By Daniel Kohn; photos by Tina Tyrell on August 8, 2012
Moments of clarity can happen at the most obscure times: when you’re in the shower, before you go to bed or, in the case of George Lewis Jr., zipping up and down the treacherous hills of his Silver Lake neighborhood at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. Riding a motorcycle in the serpentine Los Angeles enclave isn’t the best of ideas even under perfect circumstances, but doing so at nearly 100 mph? One reckless mishap and the consequences could have slammed the brakes on everything. Yet, for the 27-year-old musician known as Twin Shadow, the risks and thrills provided a jolt that Lewis desperately needed to regain his swagger.
Zigzagging the neighborhood on a 1972 vintage Triumph at top speeds allowed Lewis to realize that he could accomplish anything he wanted to, and the rides ultimately became a metaphor for him getting past a horrible case of writer’s block.
“At the beginning of the record, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get into it on an emotional level,” Lewis confesses via phone during a night off from a European tour. “The only enjoyment I had at the time was riding my bike. I guess I needed to scare myself a bit to focus on what my life’s priorities were. When you do something dangerous, there’s something that happens that makes you connect a bit more with the world, even if it’s stupid, to get that feeling back.”
His debut record, Forget, produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, was released in 2010. And while critics and fans alike lauded his debut’s sophisticated brand of new wave, the singer wanted to write a different album this time around, on that accurately reflected the problems he faced in his personal life. Lewis realized he needed to delve deeper lyrically, expressing more intimate topics about his own relationships with people, rather than exploring broader issues like God and the universe.
Album ranging from early Michael Jackson to Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy gave him the motivation to create songs for his newest, Confess, that were different, individual works, yet retained a similar sensibility that allowed them to stand together as a cohesive unit. Lewis likes to write complex songs that challenge his listeners, which is something that he subconsciously does as he records.
“There’s a setback to trying to put tons of different styles into one song,” he explains. “You can get a very confused product. But, if you go in one direction with each song and have that spread across the record, then it’s more interesting and more complete.”
While Forget was an individual project for the most part, Lewis brought in keyboardist Wynne Bennett to help him with the musical compositions for Confess, which was self-recorded and produced at his apartment in Silver Lake. And though he ultimately had the final say on the product, Bennett pushed him both creatively and musically.
During a slow day in the studio, the two had a contest over who could write a better song in four hours. The results were mutually beneficial for the album. Bennett wrote the music to what would become “When the Movie’s Over,” while Lewis wrote all of “I Don’t Care.” It was these moments of camaraderie that helped make Confess a more successful project than if it had remained an insular one.
Lewis’ careful examination of his life and re-evaluation of his existing relationships are reflected by these intricate compositions. Unlike other artists who struggle to build off a stellar debut, Lewis didn’t feel burdened under the external stress to create a brilliant follow-up under a tight time constraint.
“There was some pressure to get it out in the time we wanted it to get done,” Lewis says. “But it was good. I needed that because we had toured so hard for the last year and a half, and if I didn’t have a tight schedule, I would have probably taken a much-needed vacation.”
Working under the gun didn’t affect his writing, either. In fact, after his joyrides through the hills, Lewis became more focused and his songwriting reflected his sharp vision. Before, it would take Lewis hours to adjust a single sound on his synthesizer. Not so anymore. “This time, I had to use the sounds I was already playing with instead of tweaking things forever. It moved things along much faster.”
In some cases, rushing through an album produces disastrous results. But having less time and working on a more restrictive schedule didn’t allow Lewis to obsess over the tiny, elaborate details that could have distracted him from the task at hand. Although Confess nearly pushed him over the edge, Lewis is proud of what he has accomplished. So what did he learn from the process?
“I have to do whatever it takes to make good music,” he says. “If that means taking more risks in order to make lots of money doing what you love in a world where it’s not easy, then the path will be well worth it.” F