Let’s make pop music cool again: A conversation with the band Lawrence
Pop music gets a pretty bad rep, but the genre still serves its original intention: it’s an amalgamation of various kinds of sounds that acts as the monoculture from which our national (and international) music community ebbs and flows. Pop music was once used to mark the best original music of the time. The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and The Beach Boys were once defined by the now doubtful musical distinction. Where did the change occur? What dragged pop music from something that was both organic and relatable to something highly manufactured and irrelevant to anything outside the allegorical club?
The descent of pop music could be traced back, as so many things can, to the rise of technologies and the Internet. Music streaming sites created an inundation of artists, with most searching for fame at any cost. Artistic value and organic material fell behind the stronger industry algorithms for cookie-cutter pop music. Lyrical depth and sonic originality became harder to find. At the end of the 20th century and at the turn of the 21st, things of the musical sort were excessively dubious. The music of those 15 years matched the economic and political stagnation of the times. Nothing dared to be too original. No one wanted to cross genres. The times were too hard for that.
But, in looking at the Top 40 of the past six years, the fight for difference appears to have returned. That strangeness that once possessed our former kings and queens of pop, like Michael Jackson and Madonna, have started to re-enter the airwaves. Most recently, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” was a Billboard hit with emotional depth and sonic variety. Omi’s “Cheerleader” had a horn section playing from the speakers of the backyard frat party down the street. “i” by Kendrick Lamar reintroduced the Isley Brothers to the Top 40 listeners who were formerly unaware of their pop music importance. Genres and specific stylings have started to blur. And among these new mixtures of soul with jazz or pop or rap, the constant has started to edge further away from the unfeeling party hits of yesterdays. However slowly, and however gradually, a new era of bands like Lawrence, an edgy pop duo, are fighting for the resurgence of good pop music.
“We love the idea of pop music,” said Clyde Lawrence, one of the two Lawrence siblings at the forefront of the band. “The accessibility of it, the ‘hookiness’ of it, the catchiness of it all, the ability to hear something once and totally be into it; those are all a lot of things that I love. I just don’t happen to currently like a lot of the pop music. I would love to call our music ‘pop music.’ In fact, I think that our music sounds like what I wish pop music would sound like.”
Gracie Lawrence, the female powerhouse of the band, just graduated from high school. She’s putting off her recent acceptance to Brown University to go on tour with the rest of the band. Clyde Lawrence just graduated from Brown University with most of the other band members. Having used college as a place to collect musicians and create music with them, Clyde never molded his time for the sole purpose of academics.
“For me, college was ... well, I looked at it as a musical opportunity in a lot of ways,” Clyde said. “I don’t mean to belittle the educational opportunities that I received at school. Brown’s a really great academic school, but I went to school with the intention of trying to put together a band.”
So Clyde and Gracie Lawrence and their band of college musicians played gigs in and around the Brown University community. At dance halls, public parties and small gigs up and down the East Coast, the band used their soul-based pop sound and long list of cover songs to attract a groovy college crowd.
“I had always heard that college is a great place to kind of get a start and get a bunch of a shows under your belt,” Clyde said. “If you talked to anyone who knew me at Brown, they would tell you that that was definitely my biggest priority over homework. So for me, it wasn’t either college or music; it was ‘how do we make this music experience count?’ ”
The band’s upcoming album release has been a long time coming for many of the band’s followers. After Clyde’s solo EP release in 2013, Homesick, the band has been taking its time in creating an album they believe will best match the sound they hope to emulate. Under the direction of Soulive member Eric Krasno, the famed producer has helped Lawrence with connecting their upcoming album release to artists with a similar mission and sound.
Krasno’s network and his connection to the Brooklyn blues, soul and funk world, aided the Lawrence clan in collecting musical bedfellows of similar sound and transcending taste.
“We were joking that we should really hit up Cory Henry, the organist from Snarky Puppy and get him on our album,” Gracie said. “And we made that joke in front of Kras and he responded with, ‘Should I call in Henry, do you guys want Cory Henry?’ Same with the drummer from Lettuce, Adam Deitch, Krasno set us up with him to collaborate on our album.”
What about Lawrence, though, is so unique? What places them above or among the soul/pop sounds of today? All these questions are answerable: Lawrence automatically finds originality in the placement and following of their music. The band is categorized by fans as a modern act whose sound and message are linked. Lawrence is like Leon Bridges, Vulfpeck, Lake Street Dive, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, White Denim and many others because of the visceral, emotional, almost tangible reaction that naturally flows from the soulful character of their sound. Forget the conveyor belts of music production where people create the music they think will sell. Lawrence has placed themselves among a selection of modern artists whose music is eternal because they mix catchiness with genuine feeling. They are bound together, across a variety of genres, as those who want their audience to connect as much as they want them to dance and awkwardly sway.
“The whole concept behind the album is that we want it all to feel as though it can coexist with the old and the new,” Clyde said. “You should be able to put on one of our songs at a party right after playing a Stevie Wonder song and it should be able to continue whatever vibe or feeling the audience was just feeling. Then that song could be followed by a Beyoncé or Bruno Mars track.”
With Paul Simon’s Graceland and Carole King’s Tapestry or anything by Stevie Wonder in mind, the band Lawrence placed an intense amount of focus on creating a cohesive album with an overarching emotional arch.
“We are less jammy and less improvisionational than other bands in the soul and funk world because we are so focused on creating the song,” Gracie said. “We’re too focused on the emotion and structure of the song, and then the album as a whole, to allow for too much jam band-like action.”
The art of the cohesive, all-feeling album isn’t lost with bands like Lawrence. Time and specific detail was placed on the ebb and flow of each song in the context of the larger album. Emulating the vision of artists they adore and appreciate, Lawrence has created an album that tells a story, or includes some sort of journey, instead of just a collection of separate pop singles.
“The vibes of each and every song are distinct,” Gracie recounted. “And I don’t know if people still listen to full albums, but hopefully they will because that’s how we wrote our album. We placed intense detail on the emotional journey of the album. We want it to be exciting for the album to tell its own story, and for every song to share its own kind of sound.”
Lawrence, with the help of Eric Krasno, are working against the torrential wave of cookie-cutter pop music that tends to overtake the music industry. Because it’s a band like Lawrence with whom the masses can connect. It is bands like Lawrence who could and should be well-known, but they’re not. And many can’t understand why. I don’t necessarily understand why they aren’t more popular. There is a magnetic and powerful kind of sound that emanates from anything mixing the genres of soul and pop. Lawrence is one of those bands that deliver something magnetic, who feel like a well-kept secret. They’re holding something that more should know about, but they have to look a little harder to find. They’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
Lawrence’s new album will be arriving sometime in the coming month. This coming Monday, February 8, Lawrence is performing at the Crofoot in Pontiac, Michigan. Tickets are $10, and doors open at 7 P.M.