Greg Laswell on how his San Diego days paved his path
Singer-songwriter, soon to release his ninth album, spent 15 years here cutting his teeth
It’s an early Tuesday morning in the idyllic Orange County community of Newport Beach, but resident Greg Laswell’s mind is currently elsewhere.
“I lived in San Diego for about 15 years, and it was such a rewarding time,” says the veteran singer-songwriter of his old stomping grounds due south of his current home. “It was where I cut my teeth, so I have fond memories of what I’ll call the upbringing of my career.”
It was on a bedrock of his time in San Diego that Laswell has since built a successful career as a thoughtful artist over the course of eight albums and 20-year career.
“The area was such a support system for me. It’s where I learned how to pull off a show in front of an audience, and they were always willing to let me try and fail. It was a very comfortable environment.”
Along the way, he’d be inspired by fellow local troubadours, including Gregory Page, whom he points to as an influence. (Says Laswell: “He remains one of my heroes, and I’ll never forget the impact he had on me.”)
Aside from fishing at Shelter Island or hanging out at a Lestat’s outpost, the local milestones he enjoyed along the way wound up becoming indelible memories.
“I remember having just gotten divorced and finishing my very first solo record,” says Laswell of a darker period of his climb, which coincided with the release of his 2003 debut album, “Good Movie.” (More on that title later). “I ended up winning a San Diego Music Award for it, and it was such a big deal to me at the time. It was one of those special moments.”
Another huge moment, according to Laswell, was playing Solana Beach’s Belly Up for the first time.
“That was a major goal of mine, just to play there,” he says. “It was years and years ago and I was an opening act, but every time I go there, it remains really nostalgic for me.”
Laswell will have another chance to revisit that nostalgia when he hits the iconic Belly Up stage again for a Sept. 11 gig. It’s in celebration of what will become his ninth album, “Covers II,” which is set for release two days later. A concept project of covers, it’s a sequel of sorts to his well-received 2009 album of the same idea.
“It’s actually a coincidence the first one came out 10 years ago,” says Laswell of the initial iteration of the endeavor that features Laswell’s unique spin on both iconic and lesser-known tracks. Eschewing sound-a-likes, he explains his process consists of getting in the mindset of “pretending” he’s the songwriter, which allows him to add his own unique voice on the tracks he’s covering. That includes “Covers II” selections ranging from The Psychedelic Furs’ 1982 classic “Love My Way” or the 1987 Depeche Mode track “Never Let Me Down Again.”
“On one level, recording a cover is easier because it frees me up,” he explains. “My own music can be really exhausting from an emotional standpoint because I tackle pretty personal things. But when I do a cover, it relieves me of that part of it and allows me to focus more on the arrangements and production. I like covers that allow me to find another side of the original that might not already be there.”
As a result, when Laswell is in recording mode, he’ll make a conscious effort to not listen to the original recording in order to ensure a fresh interpretation.
“I try to go from memory, especially with the ones I’m most familiar with. Those have been a little more difficult.”
It’s a marked departure for the consummate songwriter who has a penchant for writing from personal experience, whether the ups and downs of his career or personal life. That includes his relationship with fellow artist Ingrid Michaelson, with the two married for a period of four years until a 2015 divorce. A year later, he released “Everyone Thinks I Dodged a Bullet,” a wrenching breakup album that brutally chronicled his emotions during the fragile period. (To counter, Michaelson musically documented her own feelings in the 2016 album “It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense.”) But in addition to bearing his soul for a listener’s consumption, the depth of his work can also be traced to, oddly enough, a love of film.
“I enjoy a good movie more than I enjoy a good song,” he’s quick to point out, even naming his aforementioned debut album “Good Movie.” “I think I have a cinematic approach to music in general, and I always approach it from that perspective.”
Perhaps that’s why Laswell’s tracks have been a staple in television and film for the better part of a decade, with his voice taking center stage in moody dramas ranging from “One Tree Hill” to “Arrow” and “The Vampire Diaries.”
It’s a facet of his career that his earned him a nationwide audience, most notably during the final scenes of a season finale of the ABC stalwart “Grey’s Anatomy” at the height of the Shonda Rhimes drama’s popularity.
“My parents were avid watchers of the show, and I remember not telling them it was going to be on,” says Laswell of the TV plug. “I knew they were going to watch it, so I was sitting by the phone waiting for them to call me when it ended.”
Big or small, it’s those unique moments along the way that have made up of the fabric Laswell’s singular career.
“Long story short,” says Laswell, ready to enjoy the rest of the morning at is Orange County home, “there’s been a long history of love and support, and especially from San Diego. So it’s always great to come back.”
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11
Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Phone: (858) 481-8140
LeDonne is a freelance writer.
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