Home » resources » Earthquakes and Butterflies: The songs and sounds of Lucius’ Second Nature

Lucius Second Nature Album CoverInterview by Paul Vnuk Jr

Second Nature is the latest album from Lucius. The band was formed in 2007 by vocalists Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe when the two met at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The band’s unique sound was fully realized with the addition of guitarist Peter Lalish, drummer/producer Dan Molad and Andrew Burri, who left the band in 2017. Jess and Holly’s intertwined vocals are central to the Lucius sound moving as one in perfectly phrased unison and beautifully layered harmonies. 

Written during the pandemic,  Second Nature centers on deeply personal themes of love, childbirth, heartache and divorce. And yet, the album shines with an upbeat, danceable optimism born out of online collaboration and the co-production skills of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile and Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Rival Sons, Sturgill Simpson).

Holly Laessig – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Holly Laessig
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe

Who writes the songs?

Holly: Jess and I write the basic structure, melody, lyrics and chord progressions, and Peter and Danny take it to the next level as far as orchestrating or arranging. 

Jess: Danny is a producer and engineer in his own right. He is always enabling us to explore sound in the studio, and we default to him when it comes to technical stuff.

Previously Holly and I would sit in a room, have our coffee-talk, and explore ideas. When you’re in person, you dilly dally – let’s have some snacks, get some coffee, and it just ends up being a slower process. Obviously, there’s a benefit to that, but now when you are working with others online, nobody wants to be on a Zoom call for hours on end writing. It pushes you to be more efficient.

Jess Wolfe – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Jess Wolfe
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

How do you get into each other’s heads when you’re both coming at life from different perspectives?

Holly: When we first start to write, we talk about things going on in life and sometimes offer another perspective. Our songs have a conversation going on, even if not directly; it’s in the subtext. It feels personal for both of us, whether you’re the listening ear or the one expressing what’s going on.

Jess: We share so much time and space together that we get to witness each other’s lives in a unique way. We can actually write on behalf of the other or in support of the other very naturally.

How do you figure out your vocal parts?

Holly: That’s kind of what our demos are. We are working on the melody and the lyrics, but also the vocal parts and harmonies. Sometimes we’re even using our voices to imitate instruments that we want to be replaced by something else.

Jess: Sometimes, the vocal from the demo is so strong that we have used it in the final record. But we’re also not super pressed about making sure that the demo sounds perfect. We like to have a demo that we can listen to and enjoy so that we know that the song is strong enough.

Lucius with Dave Cobb, Brandi Carlile, Solomon Dorsey, Peter Lalish, and Dan Molad – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Lucius with Dave Cobb, Brandi Carlile, Solomon Dorsey, Peter Lalish, and Dan Molad – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

What is your demo process?

Jess: When we went to Berklee, our laptops came with Reason and GarageBand. We started building tracks early on and making rudimentary demos to get our point across. Then I guess you graduate from GarageBand to Logic. [laughs]

We are Logic-girls because it is fast and easy to work with. We have a [Antelope Audio] Discrete 8 interface and a Shure SM7b. We also have a Neumann KU 100 Dummy Head Binaural Microphone. [Jess grabs it and places it next to her like a third person in the interview.]

How did you decide to work with Dave Cobb and Brandi Carlile?

Jess: Brandi and Dave had seen us live years ago and always wanted to work together. We had spent a lot of time over the years, making records that took months and months to complete, sometimes years. We were interested in creating a record that was decisive and felt captured in the moment. Dave really loved what we did as a unit. He had a very strong vision for how he wanted to capture it and what he wanted it to sound like. And Brandi was such a force that having her in the room makes you really want to do your best.

What sound was Dave after?

Jess: He wanted a disco record, a strong vocal record that made you want to dance.

What was the instrumentation and setup in the studio?

Holly: Each song was a little different. We always tried to start with the band playing together live, and then we would layer about 10,000 synths and drum machines on top of it. We would sing along live in the room on handheld mics just for scratch vocals and actually some of those, I think we kept.

Jess: “Next To Normal” was one of them.

Was there a primary vocal microphone that you used for the album?

Jess: The SM7B. They’re solid, strong microphones with a close, big capture. And we also brought the Neumann head that was used on the background vocals for “Next To Normal”. Then we had it in the room when the band was playing and singing, but I’m not exactly sure what made the final cut.

You used to use a Cloud Microphones 44-A ribbon mic.

Jess: That is the classic Lucius mic. For the last several tours, our front-of-house engineer Brenndan McGuire built us a mic called the Pony mic. He has made several iterations, including a new one for this tour.

He knows our voices so well and knows the different types of live situations we will be putting the mic through. Using a fig-8 ribbon microphone at a festival with wind is a total nightmare.

Holly: It’s actually two condenser mics at two different heights appropriate for Jess and me. They’re in single vintage housing. So it looks like one fig-8 mic, but it offers a lot more control.

