Frontman Daniel Layus provides an inside look into Augustana’s new album Life Imitating Life, describes his decision to zero in on sincerity, wrestles with the cyclical nature of human existence, and explains the benefits of going back to writing with pen and paper.
Before we dive into the new record, let’s go back a couple years. The last record you released, the self-titled one, came out three years ago this month. For whatever reason, it didn’t sell that well and never seemed to catch on. Then, you were dropped from Epic Records shortly thereafter, and most of the band members left at the end of the year as well. From the outside, at least, it seemed that year had a lot of change going on and was a fairly turbulent time. What do you remember was going on for you back then?
I guess you described it pretty well [laughs]. That’s pretty much the gist of it. From a major label standpoint, I don’t think the record sold what they would have wanted. From an artist standpoint and from where I’m sitting, and the places we were able to go and still get people out in clubs, I still feel really grateful for however many we sold and for the people coming out.
But yeah, as far as that goes, it is what it is. A lot of it is out of my hands. I still feel very proud about that project, and that particular lineup, and that band, and everything that we did for about 10 years, maybe 10 plus years. I miss those guys. We’re still all good buddies and everybody’s great. They’ve moved on to other generally non-music related careers.
That particular moment, everybody was just a little bit tired in general. I think everyone was ready to try something new. We had spent the majority of our adult lives at that time touring and making records, which is a really fortunate career to have. But that being said, you can get a little bit disenchanted by the process of it sometimes. I think everybody was a little bit exhausted and needed a break, and it turned into an extended break, you know what I mean?
So then that next year, 2012, you spent most of it playing shows off and on. You were doing band shows and solo shows, and I remember I saw one of your solo shows at Hotel Café that year. Did you always plan on continuing with the Augustana name? Did you consider going a different route or using your own name? What was the mind process for that?
I think for a minute I thought about what my options were, as far as what I wanted to do outside of Augustana. I slept on it for a few months and came around to the conclusion that I didn’t feel like it was broken. When everything dissolved, it dissolved in a healthy way, but it was still dissolved.
I wanted to take some time to make sure Augustana recording-writing-performing-touring, all those things, was still something I was passionate about. I didn’t know if there was anything else in life I was passionate about, beyond family and things like that, and from a creative and career standpoint if there was anything else I wanted to pursue. I slept on it long enough that I came back around to making the decision I was 150 percent sure this was something I wanted to do and that I believed in the records Augustana had made. The songs up to that point felt good enough to me and strong enough to continue that.
2012 to 2013, you were playing a bunch of shows, like I said, and you were certainly trying out a lot of new material. There are a ton of songs that didn’t end up making this record that you were playing during that time. What was the process like of getting this record together and whittling down which songs ended up making it?
It was a long process, but it was a positive process. It felt very natural most of the time. I ended up taking about half the material up to Rhinebeck, New York, and doing it with a producer named John O’Mahony, who has done some great work with the band Metric and did the Sara Bareilles record, her last one. He spans from indie to pop to rock, all kinds of stuff. I found a new spark from that production and from an energy standpoint from his perspective, and then I finished up part of the record here at home in Tennessee.
I really wanted it to tell a story, in the sense that I wanted it to be short and sweet and to the point. I wrote probably 30 to 40 songs over the course of the last three years for myself or for Augustana. I wasn’t exactly sure what direction I wanted to take. A lot of it was a little bit more of an Americana, folk-rock kind of thing, but I felt more inspired at the time to do something that was a little more mixing my influences between Peter Gabriel and Aimee Mann, that kind of vibe. That’s kind of where I landed here, production-wise, on the record, and I thing songwriting-wise as well.
Yeah, it was a process of whittling it down, like you said, getting the right 10 or 12 and feeling great about it. I wanted each song to be really, really strong, which I don’t if it is, but this is my attempt.
Do you plan on recording those other songs at some point or will they just remain live songs?
I think they’ll definitely rear their heads at shows. I just recently discovered that TwitMusic page that you can link up with your Twitter account, so I put a couple demos up a couple months ago. I’ll probably continue to record some live stuff from the board. On this upcoming tour maybe I can gather up some live stuff and release some of that, maybe live versions of the unreleased material.
