Leighton Meester on Taking Her Album 'Heartstrings' on the Road, Nerding Out Over Neil Young

Leighton Meester on Taking Her Album 'Heartstrings' on the Road, Nerding Out Over Neil Young

By Chris Steffen

Feb. 18, 2015

When Leighton Meester released her debut album Heartstrings last October, it was easy to hear the record as the work of a singer/songwriter and not as an actor merely moonlighting as a musician. Sure, her Gossip Girl credit needs to be listed somewhere, but what's more interesting to us is the record, which our Stephen Thomas Erlewine gave four stars and praised as a "genuine surprise: an adult alternative album that straddles the past and present; one that gains strength from its classical elements but has a modern sensibility, and an album that's a soothing pleasure."

Meester kicks off her first tour in support of Heartstrings tonight in Virginia, and we caught up with her to talk about the tour and the emotional conflict she feels while writing songs, and to dig deep into some analysis of Neil Young.

AllMusic: This is your first run of shows since Heartstrings came out. Is it also your first tour overall?

Leighton Meester:
For this record, definitely. I went on a tour a few years ago with some of the same music, but it wasn't at all the same—it was the same songs, but not the same music, which was interesting, because I feel like it really helped me figure out what direction I wanted to go in and it gave me inspiration for how I wanted it to sound and not sound, and just to enjoy it live for a while, then buckling down and recording everything. I did a residency at Hotel Café in L.A., which has been really fun. I’m excited to hit the road.

I’m just excited that anyone is possibly coming to the shows who has actually heard the songs before on the record. We definitely are going to put together a great show, when we had our residency every show was a different setup. Some shows we had upright bass and piano and acoustic guitars, and other times we had a full-on electric band with a full drum kit, sort of shaping the narrative of each show that we’re going to do when we’re on the road, which I’m excited for.

AllMusic: Do you enjoy being able to bring a different energy to the electric versus the acoustic sets?

Obviously, it brings along a different mood, but the electric setup is much closer to the record and the sounds that we were creating. My producer, who was instrumental—I made a pun—in finding the right sounds and putting together the band and musicians, so he’s really been great about being a band leader and sitting down and finding out what sounds we need to create. So while the electric setup is very close to the record, to pare it down and have just the acoustic sound, there’s something more emotional about it, because I connected with the words of the songs ,that’s the most important thing for me, for me to feel like I’m communicating that, so a mixture of both is what we’re going to do on the road.

AllMusic: You said that lyrics are important to you—what's a song you love that has changed meaning for you over time?

I just got in my car a little while ago, and my phone started playing Neil Young, and the song “Old Man” came on, and it’s an amazing song, but there was something about it today where I used to listen to that song and not realize at all what it meant, and I thought it was cool and beautiful, and I was like, “OK, I get what he was saying,” but it just clicked for me, for what I’m assuming it means, or what it means to me, which is that it’s sad and sarcastic and there’s some pain there. It only hit me today.

AllMusic: I've been listening to his song "I Believe in You" a lot lately, and it has some of that same feeling to it.

It sounds so contradictory, is he joking when he’s saying “I believe in you,” because it sounds like that person is kind of fucking him over a little bit. It sounds to me like that bittersweet thing where it’s ending and you know it, but you love the person so much and it’s so hard for it to be over, and you’ll never stop believing in them. “I believe in you” is such a beautiful expression, but it’s also kind of sad. It’s not losing hope. I relate to him in this way that, especially as a woman, if you listen to a male singer/songwriter, a lot of times you can hear it, but his lyrics and his childlike quality, or at least his connection and sympathy for the child in him, it’s nostalgic and it’s also a little corny, in the best possible way, he’s not afraid of being open and insecure and young, which really speaks to me.

What I was listening to today, once I decided I was going to listen to Neil Young for a bit, was “Words,” that song is really good, too. That veers off into an interesting place. I think the beauty is in his simplicity, you can tell he’s not judging himself, he just writes these songs that are simple, but the lyrics obviously mean something and always will. I’m not him, I didn't grow up in that time, I’m not a man, I’m not Canadian, but I think it’s beautiful that it’s so simple.

I could never even begin to hope to mimic Neil Young, but I feel as though I found some kind of sarcasm and irony in “Old Man,” the youth and the “I’m an idiot” kind of thing, and I feel as though that’s an inspiration for me for when I write my own songs, to some degree, because every time I go to say “I love you…but not too much” or “I need you…but not today.” I feel like every time I sit down to write major chord, happy love songs, there’s always a little bit of sarcasm, but it’s based in my own insecurities and fears that maybe I won’t be loved back or it’s just a defense. In my writing, it’s like I’m saying, “This is such a happy song,” but it’s not, it’s totally lonely and desperate.

AllMusic: It's easy to understand the pressure of a songwriter thinking their songs need to fit into one box.

