Sometimes artists encapsulate singular feelings across their discography, and what I have continually come back to when listening to Jersey City, New Jersey-based lo-fi pop artist Lily Mastrodimos’ band Long Neck is warmth. From the loving warmth of her cover of The Platters’ “Sea of Love” to the comforting embrace of “Lullaby”’s “You mean so much more than he will ever mean,” there is a reassurance throughout her catalog that all but guarantees you’ll come back for whatever emotion you’re feeling at the time. The 23-year-old previously attended Bard College and has been playing guitar and in bands for over half of her life, and as she stated during our conversation, “I’ve been writing songs since I was 10 but I don’t feel like I actually started writing ‘good’ songs ‘til I was maybe 17 or 18. Because I stopped thinking what would best impress my heroes, and started actually putting myself into these songs.” As Long Neck, the solo project she began after also being in Jawbreaker Reunion at Bard, the lyricism came out fully-formed, while the musical backing evolved from project to project – this can best be seen in the songs that appeared on both her 2014 release Forest / Trees in their demo form and 2015’s Heights in updated, album form.
Our conversation unsurprisingly revealed the razor-sharp lyricist to be a skilled conversationalist, providing necessary insight on the blanket terminology of “bedroom pop” used by music writers (the one you are reading right now is by no means immune from this) and gendered expectations of voices, as well as, among other things, whether or not her dog Doon is a Good Dog (spoiler alert: of course he is). As always, this interview will be interspersed with music that the artist has released for free, and for maximum Long Neck content, catch her on Twitter, Bandcamp, and Instagram.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
some millennials: why’d you decide to release your music for free?
Lily Mastrodimos: When I first started releasing music, it had been shoddily recorded on my computer mic with GarageBand, so I thought “This isn’t the quality that I’d like it to be and no one would pay for it.” I was more focused on getting people to actually listen to it, spread it around, and I thought putting these little recordings behind a paywall would deter that to some extent. Heights was a little different cos I actually had the gear to make a nice quality-sounding album. I still put it up for free because, at the time of its release, I had maybe played 2 or 3 shows as Long Neck and still felt like a tiny speck in the “scene,” or whatever you’d like to call it. The one time I changed it to $5 was when we were trying to plan our tour and rent a van. Now it’s back to pay-as-you want! I just wanted my music to be accessible to everyone, cos sometimes $5 is too much.
sm: my favorite artist is joanna newsom and when i heard “big arms,” i was like “oh my god, this is bandcamp-era ‘inflammatory writ’,” so i’m harboring this hope that you’re influenced in a way by her, but if not, that’s just a coincidence. all of this to say, who would be your influences that might not be apparent upon first listening to your music?
LM: Joanna Newsom is SUPER cool (so THANK YOU for that comparison!) though I’m going to admit that I am not as well-versed in her material as I’d like to be, because she’s an amazing musician and lyricist! My influences really vary, to a weird point where there doesn’t seem to be any set cohesion. The music I wrote in my early teens was HEAVILY influenced by The Decemberists (Ask Me About My 7-Paged Yet Unfinished Ballad About a Doomed Romance Between a Princess and a Pauper), and later in high school I started listening to folk punk and bands like The World/Inferno Friendship Society which led to a LOT of songs being written about my friends and partying. This is a run-on sentence. Whatevs.
It feels like it took me a while for me to actually write songs in my own voice, because I had spent to so long aspiring to write like Colin Meloy or Jack Terricloth or whoever, so long thinking “What would THEY like?” or “What would THEY listen to?” Then I listened to bands and artists like Nana Grizol and Mitski, and was so struck by the honesty and vulnerability of their music. It shook me.
I also grew up listening to a lot of Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams, Loretta Lynn, punk and post-punk, so everything has kind of stuck with me. Short answer: my musical influence is everywhere and is a mess.
sm: i’d say that bringing up mitski is another good touchstone, bc what i noticed even from your earlier recordings like “tallboy” is that there was still that lo-fi sound to it, but you’d double-track vocals or harmonize lyricless, things that usually the bedroom-pop-adjacent community doesn’t do. which is one of the things that drew me in, like, it’s of a genre but distinctly singular at the same time. but i totally feel that re wanting to impress your idols., my earliest music criticism was def me trying to find my voice while wanting to mimic others in a sense. my fiction, god, who even knows.
