When he co-founded the instrumental band Balmorhea over 10 years ago, Rob Lowe (RG Lowe) had no idea that its introspective instrumental music would be heard by millions of people, or that it would offer the opportunity to travel and perform around the world. After years of success in the world of neo-classical music, Lowe took a sharp turn when a casual conversation with a friend in Marfa, TX planted the idea in his head that he should challenge himself to write a pop album. Having spent years in church choirs and musical theater as a kid in West Texas, he knew he could sing, but would have to teach himself how to write the type of pop songs he was interested in creating. This eventually manifested in his 2017 debut, Slow Time, which Stereogum called “impossibly smooth.” Three years later, Lowe is returning with his sophomore album, Life of the Body, out May 22 via Western Vinyl.
(Photo Credit: Claire Cottrell)
RG Lowe is a co-founder of the Austin, TX band Balmorhea and a solo artist; Jess Williamson is an LA-based singer and songwriter. The two friends are each releasing records in May — Life of the Body and Sorceress, respectively — and hopped on the phone to chat about how weird it is to be promoting an album in the midst of a pandemic. Read their convo below, and check out a new track from Lowe’s forthcoming album.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor
Jess Williamson: Where are you?
RG Lowe: I am at my house in Austin, in my office/music room.
Jess: You have a music room?
RG: Yeah, we have three bedrooms: one we use to sleep in, a guest room, and a small little room at the front of the house which is kind of an office. I have my piano and my stereo and a couple of other keyboards. Where are you?
Jess: I’m in LA, I’m at my house. I’m actually in bed. Is that weird?
RG: Not weird at all.
Jess: I’ve just been allowing myself to hang out in my bed. Shit’s crazy. Every day I feel some symptom, and I’m paranoid that I have coronavirus, so I’m like, I’m just gonna lay down and send these emails from bed. Why not?
RG: Over the last couple months, I’ve been reading this book called Why We Sleep — I’ve been reading it before I go to bed, and it’s basically about how crucial sleep is to every single part of your life and your health. So I’m on a kick of learning how important sleep is, and having an infinite amount of time to do it. So yes, we are spending a lot of time laying in bed.
Jess: Are you able to write at all? Are you working on music?
RG: Absolutely not. Like, not even the slightest amount. I don’t know how to feel about that. I have not felt any creative impulse. I’ve been feeling pretty uptight, and like I just need to focus on cleaning my house, taking care of my yard, organizing things — doing very concrete tasks. I haven’t felt free in any way to want to sit down and write music. But I think the longer this goes on, I’m going to have to reevaluate that and ask myself if that’s just me being kind of lazy to some extent. How about you?
Jess: I feel the same. I have kind of been working on one new song, because Mexican Summer had this idea of putting out, for charity I think, some songs written during quarantine by artists on the label. So now I am working on something and that’s cool, but I don’t want to. All I want to do is clean my house, organize stuff. Maybe it’s because the future is unknown, we have no control over what’s happening in the outside world, but we can control how clean our house is. And writing music is kind of operating in a realm of mystery and chaos, and it feels like there’s too much mystery and chaos to go there. Why would we invite more in when we could just vacuum?
RG: Right. I can pull the weeds in my yard and I know I’m going to accomplish that task if I put in the amount of time that I need to.
Jess: Totally. It’s a tactile goal.
RG: Trying to open up your heart and your mind in that way feels like a lot of energy that I’m primarily expending on thinking about the people that I love and just keeping up with how crazy everything is.
So, one thing that is interesting between the two of us is that we’re both releasing music right now. I think I’m exactly one week behind you on everything — your first single came out about a month ago and you announced your album, and I think I followed exactly a week later. When does Sorceress come out?
Jess: May 15. What’s yours?
RG: May 22.
RG: You start to see how uniform a lot of these schedules are. It’s interesting that we’re going through this moment together, trying to present this material that obviously came about in a very different time.
Jess: I was thinking about that with your record. I was listening to it today, and it’s so much about physicality and enjoying your body — there are a lot of references to the natural world and how it feels. How do you feel about that, to have this music come out at a time when a lot of us can’t really be doing that?
