Being vulnerable is risky. Lyricists can cloak their feelings in obtuse turns of phrases and abstract poetics, just as composers’ dense sonic layers can conceal shoddy tunesmithing. It takes strength, wisdom, and maturity to put your art and heart out in the forefront. On DWNTWN’s latest, Racing Time (Jullian Records), out July 21st, the LA-based dream pop band lay bare both their songs and their souls.
“The significance of the album title is that time is finite on the planet so don’t let fear govern your life choices,” says DWNTWN’s lead vocalist, and co-principle songwriter, Jamie Leffler.
In addition to Jamie, DWNTWN is Robert Cepeda, guitar and vocals, and Daniel Vanchieri, drums. The trio wraps sorrowful lyrics and sharp hooks in lush soundscapes. DWNTWN’s expansive artistic palette recalls the transcendently textured indie rock of Modest Mouse and Beach House, and the heartfelt sincerity of classic 1970s Laurel Canyon folk and early country, a la The Carter Family.
Racing Time is a milestone entry in Jamie and Robert’s creative partnership. The two met while in high school, and, six years ago, began experimenting as a bedroom duo, concocting lush pop with one guitar and a midi keyboard. Over the years, Jamie and Robert have added other musicians to the mix and scaled back the ambient layers to reveal warmly organic instrumentation. “We’ve matured,” Jamie allows. “We are ready to pull away all the excesses so we can be vulnerable, and say exactly what needs to be said.”
Throughout the album, Jamie’s lyrics are bravely expressive. “I’m a strong and independent person, but songwriting let’s me be the opposite. I can open myself up and not feel like I have to be strong all the time,” Jamie shares. On Racing Time she explores relationships, coming of age, and the loss of her father, former Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ bassist Howie Epstein who died of a heroin overdose when she was 14. The album’s release date has added significance as it comes out the day of her father’s birth.
Racing Time opens with “Bloodshot Eyes”’s sweet spectral vocals and acoustic guitar strumming. Soon, lush textures emerge and envelop you while the beat surges forward with pent-up emotionality. There is majestic sadness to tracks like “Bloodshot Eyes,” along with album tracks like “Love Someone” and “Little Night Song.” On the elegantly elegiac “Fourteen,” Jamie addresses the loss of her father. “He was my buddy and best friend as a child, but I didn’t get to know him as an adult. Writing this was therapeutic because I could say those things I always wanted to say to him,” Jamie confides. Here, her lyrics burn with emotional directness, as if the listener is witnessing some highly intimate reckoning. Jamie sings: Don’t know why but you’re on my mind/Thought a lot but never cried/Does it mean I'm empty inside/Or afraid of what I’d find/Keep you locked up in my heart so tight/It’s the only way you'll never die.
Racing Time concludes with a stunning rendition of Anita Carter’s 1960s chestnut “As The Sparrow Goes,” featuring a guest appearance by Jamie’s stepmother, Carlene Carter. Here, Carlene’s richly expressive vocals beautifully complement Jamie’s dreamy singing.
On the heels of the release of DWNTWN’s masterful debut, Jamie is reflective. A moment that stands out to her in making the album is sharing her music with her stepmother. Jamie says: “It felt really good to reconnect. She told me: ‘I want you to know your dad would have been so proud of you.’”