school with — recommended her ENT. She really liked him and happened to know that he was a fan of the Postal Service. Jenny Lewis and I have been friends since we were teenagers, so I exchanged two tickets to the Postal Service at the Greek for a doctor visit.

SZ: That's the most LA sentence I've ever heard. I love it.

MN: Right? So that started the whole process, but he still couldn't diagnose what the problem was. Eventually, through MusiCares, I was able to see a specialist, and that's when I was diagnosed with a polyp on my vocal cord. They told me that a polyp is likened to a blister, and a node is more likened to a callous. So nodes can go away, but polyps can be reduced greatly. That meant surgery was an option.

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What it came down to was, the polyp was caused by misuse and overuse. I never really "learned" how to sing or even really thought about it. So I opted to put in the work and spent the next few years with a speech therapist that also happened to be a singing teacher. She's the first person who told me that my speaking voice was actually the problem! Apparently, I spoke — and still do, to a degree — in something called a glottal fry.

SZ: So what did you do?

MN: I had to re-learn how to speak correctly! I couldn't talk at all for two weeks and had to write on a dry-erase board to communicate. It was just a long process, and I've discovered that it's just going to be a lifelong process. But it's been a good lesson in discipline, which isn't something I've really had.

Whispertown has created this magical, most efficient outlet for communication.

SZ: How do you mean?

MN: I was a child actress, and then I moved into music and I'd do odd jobs, but I never had much discipline in my life in terms of having to do anything I didn't want to do. So this was an exercise in having to work at something that I wanted to do, but really committing, hours a day, days a week, to it. Even when it was embarrassing. I'd have to practice with these short sentences, at home and in the car — so I could hear how they'd sound — and say things like [cheerfully]"My favorite food is salad."

SZ: Is speech therapy something you're still working on?

MN: Yeah. But it's really hit home with me in a way. Relearning something so basic, so intimate, it's helped me see life as a lot more of a process. You always have to be engaged with something like this, and there really is no finish line. There's no "That's it; I'm done." You always have to work at it. I'm stronger and more comfortable in singing now, so that's been really empowering. But it's a good lesson for life, too.

SZ: Did it change the sound of your music at all? With so much of the LP already recorded, did you have to rewrite parts to suit a new singing style?

MN: I definitely pay a lot more attention now to what sounds good and what feels good when I'm singing. When we perform some of the older songs, it's tough to physically switch back and forth between the methods of singing. The muscles don't adjust that well!

SZ: I think it's so interesting that this is where the conversation began. When I first started listening to I'm a Man, I noticed that there were themes of communication throughout every song and with the album altogether. It sounds like so much of it is about connecting to other people but communicating with yourself as well.

MN: Yes! For me, Whispertown has created this magical, most efficient outlet for communication. When I was younger, that was more difficult for me.

SZ: Acting is a lot more of reading someone else's feelings and less an expression of your own, in a way. You're communicating someone else's words.

MN: I think that's a good distinction.That's a lot of why I stopped acting and started singing more. Even though there was less of a marker of success or completion with music, I felt so much more accomplished the first time I wrote a song. I was probably seventeen years old and in my bedroom, but I finished my first song. It helped that my friends were so supportive, of course. But I had discovered this method of communication — this ability, really — that I'd never had before.

SZ: In the Rilo Kiley song "The Absence of God," there's the lyric "Morgan says, 'Maybe love won't let you down.'" I know it's from a while ago, but I've always admired that idea. Do you remember how it first came up?

MN: You know, I think that was this interpretation of a conversation I'd had with Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett. It's just my general perspective on life, in a way.

SZ: That's so great, though, that it's so clearly part of your core philosophy, it even bled into other people's music.

MN: I think it's all about perspective. Perspective is just so wild! You're in charge of your own outlook, though you might not always realize it. And life is balance — you have to acknowledge the dark, at least accept that it's there — but you can choose to see a lot of the positive and focus on that. It sounds simple, but it's hard to achieve. There's a lyric in one of our older songs, about how perspective is a light switch in a dark room, but you have to find the switch.

SZ: Then you can quite literally see something in a new light.

MN: Exactly.

SZ: Given your history and the lyrics to I'm a Man, it sounds like you're ultimately hopeful for the human experience.

MN: I am! I would say that I acknowledge the darkness — the potential for disconnect — but I'm ultimately hopeful for us. I really am.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Sophy Ziss is a freelance writer and cat-haver based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter: @sophyish.

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