Do you track your vocals together or separately?

Jess: Usually, we’re playing off of each other in the same room, but we like doing both. If one of us has an idea, we just go with it, and the other person starts layering on that idea. Sometimes unison, and then we build the harmonies together, and sometimes we sing harmony parts from the get-go.

Holly: Even if we’re recording separately, we know each other’s voices so well we can anticipate what the other person will do. It’s not like we’re staring at each other’s mouth the whole time… it’s a little like Second Nature. [everyone laughs]

What do you like to hear in your headphone mix?

Holly: I have to have myself panned right and Jess panned left. I really need that spatial sense to help me match her. Otherwise, we can be so on together that I am like, where am I? That’s when I can start to go pitchy or things like that.

Jess: I like us both equal volumes, maybe me just like a hair above Holly so I can hear my own inflection. And I like us both front and center. I want to feel like we’re one voice when I’m singing.

Holly Laessig, Jess Wolfe, Solomon Dorsey, Dan Molad at RCA Studio A – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Holly Laessig, Jess Wolfe, Solomon Dorsey, Dan Molad at RCA Studio A Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Who is pickier?

Jess: We’re both picky. It was great to have Brandi for that reason alone. If she tells you, you got the take, you trust that instinct.

How do you control plosives and sibilance, especially when you sing into one mic?

Jess: I have a real aversion to both. My ears are incredibly sensitive. I can not stand cymbals and squeaky guitar strings. The word for it is misophonia.

Holly has more popping, and I have more sibilance, and those things disturb the uniformity of our voices. You just have to be aware and really listen to the outcome.

Holly: Usually that happens in hindsight like hearing back a radio show you did at seven in the morning on the road, and you’re like, there are too many p’s, I need to watch that next time. Or just listening back after you record a song. You sing differently live in the room; then, when you sing into a microphone, you have to perform differently.

Do you have any favorite vocal effects?

Jess: Reverb and lots of it!

Holly: Reverb is a singer’s best friend.

Jess: We were lucky to be in RCA Studio A, and we did a few things at East-West that have incredible spaces and echo chambers.

Do you track live with reverb?

Jess: When we’re trying to do special effects, like leading into the chorus of “Next To Normal,” we treat our voices as we’re recording. It enables us to play with the sound as we create, like the trails and whatnot.

What about modern vocal processes like tuning?

Jess: If something is blatantly flat, but the rest of the take is good, we will tune it, but it’s not a default. We like to leave slight imperfections in because it makes things feel human. We are perfectionists, but we also want you to feel and get something from the recording that moves you.

Jess, does your misophonia affect the album’s mixing when it comes to cymbals and such?

Jess: Yes.

So in a way, that’s part of the Lucius sound.

Jess: Yeah, there’s been many songs where I’ve told Danny, no cymbals. Cymbals can interfere with vocals. They are very much in the same space.

There’s this custom cymbal maker in Adelaide that Joey Waronker [drummer] introduced me to when we were on tour with Roger Waters in Australia, Craig Lauritsen. I got Danny a cymbal from him, and it’s the only one I’ve ever heard that I’m like, this is the greatest sounding thing! It does not annoy me! [laughs]

How did recording Nudes at Electric Lady with a stripped-down acoustic vibe inform this album?

Holly: The biggest takeaway from Nudes was that we were not precious about it. We had one day, we were like, let’s go in there and just record live in a room. We had never done that before.

I didn’t realize that Nudes was recorded in one day.

Holly: Maybe it was two, but half of a day was the photoshoot for it.

Jess: The photographer took pictures while we set up and worked out arrangements, but the whole thing was very straight ahead.

How do you guys settle mixing disputes?

Holly: We’ve been working together for so long that we know what the sound is that we’re chasing and the balance of everybody.

Jess: There’s not a lot of conflict. As far as technical notes, we give Danny a lot of space to take the lead there.

Which song was the easiest to record, and which one was the hardest?

Jess: “Second Nature” was maybe the easiest. It was the first song we recorded.

Holly: We got the vibe down really quickly.

Jess: And we were singing in unison the entire time, so there wasn’t much figuring out background vocal parts or anything like that.

I will say “White Lies” for the hardest because it went through a few iterations before getting back to basically what our demo was. There was some effort to make it a little more driving, which felt unnatural to me emotionally, and we scrapped most of that. It needed to just be the two of us in a room, at the piano, essentially. 

I’m curious. What were you going to say, Holly?

Holly: “Turn Into Love” because it was two songs we married together at Brandi’s suggestion.

I don’t remember that on the album.

Jess: Sorry, “Tears In Reverse.” There was “Tears In Reverse” and “Turn Into Love,” and we married the two of them.

Holly: That took a minute just to wrap our heads around.

