Margaret Glaspy is the New York-based songwriter whose expectation-defying approach and empathetic songs are about to turn the world upside down.
Photos by King Texas
When Margaret Glaspy steps onstage at a small venue in Brooklyn, it's to mixed and polite applause. She's alone, and her guitar is plugged into an amp that looks almost laughably tiny on this empty stage, surrounded by the more formidable equipment of other bands. She checks the amp and the tuning on her guitar and then steps softly up to the mic, politely welcoming the audience. You might be prompted to wonder what this slight, conservative flower of an artist, wearing a simple white blouse and her signature braided pigtails, is doing in front you, without a band. She could be anyone. Then she begins to sing "Emotions and Math" in a gravelly growl of a voice that fills up the entire room.
Give Margaret Glaspy ten minutes of your time, and you'll find yourself tapping your foot or nodding your head along to songs like "Somebody to Anybody." Give her 20 minutes, and you'll be transfixed. Margaret Glaspy is not your barista, your babysitter, or your babe: Whatever expectation you might form for her, she will quickly upend it.
Glaspy—who's found herself compared to the likes of Cat Stevens, Norah Jones, and John Mayer—has a powerful aura surrounding her. At the quiet Thai restaurant on New York's Upper West Side where we met a few days before her Brooklyn show, she was full of warmth, speaking with such confidence and happiness that every time a waiter came up to her, you'd have thought she babysat their kids. We chatted like old friends—which, in a way, we almost were: We soon discovered that, growing up in Northern California, we once participated in the same fiddling competition. But the fiddle has continued to mark people's impressions of Glaspy more than it has for me.
"Everyone else sees [my record] and they're like 'Ah, fiddle! Ah, it's folk!'" she quipped, discussing how her background plays out in her music. "And you're like 'No! Goddammit! I worked so hard in trying to move to different space. It's like 'dammit, there's so much other shit that's going on." Glaspy's music is full of distorted, bluesy electric guitar licks matched with a voice that completely takes over, moving from soft and tender to aggressively twisted. Imagine Alabama Shakes (with whom Glaspy now shares a label, ATO) meets Speedy Ortiz: complex, deceptively heavy riffs with vocals that really stand out and grab you around the throat. With that sound, Glaspy has continued to prove her multifaceted talent and carved out a niche for herself. The 27-year-old, who grew up in the small California town of Red Bluff, worked tooth and nail to get to her current spot in New York City.
"My dad always says 'opportunity favors the prepared,'" Glaspy said. She added, "I think they were always 'if you work your butt off, you'll get more than not working your butt off.'" She took that mantra to heart, finding and focusing her energy on obtaining a grant to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she took vocal and technical lessons for one semester. After the money ran out, she decided to drop out instead of accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, but continued to use her ID to attend master classes and visit professors in office hours. She built a network in Boston, staying in touch with her classmates and occasionally playing shows, where she learned the basics of performance. Her exodus to New York came around 2010, at a time when most of her friends were also moving.
Watch an exclusive live performance of "Somebody to Anybody" below:
"I had so many friends already in New York City and knew that there was just so much happening," she explained. "And so many of my heroes were here that it just made a lot of sense for me to move here, and I think I've always been wanting to move here and I'd made a lot of trips here when I was in Boston so it just kind of made sense. It was a natural progression."
She realized she had to follow through quickly once she arrived, so she got right to work, waking up early every morning to write and securing performances at Rockwood Music Hall. She released her debut EP, Homeschool, in 2012, but it took several more years to put together her debut full-length, out this summer, a process that involved recording the album three different times. She started by recording the demos at home on an iPad. Then she decided to go more in-depth, so she bought recording equipment and taught herself more about engineering so she could record in her apartment on 75th Street. "And then once I was completely done with all that tracking," she smiled, "ATO reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to make a record, and I made a record again in the studio."
It wasn't just the recording process that took time. Glaspy has secretly been writing songs and lyrics for years, constantly revisiting haunting thoughts and making old topics new again by connecting them to current situations. Her song "Parental Guidance" takes a look at the Columbine shooting, reflecting on gun violence, kids getting bullied, and their parents trying their best. When Columbine happened, Glaspy was in sixth grade, but it affected her deeply.
"It really made me think a lot about just how school works and how kids treat one another and how much it affects us when we're young, of how we're treated and how we treat other people," she said. "It rocked my boat for such a long time. You just see how cruel kids can be with one another and it gets all kind of fucked up pretty quickly and it's all out of insecurity."