LM: Thank you! I think it’s also important to recognize “bedroom pop” as being a kind of blanket term. There are so many artists experimenting with instruments and lyrics and programming from their bedrooms, but I don’t think it’s fair to say they’re ALL bedroom pop, because it kind of overlooks the work they’re putting into that music and makes everything homogenous. Music isn’t so simple! Everyone writes and performs music differently, and everyone has different resources available to them. If their only space for a studio is their bedroom, it shouldn’t necessarily mean they’re a bedroom pop band! This is no slight to bands or artists who identify as bedroom pop, this is more of a word of caution to people who write about music!
But yes, it can be so difficult to find your voice! I know that sounds so cheesy, but there’s a real risk to it. There’s the potential for danger–you’re suddenly super transparent and vulnerable. My songs are super personal to an almost intense degree, and there are some songs that I can’t play live because I feel like it’s too much for the audience to know. But it feels good to find your voice, and realize that you don’t have to impress anyone. Being honest to yourself and your emotional and physical states helps out.
sm: heights contains some previously recorded material, but even some of your demos like the lil neck tape seem to be fully-fleshed lyrically, so where do you draw the distinction between a demo and a finished song, and what’s the songwriting process like? and it says that heights was recorded, among other things, for your dog. so srs journalism here: is your dog a Good Dog?
LM: My songwriting process, like many things about me, is pretty scattered. Sometimes I think of one or two lyrics and will try to build a song around them, sometimes I connect dots to lyrics I’ve jotted down over the weeks and find a song there, sometimes I can write a song in one sitting. I draw a lot of influence from nature, and a lot of my songs have natural metaphors or imagery that I try to align with my emotional state. Musically, I’ll have an idea for a tune and try to work it out, or a “feeling” I want to assign the song and translate that into notes. Sometimes I’ll think of a tune before I write a song and record that on my phone, and I may write a song that fits in with that tune down the line. Most of the demos on my site are designated as such because of the quality of their recording. The songs on lil neck were all recorded through Soundcloud because ProTools stopped working for me, so they were all pretty straightforward. “spring cleaning” was recorded with audacity, and while the program didn’t provide the quality I wanted, I was able to experiment more vocally and instrumentally.
And YES my dog is A VERY GOOD DOG! His name is Doon, he is [a] Scottish Terrier mix, and he looks like a pig. He is my boy. We are best friends!
sm: that’s something i wanted to talk abt, actually, is that one of the first things i noticed abt your music was how up-front your voice was. even w/the intensely personal nature of the lyrics, there’s a command that’s rare no matter the genre classification. did you ever have vocal training, or that’s just a natural way of performing for you?
LM: I’ve never had any vocal training, but I used to struggle with how I wanted my voice to sound. This was especially heightened in high school. I lived in a NJ suburb that I hated, I was an “alt” kid in a sea of “jocks”–writing about this now, it’s all so stupid to assign those titles to people, but that’s how I felt at the time–so when I was playing music for my high school “punk” band I made a point not to sing in “pretty” manner. I was determined to not have an overly feminine voice because I wanted to shock the people in my town (I am laughing-out-loud). Looking back, a LOT of how I felt as a performer in a high school punk band stemmed from internalized misogyny, like somehow singing in my actual “feminine” voice was not punk or tough and no one would take me seriously as a musician. I’d hear bands like Paramore and think “UGH that’s not how you sing in a PUNK BAND you sound so GIRLY that’s not PUNK” like I was some fucking expert. Sounding “girly” or feminine or however else shouldn’t eliminate you from playing loud music or punk! And FUCK anyone who tells you otherwise! I’ve since called bullshit on my younger self for being so narrow-minded and dumb.
I was also in a folk band in high school, and a lot of the songs we played or covered called for softer vocals. There was space for me to sing in a way that was natural for me because that’s what worked with the music. I remember one of the first gigs we played in my town, a girl in my class came up to me and was like, “Your voice is so good! I didn’t know you could sing!” It took me aback for a little bit, because I had been performing for years, but I realized I had focused so much energy into warping my voice in a way that wasn’t really me, so no one really knew what I sounded like.
