When Michael Lovett—the London singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer behind NZCA LINES—was asked, in 2016, about the four-year gap between the band’s 2012 debut (NZCA/LINES) and their 2016 follow-up (Infinite Summer), he insisted that it wasn’t by design.
“It was never supposed to be that long,” he said at the time. “I finished a version of the record in 2014.”
Now, after another four-year gap, Lovett is gearing up to release NZCA LINES’ third record, Pure Luxury, which sees him taking over production duties after his longtime collaborator Charlie Alex March stepped away to focus on other pursuits. Once again, this four-year gap wasn’t by design—it was the result of Lovett’s busy touring schedule, not to mention side gigs with Christine and the Queens and Metronomy.
“Songwriting-wise, I branched out a lot on this album with different approaches,” Lovett tells American Songwriter in an interview featured below. “I have found that as a writer I feel like I work best when I have some sort of crutch or thing which is forcing me into a certain way of thinking. I’m not really good at just sitting down and coming up with a piece of music on piano or guitar. It always has to be because of a situation I make for myself, whether it’s a new way of recording something or a restriction. It takes me a while. A lot of these songs seem obvious to me now. A song like ‘Prisoner of Love’—it seems obvious the way it should be. But it takes me a long time sometimes to reach that stage.”
That song—“Prison of Love”—is out today, following the album’s lead singles “Pure Luxury” and “Real Good Time.” It’s a vibrant, groovy synth-pop number that pairs Lovett’s smooth vocals with bouncy synths and crisp production.
“[I was] trying to not be subtle in any way, both lyrically and musically,” Lovett says of the record as a whole. “My previous records have been a bit restrained, trying to make tasteful synth textures and all this stuff. I was trying to get away from that completely and not use any of the same sounds.”
Lovett chatted with us a few weeks ago by phone from New York, where he was relaxing with his wife after learning that a forthcoming tour had been called off due to COVID. “My wife is half American and we actually got married in Austin just after I finished a tour with Metronomy in the United States,” he explained. “We were due to be going back to Europe to tour but that all got cancelled of course. So we decided to hang around here until we knew what was happening. We’re just sitting tight, readjusting.”
Check out the full interview and listen to “Prisoner of Love” below.
American Songwriter: You’ve already put out two singles off your new record—the title track “Pure Luxury” and “Real Good Time.” What are those two songs about? Why’d you want those to be the first glimpses of the record?
Michael Lovett: I was actually writing both of those songs during a period when I was visiting New York. This was a couple years back when I was starting to write the album. “Pure Luxury” was the first track that became the direction for the album as a whole. I was basically trying to jump-start my songwriting because I fell into a bit of a rut of trying to recreate the same thing that I had before. On a technical level I decided to try and write everything using an MPC2000, not using a computer so much.
At that period I was also going to some record stores in New York for the first time. I’m not really a big record guy to be honest, but I needed some new inspiration so I went into A-1 Records and they were playing a lot of really good stuff that I would never have heard otherwise. So I picked up a few 12-inches for inspiration. That allowed me to push up the tempo a bit faster than I normally would, and that ended up being the basis for this song, which I made really quickly on the MPC.
It was in winter but there was this weird warm day, which I think I put in the press release because it stuck in my mind. Around this time there were some political things happening in both America and England which were very prevalent, and I was listening back to some ‘90s stuff which I really liked when I was younger. Beck is an influence of course. There was a slight cynicism with politics at that time and that manifested with me thinking about everything that was going wrong with peoples’ priorities, politically. The lyrics are sort of heavy in content, but that’s contrasted with [the fact that] I was having a lot of fun making those tracks.
[I was] trying to not be subtle in any way, both lyrically and musically. My previous records have been a bit restrained, trying to make tasteful synth textures and all this stuff. I was trying to get away from that completely and not use any of the same sounds. There are some chords in the chorus of “Pure Luxury,” but apart from that it mainly consists of fragmented other bits.
Do you remember any of those records you came across in New York?
There were a couple. Things like Sinnamon’s “I Need You Now” is a favorite. People would make vinyl records—they’d make records that you could take beats from. There is one called Drumdrops which was a big influence as well. I basically remade a lot of samples with synths that replicated stuff.
When and where did the rest of the tracks come together? Were you in New York or on the road or in England?
