It’s been said that the best art seeks to transform pain into beauty -- a goal that was clearly somewhere in the back of Greg Laswell’s mind when he began putting together his Vanguard debut, Through Toledo.
While the San Diego-based singer-songwriter has long had the innate skills to captivate listeners with his music -- a soaring tenor and a flair for crafting sweeping melodies chief among them -- it took an abrupt transformation in his personal life to bring the raw emotion of Through Toledo’s eleven songs to the surface.
“The songs on this album all came from a heartbreak,” explains Laswell. “I was married, and my wife left suddenly, so I didn’t see it coming. I don’t have a clear recollection of writing some of the songs because they were really such a reaction, an automatic response to what happened. It’s an album I never wanted to write, but I’m glad I did.”
There’s no escaping the directness and candor that permeates Through Toledo, but even more importantly, there’s no denying the sonic sumptuousness that seeps from its grooves. At times (as on the stealthily building “Amazed”), Laswell conjures up a veritable rock orchestra to buoy his stiletto-sharp lyrical imagery, and at times (as on the stark “High and Low”), he uses little more than a spare, haunting piano line as accompaniment.
“The songs just had a way of working themselves out,” he says. “The most important thing to me is communication -- that’s the reason I do this. People can tell if something is real, or if it’s fictional, and if it’s real, it just flows.”
Through Toledo’s flow is all but inexorable, and despite its genesis in a specific point in Laswell’s life, it does take off in a number of compellingly different directions. That’s clear on “Same As You,” a hypnotic mantra of sorts, as well as on the nostalgically uplifting opener “Sing Theresa Says.”
“That song was inspired by my grandmother, who passed away when I was 13,” Laswell explains. “I used to get a huge kick out of her. One night I dreamed she came to me, and in the dream she said ‘sing happy things.’ When I woke up, I said ‘I will,’ but nothing worked. Instead, I thought I’d at least make a song sound happy.”
Laswell grew up in Long Beach, but moved to his adopted hometown to attend college a few years back, majoring -- naturally enough -- in communications. He quickly became ensconced in the local scene, producing albums for a number of kindred spirits (several of which were released on his own Twenty Inch label) and fronting a series of bands that helped him hone his skills as a front man. While he spent years sticking to the party line that playing in a band was an all-for-one, one-for-all proposition, he came to the opposite conclusion a couple of years back.
“Ultimately, I began to realize that I was a singer-songwriter with a bunch of people behind me,” says Laswell. “I think that really came into focus when my last band went on a break. Once I got out on my own, playing solo, things opened up for me.”
The reaction to his solo work was immediate. Laswell’s first solo offering, Good Movie, earned raves from Southern California cognoscenti and regular folk alike -- the disc won a San Diego Music Award for “Best Local Album” -- and pushed thoughts of being a full-time studio rat to the back of his mind for good.
“In the past, I would write, then eventually start recording,” says Laswell. “There was no separation this time because I wasn’t really conscious of trying to get a particular sound, I was more interested in just getting things out of my system. I spent three months just doing that.”
Working alone in the studio -- he plays virtually every note on the album himself -- Laswell nevertheless managed to capture an incredibly focused, cinematic set of sonics. From the woozy lilt of “Come Undone” (which recalls Jeff Buckley meeting Radiohead in an underground cabaret) to the misty shuffle of the title track, each song is stamped indelibly with an individual personality and sense of place -- giving Through Toledo the feel of a series of aural short films.
“I guess there are a lot of references to places on the album, but they’re not all meant to be taken literally,” says Laswell. “Through Toledo is all about that. It was inspired by two friends of mine who told me they were moving to Toledo even though they really loved living where they were because there were some great opportunities there. In order to get what they wanted, they had to go through Toledo -- and that made me stop and ask myself ‘what’s my Toledo?’ I think I found the answer to that.”
The answer -- and all the compelling questions that feed into it -- makes the trip
Through Toledo a scenic one, even with the hairpin turns that line its path.