Noise Pop Presents
Jaws of Love (featuring Kelcey Ayer from Local Natives)
Kelcey Ayer, the creative force behind Jaws of Love., has always been an ace at writing a good love song—he just didn’t always know it.
“I used to think that in order to write about love, something had to be wrong,” he says. “I often got my material from pain, or insecurity, or problems—I thought I couldn’t write a good love song because I am in love and it’s going so well. But I’ve grown to realize that even in the most amazing relationships there are turbulent times and misunderstandings that are unavoidable. And that doesn’t mean that anything is doomed, but love is such a complicated thing. And I think that dawned on me after I had this collection of songs—there’s so much more to love than I thought. The idea of ‘jaws of love’ felt so perfect for this project because it’s all about love’s trials and tribulations.”
Ayer, known to fans as a member of the Los Angeles band Local Natives, has been writing his own brand of moody piano-centric songs throughout the past decade, but had never previously released any of it through any other vehicle besides the band. As Local Natives geared up to release their third album last summer, Ayer booked time in the same LA studio, Electro-Vox, where they had recorded it, and in a three-day burst he recorded seven of his own songs with the help of engineer Michael Harris and mixer Cian Riordan. Playing on the studio’s grand and upright pianos, Ayer allowed his emotional intuition to lead the way while working on his dark, dramatic music.
“I’d show up and say, ‘Let’s not overthink anything; if it feels right, roll with it,’” he says. While he didn’t necessarily have a plan at the time to release this work, Ayer found the process exhilarating. Capitalizing on a blossoming musical kinship with Harris, the sessions yielded powerful results, including the song “Jaws of Love.,” which Ayer recognized as one of the best things he’d ever done in his career.
That experience inspired Ayer to write another batch of tunes in the same piano-driven, feeling-based manner, and later in 2016 he returned to Electro-Vox to work again with Harris and Riordan. Aided in turn by the studio’s myriad synthesizers, antique equipment, preamps, and outboard gear, in addition to drum sounds recorded by Local Natives’s drummer Matt Frazier, Ayer committed even more songs to tape, and began to realize he had enough for an album. The small team worked quickly and instinctively, taking inspiration from their environment and building a vibe for the songs while committing fully in the moment.
“The whole thing was very intuitive, very emotional, in the sense of how something felt right or felt wrong,” Ayer says. “I’d follow that rule for everything. It was wonderful to not have to explain myself to anyone, and I just kept going. That’s why I was able to do it so quickly—I had so many of these songs in my head for so long with ideas that I wanted to make happen.”
The mixing process led by Riordan was equally as inspiring and collaborative. Ayer also points specifically to the feeling-based process by which Portishead’s album Third was mixed as highly formative for him, having recently worked with that record’s mixer Craig Silvey on the Local Natives album. (The legendary British group worked to create several different mixes of each track on Third before selecting their favorite unanimously based simply on which version felt right.) On top of that, Ayer’s friend Mark Nieto, who releases music as Combat!, added various instrumental parts to certain songs while they were being mixed; Ayer trusted his instincts and recognizes Nieto’s work as helpful textures for his songs. In fact, the entire recording process exhibits just how much Ayer’s musical confidence and maturity have evolved; at this point in his career, he is only getting better at knowing what he wants and how to achieve it efficiently.
And so, speaking of that innate ability to recognize a partner, we have Tasha Sits Close to the Piano by Ayer’s new project Jaws of Love.—an album of love songs, named by his loved one, about their shared love: a dog, the titular Tasha. “My wife named the album, because every time I play the piano in our home the dog makes her way over and lays down right beside me,” he says. “I always wanted a dog my whole life; it really changed our lives. So I loved the duality of ‘jaws of love,’ both as a serious thing but then a little tongue in cheek reference by using some imagery of Tasha on the cover.”
Likewise, the piano is a centerpiece on the album, whether out front on its own like on the opening track “Jaws of Love.” or ushering in a maelstrom of synth programming as on “Microwaves.” Every tune on the record features piano in a major capacity, with Ayer’s lilting, deliberate voice guiding the melodies with nuance and assurance. “Hawaiian License Plates.” dips and soars, while “Lake Tahoe.” pulls the tempo back down like an R & B torch song sung at 3 a.m. “Everything.” features a ripping horn wail, and Ayer’s heart-worn vocals over the steady click track on the lovelorn “Love Me Like I’m Gone.” take the song to dramatic heights. And yet, as implied by the stark black-and-white visual theme of the cover and throughout the record’s lit-inspired book, the 88 keys of that same contrast remain the star. As the Radiohead-recalling final song, “Nightlight.,” starts and ends with Ayer’s simple, rhythmic piano chords and gentle croon, Jaws of Love.’s place and power are cemented.
“The whole project is me trying to embrace my nuances and indulge in it,” he says. “I made a record where I could go for exactly what I was feeling at all times. It was such an awesome release making these songs, and that let me embrace who I feel like I am. I have dark piano music in my heart and soul, and Jaws of Love. is me at my truest self.”