RG: So here’s kind of a concrete example of the contrast I find with this album in particular — the one idea I’d been working on for merchandise was a custom bar of handsoap. I’ve been working on it for three or four months, long before this all came about, because one of the songs on the album is a short instrumental called “Soap.” So I’ve been working on it with this woman here who makes soap, and it’s got fragrances in it that are mentioned.
Jess: What’s in it?
RG: In one of the second songs, I mention this kind of tree called citruswood. I had to do some research, I wasn’t sure what it was, and I guess it’s a kind of mediterranean hard wood, an ancient wood called Thuja. So I had to find this Thuja essential oil, which was kind of hard to find. I ordered a bunch of it not really knowing what it was going to smell like, but it’s this kind of eucalyptus, cedar-y smell that’s actually really cool. But I think that’s just a coincidence that I happened to want to make bars of soap in a time when that’s the thing that’s keeping people safe.
Jess: That worked out.
RG: I’m hoping we can get it finished and packaged and send it to people who want it. But yeah, at the same time, the larger themes on the album having to do with physicality, sensuality, connection with the physical world and your body — for that to be coming out at a moment when you have to be isolated in your home is ironic. In some ways, maybe it could be kind of an encouragement or an illumination for people when they’re spending a lot of time alone.
Jess: I like it though. It makes me excited for this time to be over, and it reminds me of the simple pleasures of being alive, being in the world, being with people. There’s something about your lyrics that, for me, bring out those simple, often overlooked pleasures. And I think that’s kind of what this time is doing. How special is it to meet someone and get a coffee? That is so special! I’ve probably met you and gotten a coffee, like, I don’t know, 20 times or something? I’d run into you and it was like, whatever, maybe we’ll sit and talk for a minute. Now I’m like, Oh, my god, that is so precious. We just thought that was a given! That’s just what it was to be alive. Think about how much more we’re going to appreciate everything.
RG: I woke up this morning feeling super nostalgic for being on tour. I think that goes to what you’re talking about — wanting to look through all these old photos of just being out in the world, playing music, traveling, and sharing with other people. I think so much of making music is sharing something with other people, communicating and connecting with people. So to be at this moment where we’re completely cut off from that, it’s difficult. I think there’s going to be a lot of pent up energy and people are going to want to get out there and share, because as much as we change and tell ourselves that we can do it from the phone or do it on Zoom, that pales in comparison to actually getting a coffee with somebody.
Jess: I know. I have a tour booked for June —
RG: I was going to ask, what’s happening?
Jess: Everybody on my team wants me to cancel it, and I don’t want to. Obviously I will if we can’t tour in June, but I’m like, why don’t we wait until the last possible second? Why would we cancel it now? What if magically June is fine, and it’s like, I had a tour and I cancelled it? I just want to wait until the last possible minute, because I really want to tour if I can — more than ever now! I think all musicians have kind of a love-hate relationship with touring, of course, because it’s obviously glorious but also not.
RG: Sleeping on the kitchen floor is not exactly…
Jess: Now I just want to go on tour. I’m so thankful for touring.
RG: You’ll get back out there. It’s not a question we can answer at this moment, so I think we just have to wait and see when we’ll be able to come back out of our shells.
You and I have had conversations about this in the past — how with the cultural climate and the way that social media functions, it’s almost like we’re getting a magnified version of this problem you and I have been feeling, which is that it’s so difficult to present your work in this climate where everything has to go through the screen of your phone. It’s the only way you can connect with people, and now we find ourselves in this moment where that’s even more [true]. I was just interested in hearing your thoughts about the challenges of taking this music — which I think when you make it feels so huge and expansive — and having to funnel that through the social media screen. Are you feeling that more acutely?
Jess: I love how you put that, too, because it’s true. I guess it’s why we love playing shows, because the music has to be big. You’re there with people and there’s this immediacy. We were messaging the day you announced your album — I was like, “Are you kinda sad?” [Laughs.] Because I was kinda sad the day I announced my record. I was so excited — the big day, first single, first video, and I woke up really early.
