In the winter of 2018, Claire George decamped to the woods outside of her hometown in Seattle with the intention of teaching herself audio production and honing her skills as a songwriter. Inspired by the likes of Grimes, Austra, and Purity Ring, the Los Angeles-based artist came out of that retreat with her debut EP, 2018’s ethereal Bodies of Water. Three years later, she’s back with her debut album, The Land Beyond the Light, which sees her expanding her sound, overlaying her evocative vocals against more layers of organic instrumentation, including real bass and guitar, to reflect the very real feelings of grief that sit at the heart of the songs.
Originally conceived as a break-up record, the gravity of the project shifted significantly in the wake of the death of one of her friends and ex-boyfriends to substance abuse. Channeling personal tragedy through the cathartic pull of dance music is nothing new, but George grapples with themes of loss, mental illness, and addiction with bracing vulnerability and a depth of feeling that’s rare in the genre. From the wrenching ‘Northern Lights’ to the strangely comforting ‘Bag of Peaches’, the album flits between youthful memories of the past and the overwhelming weight of the present; George finds flickers of light in the midst of darkness not by concealing it, but by allowing space for both – even when they threaten to drown her out. These songs were written with very specific circumstances in mind, but now that the album is out, they can finally take on a new resonance: “Come on take my hand, I’ll help you out/ I swear I’ll pull you up, I’ll never let you down,” she sings on ‘The Promise’.
We caught up with Claire George for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her songwriting journey, the events that influenced her debut album, and more.
I noticed you’ve cited a number of artists as some of your biggest inspirations, many of which are in the electronic and pop spheres, but at the end of the list you wrote, Fiona Apple (always and forever). Did she have a formative influence on you?
Yes. In fact, when I was like seven, my mom would listen to a lot of pop music when we were in the car and I heard a Fiona Apple song and I was like, “Mom, we have to go to the store and buy this CD.” And I remember going to the CD store, it was the first CD that I ever got, and she was one of the first concerts I went to in early high school. Her lyrics were just so impactful on me and her writing is so powerful and beautiful. And then, actually, during the pandemic I ended up being with my parents for part of the lockdown at the beginning, and her new album came out during that time. My mom doesn’t listen to a lot of new music, but we both got my AirPods, and we each took a pod and we were on a walk in the neighborhood. One of the most joyful moments in that time was getting to listen to the new album from her for the first time with my mom.
I almost can’t imagine listening to that album for the first time with someone else, just because of how raw and intense it is.
[laughs] It’s like, my mom and I, we’re like this [crosses fingers], we’re like twins. But yeah, very intense.
Has your relationship with these artists that had an impact on you early on changed at all, or affected the way you think about songwriting now?
What’s cool about her newest record is that she really took her time and did it in her own space, on her own terms. The way that she made this album was like, she could just record for hours and hours and hours, and what’s special about it is that it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t made in like a big recording studio. It hits just as hard, and that’s something that I, as a new-ish producer and writer, relative to my life – you realize that more of you comes through when you have that kind of time and space in your own head to write and work on stuff without the outside influence.
What role did music and songwriting play early on in your life?
I didn’t write my first song till I was 22, I think. I grew up playing piano classical piano but didn’t stick with it really. In high school I was kind of interested in it again but I never got into a songwriting area, and then in college I was just really into music – it was like the era of the music blog, and I loved curating and making playlists and finding new music and finding new artists and going to shows. But I didn’t actually allow myself to try to make music until after college.
Was there something in particular that drove you to make music?
I was living in San Francisco and I actually studied business in college, and accounting specifically. So I was working in consulting and studying for the CPA exam, which is like the accountant certification, and I was like, “I’m going crazy. I need to do something creative.” When I was little I wanted to be a singer, and then once I moved away – I went to college in LA but then I moved to San Francisco – it just felt like a fresh start and I was like, becoming an adult, I guess. I was like, “What do I want in my life?” And I was like, “I want to do something outside of just working,” and so I joined a band on Craigslist. [laughs] I just met these random people in San Francisco and started a band with them.
At what point did it go from like, “I need to do something creative or I’ll freak out,” to actually wanting to devote more of your time to it?
