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Interview With an Artist: Ira Lawrence

One of the more fascinating artists I’ve interviewed lately, Ira Lawrence has been composing spectral folk-pop ever since he inherited a haunted mandolin from his estranged grandmother. Ira is not only a musician, but also an internationally produced playwright. His debut EP, Elegant Freefall, came out in 2015, and you can listen to one of the songs from his new album, Mapagkawanggawa, here:

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I encourage you to check it out!

MM: Where do you get your inspiration for your lyrics? Your music?

IL: My songs come out of improvisation. I’ll grab the mandolin, strum some chords, shut my mind off, channel something, and let words fall out of my mouth. I record myself improvising for an hour or two, review the recordings and isolate the parts when I’ve hit on something. A lot of times I’ll listen back and be like “I don’t even remember singing this” and that’s when I know I’m in the zone. I want lyrics to come from my subconscious- words that I accidentally stumble onto instead of consciously writing structured rhyme construction. Sometimes I’ll sit on a song for a while- and I’ll have a completed first verse and chorus, and I’m just waiting for the next verse to materialize out of thin air. If I give a song space- maybe stop playing it for weeks or months at a time- sometimes when I come back to it, my mind is fresh and the right words will fall out of my mouth. For good stuff to happen, you’ve gotta leave room for mystery.

The particular set of songs on MAPAGKAWANGGAWA were inspired by a trip I took to the Philippines, and they’re very personal- but even in that case – I allowed my subconscious to tell the story instead of consciously plotting out lyrics with a rhyming dictionary.

MM: How did you get into playwriting? What kinds of plays do you write? Where do you get the inspiration?

IL: I originally studied acting, but somewhere near the end of my training, I felt like I wanted to be a creator instead of an interpreter, so I switched my focus to playwriting. I normally write off-beat comedies. I’ve got a play called Billy Bitchass about talking dogs as a metaphor for child molestation, and one called Split about a dude whose best friend is a hallucination of Vince Vaughn from Swingers.

MM: How does the way you approach playwriting differ from the way you approach music writing? How is it similar? Do you prefer one over the other?

IL: I’m a really big story structure nerd. I could geek out over intrusions and climaxes and deconstruct the plot of your favorite movies like pieces of complex machinery for hours on end. When I’m writing plays, I’m much more conscious of the theoretical nuts and bolts of plot forwarding, character goals, and perception shifts. Whereas in songwriting, I’m much more interested in capturing a feeling. Sometimes a song will feel intuitively right and I couldn’t tell you why. I find that I need a balance between the two impulses to keep productive. If I spend too much time concentrating on one or the other my creativity becomes lopsided. My dialogue has become much more poetic since writing songs, and my songs occasionally will tell highly structured stories. Songwriting and playwriting are a really nice complement to one another in that regard. As to which one I like better? That all depends on which is stressing me out less or paying me more at the time…

MM: I have to ask. What’s haunted about the mandolin? And if it’s not too personal, why was your grandmother estranged, and how did you come to inherit the mandolin? 

IL: I can’t go into a lot of detail about the estrangement out of respect for my family’s privacy, but essentially when I was very young there was a major rift in the family and as a result, I didn’t have a relationship with my paternal grandparents growing up. That all ended in 2014, when I met my grandmother for basically the first time and she gave me my granddad Al’s electric mandolin- which hadn’t been played in the 23 years since his death, but was somehow in eerily pristine condition. Up to that point, I’d always felt like an outsider in my family for having a strong relationship to music. When I saw the mandolin, it suddenly made sense. I don’t purport to know what happens when you die, but it seems fairly obvious to me that Al’s ghost is reconciling with the grandson he never had the opportunity to know in life through music. And sometimes if I can shut my brain off and get on the right wavelength, I channel songs or characters I’d never be able to access without the mandolin’s supernatural power.

MM: How have your travels shaped your music?

IL: MAPAGKAWANGGAWA was inspired by a trip to the Philippines I took with my AustraliAmerican Theater Collective, Everything Is Everywhere (2 Americans 2 Aussies 2 gals 2 dudes 2 goys 2 Jews 2 legit 2 quit) to write and perform new theater pieces at Sipat Lawin’s Karnabal festival. I visited bombed out hospitals from World War II on the island of Corregidor, snorkeled through a sunken cemetery on the island of Camiguin, and almost wound up as a lead in a Filipino soap opera. MAPAGKAWANGGAWA is hugely influenced by my trip as well as the audacious work of The Sipat Lawin Ensemble. At Karnabal, I saw a participatory theater piece called Gobyerno- where the audience is literally placed in the role of a city planner. I saw theater pieces that incorporated live animals and elegant shadow puppetry, as well as an American Idol style contest featuring HIV positive drag queens and former military sex slaves singing Beyonce.  MAPAGKAWANGGAWA  is the name of the street where so many of these performances took place, and it’s also a Tagalog word for charitable.  A dollar of every album sale will go back to The Sipat Lawin Ensemble so that they can continue to make work which is vital to their community and the world.

MM: What’s your music background prior to your songwriting career? What instrument(s) did you grow up with? Any vocal training, and if so, what was that like?

IL: I grew up playing guitar. I fronted a band in Baltimore called EVEN SO after college. Baltimore’s scene at the time was pretty much bands who wanted to be SUPER MAINSTREAM ALTERNARADIO ROCK (AKA THE NEXT CREED or GOOD CHARLOTTE) or super outré art school Wham City bands (who were so awesome and super inspiring to me), and we were this wordy Indie folk act with a metal drummer (aka total misfits). We recorded a few well-received EPs and played some rad shows, but my playwriting eventually took me to Chicago and Ohio. In Chicago, I played in a band called Little Mammoth with Paige Brubeck from Sleepy Kitty, Billy Mitchell from Omni, and our pal Ryan Boyle. We were this awesome mixture of Pavement and The Shangri-Las, but we never got a chance to play a show cuz we were all a band of super motivated overachievers who kept moving to different states. I wound up in grad school for playwriting in Athens, Ohio, and had more or less given up on the idea of pursuing music with any degree of professionalism, but most Friday nights, you could find me stoned at a friend’s house improvising ridiculous songs in a closet until 3am. No vocal training. I’m a firm subscriber to the Dave Berman theory “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.”

MM: What music did you listen to growing up? What about now?

IL: I’m a child of the 90s so I grew up on Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., and Radiohead. These days- with all this fascism and totalitarianism floating around the collective consciousness due to our ridiculous election- I’ve found myself gravitating towards Krautrock like Can and Faust.

MM: What are your future plans, both immediate and distant?

IL: Well, in the immediate, I’m going on tour to support MAPAGKAWANGGAWA this fall. After that, write lots more music and scripts. I don’t wanna say too much about projects before they’re complete, lest I give away all my secrets…. Plus it’s hard to plan for the distant future without knowing what the outcome of this next presidential election is…

MM: Who’s your biggest musical inspiration?

IL: Brian Eno is a musical brain surgeon to me. He helped Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2 make some of their best work. Ambient Music For Airports is my number one album to put on when I need inspiration to write. I use Oblique Strategies all the time in my creative endeavors. I shower with Eno’s Iphone app Bloom and feel like I’m at a spa. I aspire to retire in a building that has 77 Million Paintings installed in it. Eno understands creativity in a way that is uncanny.

MM: If you were stranded on an island with only one album, what would it be?

IL: Probably 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields… and not just because it’s 3 discs…


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