Being in a punk band and a folk band at the same time was, vocally, very weird, but they both kind of combined and let my voice kind of grow into what it is now. I dunno if that makes sense or if it’s self-indulgent of me to write? I feel like the punk band kind of strengthened my diaphragm from all of the shouting and screaming (again, I laugh-out-loud), but the folk band let me sing in my natural, comfortable voice, which let it grow stronger with time. The past few years I’ve been trying to focus on how I emote during a performance, and what feelings I’m trying to convey in my voice. Match the lyrics with the vocals, if you will. Eh!
sm: do you have any music coming out soon/working on anything, and if so, are there any differences sonically between that and your previous work? one of my favorite things you’ve done is the “sea of love” cover – how do you go about choosing songs to cover, and what’s the process into turning them your own?
LM: Right now, we’re trying to finish up our next LP, and it sounds very different from Heights. One of the reasons is because I’m recording it with a full band! Which has been an immense amount of fun! I tracked all of the instruments on Heights by myself, so playing with a band has been an amazing time because they’ll think of something to add that I never considered before, or they’ll play the song in a way I didn’t ever think about, and it all still fits with the vision of the song.
Heights was also very introspective, super quiet with a few crashing moments. The new LP is the exact opposite. It’s reactionary, tracking a specific length of time in my life, some very specific events, and is mostly very loud with a few moments of quiet. It sounds more like we do as a band live than I do solo or with older material.
I really love doing covers and I kinda wish we did them more! I’m also really glad you like the “Sea of Love” cover, thank you thank you!! When I play solo any covers I do are usually earworms–“Sea of Love” had been stuck in my head when I recorded it, and “Atoms” by Nana Grizol is one of my favorite songs of all time. As a live full band, we’ve covered “In A Big City” by Titus Andronicus (cos we’re a NJ band all hangin’ out ‘cross the river and also we love Titus) and “Big Dipper” by Built To Spill (cos it’s a sad song with mention of a dinosaur and stars, which is RIGHT up our alley).
sm: what would you say are the biggest challenges to performing live?
LM: Oh stars! Performing live! For a very long while it was figuring out how to talk to the audience. The bassist in our high school punk band was super charismatic and took on banter duties, in JBR we all kind of shared banter and I had one terrible joke I would tell about a whale (now retired). It’s only been in the past few months that I’ve started feeling really comfortable interacting with the audience like that. Performing in general makes me feel really, really good, but social anxiety made banter and even talking to people afterwards a scary, scary chore. I’ve only recently started seriously managing it, and as a result I’ve felt way more comfortable and confident talking to an audience.
sm: when i was a kid, the first job i wanted to have was as a paleontologist, and as a writer now, i am obsessed w/astronomical imagery, so to indulge these interests, what’re your favorite dinosaurs/stars?
LM: I also wanted to be a paleontologist! I have loved dinosaurs for as long as I can remember and I have resolved to haunt the American Museum of Natural History when I die. Maybe that’s morbid. I have always loved sauropods, they’ve been my favorite dinos for years on years and I even named the band after them. Apatosaurus (formerly brontosaurus) is close to my heart, though I’m also partial to plesiosaurs! There’s also a stegosaur called Gigantspinosaurus that had a spiked shoulders and looked ridiculous. I also love Hadrosaurus foulkii solely because it is the State Dinosaur of New Jersey! This pterosaur called Tupandactylus was pretty cool and I was one for Halloween a few years back, huge crest and all!
I wish I was more adept at identifying stars and constellations! I can find Cancer, Orion, the Big Dipper, the North Star, and Cygnus! When I was little, my dad was really into astronomy and tried teaching my sister and I how to identify certain constellations. It was hard to practice cos of urban light pollution, so we lost our handle on it. But I remember him pointing out Hercules on a family vacation once, so that constellation is one that I try to look for when the sky is clear enough. It’s the one I remember from that tiny education.
sm: but that is hella good dinosaur knowledge, my personal favorite was the anklyosaurus, though i can’t ever recall why. maybe the name was phonaesthesitc, maybe i fancied a tiny version of myself riding on it, who knows. i love the phenomenon of zodiacal light – it’s such a great signal of time passing and marks those nights when you effortlessly find yourself outside before the dawn. but this has all been a good segue into the non-music related questions that i like to ask: if somebody came to your city and you had to tell them one thing to do, what would it be? and, what’s your favorite sandwich?
LM: If you’re comin to JC, you gotta go to the Liberty Science Center! It’s just too much fun, and their IMAX theatre is nutso. They have lots of cool exhibits and it’s ~fun for the whole fam~!
And my favorite sandwich? Hmmm, as of late it’s been mozzarella with tomato, prosciutto or sweet sausage, spinach, and basil pesto!
Featured image courtesy of Lily Mastrodimos.