Musician Margaret Glaspy is Exploring “Devotion” in Quarantine

Margaret Glaspy on Exploring “Devotion” in Quarantine
Glaspy on stage at Rockwood Music Hall on February 25, 2020. (Gus Philippas / WFUV Public Radio / Flickr )

When Margaret Glaspy imagined the release of “Devotion,” her sophomore record, it didn’t include a world-wide quarantine.

But such was the case when the album was released by ATO records this March. Glaspy, 31, has continued her personal devotion to “making” in quarantine—spending her days playing benefit shows, taking remote classes at Harvard, knitting, writing short stories, baking and finding purpose in process. 

“Devotion” is a mark of her commitment to process through electronic pop, a sonic shift away from her highly praised folk debut. With lyrics that delve into gray areas of love, art and political engagement, Glaspy holds up multidimensionality in earnest. On “Consequences,” written shortly after the 2016 election, she sings:

What happens after this? / Will there be consequences or a quiz? / Should I stay oblivious? / Or should I fight it and start a riot?

The singer spoke with Ms. writer Emily Sernaker from her quarantine in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She shared her hopes to reach others who could use a lift, and how the act of creating anchors her, even now.  

Emily Sernaker: When did you know that devotion was the topic you wanted to explore on the record?

Margaret Glaspy: I was excited to have Devotion as the title of my record because it encapsulates a part of me that really likes to be surrounded by people that have a passion and sense of devotion in their lives. 

There’s something about watching people that are kind of obsessive about what they do. I really like that. For instance, I want to be Nancy Silverton when I grow up. I really love Nancy Silverton; I like baking a lot. She’s been [around] the world and back to figure out how to make the world’s best sourdough bread loaf. I love her sense of devotion to her work. It’s very all-encompassing. To me that’s exciting—I really love that mentality, and I love being around those kinds of people. 

Devotion hasn’t always been very trendy. There’s a feeling, maybe from a younger generation, saying ‘we don’t care, and we’re just going to do whatever we want.’

Right now I’m 31 years old, and I’m excited about being sincere and earnest. Saying what I mean, meaning what I say. When I was a little younger, maybe on my first record, there was a sense of proving myself. This record is a different message. I want to share feelings of love and devotion, and not be afraid of it. This feels like uncharted territory for me. 

ES: You’ve mentioned being interested in a gray area when writing…even your love songs explore spaces where love and conflict combine. Can you speak a bit more about that?

MG: We learn a lot by what we consume. And most movies, TV and music shows us highs and lows. By highs and lows I mean—absolutely in love, or absolutely heartbroken. Or the happiest moment ever. Those stories get documented really well and often.

I get excited when there’s more complex characters involved—I think we spend most of our lives in the gray area. We’re never absolutely happy. [There is always a combination], whenever we’re happy there’s still sadness in our lives. 

On some level everything’s kind of dualistic. I like when a musician can capture that well. That’s what I spend most of my time trying to do. I ask: Are you making a narrative or making a song that means something on an actual human level? Or is it kind of exploitation of a feeling? Is it taking something for a ride in a direction that makes it feel untouchable, in a way? Or feels almost manipulative? I think certain ways of making things can almost feel manipulative to the listener.

Because you can write things in a way that makes a listener say, “I wish my life was like that.” An alternative is to write things in a way that makes a listener say—”My life is like that. I’ve felt that before.” I’m interested in the second lane of thought.

At the same time, honestly, sometimes you need a song that is something to aspire to. But I think sometimes in aspiration there can also be a sense of self-hate. Especially if it makes you feel like, ‘Well my life’s not like that, so I don’t like myself.’

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ES: How do you think the messages toward women fit in to the album? For example, “Vicious” is a very assertive, direct song.

MG: “Vicious” is directed toward not one person but more of a mentality. Anybody in the world that tries to succeed at something is subject to [judgement]. The terror of the internet, people who think you’re not going to succeed, people who don’t want you to succeed at something. That song in particular is really looking at the essence of someone earnestly that is being mean or cruel and saying: What is your agenda? Why are you cruel? 

Being a woman making records, there is an air that is kind of condescending, that is trying to make you look stupid, often. The mentality I’m always trying to have in those situations is not one that gives everyone the middle finger and storms away. It’s more to look at the human beings around me, male or female, and say: How did this person get here? And really mean it, with empathy.

ES: Are there female vocalists or songwriters whose careers you admire or people who have moved through some of those challenges that you’re drawn to?

MG: One would be Joni Mitchell. I think she really held her own throughout her career. I was not alive for a good portion of that, in kind of looking at her career in the rearview mirror and looking at all the music she’s made—I don’t hear messages of her being brought down or really feeling discriminated as much. I really hear her seeing herself as a human being that’s kind of transcendent in a way.

Another person I really love that transcends that discrimination as well is Missy Elliott. I’m a huge, huge Missy Elliott fan. Her music is so unique and really wonderful, and the way she’s managed to create her own world and style and really speak for herself pointedly in her lyrics, it feels like she’s in control of her own narrative in a way that I aspire to. It’s really special.

