Name: Larry Goldings
Occupation: Keyboardist, composer, producer
Current release: Larry Goldings's Earthshine LP is out via Colorfield.
If you enjoyed this interview with Larry Goldings and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
There are many different ways to come at a composition.
“Out to Pasture” started with a field recording of ringing sheep bells from a European pasture. Pretty sure they were sheep? I transferred the the bells to MIDI and assigned a piano sound to it. So the tinkling piano performance are the “pitches” and “performance” of the sheep bells.
“Confetti Clouds” and “Circling Hours” started with two microtonal midi piano loops I had made at home. Pete loved them and before you knew it was sitting at this crazy Soma Pulsar-23 drum machine and we were off to the races. We brought in Danny Janklow and violinist Daphne Chen (“Confetti Clouds”) and we just tried things. It happened very quickly actually. The structure of it finally comes in editing these spontaneous overdubs, until it feels whole.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I have become less controlling about the process, because I am learning the value of letting things unfold. Especially if you’re working with others that you trust, that have a different set of ears, and experiences and influences.
In the case of making Earthshine, there were so many junctures where I said, well what now? Where’s this going to go from here? Then you allow even one outside influence, like Pete Min, or [saxophonist] Danny Janklow to try something. And bam - it’s totally out of my hands, and, what a relief! Now we can follow this new influence, or, wow it’s really taking shape now, the structure is unfolding.
This certainly happened with “Death of Mars” which was a piano improvisation based on an 8 bar chord progression. But then how do we build this into something that evolves and takes us somewhere? Well in this case I needed to get out of the way, and allow for other strong voices to enter the picture, like Danny, and like Pete and his beautiful production sensibilities.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I’m looking for a feeling of inevitability - the feeling that there were no better choices to be made in the composition, including of course how the piece ends.
In the case of Earthshine, those aren’t just musical choices, but sonic or production choices. The overall structure should feel inevitable to me.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
It’s definitely useful to put the thing away and come back to it with a fresh perspective. These days the production process can allow us so much time to over-think, over-judge, and see everything so microscopically that we can lose sight of what we are listening to. This may be one of the reasons I gravitated towards shorter compositions on this record - it’s easier to get a feel for whether the overall structure is solid.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
A record like Earthshine is really about both the music and the production, in fact sometimes they are often one and the same. This record is just as much about sound as it is about composition and performance.
For instance “Gospel of Fog” started with me improvising at the piano while listening to a rough of a drum-machine track that I had made on the Soma Pulsar-23. Then Pete Min (engineer, co-producer) and I work on scraping away what we don’t like from the drum track, and adding other elements - like overdubbing analog synths - and this is usually one or two takes, not overthinking. Again we then edit that performance, trying to capture the spontaneity of the overdub, but shaving away anything non-essential or weak.
After overdubs it often becomes an exercise in subtraction. Pete is excellent at this. Sometimes I may think there’s nothing usable in a certain overdub, but Pete will spend a few minutes with it and preserve a few moments that end up being really special.
I’m not usually so involved in mastering, but if I hear problems in the mastered recording then that needs to be addressed.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yes! Hopefully I have some other creative project or gig to jump into, otherwise, yes it can feel a bit empty.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Come to think of it, if only I could approach writing music or playing my instrument in the same way as I approach making a cup of coffee - that is, with no approach. No expectation or judgement or pressure to prove anything, rather just a feeling of trust.
James Taylor (with whom I’ve been working for over 20 years) once said, looking slightly preoccupied right before walking on stage - “This is what we do, right? Ya, I know how to do this.” That was a kind of revelation for me. Here’s a guy with decades of experience, respected world-wide, but once in a while he has to remind himself, “There’s nothing to worry about. This is what I do.” Like making a cup of coffee.
Of course creativity and making coffee are completely different things, but we can learn from the mundane experiences. If we have put in the years of experience toward our craft, then I think it’s useful to approach our art (if we can, and it’s difficult) as if it’s a mundane activity. No judgment, no expectations, just trust. This is what I do.
On a related note, I personally feel like music is the only thing in my life that I understand. It’s so much easier than navigating inter-personal relationships, or filing taxes, or raising children, or driving without GPS.