Leighton Meester's Reached The Fun Part Of Her Career

Photo: Universal Republic Records.
Leighton Meester's days as the star of a teenage CW drama are long gone. After an incredibly successful run on Broadway with James Franco in Of Mice And Men, Meester is ready to reintroduce herself — this time as a musical muse.
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Her debut album, Heartstrings, dropped October 27. For nine tracks, Meester puts her pop past behind her and instead treads nicely in the singer/songwriter waters. It's contemporary folk with some serious star power. Her approach is gentle and refreshing. Compared to other major names out there, Meester's hype machine was relatively quiet. But, it has paid off in spades. She's kept her audience guessing and that's the best kind of hype an artist can have, really.
She might be at the "fun part" of her career, but something tells us there's more fun to come.
How does it feel to be introducing yourself as a solo artist in the second phase of your career right now?
“It’s great! It’s good; I feel relaxed and happy and proud.”
You chose to do something acoustic. Are you more comfortable in the acoustic setting ,or will we ever see you doing something more dance-y? I do remember you made more dance-like music before.
“Probably not. I wouldn’t necessarily, for myself at least, categorize it as acoustic really. It definitely was written acoustically on guitar, there are a lot of different sounds: electric guitar, steel guitar, different keys and key sounds. I wouldn’t categorize it as acoustic; [it was] mostly all real instruments in a live room — that’s how we put it together when we were recording it. It’s very different from when you sit at a computer and make all the sounds on a keyboard; it’s not really retouched — it’s more raw and real — and when you hear it live, it sounds pretty much the same. I guess that is the big difference.
The album wasn’t written for the sake of reaching a specific audience or being universal in that sense. It’s my thing and I’m really proud of it. More than anything, the lyrics of the music [are] something that I think people like me — or people with similar tastes — will definitely be able to relate to, and it’s very personal and special to me.”
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Are you planning on touring with it?
“Yeah, definitely! At some point I’d like to. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what the right way of doing it is. I’ve toured before and played a lot of live shows with some of these songs before I even recorded the album. It was really fun and gave me a sense of direction in terms of the sound that I wanted to find. It really gave the songs a new meaning for me. Right now the idea is being a bit more centered around my home and being a little bit more focused on the release of the actual record. And, then doing promotion and hopefully a tour, and getting a sense of where the right place for me to do that is and when. I’m taking it step by step. I have a little over a month before the record comes out. I’m going to choose a second single and really do it that way.”
It sounds like you’re taking your time, which is really wise on a debut. It’s interesting because it is a singer-songwriter album. I feel like, especially today, female singer-songwriters are looked at as people who are really great and respectable voices for women. Do you find that, when you’re sitting down to write something, it’s important you to communicate something more empowered or speak specifically to female listeners? Or, are you writing from a perspective of how it is you’re feeling in that moment?
“Yeah, I think it’s more the latter. When I write, the best part for me is the catharsis, the feeling that it’s not coming from a place of judgment of myself, or the idea that I’ll be judged. That being said, I don’t think any of the lyrics of any of the songs are at all demeaning. I can be unintentionally distant; I think that like everyone, I have my own insecurities. I think the best thing to do it expose them. I’m not walking into it with the idea that this has to be a message. That’s the thing too — it’s personal for me and my songs can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I really hope that when people listen to it that they can find their own meaning in it. I think that that is possible.”
Yeah. There is emotion there. I was wondering how are you able to give yourself the time and the space to sit down and write an album? And, also, be inspired to write an album? You have a very successful Hollywood career, how do you literally shut yourself in your room with a computer and a guitar and find the inspiration to write an entire album?
“Life goes on. I live my life and it has a lot of moments and things that I draw from in the past. As far as the inspiration to actually write, at least in the last few years is to really have found time in my life to actually live life. And, writing is the opposite, you can’t make time for it or at least I can’t. I know some people can work that way and I really admire them. Those people who can be like, ‘Today I’m going to the studio, today I’m going to sit down and write,’ and I just can’t. Whenever I do that nothing sounds good. It really is almost easier to have it be a cathartic expression of how I’m feeling no matter where I am whether I’m working or in a state of relaxation, it doesn’t really matter where I’m at as long as it comes. When I do try to pressure myself it never really works. It’s a tough thing to find but I think the most important thing for me is in those moments is to be alone and not judge myself or think ‘Is this going to sell and be successful? Are people going to like it and understand it?’ The writing process is like that, and when it came to the music, really putting all the different sounds together. I had a really great producer who was helping me because I was judging myself; I judge myself pretty harshly. He was helping me come up with great sounds and things that I was happy with. This record has been in production for a long time. It took me a while to think that now I can be happy and let it live and put it out and let people hear it. And, now, the fun part.”
What has been the most inspiring album for you in the last year or two?
“I go back and forth. I listen to a lot of old stuff that I never get sick of and I just love. I loved Kurt Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream. Tori Amos! She came out with a record that I really loved. I love her.”
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There are a ton of comparisons between you and her.
“That’s great! You know, her and Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell and different female artists that I grew up listening to that I think just gave me a feeling and I think that they really inspired me.”
How do you source new album or things to listen to?
“I have an account on Rhapsody and I listen to it like radio. I sort of scour iTunes occasionally; I listen to KCRW and the radio and try to find new things from friends...I’ve been listening to Foxygen recently.”
What has been the most surprising thing that has happened to you in the last 12 months?
“A lot, really good stuff. I did a play that was the best experience and it was really a special time, and I got to spend time in New York and focus on that. It was really hard and I loved it. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In my personal life I’ve done a lot of cool things. I went to South Africa; I went to Liberia and a surf retreat.”
Did you say a surf retreat? Did you learn how to surf?
“Well, I had done it before but I was by no means good at it. Where I was, a little town called Robertsport, there was a surf retreat there that my brother-in-law opened and we were there for two weeks, pretty much all day. That was the main source of entertainment in the town. The people there are so great, the littlest kids surfing, it’s incredible and they have great waves there for pretty much everybody. The people there were a major highlight and the waves.”
Do you feel like you got functionally better?
“Yes, 100% totally. It was crowded and warm; you have your pick of what size waves you want. It was so consistent — like a machine. It’s such a fun place and so beautiful. The people are so vibrant and you go out there and it’s great and so easy and you get to go back again and again and again all day everyday. That’s really how you get better and it’s super fun.”
Were you writing songs during this time?
“I had already gone in to [the studio]. It was a three-step process: I went in with my producer with all the songs pretty much in-hand and written. We did over two months of pre-production — longer actually. Basically, it was me and my producer in his studio coming up with the different sounds and prerecording everything. Then we got the studio band together for a week last year, before the trip. At that point, it was already recorded, but we went in and did the final recording in the live room, with everybody having learned their parts in preproduction and then adding their own touches. It was a really incredible group of musicians. Then after that, it takes a little while with the mixing and mastering and then here we are.”
Having performed on screen, have you ever thought of doing a soundtrack?
“Yeah, I think that would be cool. The songs on the record have enough emotion that they would be kind of cool placed in the right emotionally sweeping moments of a film.”
I’m really excited to see how everybody responds to this. I think you’ve done such a great job keeping everybody guessing. It is important to you to never be pigeonholed?
“Not really. My real life, more than anything, is the most important thing. That’s all I can do — to try to be balanced and healthy and sane and private. I feel really good about where I am, personally; I think it is reflected in my work and that’s the most important thing. It’s true my career is absolutely important to me but I think that keeping people guessing, all that stuff, it’s just not real. All I can do is do what’s right for me and what feels good. That’s all you can do.”

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