Emotions and Math is not simply the name of Margaret Glaspy’s debut album. That expression drills right to the heart of the New York singer-songwriter’s proper introduction, a mission statement both artistic and personal. On its surface, the title track talks about being a touring musician and figuring out how to see your partner, looking at the calendar and calculating how you’re going to spend time together. But Emotions and Math, which ATO Records released on June 17, 2016, also sums up an epiphany she had while making the record.
“In a lot of ways, it’s kind of how I operate,” says Glaspy. “I’ve always considered myself a free spirit, someone who goes with the flow, but actually I’m not exactly like that. This record really taught me that I’m super analytical and process-driven. I think they really do go together, emotions and math. Nobody is just one thing.” As introductions go, these 12 songs waste no time in cutting close to the bone. This is a young artist with something to say, one who has found her voice, as both singer and songwriter, after years venturing down a crooked path.
After cutting her teeth in New York and Boston, where she was a touring musician and played in other people’s bands, Emotions and Math signals an assured new direction for Glaspy. Glaspy, who’s 27 and grew up in Red Bluff, California, self-produced the album, which frames her revealing ruminations in shards of jagged guitar rock. Building on its early buzz — Rolling Stone hailed first single “You and I” for its “hot barbs of electric guitar,” and BrooklynVegan declared it a “stomping rocker with a DGAF attitude” — Glaspy prepares for a big year in 2016. She’s a fierce believer in the power of specifics to tell universal truths, to capture emotions we’ve all felt but don’t necessarily hear reflected in pop music. Some truths are uglier than others, but Glaspy never backs down.
Take “You and I,” which opens with a sentiment so gripping that Glaspy initially worried it would send the wrong message. “Tonight I’m too turned on to talk about us/ And tomorrow I’ll be too turned off/ And won’t give a fuck/ About you and I,” she sings with a punk sneer that turns up often throughout her debut. “A lot of the songs are so specific but also feel like they apply to so much of my life,” says Glaspy. “I realize more and more on a daily basis that if you’re given a microphone to share what you have to say, then I hope to God that I don’t encourage some fantasy of what we’re supposed to be or how we should live our lives.”
Glaspy would rather tell you the truth of the matter. On “Memory Street,” she envisions her past as a small town dotted with old relationships and memories both fond and painful: “Why remember all the times I took forever to forget?” She salutes her self-reliance on “Somebody to Anybody,” reminding both the listener and herself that, “I don’t want to be somebody to anybody/ No, I’m good at no one.”
The album also showcases Glaspy’s finely tuned ear for production. Throughout Emotions and Math, she keeps the recordings clean and urgent, without an ounce of fat on them. She had plenty of practice; having recorded demos of the album twice at home before eventually ironing out the wrinkles at Sear Sound studios in New York. Glaspy auditioned her players and kept the sessions brisk and loose, running through songs a few times with musicians still reading the charts she had written out. “Everyone was on their toes, waiting for the right moment,” she says.
That freewheeling vibe ended up imbuing the songs with the same brittle energy and warm intimacy Glaspy brings to her live performances. In a bit of comic relief, “You Don’t Want Me” is a duet with herself, an imagined conversation between an insecure woman and a man who has to reassure her. “You don’t want me,” Glaspy sings dismissively, countered by her own voice, slightly distorted and pitched lower: “I do/ You are on my mind/ Every night of the week/ Stop being so naïve,” Glaspy sings. Told from the perspective of a parent to a child, “Parental Guidance” plumbs the fragile psyche of adolescents. “I think a lot of times kids are pigeonholed as being kids, but at the same time it’s the most important years of their lives,” Glaspy says. “Our view of ourselves is so paramount, and when it gets messed with at a young age, it’s lethal.”
The closing “Black Is Blue” is a poetic ode to accepting a reality you never knew. The least autobiographical song on the record, it’s the story of a couple who were in love, had a kid, and then broke up. “But from far away, ‘Black Is Blue’ is about things you thought were one way but aren’t really like that at all,” Glaspy says. “It’s taken a minute,” she admits, “but I’m so glad that I waited to record my debut. I went through so many different phases before I got to where I am now. It feels like it took 26 years to make this album."