Glaspy's songs tell stories that focus on heartbreak and longing, but they are even more interested in the strength you can derive from your own person. She falls in love; she gets angry at guys who think she can be persuaded into a relationship just by being around them; she tells stalkers to fuck off. On Homeschool, she prods, "You're smilin' but I don't believe you / you still think I wouldn't leave you." It's been four years since she wrote "You're Smilin' (But I Don't Believe You)," but the music hasn't aged.
It's a sentiment she revisits on her new song "You And I," which appears on a split release with "Somebody to Anybody," when she sings "I'm not looking for an open door to talk about love / Baby you agree but I see you / Saving pictures of / you and I." You probably wouldn't be wrong to assume it's about a relationship, but in her case, it could be about anything: A relationship, the tendency of critics to label her in a way that she doesn't entirely want—a number of things really. Her writing still crackles with an empathetic touch and an aggressive independent streak.Watch an exclusive performance of "You and I" below:
"It feels like just the most beautiful responsibility in certain ways," she said, talking about songwriting. "I feel like when you're a person in humanity, you get a lot of content from that, so wherever you are you get people's stories or you get your own story or whatever. And songwriting, to me, feels like creating a mythology of our generation in a certain way."
As we left the restaurant and walked to Central Park, Glaspy chatted with the photographer who had joined us in between singing quietly to herself and pointing out dogs. Being in her presence is a calming and inspiring one, and it's obvious she isn't taking anything she's currently doing for granted, just in the way she treats the people around her. She is an artist who truly believes in people and in their stories. She writes to join the conversation but also to reach out, to let people know that the things they feel are the same things she feels, too. It was a cold, windy day, and she soon offered me her gloves, noticing my freezing hands. "You should put these on!" she exclaimed, already removing them. "They're amazing."
Glaspy called a friend who owned a nearby apartment to let them know we were going to be stopping by, even though she's been told the home is always open to her. There, we found ourselves on the topic of being female in music industry, a situation where so many people want to desperately relate to the person on the stage, who think they have every song figured out, or who quickly want to compare her to other artists after just one show.
"A general thing is when you make things, people like to tell you what it is, or what's going on, or tell you who you sound like, or tell you what the best route is for you," she said. "You know what you should do. A lot of people have these sentiments, whenever you put things out in the world, I think it just comes with the territory." She proves this a few nights later, when her demure, welcoming demeanor disarms the crowd of people at the venue Baby's All Right. Glaspy has a knack for proving your assumptions wrong, in a very polite but visceral way. "Everybody just wants to be heard and be themselves," she continued. "That's the point of all of us, to do our thing and rage in whatever we're into. And sometimes it's hard because you start to get bogged down by people's' expectations."
"You make one pro-woman lyric and everyone's like 'oh you're a feminist,'" I replied.
"It's a funny conversation for me. I'm so passionate about it, and yet I don't wanna get into the verbiage around it," she said, pausing. "I battle with it because I have to check myself and say 'are you just being scared of the conversation, or are you actually making a statement?' And I have to say I'm making a statement in my own way. I think the next wave of women in terms of where we were and where we've come and where we're going is by letting our actions speak louder than our words in a certain way. Making it so that we're making and doing things that matter and not in a way that's constantly discussing our role in it. Instead actually just contributing to society in a way that matters.
"My form of feminism is trying to have legitimate conversations about it while not making the centerpiece of things that I do because I think it's not about that," she continued. "While it is about that, big picture, I feel my role and responsibility is just to make really good shit and have it be about what I'm making and not the fact that I'm a girl."
Perhaps the best example of this is a recurrence that she addresses on the song "Situation." "There was a character in my life at the time that was lingering around," Glaspy said, carefully. I'd already learned that if she doesn't want to address the topic head on, she'll answer vaguely until you have an idea of what's going on. She continued, "It got me angry in a way that was like somebody was definitely violating my space."
She calls the song that resulted cathartic, and she believes she's lucky to have it on her album because it reminds her of what she has to do. Namely, play music, tell stories, and be a conduit for other people to understand themselves. "I think I have a duty to work as hard as I possibly can in terms of what I've signed up to do," she said. "I have to really show up in order to deliver and not have any regrets about how I've handled this because it feels like a real opportunity."
That's clear as she introduces "Situation" during the show in Brooklyn, asking the audience, "Are you ready for an angry song?" She'd been winning them over all night, and the whole crowd cheered loudly as she started into it, a noticeable difference from the quiet greeting from before. Her fingers rushed over the frets on her guitar, and the solitary figure onstage was transformed. She wouldn't let you take your eyes off you even if you wanted to. The crowd, hypnotized, moved closer.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A small portion of this article has been redacted due to the sensitivity of the material.
King Texas is a photographer from Brooklyn. Find more of his work on his website.
Annalise Domenighini is Noisey's social editor. Follow her on Twitter.