Local Natives’ Kelcey Ayer talks filtering his darkest and honest songwriting yet into new project Jaws of Love

As one of the primary songwriters of Local Natives, chances are you’ve heard Kelcey Ayer’s work, while also holding down his other vocal, keyboard, guitar, and percussion duties in the band. On Hummingbird Ayer’s affinity for piano ballads broke through the ice and even the band’s most recent release Sunlit Youth is unequivocally touched by the singer/songwriter’s love of brooding introspection. Out today, Ayer’s debut solo record Tasha Sits Close to the Piano is a tangible departure from the fleshed-out sonics of Local Natives’ indie-rock concoctions; one stripped down to just his delicate, stratosphere-reaching croons and the twinkle of ivory. Compared to Sunlit Youth, a record rife with cascades of synthesizers and lush atmospherics, Ayer’s infatuation with melancholic meanderings from behind a piano is a delightful departure for one of the band’s central players. Like all great things, Ayer’s love affair with the promise of honesty given to one by playing the piano started with his mother after she signed him up, and the rest of his four siblings, for lessons.

“My mom got an upright piano in the house because she’d heard it was good for developing your mind for like school and math, so that was basically her motivation for getting us all to learn how to play the piano,” Ayer said of the experience. “After a few years of struggling through lessons, I decided that I didn’t like taking lessons and following the plans I just always wanted to mess around by myself.”

That undercurrent of experimentalism and individuality that Ayer associated with the piano at a young age stayed with him long into his musical career, which was sparked by a now thirteen-year run with Local Natives that began back in 2004. Working with Taylor Rice and Ryan Hahn–the two other core members of the band–dominated a huge part of Ayer’s life and is a decisive reason why he even has a solo record coming.

“Having gone through all that time and three records I feel like I’ve picked up a ton of stuff–but I’ve always been more of the school of letting things flow organically and naturally. I’ve progressed so much as a songwriter just writing with them [Rice and Hahn]  because they are always trying to push things further and have been doing the same with me for thirteen years,” Ayer said about his relationship with his bandmates. “So when it came to this record I was grateful for that because I was the only one there pushing it forward. Every time I had a lyric or a tone or a beat I would ask myself if I could make it better and the whole process was just me refining and tweaking every aspect of the songs.”

Throughout his time with Local Natives, Ayer maintained a process that involved him writing songs he believed could flourish with the help of a full-band and held onto the ones that might’ve not been a good fit. But it was after the release of Gorilla Manor that Ayer found a niche of music that piqued his interest and gave him something to work towards as a solo artist.

“I think a little bit after Gorilla Manor I started discovering more unabashedly darker music; Radiohead post-Ok Computer, Portishead’s Third. I just started really gravitating towards these artists who didn’t feel afraid to be emotional and go to darker places, I’ve always really respected that and it’s always really resonated with me. When this project came about it became clear to me that I could express myself fully in that way I’ve always been attracted to with this project,” Ayer explained.

“It’s not always even the darkness I’m attracted to it’s just telling the truth and that inherently in itself can often get kind of ugly. With this record, I wanted to do that thing that I feel Radiohead does so well where they express themselves and draw out these visceral feelings without using words to do it–it’s really just that the words are apart of the soundscape.” 

The title of the record itself is a reference to his and his wife’s dog Tasha, who has a tendency to sit by Ayer when he plays the piano. As for the subject matter of his ballads, Ayer pulls heavily from his own life and aspires to transform otherwise personally mundane moments into universally empathetic ones. He describes one such instance, detailed on the sprawling, three-part growths of “Microwave,” as the times in which he might be in another room with his headphones and his wife would call to him, and because he doesn’t hear her, this strange, unintended moment of miscommunication occurs.

“So your loved one is trying to talk to and they’re getting really annoyed and are like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? I’m trying to talk to you!’ And they come in to see you’re on your headphones–and it’s just this stupid misunderstanding that can snowball into ‘Why doesn’t this person love me anymore?’ and it’s almost like you’re going crazy,” Ayer said. “And for ‘Love Me Like I’m Gone,’ I’m just flying always a ton for the band and I’m usually not with Mel–and I don’t know what it is but I always get super emotional when I’m in the air and you’re crying at stuff you’d never thought you’d cry over, like Monster’s University. I’ve always loved taking moments from my everyday life and turning them into parables.”

Ayer’s work on Tasha Sits Close to the Piano is liberatingly honest in both its songwriting and use of minimalist sound arrangements to tap into a vivid emotionality. Despite being a member of Local Natives for such a long time, Ayer’s musical palate is inundated with enough tastes to have allowed his solo debut to be less a drastic distancing from his previous collaborative work, and more a sincere pursuit of the ideas he’s been holding inside himself. He talks lengthily about the ambitiousness of Radiohead’s sonics but also balances the allure of Leonard Cohen’s hefty songwriting–contradictory or not, Ayer has taken all the juggled pieces that influence him and transformed them into something organically his own. To him, being able to just breathe it into existence is enough and in his mind, it’s also only made him a much more helpful contributor to Local Natives as well.

“I’m really excited about having an outlet my own stuff, especially after having my sole creative partners be these guys for thirteen years. I think it’s about time I have something of my own and I’m encouraging all the other guys to mess around and have their own outlet, I think it leads to more expanding of your creative filters and you bring all these lessons you learn on your own that you bring back to help each other.

Words: Steven Ward

Kelcey Ayer is hosting an album release show tonight at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for his album Tasha Sits Close to the Piano, order it here. Visit his website and Facebook to stay updated on future shows and releases.

Tasha Sits Close to the Piano tracklisting

1. Jaws of Love.
2. Hawaiian License Plates.
3. Lake Tahoe.
4. Microwaves
5. Shrink…
6. Everything.
7. Love Me Like I’m Gone.
8. Before the Hurting Lands.
9. Costa Rica.
10. Nightlight.

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