RG: You’ve been working for years.
Jess: Literal years! I hit post, and the likes come rolling in or they don’t, and I’m reading whatever gets written. It’s fun, people are reacting to the thing I’ve been doing and I want to engage with it in real time, because it’s exciting. But then as the day went on, I just kind of crashed. I felt so alone. I think part of that is because I’m a solo artist, and the people who I made the album with weren’t going to be in my touring band — at that point, I’d announced all these tour dates and I didn’t know who was going to be in my touring band. I was like, this feels so weird to release tour dates and have no idea who I’m even going to play these shows with. It’s so abstract. It’s different, I think, when you have a band or collaborators. I made Cosmic Wink with the people who went on tour with me, so we were all kind of in it together. It’s not like that with Sorceress, so it’s like, no one is as excited as me.
Yesterday, I put out the second single and the same thing kind of happened. I think I’m bad at having boundaries with the internet, especially right now because it’s all I have. I’m just, like, glued to it, which I’m honestly embarrassed to admit. I do my own social media, and that feels good because I’m alone all the time. I want to see what people say; if someone posts on their Instagram story, I want to respond to every single one. I have a friend who just put out a record that’s doing really well, and she doesn’t do any of her own social media — she has someone on her management team who does all of her Instagram posts and she just stays out of it. I’m inspired by that. I might be too much of a control freak right now to do it, because I’d think they did it wrong or something probably. How is it for you?
RG: I know I’ve talked with you about this book The Gift by Lewis Hyde —
Jess: I bought it after you recommended it and started reading it, and I don’t remember what happened but I didn’t finish it and have been meaning to pick it back up.
RG: It was very influential in my thinking. I totally feel exactly what you’re talking about — I’ve probably been working on these songs for three years in various ways. I think it can feel really difficult to invest so much into something and to care so much for something and to love something so much, and then — because of the way our society functions and particularly the way that social media functions — it turns everything into this exchange where basically you’re offering something to other people. Which I think in its purest form is giving — you create something and you want to offer it to other people, and it might affect them in some way. But it turns it into this exchange that feels so quantifiable now in the amount of traction you’re getting with press coverage or followers. It can be disappointing, because really good artwork takes some time to engage with, and we’re made to feel like we need to feel some kind of immediate success in the moment, which I think is an unhealthy way of looking at sharing artwork. I think it’s impossible to not be focused on that, especially in today’s industry and climate.
I guess I’m just trying to remind myself that this is not necessarily about getting feedback in the moment, but to offer something up for other people that may take some time for them to hear, or to get what I was trying to do or say. I think it’s a constant battle between having faith and confidence in what you’ve made, and then being a little scared about the idea of investing so much of yourself into something that maybe no one is going to care about or hear. [Laughs.] You kind of put it all out there on the line, and I think that can be really challenging. Even for people who are incredibly successful, I don’t think that feeling goes away. I was just listening to a podcast with Andre 3000, and he was talking about these same kinds of feelings. I think it’s just part of the process. That’s also why I really love that book, because it really helped me think about these issues in a more considerate and kind of deeper way.
Jess: I’m so glad you brought that book up, because I have it in my house.
RG: You got a little free time on your hands?
Jess: [Laughs.] I was thinking about this idea of putting music out as a gift, because a gift is something you give without expecting anything in return. The future is so unknown, so now for you and for me putting our records out, it is a gift. None of the normal music world structures are in place. Maybe we won’t go on tour; maybe all that’s happening is putting music on the internet, and whoever wants to buy the record will do it through the mail. We don’t necessarily expect to see anything from it, other than knowing that the music connected with people. I’m kind of appreciating it, actually. It’s kind of like back to basics. It’s really pure.
