Interview: Margaret Glapsy (Fretboard Journal 54 Preview)

You can be forgiven if, after hearing Margaret Glaspy implore, “Don’t be a d**k” and then launching into the very electric “Female Brain,” you briefly forget that you’re hearing someone who, for at least a while, was a staple at Weiser, Idaho’s National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival.

But that’s okay. Because Glaspy has packed a lot into her 35 years. Growing up in Red Bluff, California, she discovered fiddle music in elementary school. (That’s the Weiser chapter.) After high school, there was a brief stint at Berklee, followed by years of gigging around Boston and New York. Then three equally glorious solo albums. Now, Glaspy is married to another guitar hero, frequent collaborator Julian Lage. But Glaspy’s talents are singular: Somehow, she has the guitar, singing and songwriting chops.

From her home outside of New York City, Glaspy and I had a deep talk about the making of Echo the Diamond, her life outside of music (she has begun to race in ultramarathons…and also found the time to launch an online book club), and more. Mainly, though, I wanted to hear about how this record came to be. Her insights—and recording technique—were revelatory.

Fretboard Journal: There’s an incredible ferociousness to Echo the Diamond. Some of that is from drummer Dave King, but it’s also your electric guitar playing and singing. How do these songs start out?

Margaret Glaspy: I usually write on acoustic, and then, by the time it makes its way to being played by a band or me, being played on electric, it kind of feels like I’m covering a song.

If I was writing on electric and then recording it on electric, it’s a different process. I start to get a little bit more married to certain things. But by the time I’m in the studio, it [also] feels like I’m covering my own songs. I like that approach.

I think I sing much better when I cover other people’s songs than when I sing my own. There’s a sense of detachment; it feels like you can approach it as a singer rather than as a songwriter. That’s why it works well, for me at least, to write on acoustic and then record on electric.

FJ: Did you have any sense of the vibe you wanted on this record or how it was going to sound?

MG: I think so. I kind of knew what I was doing from the beginning in a certain way. I think there was a sense of wanting to really create a live-feeling record. That was one thing. I really wanted to fly my electric guitar flag and stand up for it in a way. It’s funny. Obviously, the guitar needs no help in its representation in the world. It’s a very popular instrument. But I also feel excited to contribute to music and the musical landscape in any way that represents live-feeling music and the guitar at the forefront.

I think that sometimes, at least in my own listening, I start to see that disappear maybe a little bit more. So it was fun to double down and make that the feature. I was excited to return to the guitar and remember why I do it…and also kind of remember how to play it in a way.

I needed a little time from the guitar for a second. And then once I made this record, I was so excited to be a guitar player, it just reminded me of why it’s so special. It was great.

FJ: Do you listen to a lot of guitar music?

MG: In our household, there’s a lot of guitar music for sure, just by proxy.

On my own time, yes, my favorite songwriters are mostly guitar players. For this record in particular, I was kind of touching on a lot of ’90s rock that my older siblings were playing when I was really young, music like Pearl Jam or Alanis Morissette or No Doubt. All these bands were kind of coming back for me, and they were inspiring me in a particular way that I wanted to capture again. Or Sonic Youth or Elliott Smith, too. Some of those were my beacons of remembering that you just go into a studio and play the guitar and that’s enough.

FJ: You can feel that live energy on the recording. What did you bring to the studio, gear-wise?

MG: I brought two guitars. One is the Danocaster I usually play. I played it for a long time. And then I did this kind of quick purchase. It was probably five days before I made the record. I knew that I needed another guitar, and I didn’t quite know what. Julian and I were like, “Let’s go to Crandall because we need something fixed.” We kind of made an excuse to go to T.R. Crandall. I was thinking, “I think I need a guitar that I don’t have.” While we were there, the wonderful Alex Whitman was there and he kind of guided me toward this ’78 Tele Deluxe. I took it home that day and was very excited about it. It really is a different beast, even though it’s still a Tele.

It’s humbucking and much heavier, just a slightly darker guitar. The sustain is way different. Everything just felt very different and very similar at the same time. The weight alone was really like, “Whoa, this is a whole other thing.” My shoulders were hurting. But it felt really exciting to play that guitar because of the sustain and the kind of power that I felt it brought. Just the ability to really turn it up…that’s a guitar where, when you are turning it up, it’s not diminishing returns. It really blooms when it’s dimed. With my Danocaster, I’m excited when it’s kind of right in the middle or right above. Maybe I’m at six or so on the amp, and that’s the sweet spot. On this one, maybe because it’s just a little bit darker, you can just really crank it and it gets more and more exciting.

So I use those two guitars. I think [I use] the Deluxe a little more than the Dano on this record. I think that we had a [Magic Amps] Vibro Prince, which is Mike Moody’s take on Princeton. And then a ’60-something Champ.

FJ: Does the tone always have to come from the guitar first? Was there ever any thought of taking your original Tele and running it through a pedal to make it sound darker?

MG: Not really. I tried that and it wasn’t working. It wasn’t the vibe. It was like we needed a new character in the cast. And it is interesting, too. I had an epiphany in getting that guitar. I live in such a guitar household: Julian and I together, our forces combined. It’s a lot of guitar in one place. Julian has such a propensity for Teles and has such a collection, it’s awesome. We have a lot of guitars in our house. And I had a little bit of an epiphany where, because we have so many guitars in the house, you are able to casually play whatever’s around. This felt like an opportunity for me to find a very specific thing that I wanted. Rather than taking what was around and trying to repurpose it.

So it was really me on a little bit of a vision quest with that guitar. It’s my style and I’m excited about it. It was a fun purchase that felt like a little bit whimsical in a way. I think I’m starting to spread my wings a little bit and figuring out the guitars that I like for the music that I’m making, rather than kind of finding guitars that are around, or guitars that are given to me. This was special.

Read the full interview in our forthcoming 54th issue. Subscribe now to get it next month.