But yeah, I think those songs will find a way. They may even find their way onto the next record and onto their own album. I just wanted to have one clear and concise and obvious path for this particular album. I’d like to do another one that is a little more Americana, I guess you can say, or whatever the word is. I’m not really sure, to be honest. I’m just playing it by ear at this point.
For this record you also signed to Washington Square, which is a new imprint from Razor & Tie, and I believe you are one of the first artists on that. How did that whole thing come about?
We signed at Sony at Epic back in 2004, 10 years ago coming up in July. The guy who signed us over there, who worked on the first two records with us at A&R, he landed over at Razor & Tie a few years back. We talked for quite a while after the Epic deal was done about making another Augustana record at Razor & Tie. I balanced deciding between going with another label or staying independent and releasing it on my own.
I just decided to go with Razor, or I guess ultimately Washington Square, their new imprint, and that’s kind of how it happened. It was like, “This is a good place. I trust you. Let’s do this thing. Let’s give it one more shot.”
In addition to the record, you have the tour coming up this month where you’ll be bringing out Chris Carrabba’s new band, Twin Forks. It’s cool to see that come full circle, because I remember seeing you open for one of his solo Dashboard shows over at the Orpheum. What’s it like now to be able to return the favor and take him out?
Well, it’s awesome. We’re all in the same family. We’ve known each other for a lot of years and he’s a great guy. He has a fantastic personality and is a stand-up dude. He definitely gave us a favor to open for him. I think it was 2008. I know he’s really passionate about this new project that he has. His record is fantastic and the band is great.
I think it’s a great fit. That should be a really good show. Having him up there is going to be really fantastic and I think people are really going to love his new project, for sure.
So, let’s dig into this record now. The first single is “Ash and Ember.” You have an interesting quote talking about it where you said, “It felt like the right way to introduce this album and reenter the atmosphere as an artist. I put a lot on my plate over the years. I made a ton of bad decisions and many good decisions. I hurt a lot of people I cared for, including myself.” What was it like coming up with that song and how would you describe it?
It was a real breakthrough moment for me as a songwriter. I had just made a conscious decision to switch back to writing with a pen and paper, like on a legal pad. So, I went and bought a couple pens and a couple legal pads. I was like, All right, I’m just going to start free-flowing thoughts when I song write.
I wanted to get off the iPhone-iPad thing and stop settling on lyrics. I wanted it to feel natural, but I also wanted to push myself and challenge myself, using new vocabulary and new imagery, things like that. I knew some of that stuff was locked up inside my head. I just needed to release it.
It sounds crazy that a pen and paper did that, but I needed to feel like you could write stuff down and scratch it out, rewrite it and scratch it out, write something else and scratch it out. That went a really long way, and that song was one of the first I did that with. I went back to the first record, or songs like “Boston,” where I was 17 and writing on a pen and paper before there were iPhones and all those things. That was the way you wrote down stuff.
It’s proved to be a really useful tool. I know it’s completely archaic and not strange to say that, but I think a lot of people do that now. I had to break myself away from that and get in a more creative headspace, push myself into a more interesting direction.
Looking at your career, as far as lyric structure goes, you’ve maybe gotten more structured with the last couple records especially, where you have a set rhyme scheme and this flow to everything. Can you talk about how you come up with those and how much of a conscious decision that is for you?
I want to unlearn songwriting at times. It can be very easy to fall into the same sort of song structures and writing schemes and things like that. Sometimes getting out and writing with other people helps that, whether it’s for yourself or for another project. I think I’ve learned a lot in that process, as far as stretching my abilities and the way you can structure a song.
I came to a point where recently, especially when writing this record, I realized, and this may sound silly, but how important and how much longevity a song and its lyric and its ultimate punch value can have in somebody’s life, including my own. I don’t think I neglected that in the past, I think I just took it for what it was.
I’ve recently rediscovered the power of the song and really what that can mean for somebody and how it can redirect somebody, hopefully in a positive direction. I just really wanted to breathe a life into a song. I wanted to put real gut reactions into the lyrics, into the melodies and into the delivery and performance.
