An hour or so before I was scheduled to do an in-person interview with singer-songwriter Laura Warshauer at this year’s Lollapalooza, all of the power was cut off in the press area with no warning. This, as to be expected, sent bloggers, photographers, radio stations and publicists into a hysterical panic. Ten minutes later, a rather beefy security guard swept through the tents yelling at us all to evacuate due to a dangerous storm scheduled to hit the area in the next forty-five minutes. Just then, Laura’s publicist found me and asked if we could reschedule for a phone interview the following morning but before we ran in opposite directions trying to find the nearest shelter (i.e. covered space with alcohol and snacks) she introduced me to the crystal-eyed singer whose smile didn’t leave her face even as she was being told, “For real. You need to move. Everybody out.”
And so, the next morning when things were a bit more dry, we spoke about Laura’s (what ended up being) festival-stopping performance, the authenticity of the female-fronted angst rock from the ’90s and what it’s like to have Jay-Z as a fan.
Photo by Tolga Katas
AfterEllen.com: Did you survive the storm?
Laura Warshauer: I survived! It’s funny, I opened my eyes this morning and just felt like whoa. I got to Chicago and played yesterday and have just been going going going. Do you know that feeling where your adrenaline level is so high and then suddenly your body is just like, uh-uh, I don’t know what you’re thinking about. If you keep running at this pace, I will shut down. It’s like when you open your eyes at 10 a.m. and you feel like it’s the middle of the night. [Laughs]
AE: Oh, I feel you. When I was going to the grounds, I got off my bus, started walking and my legs just felt like, don’t even think about it. You won’t be standing all day.
LW: My legs felt the same way walking through the mud in combat boots. I was just like, there is so much character happening with these boots right now! [Laughs] They were caked with mud and I was just like, here I am, a rough Jersey girl, I’ll be able to live up to that image. [Laughs] It was amazing, though. We ended up being the best slot because of all the rain and everything. Right after my set, I was in the press area and someone was asking me, “What was the most memorable thing about the festival for you?” and right then a security guard came in and told us we had to evacuate so I was like, “Well apparently I just shut it down!”
AE: That’s right! So which of your songs do you think was the one summoning the rain?
LW: It would definitely have to be the finale. We were doing this Irish drinking song. It’s like Dublin meets Asbury Park, New Jersey and it’s called “Somebody for Me.” It’s kind of this rousing, raucous, corner bar in Dublin kind of song. It starts, [sings] “Everybody, got somebody. I just want, somebody for me. Everybody needs somebody. I just want somebody for me.” And then the band explodes and then we bring it back down again. And the whole crowd was singing. There was a call and response. And we ended it by walking out to the speakers in front of the stage to connect more with the crowd. At the end we had a moment when the band stopped and we went into acapella, “Everybody got somebody.”
AE: That’s awesome.
LW: That was such a cool moment. My band just left their instruments and walked up to the mic with me and we all sang acapella and ended it that way. And the last line I sang by myself. There was so much energy from the crowd and it just brought it to another level to have my band around me. It just felt like community and rock ‘n roll. I felt like people really got it.
AE: I’m glad everybody was so receptive. Obviously you gave it to them and they gave it back. That’s got to be an amazing feeling.
LW: It’s really cool because everything either comes together or it doesn’t. It’s like a very simple thing in your mind when you’re in a recording studio. We get crazy ideas constantly and some of them seem like really good ideas, whether it’s musically or style-wise. Like I’ll get inspired by electronica beats and be like, I want to get up on stage with those kind of beats. And then what happens is, you take the stage and just immediately put your feet back on the ground and are like, “Oh, I get it.” Those faces that are looking at me right now? They just want to feel something right now. They just want to feel like there’s something real and genuine happening and that level of authenticity and having to understand what that tightrope is for myself as a person and as an artist and be able to deliver that. I’m always kind of like, nervous. Not that I always get overly nervous before shows but you can definitely work yourself up especially coming into something like Lollapalooza where you know about it months in advance. When you’re in the building stages of a career, it’s obviously a major milestone so you put a lot into that performance. At the same time I’m like, I’ve always been that person or that artist, that Jersey girl whenever wherever with a guitar. I’d bring it to the subway stations in New York City.
Photo by Tolga Katas
AE: So you’ve been busking before?
LW: Oh absolutely. But for me, it wasn’t really about busking. I wasn’t like putting out my guitar case to get money, I just wanted to work. New Yorkers, they just don’t care. They’re not going to just stop in the middle of a busy day to listen to a song. So if there’s some way you can get through to an audience that’s isn’t coming down to the subway station to be an audience, then you can feel like, “Hmm, maybe I’ve got something here that’s special.”
There was one time I was at a stop in Queens right near the Chelsea Hotel and was playing original songs but also covered Elvis‘ “I Can’t Help Falling In Love.” It’s just one of my favorite songs. It was just amazing, I had these people cross the subway tracks from the other side to listen. And then there was this person who worked for the station who came over and I thought they were going to tell me to leave. And he was like, “I wish I wasn’t in uniform right now so I could take one of your CDs.” And then he went on to tell me all the good spots underground in New York City to play. And I was just like, that’s so cool!