Whenever I sit down and I say, “Time to write,” nothing comes. I feel I spare myself in that tiny portion of time any self-judgment of “is it going to be good” or “no one’s going to like this” or “no one will understand,” because that’s not what it’s about at all, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that, but this record is definitely a collection of songs that I wrote that way, “Don’t rethink that line, that’s what you meant to say.” Some of the lyrics, I’d just start playing a song on the guitar, not singing, just come up with a melody and record myself, and a lot of times, words would come out, sentences and phrases, it wouldn't really make sense, but I’d go back and re-listen to it and write down everything I’d said, and sometimes one sentence would come out and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what that song’s about,” and then I’d form the rest of the song around it. Sometimes I did say, “Push it a little bit happier,” or, “Try to make this make a little bit more sense,” but never was I like, “That’s corny, no one will ever think this is a fun song.” The concern, for me, isn't trying to make money off of it, it’s, “Will people hear it, will people like it?”

AllMusic: What was your musical upbringing. what did you hear around the house?

Growing up I did hear a lot of music played while hanging around the house. My dad always played a lot of Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, the Police, and some blues and jazz and world music. Some samba music. Then I also have an older brother, so he introduced me to a lot of bands, like when I was eight and he was going on 12, I wanted to be him, to be cool like him, so I remember him making me a tape that I took on a class trip, and it had Nirvana and some Green Day and some Led Zeppelin. Then, of course, there was MTV. When I was left to my own devices, I’d just watch that for hours, I remember going to my grandpa’s house during the summer and just sitting there and watching MTV for like eight hours straight. Then when I was a little bit older I started listening to my own CDs. I remember I listened to No Doubt, Joni Mitchell, then later it was Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. I also really liked divas, I loved Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and those ladies.

AllMusic: Heartstrings is a pretty concise album. It feels like when we were kids everyone was cramming as much music as possible on a CD.

I didn't really plan for that in some sort of strategic way. I had recorded another song, so it was 10 songs, but the tenth song just didn't make sense with the rest of the record. It didn't tell the story, it wasn't part of the story that the record tells, it just seemed out of place. I was thinking, “Is nine songs enough?” When you talk about this stuff, you say, “In this day and age…” It’s just so different than anything that you could have ever known growing up. Records were like 13, 14 songs, you needed a good hour to listen. I think it’s good because there’s no "press skip" sense with a short record. I don’t know if people feel that way or not about mine, but with a shorter record it’s easier to grasp. I also want people to buy the record as a whole and to experience it from beginning to end, and the songs themselves are not insanely long, although some of my favorite records have 20-minute songs on them. I know people’s attention sometimes isn't long enough when it comes to a first listen through. I’m really pleased with the fact that it’s short, and yet I do feel like everything is where it’s supposed to be.

AllMusic: Are there any long songs you love?

One of my most recent, very, very favorite records was Wakin on a Pretty Daze, the Kurt Vile record. I think the first song is 10 minutes, maybe longer, it’s very long. There’s a lot of songs on there, and it’s a long record, but I love every second of it.

AllMusic: Are there any musical styles you appreciate but wouldn't want to dive into yourself?

I like country music and I think it’s really fun to sing and to play, but I don’t think I’d try to ever venture into anything mainstream country. I think that it has a place in my heart, but I probably wouldn't want to try to go down that road. I don’t think you should ever say that you can’t do something. I wouldn't want to scream all over a track, that would not be fun, nor would it sound good.

AllMusic: I remember seeing Thirty Seconds to Mars early in their career and the crowd was full of kids trying to get their DVDs of Fight Club signed. Are your crowds respectful of the idea that this is you doing something in a different sphere?

By and large, yeah. It’s interesting, in the last few years I've been working and having a real variety in my acting and then with music, sort of forging ahead and doing what feels right, and so far, so good, I've been really lucky and really happy with everything I've done, and there’s been a lot of space in between, but it’s been great. I think the nice thing about coming from what I've done in the past, as far as what people may know me for, if I can take a small amount of the people, two percent of the people, and say, “This is what I like, this is what I think is cool, this is my taste, this is the movie I want to make, this is the music I want to make, this is the play I want to do, come and see this and be part of this.”

I did a play last year, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and I’m sure a lot of people came not for the wrong reasons, but different reasons than “Oh, I love Of Mice and Men, I’d love to see this production of it,” and they left with having seen the play, and whether or not all of them grasp it or all of them care or if they just want to see a famous person, I like the fact that I can bring a small portion of people over to get into what I’m into, and that’s really cool. By and large, people want to like it, they want to say, “This is good,” and a lot of times people say, “I’m surprised that it’s good and I like it,” and I think they want to. Especially if they’re fans, they want you to do good, which is awesome. And I’m blessed with a good fan group of people, people who are kind. Someone was asking me, “What’s the meanest thing someone’s said to you?” and I said, “People aren't mean.” I probably end up talking to a lot more 15-year-olds than I usually would, but the Hotel Café shows were 21 and over, and a lot of my other shows are, and we’re mostly adults and grasp the situation. “Let’s just listen to some music, it’s fun.”

Leighton Meester tour dates
2/18 Alexandria VA @ The Birchmere Music Hall
2/19 Philadelphia PA @ The Trocadero Theatre
2/20 Allston MA @ Brighton Music Hall
2/21 New York NY @ Irving Plaza
2/23 Detroit MI @ Magic Bag
2/24 Chicago IL @ Park West
2/27 Seattle WA @ El Corazon
3/01 Vancouver BC @ Rio Theatre
3/02 San Francisco CA @ Great American Music Hall