Videos by American Songwriter
With the band as his launching pad, League has spent the years since 2004 making all of his dreams come true. With Snarky Puppy, he’s worked alongside of the most talented musicians on the planet, writing mind-melting, genre-blending records and delivering impassioned performances around the world. Outside of Snarky Puppy, he’s built up a name as an inimitable producer, working on records for the likes of David Crosby, Becca Stevens, Forq and more.
But outside of his roles as bandleader or producer, League has a whole other side of his creativity that’s seldom seen the limelight… until now. On June 25, the 37-year-old bassist and songwriter put out So Many Me, his pop-inspired debut studio album.
Blending together a wide array of eclectic sounds and styles—from melodic synth lines to stirring jazz harmonies to Turkish, Moroccan and Kurdish percussion—the record is a comprehensive tour of League’s own unique brand of song-smithing. Focusing less on the norms and structures of music-making and more on its energy and potential, the songs come to life with imaginative arrangements and evocatively moody sound palettes. While on the outside So Many Me feels like a colorful collage of random styles, to its core, it’s a pop record, with its eclecticness only serving League’s inventive vision.
League hopped on a Zoom call with American Songwriter from his studio in the south of Spain to discuss the new record and the journey of making it. Starting in 2015, the years-long process didn’t really kick into high gear until the COVID-19 pandemic provided League with an unprecedented amount of downtime. Exploring his own voice as a songwriter—musically and lyrically—the process of making So Many Me proved to be a defining experience, bringing the lessons he’s learned over the years to light and ushering in a new era for League’s musical life. Open and forthright about his process, League’s side of the conversation is sprinkled with insight and wisdom. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: You first got the inclination to make a solo album around five years ago—what was the idea like back then? How did the idea grow and develop into the 2020 pandemic?
Michael League: Well, I grew up singing and playing guitar. I think most people in the music world think of me as, like, a bass player for instrumental music, but the first way I ever really engaged with music was singing and playing. Then, when I went to jazz school, that kinda got put on the back burner.
So, the solo album was a thing that I’ve always wanted to do. And I love pop, you know? I grew up listening to it and more than anything else, I feel like that’s my music. So, I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time. In 2015, I kinda made a plan to record it—I started a little document with all the ideas and song titles and sonic concepts and stuff. But the material didn’t develop at all between 2015 and the pandemic, I wasn’t working on it or anything like that. It was just in the freezer. Then when the world got put in the freezer too, there was time for me to actually develop those ideas.
American Songwriter: What were the early days of the pandemic like? When did you start working on this record in earnest?
ML: I was in Holland working with an orchestra for a week of gigs when the pandemic hit—the gigs were cancelled because of the growing threat of COVID. So, I went back to where I live in Spain on the last flight before all the airports closed. I flew to my girlfriend’s place with a duffel bag, a MIDI controller and my computer, thinking that it would be a couple weeks, maybe a month. When the whole world basically shut down and they said “Alright, this is going to be a longer thing,” I thought “Well, okay—here’s probably the only chance I’ll ever have to write this album.” It’s hard for me to schedule time for things I want to do. Normally, my time gets scheduled according to things that people need me to do for them, you know? That’s just the nature of working with other musicians, especially as a producer. So, I was there in my girlfriend’s really tiny apartment, sitting in her living room with my laptop and MIDI controller, going through voice memos and notes—a bunch of little ideas and song seeds.
AS: Are you the kind of writer who is pretty much constantly accruing notes and little ideas like that?
ML: Yeah, sure. Every day, I probably add at least one thing—or at least a few every week. Sometimes, I’ll do several in a day. It just depends if I’m practicing more, because as I’m practicing, I get distracted with these little ideas. I record them and save them, kinda storing them away for when I have time to write. Then, I just go through my phone and listen to them all, looking for whatever idea grabs me at that moment. Then, I try to develop it. I think it’s a more reliable way of composing than expecting the whole song to kinda come to you in one moment. In that scenario, you have to really hope that that “one moment” comes at a time when you happen to be free to write.
AS: You’ve worked with some real legends, like David Crosby, Esperanza Spalding, Michael McDonald and more—you even produced Crosby. How has producing and performing with others augmented your own musicianship?
ML: I’ve learned things from every record I’ve produced—I often learn things where I’m like, “I can’t believe I didn’t know this before this record,” you know? That’s the beautiful thing about growing. But also, it can be an ass-kicking experience a lot of the time as well. During certain sessions, you realize that you’re totally out of your weight class. But I think a lot of that anxiety or insufficiency or whatever gets mitigated by approaching the situations as a learning experience—a group learning experience, even, since you aren’t the only one learning anything. I mean, David is 80 now and he learned new things every day when we were in the studio. He’s eager to learn and so am I. I think everybody had that kind of attitude when we went in—open your mind, try to learn new things and take risks and it always turns out. You’re never going to be “ready.” I don’t think you’re ever “ready” to produce a record, you don’t even know enough to do it perfectly. There is no “perfectly.”