ES: On this album, you’re trying new sounds and forms. Some people would be afraid to experiment. What was that like for you? 

MG: I think it’s pretty inherent to the way that I perceive what my job is. I’ve [experimented] with music for a long time. I was a fiddle player when I was young. Then I was only playing the acoustic guitar. Then I evolved into a different place, probably in my early twenties I picked up an electric guitar. When my music became more publicized—that was in my electric guitar phase.

But they aren’t just phases. I like turning over rocks and seeing what’s underneath them. The through-line is usually revealing some sense of humanity. I’m kind of obsessed with that. That’s why I like song-writing: it makes me feel connected. It helps me understand people around me, and their emotions. The medium totally changes as I go through these different fascinations with human behavior.

ES: I understand you’re taking remote classes at Harvard. What’s that like?

MG: Yes, I’m in my second semester. It’s pretty new, but it was also a pretty big decision for me just because I am doing other things in tandem with it.

I was on tour for about two and a half years for the record “Emotions and Math.” When you’re touring you’re kind of moving in such an interesting vacuum. After a while, it was so much output that I realized I didn’t really have much input.

So, having Harvard—it’s such an intimate experience, to me. Because it really is just because I want to do it. No one’s telling me to go to school right now. When I show up it’s so liberating to be involved in something that isn’t onstage. It’s just a prize to better my mind and expand my horizons.

ES: Would you speak a little more about artistic devotion? What does that mean to you?

MG: This record was a challenge at times because I’d just come off of tour for a really long time, so in seeing it through there was this theme of kind of sticking with it and really holding it close, and going through it together. It was really this labor of love, me and my record, I almost talk about it like it’s a person or something. There was me changing my own sonic footprint and exploring was really fun. It also had these wild moments because I was out of my element. 

I am naturally good at writing songs on the guitar. I got rid of my crutch and started to make things in a different way. Through that—I could have given it up, but I stuck to it and was really devoted to making this record a very particular way, because it felt like my brain was getting satiated and getting tickled in a way it wasn’t used to. 

Margaret Glaspy live in Studio A, 6.2.16 ( Sabrina Sitton / WFUV Public Radio / Flickr )

ES: What has being devoted to art added to your life?

MG: I feel very lucky to have something that I feel passionate about. It used to scare me that I felt passionate about too many things, that it felt almost scattered. But when I realized, ‘Oh I’m actually just a maker,’ it did make me feel passionate about one thing: making.

In my heart of hearts I’m really a maker rather than a musician. I like to make anything, always. Music is one of those things. I look at music and songs like making a project, making a puzzle. There’s kind of an end product. And then I go make bread, and I kind of feel like I’m making a song. I go knit a sweater (I’m really into knitting too) and then I’ll feel like that’s kind of a song in its own right. I’ll read a book, or take a class, and that feels similar to knitting. It all feels similar to me and it just depends on what I’m into at that time. 

I’m excited to have the experience of understanding how things work and putting them together. That is what I’m put on this planet to do—use my hands and my brain in tandem in order to create stuff. Whether that is music or food, or something else, making brings me a lot of pleasure and a lot of purpose.

ES: I enjoyed the way you were talking about the woman who makes sourdough. Are there a few other female makers that inspire you? From any genre—knitting? Cooking? 

MG: Nancy Silverton is definitely—she sparks joy and admiration that I just can’t deny. And my sister is a visual artist and her medium is through embroidery. I really look up to her a lot. She had been an athlete through her college life; she was a soccer player. And throughout that, she was on track to play soccer and then changed and became an art major. All along you could have put her in this box of being an athlete, but while she was an athlete she was always making art. She embraced that and now makes these really beautiful pieces. I’ve always looked to her for inspiration.

Another person is Bjork. I look at the way she’s traversed her whole career and the things she’s made—visual, musical, and also just the kind of art she’s made out of herself, her life. The costume design. It’s very heavy, high-level art. I really admire her—the way she’s able to put her sense of art in the forefront is really inspiring.

ES: Do you have a new relationship with devotion to art in the middle of quarantine? What do you see as an artist’s role in all this?

MG: While it felt like a kick in the gut at first—especially to lose touring and have the record come out now—it slowly became apparent that it was “meant to be” in some way. Certainly, I don’t wish that it was “meant to be” in terms of COVID-19 happening. But in terms of the timing of this record coming out—when people are at home and feeling scared and fearful—anything I can do to be of service. I would want to do that now.  

I just played a benefit show that was contributing toward supporting musicians in New York. All of our community is laid off right now. Everybody is out of work. I know that spans across so many industries. It’s a nice feeling to have something to give at this time.

It does leave me thinking: What else can I do? How else can I contribute? I worked on this record for a long time, and it’s an awkward time to release it in so many ways, but on a human level it makes a lot of sense. I’m glad to bring whatever comfort I can.


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.