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 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.
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.
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.