A lot of that stuff on the record, I’m sick or I have a cold, or there’s a baby crying in the background because I’m at home or whatever. I wanted all those things to have a really realistic reaction all the way through. Hopefully, that’s something the listener can take away as well. I wanted that. I wanted that to translate.
I felt the best way to do that was, yes, to push myself to structure things differently, but at the same time to try to unlearn some of those structures and get back to the basics of what makes you feel something in a song, that feeling where you get the chills, or the goose bumps or whatever. As the kids say on Twitter, “I got the feels from that [laughs].”
It’s like trying to get back to more of a Zen, yoga type state of mind, where you’re sort of outside of yourself. You’re so within yourself that you’re outside of yourself. You’re not really consciously writing a song, but hopefully the things you’ve learned will subconsciously guide it in a direction that’s going to make sense so it’s not scatterbrained, but at the same time it evokes an important feeling.
Again, it’s like the pen and paper. It sounds so basic and elementary, but it’s strange that after so many years you can forget how important that is.
That leads to the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is “Youth Is Wasted on the Young.” One of the things that stand out about that song in particular is the bridge where you are singing yourself hoarse a little bit. That definitely adds character to that song, because a lot of artists would take it out since it’s not quote-unquote “perfect,” but it does give it its own unique feel.
Yeah, that’s an instance where I was sick as a dog and rundown. I was whittling down the record, it was around Christmastime a few months ago, and I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted the final album to feel like and sound like. I wasn’t sure how perfect it needed to be and I was like, Man, you know when I’m out on the road, it’s never perfect.
Perfection and the slick feel of vocals, people seem to call b.s. on that more than they enjoy it, at least our listeners do. They seem to have more of a problem with something that sounds perfectly on pitch and perfectly delivered, as opposed to something that is maybe a little trashy and washed out and a little more unsure of itself, but it’s sincere.
I think that sincerity is the thing I wanted to zero in on because that’s my biggest strength, I believe. It’s not going to be delivering a perfect vocal in perfect pitch, all those things. It’s going to be the perfect amount of sincerity. That’s what I was shooting for, and luckily if that’s the goal, it’s all within you. You’re able to dig up that sincerity and that authenticity very easily if you really mean it.
That was certainly an instance where I went for that. I was like, “This is the vocal.” It’s one take, same thing as “Ash and Ember.” A lot of the vocals, and a lot of the drums, guitars, key parts, whatever, there’s mistakes all over it, but their authentic, meaningful mistakes. That was something that we didn’t really pursue, keeping those kinds of mistakes, before this record, but I felt compelled to stay with this time around. I felt like it was the closest thing to a live show that I can dig up.
The live show and what we’ve done on tours is where we get the best response from people, and it translates to people in a really positive way. I was like, “Let’s just do that, you know? That’s more fun anyways.”
The next song I wanted to talk about is “According to Plan,” which is where the album title Life Imitating Life comes from. How did you stumble upon that phrasing and that song?
I was up in Rhinebeck, making part of the record in New York, and I felt like there was a conceptual piece to me that was missing from the album. I didn’t have a title yet. I had every other song, plus more songs that didn’t end up making the record, but I felt like there was something missing. It was really hard to put my finger on and place.
I knew going up to Rhinebeck I was probably going to write at least one more in the studio. It kind of happens every time and I think it’s a bit out of desperation. Not desperation in a negative way, but sort of artistic desperation. There’s a song off our second album called “Fire” that was the same thing. It was written in the studio. A bunch of songs were written in the studio from the last record, the self-titled album. There’s this innate desperation when you go, “OK, this is it. It could be another three years before I release something, or more, or this could be the last album. Who knows?”
That phrase, Life Imitating Life, had been swimming in my head. I don’t know why. I had never heard it anywhere. I knew all the phrases that sound like it, but I had never heard that particular phrase. So I just started writing that on the piano in there one night, and I stayed up through the night in Rhinebeck. I scratched out like 12 pages of lyrics and it got structured, and then we just went for it and recorded it the next day and popped it out. It just felt like a vibe that needed to be on the record and I think lyrically became a centerpiece.
