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Second Life: Avoiding the Sophomore Slump

The sophomore slump is a classic jinx. Often, after debuting with unexpected success, musicians buckle under new pressures. We spoke with Santigold, Dustin Wong, Perfume Genius, Nite Jewel and Frankie Rose about how, after making striking entrances, they avoided the slump the second time around.

First album: Santogold
Year of release: 2008
Second album: Master of My Make-Believe
Year of release: 2012
Years between: 4

How she avoided the sophomore slump: My expectations going into my sophomore album were that I knew what to expect, that it was going to be the same process, and I thought I knew exactly how to do it. But the main thing you learn every time is that it’s a new process. I learned really fast that if you start worrying about how your music’s going to be received, you make bad music. Some people gave me some really good advice. One was Pharrell, he was like, If you’re a really good football player, then everybody starts swarming you and taking you off the field, they put you in a new uniform, put you on a different field, and tell you to play a different game. You’ve got to take all that shit and do what you were doing in the beginning. You have to be really strong in your foundation. You have to know who you are and why you do what you do. Otherwise, I could just have some of the main hit producers do my record, I could take every song you hear on the radio and I could have writers who do those songs make me a hit. I’d probably make more money and be a huge success, but I’d be miserable, and that’s not why I do it.

Stream: Santigold, "Disparate Youth"

First album: Infinite Love
Year of release: 2010
Second album: Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads
Year of release: 2012
Years between: 2

How he avoided the sophomore slump: I’ve always had a good experience with the sophomore album [in previous bands], because it’s more refined than the first. You’re going back to the idea—it’s like, the first album is going into a mine to find a resource, then you’re using that resource for the second album, to make something out of it. I think, for me, the third album is harder than the second, because then—what do you do next? The worry is not the record, but the quality of performance. When it’s recorded it forms in a very precise way, and when people know the record, if I don’t perform it with that precision, there’s going to be disappointment. All of my songs are written, but when I write them, it’s in an improvised way. The only thing I have to do is, if I make something, I need to remember it from the beginning. Half the time I completely forget, and I’m just like, Ah well. I have this thing about forgetting. I think forgetting is actually a good thing. A lot of the time, the next idea is an extension of what the last idea was, what the lost song you’ve written explored.

Stream: Dustin Wong, "Diagonally Talking Echo"
Watch: Open Bar: Dustin Wong

First album: Learning
Year of release: 2010
Second album: Put Your Back N 2 It
Year of release: 2012
Years between: 2

How he avoided the sophomore slump: Making this album was different because, for the first time, I was expected to make something. I realized that I’d have to play this music for my record label; people were going to have to hear it. It wasn’t like that with Learning, it was made on a piano in my mom’s living room. I wasn’t just going back over my diary. It felt more vulnerable because I was actually trying. It was strange for me to figure out how to still be genuine and not self-conscious. After Learning, I got all these letters from gay kids who identified with the pain in my music. I wanted to make something that would be a comfort to them. That was the coolest part of making this record—having some weird gay kid in a small town liking my music and knowing that I was once the weird gay kid in a small town, too. Put Your Back N 2 It is still as serious and emotional as Learning, but the intent is more deliberate. I got over my vulnerability once I figured out who I was writing the music for and focused on them instead of on the general public listening to it.

Interview: Perfume Genius
Watch: Perfume Genius, "Hood"

First album: Good Evening
Year of release: 2009
Second album: One Second of Love
Year of release: 2012
Years between: 3

How she avoided the sophomore slump: I started Good Evening in early 2007. There wasn’t a sense that it was going to get put out or anything until the very end, so I was writing for the sake of writing—which is actually how One Second of Love began, just a recording experiment with friends. I don’t really think about music in terms of making moves, but you do go through stages of emotion and comfort and confidence. Before, I was intentionally messing up stuff and making what I was saying pretty incomprehensible because I was really shy. But I’m a writer. I like words, and I like singers and lyricists. Ultimately it’s sort of selling yourself short, if that’s the thing that you love, to cover your words up. The most important thing with this album was to give a pure vision to whoever’s listening. That purity can be a number of things, but this time I wanted to get words across and say something universal, not crybaby personal stuff. It’s embarrassing to go to a club or something and a DJ drops your track and it sounds like fucking shit because you didn’t know what you were doing. This time, we took painstaking steps to make sure that this music can be listened to by anyone in any context.

Stream: Nite Jewel, One Second of Love

First album: Frankie Rose & The Outs
Year of release: 2010
Second album: Interstellar
Year of release: 2012
Years between: 2

How she avoided the sophomore slump: I definitely was like, Oh man, I simply cannot put out the same record again. I kind of got nostalgic about the music I would listen to when I was a kid, a lot of mainstream new wave stuff, so I definitely wanted to reference an ’80s pop feel. My ears got tired of hearing fuzz and too much reverb on everything. I ended up working with an amazing producer, Le Chev. He pushed me to make decisions I wouldn’t normally make, something as simple as pushing your vocals up instead of burying them. I never think of audiences. I’m still shocked that I have one. I don’t even know who my audience is. I also don’t really read [reviews], because I don’t think that it helps. Then you’re making music for other people, which is not helpful to anyone. It’s not going to make you make a better record. It just won’t. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly amazing from everyone that I’ve sent it to. I mean, honestly, my mother likes it. My mother’s never liked anything I’ve ever done. She doesn’t say, I don’t like what you’ve done, she just says, Oh, that’s very nice, honey. And this album, my mother was telling me that she listens to it every day and that she loves it. If that’s possible, then it must be accessible on some level.

Download: Frankie Rose, "Know Me"

Second Life: Avoiding the Sophomore Slump