I think once we started playing shows, I was like, “Oh wow, I want to do this with my life.” Just the feeling of being on stage again and also creating something that was yours, creating something that you could share with other people, and getting that feedback loop after shows. The idea of going on tour and traveling around and meeting all these people, I just knew that was more what I wanted to do with my life.
I read that you went on a retreat around 2018 to flesh out your production skills and hone your songwriting. What led to that decision, and what did you learn from that experience?
Oh my gosh. [laughs] I had a lot of alone time. I was just going through a breakup at the time, the band was not getting along super well, and I was really interested in more electronic sounds. That was right when Grimes was becoming a big deal, and I was like, “I want to do what she’s doing, she can do the whole band herself and it can be the sounds that she wants.” Everything was kind of happening at once. And my parents are up in Seattle, and they don’t spend the winters at that house, so I was like, “I’m gonna go stay in the house by myself and take these classes and learn to produce on my own.” So I went up there and it was wild. I mean, I have never spent so much time alone – I was up there for like a year. But six or seven months of that I was completely by myself in the house that I grew up in. It’s kind of outside of the city and it’s a little bit woodsy, and there would be just days where I wouldn’t see other people, which is probably not healthy, in retrospect. I know myself now, and I’m like, “Okay, you need to be around people.” I do need some solitude when I’m writing, but the intensity of that was just so intense.
Luckily I was taking some production classes online, so I was really invested in that, but it taught me a lot and allowed me to produce my first body of work. But I also learned that I’ll just keep working on something forever and ever and ever, and so my process now is kind of like, I like to write with other people sometimes, but I like mostly to sketch out the ideas myself and then bring somebody on once I’ve hit a wall with that.
How long did you wait to start writing again after you released the first EP?
I was always kind of writing, but some of the songs, even on this record, are pieces of songs that I’ve had since I was living in San Francisco. I’m always trying to write, even as I was releasing this I’ve been trying to keep that going, because I find the longer you wait in between working on things, the more it feels difficult to get over that hurdle of like, you stop and start, and tapping into that.
From what I understand, the story of the album starts with ‘You Don’t Feel the Same’, which is also the opening track on the album and the first song that you wrote for it. When you first wrote the song, did you have any vision of what the album would be like?
Not at all. And honestly, every time I write a song I don’t even know if it’s going to be a part of a body of work. So I actually wrote this song – I was in this relationship, and it was the only song I wrote during the relationship. So there was basically like eight months to a year where I didn’t write a single song – I was working on things, but this is the only song that I wrote start to finish, which is indicative of the relationship. [laughs] I was reckoning with the end of the relationship, and right after I finished that song is when I went through this breakup. I was touring a lot during that time too, which is why I wasn’t writing as much. And that was like the beginning of the process of being like, “Now I have all these feelings coming up, I feel like I can pull something out of me.”
I went on a final tour right after that breakup, and I actually scheduled in a week back at my parents’ house where I wrote the first EP to kind of get my thoughts together and work on stuff, and then in the middle of that tour is when my other ex/friend of mine passed away. So it was like, “Oh, I’m not writing about this anymore, this breakup.” Obviously I didn’t get much writing done that week because I was just, like, crying. That’s kind of when everything else came together for this album, after that, and then we went into lockdown, which was – it was nice to be with my family during that time. I was really lucky to be able to spend time writing with them and just be with them and have a safe space.
Thank you for sharing that. For how long was it like, not just “I’m not writing about this,” but actually, “I’m not sure I can write at all”?
Yeah, I was such a hot mess. That was in November that that happened, and I was on tour and I was at home by myself for a week after that, just in bed basically. And I was really struggling. Really, really struggling. And there was one day in December where I worked on the song ‘Nosebleed Seats’, and then I kind of, like, couldn’t. I was in such a heavy place – and the breakup stuff, obviously I was really upset about that, but this kind of trumped everything and really overtook me. And I probably didn’t start writing until I took a two or three-month break, and then I would try to write but it was just too painful at the time – and still is, obviously, extremely painful. It wasn’t until March or April, I did a couple of sessions with friends, and that was actually helpful for me, because I was able to – when I was just by myself, it was too much for me, but when I had somebody helping with the production I was able to really go back into it.