It’s a bit of an existential thought, swimming in the same lake as “Ash and Ember” and “Youth Is Wasted on the Young,” all those things where it’s essentially saying have I come full circle or am I just going in circles? You know what I mean? The cyclical nature of human existence is a very odd and interesting notion. It’s looking at my predecessors and humanity, any of the people who have come before us and those who are going to come after. It’s questioning why do we all have to learn the same way.
We’ve all observed generations after generations of people making the same mistakes and learning the same way. Some of them come out the other side alive and healthy, and some don’t. It’s a crazy world. There’s a little bit of anger in that, but there’s also some beauty in that as well. It’s a between-the-lines, deep thought. I don’t mean that like I’m a deep thinker, it’s just something I think about very often. It felt like the right album title and the right thought to glue it together conceptually.
One of the other cornerstones of the record seems to be “Alive.” You gave the demo of that song away online last year and you’ve been closing your shows with it for a while now. What about that song makes it special to you?
That was a really important song, not only for a refreshing direction of Augustana as a songwriter, but just as a human, as a person. I was just in desperate need of writing something that felt good. That was at a time where I had turned a lot of things around. I’ve been sober for nearly three years now, not quite, but we’re getting there. At that time I was freshly on the wagon there, getting my life together and figuring out how to live my life in a really positive way. I needed to write and perform something every night that felt great and that wasn’t so blue and wasn’t so down. That song is what came out.
It flowers from being sober, I think. It felt good to feel nervous at shows again. It felt good to feel butterflies and actually not be numb to everything around me all day and night, to actually be scared or excited or nervous, all those feelings that come back that I had sort of stuffed away and numbed for a lot of years. That’s kind of what that’s saying.
Then it’s also saying in the verses that this isn’t a message and this isn’t a lesson for anybody else. It’s my experience. This isn’t saying that this is going to work for everyone. It’s just saying this is me and this is my experience. This is what I’ve been through, and now it feels so good to feel alive again. I know that road has been walked before, and that alludes to Life Imitating Life as well. It all ties together.
What do you think about your first record now, All the Stars and Boulevards, being that it is like you alluded to? It is more of a darker breakup record in a way, with a lot of references to drinking on it. Looking back on that record and time period, what do you make of it now?
There’s some songs on there that I really stand by. There’s some that I feel maybe I could have done better, but I think that’s like anything in life. If you look back at a picture of yourself in high school, you’re like, “Oh my God! I can’t believe I looked like that.” It’s like that, except we were doing that when we were 19.
Just like everybody makes things and does things in life, you can’t know down the road what kind of repercussions those are going to have. Luckily, I think that album has had pretty positive repercussions, so I’m definitely happy people still look fondly on that record.
Obviously “Boston,” that song got off my whole life. I’m beyond grateful for that song. I mean, it wasn’t a gift from anyone, I wrote it, but it landed on me. I was really, really lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and for that to set up this career and this life. Being able to do this day in and day out, it’s the dream come true. It really is.
I have to close this out and ask about the last song on the record, “Remember Me,” which I think might be the most emotionally hard-hitting song you’ve written to date. I can definitely see it being sung at a funeral, or at the very least playing in the background on some TV show where a beloved character is passing away. How did you come to writing that song?
It’s interesting you say that. That was essentially the reason I needed to write that. I have a wife and three kids, friends and family. I felt like I hadn’t written a song yet, or at least released a song yet, that could be related to in that way. I felt like I needed something to leave behind, beyond hopefully being a great husband and father. I wanted to leave something that had those thoughts in it, that had that emotion in it and was a true translation to the way I would feel if I was not on this earth anymore. Hopefully, I would leave behind something that was important to people.
I know it’s sort of selfish, in a way, but I just want to know that I’m working towards something like that. If my calling on this earth is to leave behind songs, beyond being a husband and a father, and hopefully a good loving person in general, then my best way of translating my feelings is through songs.
That one, I’ve been trying to write that song for years. I finally came around, sitting on the porch, in writing it and realizing it fully. That was it, and now that it’s done I feel really good about it. I wanted it to have very realistic aspects to it. I wanted it to have hints toward mundane, everyday life. I don’t mean mundane in a negative way, you know what I mean? Just really normal, day-to-day feelings, or sounds, or events mixed with a sense of longing and missing somebody to the point where it breaks you. That’s where that came from.