Jess: One song was clearly a potential single, and it just wasn’t happening. We were trying different routes, and it was not coming together, and it was unfortunate, maybe someday.

Holly: It just wasn’t its time. That’s all.

This has been awesome. I really appreciate it.

Jess: Thanks so much, Paul.

Holly: Thank you. Bye.

Dan Molad Home Studio – Photo by Dan Molad
Dan Molad Home Studio Photo by Dan Molad

Dan Molad

What is the Lucius sound?

It’s evolved record by record. When we first started making music together about twelve years ago, they had already made Songs From The Bromley House [2007] in the realm of Ingrid Michaelson or Norah Jones – a very adult-alternative songwriter vibe.

They wanted to move toward something more dancey, so we would throw ideas back and forth – what about this instrument? What about this beat? It was very fluid, malleable and creative, which became Wildewoman [Mom+Pop 2013].

While making that record, I introduced them to my long-time music collaborator Peter Lalish. As Holly is to Jess, Pete is to me, in terms of how we make music together. Then I introduced them to our ex-bandmate, Andy. Over time our musical language kept getting re-built and clearer in terms of what we were going for. Fast forward all the way to this record.

Any specifics?

Jess and Holly are much clearer about the development of their sound. They know that they like to double their vocals, and when to do backgrounds, it’s like you are getting two for one. Double tracking happens twice as fast because they’ll either sing the same part or harmonize live and then double that.

I am amazed by their controlled vocal technique.

When we were recording Wildewoman, I had a Bock 251 mic that I would put in fig-8, and I would have them sing on either side of it. I encouraged them to listen to who was louder and quieter, and they would blend themselves. One thing I thought was cool was they’re super-belters, and it seemed that because the capsule was getting hit from both directions, it almost created this interesting distortion. Maybe it was psychosomatic, but that I thought was really unique.

As a producer and audio engineer that regularly uses outside producers, how is it to step out of the driver’s seat?

During the making of Wildewoman, Shawn Everett [Kacey Musgraves, The Killers, Adele] mixed a few tracks, and then he got brought on as producer for Good Grief [Mom+Pop 2016].

I’ve always been of the mindset that if we get someone in to produce that I love and respect, like Tony Berg, Sean, or Dave Cobb, it’s kind of like a masterclass for me. I get to take all that knowledge home with me and bring it onto other projects.

That’s a great view.

There are occasions when ego gets involved, and I might want to steer the ship in a different direction. But it’s healthy to kill your ego, work with other people and just learn as much as possible. I’m a student forever.

You also went to Berklee?

Essentially I was a music technology major, and I did music synthesis by proxy. Actually, I didn’t meet Holly and Jess at Berkeley. I met them after school.

And you ended up on drums? 

I ended up on the drums over the years because I’ve always struggled with reading music. I’ve studied it, and it’s just one of those things where it’s, in one ear out the other. I consider myself a pretty good drummer. I’m not very technical by any means, but I have a really strong understanding of song form, and it’s really quick for me to find a part for a song.

When it comes to synthesis, I am attracted to sonics and finding textures that fit in a certain frequency range. Where someone might say this song needs guitar or a horn part, I think of it in terms of high-end texture, and I use synthesis and sound design to communicate that.

My 12-year old son was listening to the new album with me yesterday, and he said it reminded him of music that would be playing in the mall in Stranger Things, which is his way of pointing out the classic 80s synth-vibe.

Oh, wow! [both laugh]

Dave Cobb wanted to make a dance record. In terms of synths, he had a Yamaha DX7, a Roland Juno 106, and a Behringer Model-D Minimoog knockoff. Solomon Dorsey, who played bass on the record, brought his iMac with Native Instruments Kontakt and a bunch of softsynths. We used those to do things the hardware synths can’t, but most of the synths you hear on the record are just DX7 and 106.

What was the initial tracking setup?

Dave wants things to be as fresh as possible, like first takes, and he was insistent that we didn’t know the songs before we got into the studio. For many of the songs, he would have me program a beat in this little Roland MC-707 Groovebox, and that was the bed that we would play on top of and build things on.

There were some songs where we did complete passes, but Dave is very much – first idea, best idea. So on some songs, he would have us start at a chorus and then stop, and it might be the first time I had heard the music, but we would move on.

At first, It was unnatural for me to wrap my head around and get to a place where my body kind of felt the song. It took me until about halfway through the album before I got a better understanding of what he was doing.

Who was the engineer on the sessions?

That was one of the people I was most excited to work with. His name is Greg Koller. He has done lots of engineering for Jon Brion. I’m a huge Jon Brion fan and hence a huge Greg fan.

How were your drums miked up?

The miking on the drums was pretty elaborate. We had an AKG D-112 on the kick, some contact mics on the snare, and the high hat for a lo-fi blend, in addition to other standard drum mics. There was a mono Neumann U47 on the kit and some M49 mics for the room.