AE: Oh wow, so you’ve got kind of a personal map of New York that most people don’t have.
LW: The reason I started talking about all of that is that I need to remind myself before any performance, the more I take that energy with me, that’s where it’s the realest place for me and I love doing that very in-the-moment type of performance. Sure we’ve rehearsed and we have a setlist, but that’s just a vehicle to go connect with people. We’ll get on stage and then it becomes real and that’s when you realize it’s all about community and being able to feel that your show is a living breathing thing. It ebbs and flows and that’s what drives me as a performer for sure.
AE: It’s funny because in your press kit it says that Jay-Z called you “an incredible talent” and I know he’s into indie acts, but when you saw that quote or if you were around and heard it, were you like, “Holy shit, Jay-Z is hanging out with Beyonce and Blue Ivy and listening to my jams?”
LW: That was amazing because it was actually something that he said to me. It was at a Grammy after-party and he had seen me perform a long time before that when I was performing a showcase at Island Def Jam and Jay-Z was an executive there at the time. I performed three songs for the A&R staff and the executives and that was the first time I met Jay-Z. At that time I was wearing some kind of crazy Janis Joplin type outfit that literally was my grandmother’s from the ’60s or ’70s and when he met me he was like, “I like your get up.”[Laughs] And then a while later at this Grammy party, my A&R turns to Jay-Z and says, “Hey, you remember Laura.” And I’m thinking, “Oh man, this guy isn’t going to remember who the hell I am.” And he looked me dead in the eye and said, “You are fantastically talented,” and I think I lifted a few inches off the ground. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
AE: I bet!
LW: That’s one of those moments that make you want to be better at what you do. I want to work harder and reconnect with Jay-Z someday down the line and tell him how much he inspired me.
AE: You know to me, your music takes a lot of the same great angsty characteristics as a lot of my favorite female acts from the ’90s that I feel is missing from the pop scene today. I don’t know if you feel the same way but if so, why do think that is? Do you feel like there’s a sense of — I don’t know if I would call it entitlement — but there’s just something missing in general from the music scene that your songs have and to me, that’s kind of an angsty vibe.
LW: Wow that’s a great compliment so I appreciate that. I think that there’s a certain rawness like in a way to be like a pop version of even someone like a Patti Smith and it’s cool to just have some sort of unique voice and use it to communicate with people like Alanis Morissette did in the ’90s. And I think the reason there’s that ’90s feel is that was the music that I listened to that made me want to make music. When Jagged Little Pill came out, that’s what made me be like, “I want to be a songwriter.” Which is right in that pocket of what you’re talking about.
AE: No exactly. And I hope it didn’t come off as a knock like, “Oh that sounds ’90s” — it’s more the angsty part. Alanis or Tracy Bonham or some of those great artists who let you feel what they felt when they were singing.
You’ve already been awarded some high-profile honors and been compared to some of the best songwriters of the past 57 years. Does that add some pressure to what I’m assuming is an incredible honor?
LW: That’s a really good question. I would say I definitely feel a sense of responsibility with every new milestone. It just makes me want to raise to a new level. I remember someone I have a lot of respect for and has done a number of things with everyone from Steve Winwood to Madonna, at one point he just said, “Hey, you’re great. Go be great.” And something resonated with me in that. Kind of like, don’t worry just focus on what it is you’re doing and how you can write better songs and be a better performer and be a better band leader and be better in the studio. Make it more real and that’s kind of where my day-to-day focus is.
AE: I feel like creativity, though — you know for me, conducting interviews isn’t necessarily creative but a lot of what I do with writing is and I feel like so much of that is a situational mood. It’s not something you can force. So I would assume that, yes it’s awesome that the producer said “Hey you’re great, be great.” But the level of needing and wanting to create something that is authentic to yourself and also reaches other people, it’s so impressive to be able to do that. I can’t even begin to think of where that type of creativity comes from. Just being able to sit down and say,”OK, I’m going to write this right now.” Is there some kind of secret you’ve got like your underground subway map, that allows you to tap into those emotions and let your creativity flow?
LW: That’s very interesting, the way you just said all that. And thank you, I appreciate it, first of all. I was definitely thinking a lot about that yesterday. I feel like the writing thing has always been a really organic process. My approach and the way I write lyrics, that’s something that I don’t even really think about. It’s just something that’s very natural. I can be inspired by anything and everything and come up with stuff when I’m just walking around or sitting down with my guitar. That’s definitely an outlet for me but as you talked about, I’ve never been interested in just writing songs for my own sake. There’s a big difference in writing songs just for yourself and then writing songs for the masses. And the artists that I love like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Nicks and Billy Joel, they are writing songs that tell their own stories but there’s something in it for everyone. It’s such a universal story. So tapping into that kind of universal consciousness — the approach I’ve always taken without thinking about it, is whatever I’m writing about, getting to the underlying emotion of it and that’s what makes it universal. That’s when it becomes someone else’s story as much as your own.