Before becoming a full-time musician, Margaret Glaspy had initially thought of pursuing acting – especially in the theater world – when she was growing up in the Northern California town of Red Bluff. At first, she thought that would happen but later found music to be a more practical endeavor.
“I think that music was so much more approachable and applicable because you could become a musician in the kind of privacy of your own home,” explains the New York-based guitarist/singer. “In order to act, you had to have a stage, you had to audition, and you had to have maybe more of a city environment in order to get those auditions. So it kind of was a much more organic and bohemian way to find what I needed to do, [which] was to just play my guitar in my house.”
In a way, Glaspy’s role as a musician combines performing, directing, writing and producing—and she does all those things through her expansive guitar playing, earthy and eloquent vocals, and introspective and observational lyrics. Those qualities are evident on Echo the Diamond, her third full-length studio whose sound marks a return to the direct approach of her 2016 debut Emotions and Math.
“I would say it was maybe even more exaggerated or extreme than Emotions in Math in a way,” she compares between that album and her new one. “I feel like I maybe had the confidence to make Echo the Diamond because I just had a little more experience under my belt. And I suppose that I mean they’re similar in the sense that they’re both pretty live records and were really based on drums, bass and guitar and my voice in a room and kind of throwing down in the moment. That was really the energy behind this record and it was similar to my first record.”
The lyrics on Echo the Diamond run the gamut of emotions, including melancholy, frustration and hope. Glaspy says that there is a thread that ties them together, but other than it’s from the same person, she can’t exactly pinpoint what that may be. “In fact, I would say probably a listener could tell me what the thread was maybe more transparently than I could. I’m kind of in it. So I think that there is definitely a thread. But it’s not even really about me either. I think that something happens when you make art. Some things bubble to the top. And then it becomes about something bigger than you.”
The album opens with the intense and pile-driving rocker “Act Natural,” which touches on the theme of infatuation. “It’s really just trying to act cool in front of somebody you think is rad,” Glaspy says. “That’s really the punchline—just trying to act natural instead of in front of someone you’re inspired by or you have a crush on or you adore and look up to in some way.”
The punk-ish “Female Brain” carries a sense of sarcasm in both the lyrics and its title; Glaspy describes the track as personal to her. “I could probably safely assume that it’s also applicable for others’ lives in some way shape or form,” she says. “That one tells a little bit of a story of my own experience in terms of just being in the world and being female and being on the road, being alive. It captures a certain snapshot of it all.”
The poignant “Irish Goodbye” relates the story of a guy meeting a girl at a club one night and thinking he may have found the one—only to realize later that she slipped away without saying goodbye to him. Glaspy describes the track as kind of a New York portrait. “I’ve done it quite a bit and usually, in group encounters,” she recalls. “I’m just ready to go. And I leave. I think that I have lots of friends who have either done it or it has been done to in romantic situations or in situations where they’re maybe meeting a stranger or et cetera.”
There are also some gut-wrenching lyrical moments on Echo the Diamond, such as on the moody and folk-ish “Memories,” in which the narrator goes: “I’m alright of that I’m sure/Until I’m crying on the kitchen floor.” Says Glaspy: “I think that song was a difficult song to write, but it did happen pretty quickly. It’s a song about loss and grief. And when we recorded that song, I remember I don’t think I could get through most of what you hear—I think [it] is the only take I could actually sing really. So we did maybe two passes of that song, and that was the only one that I could sing because it’s pretty emotionally charged.”
And the somewhat rootsy “Get Back” was written as a form of catharsis for Glaspy during a difficult period for her. “It kind of like a lifted me out of a dark time. “Every time I play it, I feel really good. And it feels really positive. There’s a lot of joy in that song for me.”
It’s difficult to attribute Glaspy’s sound, especially her angular and jagged guitar playing, to one particular genre—while the foundation is indie rock, there are also avant-garde, jazz, blues and country-folk elements present. Among the diverse guitarists whom she admires include Marc Ribot, Nels Cline, Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith and her partner/Echo the Diamond co-producer Julian Lage. “I think I am a composite of all those things, pretty exactly, to be honest with you,” she says. “For me, it’s like my background is kind of this mishmash of so many different things that I was making this record. I had kind of ’90s rock in my head. And I was working in that kind of space, aesthetically…I think that for me right now, I am on a little bit of a quest with the guitar to kind of understand and metabolize a lot as much as I can.”
Glaspy grew up in a household where everyone in her family, especially her brother, played guitar; she later attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “I would really hustle in Boston and get a bunch of gigs,” she recalls of that time, “and try my best to be a musician and play shows and try and earn my stripes a little bit and learn about with all that was. And I moved to New York [when I was about 21]. I just really doubled down and tried to write as much music as I could [and] play as much as I could anywhere that would have me.”
Glaspy signed to ATO Records and released Emotions and Math in 2016, followed four years later with Devotion, which brought electronic textures into the mix; both albums were positively received. She remains level-headed about the acclaim and attention that have come her way from such outlets as The New York Times, Pitchfork, NPR and The New Yorker. “I’ve had little blushes of trying to follow it or deduce something from the things that people say about my music. It’s always a little rough. So I try and stay away from the reception while also being incredibly grateful you know to be able to play music and for people to come out.
“I’d say my most instant understanding of what people are getting from the music is when I’m actually able to be on tour and play live shows. That to me is an exchange that’s very precious and spiritual, to be honest with you, when I’m with an actual audience and we get to do that. Outside of that environment, I try and stay as close to the music as possible and just try and write songs and play the guitar as much as possible and make that my focus.”
Being in New York has contributed to the flavor of her music as well—her desire to live in the Big Apple came early on when she thought she was going to become an actor. “It was like, ‘Wow, Is this real? Could I really do this?’ And then I did. That was really cool.
“And really New York, what a magical and wild place. (laughs) I think that the reason to live in New York was because my understanding of New York was just packed with people trying their hardest to get the things done that they dream of. And I wanted to be in that environment.”
Having recently completed a U.K. tour, Glaspy will be performing U.S. dates starting Thursday in Washington, D.C. She still sees herself as evolving as a musician and hopes that progression continues throughout the rest of her life. “That’s my aim is to always evolve,” she says. “At the same time, I think I am having a little bit of a moment with the guitar in terms of just kind of being in love with it all over again and understanding its strengths, and being proud of coming from a deep guitar lineage in my family. I feel proud of that. I think I’ll want to fly that flag for a long time. So there are things I’d like to consistently fight for. And also you know, art’s art. So it’ll always change.”