The album really evokes this conflict between grief and gratitude that comes after loss, which I think also comes through in the contrast between the lyrics and the melodies. How did that personal conflict affect the songwriting process, in terms of figuring out like, “Which direction do I lean in, how do I evoke that”?
Yeah, exactly. And that’s why it’s so challenging, it’s like, “What is the appropriate world for these words to live in?” I’m putting a dance beat behind something very dark and a little bit like masking it in that in some songs. A lot of times when I’m like producing I’m just clicking around on a computer, but with ‘Northern Lights’ I was like, “I just need more movement here.” And I think that words actually come a little bit more easily when there’s a tactile motion to go with them. I wrote ‘Medellín’ on guitar at first, and it was just three chords, basically – it just allows for things to come out more subconsciously. That’s sort of how I worked with ‘Northern Lights’ and ‘Medellín’, like, I need to get on an instrument and shut your brain off, the thinking brain, and just let things come out.
With ‘Northern Lights’, something that really elevates the song is your vocal performance, which is just so striking and vulnerable. Do you remember recording vocals for this track?
That song, I originally tracked it in my bedroom, and was just going all out and like, it was super emotional. And then I was like, “Okay, I want to capture this but record it well.” I was trying to record in studios with people and it was during the pandemic, and I have one friend who has a studio in his house, and I was just like, “Hey, if I get tested a bunch of times and come over a few days in a row and quarantine and everything, can we just do it together?” So he and I tracked most of the vocals for the record in his house. And I remember that song in particular, I sat down in a chair and he had the door closed, and we were both just like, “Oh man, this is intense.” But I was able to get into a headspace and have the time to do vocal take after vocal take and just let it come out. And having him there was also really helpful, to have that feedback and to kind pick out the parts that worked best.
Something I wanted to ask you about is this concept of The Land Beyond the Light that gives the album its title. Could you expand a little bit on that?
I knew that the album was going to be really heavy, and there’s this part of me that wants the music have another side to it. And so I was like, “I’m gonna write a science fiction story that has a different ending to it, that has some hope.” It’s still not done, but I’ve written this story, and it’s like, these creatures that are connected to each other and live in the darkness, but then one of them ends up in this world of color and light. It’s just supposed to be, you know, the idea of hope and keeping the memories of the people we’ve lost after they’re gone and finding the color and the beauty there, and I wanted to have the outcome feel like another world that we could live in.
When did you start to envision this world?
I can’t really remember when I wanted to do this story. It’s something that I thought about early on, but when I was looking to find art to go with the album, I was just reading different artists’ blogs and exploring around the Internet, and I found Linda Westin had posted these images of these trees out in nature, and she would put these different lights on them. She’s a scientist and she studies the brain, and she was trying to emulate the way that neurons work. So when I first saw her artwork, it was visually striking but also just reminded me of my ex in the way that, you know, he’s from Alaska, and spent so much time in nature and worked in nature and was really into science and biology as well. So this just felt like a dedication to him. And when I was looking at the album art, I saw that image and I was like, “Oh, this is illuminating the brain, which is where your memories are, but also when you think about drugs, they affect the brain.” And when I saw that image, it kind of evoked a fantastical view of that, and that’s when I started to think about the story behind it and creating the world.
On ‘Medellín’, you refer to this idea of a “deeper quieting.” What does that mean to you?
We when someone is gone, we’re just left with the memories of them. And so it’s this strange feeling, because like, even after he passed away, I would dream about him a lot, and he was there and then I would wake up and he wasn’t there. And that’s like throughout the album, this angst of dealing with the grief of having somebody be present with you in this way, but they’re not fully there. And so, coming to terms with that and just experiencing that is so, um… It’s disruptive. And yeah, I just… I think I’m trying to remember this person and track down these memories and keep them in place in the song so that, you know, even if I talk about them or whatever I can tap into this feeling and still be – still have a piece of this person with me.
Have you listened to the album in full since it came out?
I don’t think I’ve listened to it in full in probably four months. I think it’s just difficult to go back and do the whole thing. I kind of want it to be for other people right now. I think making it was for me, and now it’s out in the world and I kind of want to feel what other people are experiencing from it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Claire George’s The Land Beyond the Light is out now via Cascine.