It’s sort of a mix because I’ve just been traveling around so much over the last few years. As a way of answering your last question as well, we decided to release these two tracks first because they signaled the formation of that part of the record, and that felt like the direction things were going.
I had a few different phases of writing for this album, and with this first one I was actually trying to write only using an 8-track recorder. Often if you’re writing in Logic or something you end up using bits of the original demo and it becomes the final thing—it never really stops. But with this I wanted to write a song and then be forced to re-record it. I even erased the demos once I finished [them] with something else.
The track “For Your Love” was one of the first songs written for it that’s much more traditional instrumentation based around a piano part. I wanted to have something that I could just play without any other instrumentation, which is completely different from “Pure Luxury” or “Real Good Time.” That was recorded in Paris, while I was there on tour. A lot of the time that I spent here [in New York] went into the emotion that’s behind lots of the album.
How would you characterize that emotion?
Political, really, in my own way. Addressing the actual world, rather than trying to create a fantasy world. My previous records—they’ve been quasi-concept albums based around a science fiction theme, ‘cause I’m a huge sci-fi fan.
The first album was more inspired by writers like Italo Calvino and people who write about interesting concepts. The second was much more hard sci-fi influenced. And then this one, starting out I thought, ‘I guess I’m gonna try and make a concept and create a world,’ but that didn’t really feel authentic because suddenly so much stuff was happening in the real world that I didn’t feel I could not write about that. It’s really hard to write about that stuff without being a bit cloying or cheesy or annoying, so it’s a fine line.
This record comes four years after your last, 2016’s Infinite Summer. At the time you said, “My life is marked by doing something for a bit, then realising I could be doing it a lot better, then trying to improve.” How has your approach to making music evolved during that period?
Yeah, it’s completely different. Part of it is that I was making the first two records with a friend of mine, Charlie [Alex March], who got me into using more synths in the first place. That was a really exciting direction to move in when I was younger. For this record he had to step away because he was going down a different life path, so I had to take on a lot of that myself. I didn’t have somebody telling me to change things. If I was stuck I had to solve a problem myself more often than not, which was a real learning curve for me on a tactical level of producing for myself.
Songwriting-wise, I branched out a lot on this album with different approaches. I have found that as a writer I feel like I work best when I have some sort of crutch or thing which is forcing me into a certain way of thinking. I’m not really good at just sitting down and coming up with a piece of music on piano or guitar. It always has to be because of a situation I make for myself, whether it’s a new way of recording something or a restriction. It takes me a while. A lot of these songs seem obvious to me now. A song like “Prisoner of Love”—it seems obvious the way it should be. But it takes me a long time sometimes to reach that stage.
Did you spend the whole period between your last album and now putting Pure Luxury together, or was there a period where you really dove into this?
There was a period within it. I think I could have done it faster had I not been learning the things I needed to learn along the way, which took up a large part of the time. I was growing as a songwriter and definitely as a producer in that time. I was touring with Metronomy, I played with Christine and the Queens for a bit in that time period, I recorded an album with a guy called Oscar Scheller who ended up releasing a few tracks of that but not the whole thing. That was also helpful to produce somebody else for the first time as well. I don’t like saying yes because then it seems like it always takes me four years to make an album, but there’s definitely a way in which the time—and being able to move away from stuff and return to it—helped. It was probably about three separate three-month periods where I was properly working on stuff.
Who are your collaborators on the record?
There are quite a few people on the album—more than my last ones. In terms of mixing, it’s mixed by Christopher Harris for the most part, although “For Your Love” is mixed by Bastien Doremus, who’s in Paris. And then I’ve got Sarah Jones singing some vocals on some tracks, who’s played drums with me before. The band King are doing some backing vocals and playing synth bass on “Real Good Time,” I’ve got Giles Kwakeulati King-Ashong who’s also known as Kwake Bass playing drums on “For Your Love,” a drummer called Liam Hutton on “Larsen,” and an LA artist called VIAA who I’ve written with before. She’s singing on “For Your Love” and “Primp & Shine.” The strings on the tracks are real strings by 12 Ensemble, which is a London-based string collective. And the arrangements for that are done by Josephine Stephenson, who’s a French-English composer based in London.
I really love the process of getting other people involved to bring their expertise to it. “For Your Love” sounded very different before I recorded Giles playing drums ‘cause he’s got a very particular feel. He’s the kind of guy where you just sit playing for an hour and then you have to pick and choose what you put into the track. He gave so much that made the song feel different.