AS: Something really cool about this record is how effectively it blends styles and genres, incorporating elements of jazz, pop and Middle Eastern percussion music, even. How do you approach writing and arranging these songs to straddle all these different inspirations?
ML: Well, it stems from a very practical problem: I can’t play a drum set. And, I study percussion—in Turkey and Morocco and those regions, you have a bunch of really interesting sounding instruments. So, part of it was because of the limitation of not being a drummer, and part of it was the idea that I could use that limitation as the opportunity to make this record sound even more distinct and unique. I tried to fill the role that the drum set plays in popular music with other instruments, ones that are more commonly found in folklore contexts.
That was a challenge, but when you really think about what a drum set is, it’s just a low drum, a mid range drum sound, some high drum sounds, some short metallic sounds and some sustained metallic sounds. If you break it down that way, you just have to find instruments that correspond to that. If you want to break it down in an even more pedestrian way, you can think about what each of those drum sounds give the music in terms of energy and power. Thinking of it like that is maybe a little less musical, but it’s very sensory. It’s like, if the ride on a drum set usually makes the music feel open, you can find a drum sound from the Moroccan tradition that gives a similar feeling of opening the music up. Then, once I find that, I’ll just use that sound instead of trying to find something identical to the ride sound of the drum kit.
So, the whole thing is an ecosystem. When you make a record, every decision you make impacts all the other decisions and things have to fit together nicely. So, there were decisions that had to be made about what’s going to be on the bottom of the mix—”Bass, or low-end percussion?” Decisions like that are ones you really didn’t have to make in, like, a ‘70s-style power trio, just because there are decades of recorded history showing how to record that music and what works and what doesn’t. So, for this record, Nick—my co-producer—and I had to make a lot of decisions that people probably haven’t had to make before, just because the instrumentation on this record was so different.
AS: In that regard, did working on a solo album make you feel like you had more creative freedom than ever before?
ML: I wouldn’t say that I had “more freedom,” because I feel like in most of the contexts in which I work, there’s a lot of freedom. I would just say that I had less access to opinions—there was my opinion, there was Nick’s opinion. That was it, you know? Normally, there’s my opinion, Nick’s opinion and 19 other opinions from the other members of Snarky Puppy. I wouldn’t say that I have any less freedom in the band, but there are just less opinions with the solo project, which can be a little scary. You can be kinda, like, drifting off to sea without being aware of it because there’s no one around to tether you to the dock. So, having Nick there was immensely helpful because he’s incredibly experienced, intuitive and has fantastic taste—and different tastes than me, which is great to have in a collaborator.
AS: How does it feel now to be putting out a solo record? Especially with your voice all over it—does it feel nerve-racking in a way?
ML: I mean, it’s definitely new—I’ve never made a record alone. I’ve never sang lead on an entire album. I’ve never even really sang more than eight bars at a time. So, it’s definitely new. But I think it might be newer for the audience than it is for me because I’ve always been writing songs and singing. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was 14, it’s just that no one’s ever heard the songs (or they heard other people singing them). So, it’s not a “new direction.” For me, it’s just the first time I’ve been shown to the world in this kind of way, with me being the center of attention. That’s not a thing I particularly enjoy, but in this context, it seemed kinda unavoidable.
AS: After conceptualizing this record for so long, does it feel good to finally be able to get it out into the world?
ML: Yeah, I mean, I like the songs, they mean something to me. So it’s like any other record—it’s a part of who I am. So, it’s a liberating thing, in a way, to have that out in the world, for people to kinda understand you in a different way. I think a lot of times, musicians live a lot of our lives feeling misunderstood—that’s inherent, because the public thinks of us in the context of one thing and that’s the one thing they know us for, like because one song got popular or something. So, then, you’re “the guy from that song.” But maybe as musicians, we think of ourselves as a bunch of different things, more than just what others think of us. So, it’s nice that I feel like people are seeing another side of who I am. That means that, in general, they’ll understand the art I make in a deeper way. It also opens up opportunities to work with people who maybe wouldn’t have thought I was the right person to work with prior, which is interesting too.
AS: What’s next for you?
ML: There’s a lot going on. I’m producing 12 records this year. This record was the first of the 12 that I finished, so now I’m about to start the seventh record of the year in Miami… err, I’m going to be here in Spain, producing it remotely. That’s with C4 Trio, a Venezuelan band that’s actually a quartet with three cuatro players and a bass player. After that, I’ll be continuing to produce stuff. I’ll also be doing an ancient Kurdish wedding songs project. There’s just a lot going on this year. I’ll be touring too… so, this year will probably be more busy and intense than any year I can remember, actually. Right now, it’s a little intense, but I think next year I’ll look back and be like “Yeah, that was cool.”
Michael League’s debut solo album, So Many Me, is out now and available everywhere—watch the music video for “I Wonder Who You Know” below: