The band's latest project sees frontman Dave Longstreth sharing the spotlight with backup vocalists Felicia Douglass, Maia Friedman, and Kristin Slipp.

By Eli Enis
August 19, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Jason Frank Rothenberg

Three years ago, Dirty Projectors were a very different band. They had always been  founder Dave Longstreth’s baby, but after splitting with his partner and longtime bandmate Amber Coffman in 2013, he decided to pare things down. The group's next record, four years later, included work from more than a dozen session musicians. Yet its post-breakup subject matter was acutely personal for a Projectors release, and Longstreth presented himself as the sole face of the group in press photos. 

It would all shift again in 2018, during the touring cycle for Lamp Lit Prose. In addition to on-again, off-again drummer Mike Johnson, Longstreth enlisted three other respected musicians from the New York City indie scene to round out his live ensemble: percussionist/keyboardist Felicia Douglass, guitarist Maia Friedman, and keyboardist Kristin Slipp. Together, the group of five made for a serious cluster of talent.

Following their tour in 2019, Longstreth decided to take the collaboration one step further. Rather than write a new album and having everyone play on it at once, he collected 20 new songs he was working on, broke them into five separate EPs with five distinct musical styles, and had the singers in the band sing lead on each one, with the final installment of the series bringing everyone together. The project marks the least Longstreth-focused set of material in the band's 18-year history.

“I think for me, to find a way to explore a bunch of different styles at once seemed exciting,” Longstreth says. “And then to do that while also giving everybody in the band a platform seemed way more interesting than just to make another album.” 

Douglass was excited about the concept too, especially the prospect of recording it as a series of EPs. "I’m a big fan of EPs as opposed to full albums,” she says. “Just because people have really short attention spans.”

Coincidentally, Douglass and Longstreth were first introduced to one another because of an album; her dad Jimmy Douglass is a renowned engineer and producer who mixed a song on Dirty Projectors 2017 self-titled record, and ended up playing Longstreth some of his daughter’s material. But when Douglass — along with Friedman and Slipp — were first brought into the Projectors' live lineup, hitting the studio wasn’t something any of them were anticipating. 

“When we first joined the band we were just hopping on as touring members,” says Douglass, who heads up her own band Gemma and is a member of Brooklyn indie-pop weirdos Ava Luna. “I wasn’t thinking like, ‘Yeah, eventually we’ll probably just write a new album.’”

Longstreth didn’t have a master plan either. The way he tells it, the idea for the EPs came about swiftly and organically, and the whole project was executed in a string of brief, one-on-one studio sessions with each singer as they passed through L.A. on various tours. It’s fitting, then, that the working title of the series was called Life Is What Happens! — its official name is 5EPs — which stems from a phrase Longstreth scribbled on the session’s hard drive. Its improvisational connotation captures the instinctual spirit of the project.

“I think [it’s] keeping with this era of songs, where it’s more organic, it’s more kinetic,” he says. “It’s more sharing a feeling, sharing an idea before you necessarily even know what it means.” 

Felicia Douglass with Dave Longstreth.
| Credit: Jason Frank Rothenberg

For his bandmates, each session resulted in a batch of songs that catered to their own creative personalities, but also pushed them to explore new modes of songwriting and performance. Friedman’s EP, Windows Open, kicked off the series back in March and is what her and Longstreth describe as the “folk” installment of the project. 

“The songs feel like they’re songs to the people, for the people,” says Friedman, who also sings in dream-pop group Uni Ika Ai. “Illustrations of idyllic life paired with illustrations of social injustices or inequalities, sort of like protest songs.”

Compared to some of the other tracks in this series — and throughout Dirty Projectors’ often bright, colorful discography — there’s nary an electric guitar to be found on these four acoustic numbers. 

“When we were recording, Dave kept on being like, ‘Sing as quietly as you can. Just really softly,’” Friedman says. “And I think that that really allowed for a level of intimacy. I was singing very close to the mic, which allowed me to work with my voice in a really fun way that made it feel very rich and sensual.”

Douglass’ EP, Flight Tower, is the inverse of that. Songs like the snappy “Lose Your Love” and the rhythmic “Self Design” feature the bright production and playful embellishments that Longstreth explored on Lamp Lit Prose. He calls it “pursuing an idea of perfect pop songwriting," a method that pushed Douglass out of her experimental comfort zone while also better serving her soaring alto register.

“When Dave played ‘Lose Your Love' specifically, I was immediately drawn to it and was like, ‘I need to hear this again, I love this so much,’” Douglass recalls. “When you’re collaborating there’s always that element of, ‘Well, will this resonate with me?’ But I was telling Dave, I think it’s a little uncanny how well the songs fit my musical interest and style.” 

The next EP in the series is Super João, where Longsreth sings lead, followed by Slipp's, which represents the most avant-garde project in the series. Longstreth constructed it by cutting up orchestral arrangements in a way that harkens back to the process he used for 2006’s The Getty Address. Working on it gave Slipp the opportunity to revisit her roots as a classical soprano vocalist. 

“Dave always refers to me as a soprano,” Slipp says. “Once in a while after a set he’ll introduce the band and be like, ‘The Soprano, Kristin Slipp,’ which is hilarious because I would never call myself that anymore.... I think him knowing my vocal flexibility, he was like, ‘Kristin gets to sing the weird, contemporary classical music, that makes the most sense.’ And I agree.”

Although the range of the music was a familiar fit, the actual process of writing the lyrics and then singing them was completely new to Slipp. Longstreth had recorded placeholder demos with his voice sped up in a way that made him sound like a chipmunk, and they just ran those on a loop while she translated them into her own delivery.

“Somehow, the performances of those weird chipmunk Dave vocals really got embedded in my ear,” says Slipp, who sings in the indie-folk band Cuddle Magic and writes songs as mmeadows with former Beyoncé collaborator Cole Kamen-Gree. “There are a couple of moments [on the EP] where it’s like, ‘Is that sped up?’ And I was actually singing it live and I was channeling this sort of animatronic vibe.”

There’s no lyrical or thematic throughline across 5EPs, but it does capture a more intangible motif: the celebration of creativity and the fortuitous bonds that form in the process. At least that’s how Longstreth seems to think of it. 

“In the same way that maybe these songs will sort of introduce the band members a little bit more to fans of Dirty Projectors, they introduced us to each other.”

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