I had this moment when I had a meeting with my managers and my label, and it was like, “Should we push back the record?” We’d announced the album and put out the first single, then everything started happening. My main concern was, I didn’t want to be insensitive — I didn’t want to be self-promoting during a time when people are fearing for their lives and livelihoods. It’s so weird. We had this long talk where we were like, people need music. Music is healing and it’s important. My team is really cool — even though putting a record out right now might have a financial downside for us, it still felt better to release the music because we feel like people need it. And the fall could be weird too! We don’t know. The future is uncertain, so it’s kind of just about trusting that this is all going to work out the way it needs to.
I’ve been getting feedback from people online saying thank you — like, “I needed something to watch,” or “I needed a new song to be stuck in my head. I needed something better than the news.” It feels so good to hear that, because I’ve been shy. I feel weird every time I post something — I edit the caption a million times, and I overthink it. So to get that response… it’s nice. Have you experienced that?
RG: Yeah. It’s still such a small world of communication that I’m doing with my project — it still feels pretty burgeoning and new. But I do understand that impulse, almost better from the other direction. Music that I’ve been listening to over the past couple weeks has really been really nourishing me and letting some pressure out for me. I wouldn’t want to withhold this stuff any longer, because I’m ready to present it, to give it over to other people, and I’m ready to move on and start thinking about new things, especially considering how crazy the world is. There’s so much solace in music, I think because it’s such a fundamental way that humans communicate with each other. I remember when Trump was elected, obviously my world was kind of turned upside down, and I think for a matter of months, the only music I could listen to was the classical radio station here in Austin. I needed to be reminded of some other era or time. That music at that moment in my life had a lot of healing power. There’s been many other times in my life where I felt dramatic healing from music. I think if I could maybe be a part of that a little bit, I think I should, especially this time when people are needing nourishment.
Jess: There’s something about instrumental music in particular that’s been really healing for me. It doesn’t impose anything on you really overtly conceptually. It’s kind of like this blank slate, and it’s just about feeling. With your record — I hope you like what I’m about to say — there’s something really feminine about it. I mean that in a Jungian sense, in that it’s receptive and feeling and physical, sensual. I feel like especially right now, the whole world is being forced to move into a more feminine place. It’s cool to have this music right now. It makes sense.
RG: I appreciate you saying that. It’s been pretty interesting, because I’ve only heard the two singles from your new album but I’ve been able to read through the lyrics you sent over, so I’m really excited to hear how the album unfolds [having] seen the material from a lyrical standpoint. I would agree about that being something that the world is looking for at this moment.
I felt like the idea of care was coming through a lot in your songs, taking on responsibility for others and kind of reflectively looking back at your life. I of course don’t know how many of these songs are autobiographical, but I was going to ask a little bit about the album and particularly the name of the album. I don’t know what your next single is going to be, but I’m interested to hear that lyric, “Yes, there’s a little magic in my hat, but I’m no sorceress.” I’m interested to see how that fits into this larger collection of songs that you’ve titled sorceress.
Jess: Like you said, a lot of this album is about care, but a tendency that I think myself and a lot of women — but also just a lot of people — have to take on too much, to take to much care, and neglect yourself. That song “Sorceress” is about that very thing, of trying so hard to take care of someone else or a situation and feeling like you need to have supernatural powers to be enough. So I named the album Sorceress, because in every song there’s either a character who is trying a lot, or there’s this search for meaning through magic or spirituality or religion. So that song, I thought the lyrics conceptually summed up the spirit of the whole album. You could try and try and try, but at the end of the day, you can only do so much — and in doing so much, you could hurt yourself.
RG: I love that. It’s really smart. Listening to you talk about that in the juxtaposition right there, saying that “I’m not a sorceress,” but you called the song and the album “Sorceress,” it made me immediately think of the title of your previous album, Cosmic Wink. It’s got this kind of wink to it, in which you’re playing to these two different ways of thinking about yourself. The dichotomy is a very deep way of looking at yourself, being able to see these contrasting parts of yourself — maybe not even you, but just society or women. I think it’s great and I can’t wait to hear that song.
Jess: Thank you. I’ll send you the record, you can have a sneak peek.
(Photo Credit: left, Claire Cottrell)