Dave has tons of drums, and I kept pulling lots of drums out for different songs to change things up. Keep it interesting.

I love the killer guitar tones Peter gets on the record.

On the song “Next To Normal,” the dry fuzzy tone was two Chandler EMI REDD.47 preamps into each other for that classic overdriven DI sound. For most of the record, Pete played through this little Benson combo amp that he had borrowed from Chris Benson.

The bass was a combination of direct and an old Ampeg B15 tube amp.

Did you mix a couple of songs on the album?

I mixed four songs at my studio. Lucius tends to have a lot of mix notes, so it was mainly in the box, but I would run out into some of my outboard gear. I have a Fat Bustard II Summing Mixer from Thermionic Culture, and I have Pendulum Audio ES-8 that I use as my bus compressor. About a year and a half ago, I got a Stam Audio Engineering StamChild SA-670 tube compressor. I was hoping to use that as my bus compressor, but one side is not working, so I used that as my main vocal compressor.

Do you use any outboard effects?

I have an Echoplex and a Roland Space Echo. Sometimes I’ll just use them for distortion or saturation. I’ll saturate the tape 100% wet and then move it back in place in the computer.

What do you monitor on?

I have ProAc monitors and a Hafler power amp. Then I also have a set of Avantone Pro MixCube speakers. I have been mixing on Amphion monitors in other studios, so I am looking to get a set of those.

What songs did you mix?

I mixed “Heartbursts,” “Dance Around It,” “Tears In Reverse,” and I did a version of “Second Nature,” but I think we ended up picking Rob’s mix for the release. Rob would stick closer to what we did in the studio and not veer off the path too far, whereas I like to push things a little further. I try to bring something different that gets me excited about it, so much so that sometimes people are like, wow, this is totally off. [both laugh]

On “Heartbursts,” there’s a synth pad that sounds like the tape is fluttering in and out of pitch. 

I’m definitely a big fan of the warble! I think I was using the SketchCassette plugin from Aberrant DSP on that. However, I still have a tendency to use my Echoplex for those types of sounds, or I have an old TASCAM 388 eight-track Portastudio with Dolby noise reduction that gives me a compressed lo-fi thing.

IK Multimedia just came out with a plugin emulation of that and a Porta One four-track you should try. It’s instant nostalgia. What DAW are you working in?

I’ve been using ProTools for twenty years. As far back as Good Grief, all of Jess and Holly’s demos would start in Garageband, and then Pete and I would take their demos and completely disassemble them. We would re-harmonize parts, try different chords, change melody notes to something less predictable. Each of us tries to leave our creative mark, and that’s important to me.

What do you guys do when your mix notes conflict?

At the end of the day, Jess and Holly are at the top of the food chain, but we all know instinctively what the song needs. The tug of war is between wanting things to be simpler and more straightforward, and how can we sneak in something weird so that this isn’t just a conventional pop song? Where can we insert the flat-six chord, add tension, or play a Mixolydian scale to add surprise? It feels good when you can sneak in a musical Easter egg. I like being a little mischievous.

What song do you think was the hardest to record?

I would agree with Jess and Holly that “Tears In Reverse” was tough, amalgamating two different songs. There was another song, “The Man I’ll Never Find,” that I had this vision for, but I never could fully communicate what I wanted to hear or make it happen.

I wanted it to be a synthetic mixture of Solina String Ensemble,
Mellotron and Korg Polyphonic Ensemble, doing everything a string arrangement would do without actually being real strings, just to tie it to the rest of the record. We ended up getting a really beautiful string arrangement done by Rob Moose, who is brilliant. And it’s funny because I knew Rob would do a great job. I just wanted to try a different direction.

Which song was the easiest?

I would say “Muse,” which I think might be a B-side. Which is funny because it’s my favorite song on the record, and it’s not on the record. [laughs]

Oddly enough, the same song I mentioned about the strings, “The Man I’ll Never Find,” felt very easy in terms of my drum performance. That was a song that we played live all of us in the room, and I think it was pretty much one drum take from beginning to end. The drums are very expressive, almost having a conversation without stepping on the vocals.

Anything else that we should know about the making of Second Nature?

One cool thing is the way Dave’s studio was set up. He had a Neve 1073 console in the live room for tracking. And then, in the control room, he had another console, and we would go in there to do overdubs. Sometimes the girls would be tracking vocals in the live room while we would be in the control room doing overdubs, edits and fixes. It was like this little song factory which was fun. I really enjoyed that.

Paul, thank you so much. I got to run to rehearsal.

Have a great rehearsal. Thanks, Dan!

Holly Laessig, Brandi Carlile, Jess Wolfe and Dan Molad at RCA Studio A – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Holly Laessig, Brandi Carlile, Jess Wolfe and Dan Molad at RCA Studio A Photo by Alysse Gafkjen