Twin Shadow does not like one his most popular songs. Yet the reasons have nothing to do with the song's popularity or the fact that it was featured in a big teen movie. The issue with “To the Top,” the artist born George Lewis Jr. explains, has everything to do with his own production, which he says has too much arena-rock energy and not enough ‘90s George Michael vibes. “I'm not super excited about continuing to play it that way,” he says. “I have to figure out how I like it.”
Across four albums new wave-tinged alt-pop, that attention to detail has been important to both his critical acclaim and his personal satisfaction — knowing when to keep tinkering with a song that’s already been through countless iterations, but also knowing when to walk away from a demo that’s perfect as is. It’s no different for his latest LP, Caer, out now, which features both out–the-box sounds — a droning tuba on “When You’re Wrong,” a top secret vocal-production technique on “Little Woman” — as well as some his most immediate songwriting to date.
Below, Twin Shadow looks back on and evaluates his catalog, picking out his strongest songwriting, his best performances, the surprising fan favorites… and the songs he admits could have used more work in the studio.
The Song I Would Tell New Fans to Listen to First I’d start with my first record, Forget, with a song like “Castles in the Snow” — which is maybe not the best starting point, because it doesn't necessarily show you where I'm at today, but it's the song that put me on the map. It's the first song I'd created that more than ten people I knew wanted to listen to it over and over again, so it has a special place in my heart.
The Song That Best Showcases Me as a Lyricist: I actually know the exact line I'm most proud . It's from a song called “Tyrant Destroyed” from 2010's Forget] and the line is: “As if it wasn't enough just to hear you speak, they had to give you lips like that/ Like all your sadness, reduced to a color and painted upon you / How could I forget you?” That's probably the best line I'll ever write in my life. Laughs.]
My most quoted lyric among fans] is probably, “You’re my favorite daydream, I’m your famous nightmare,” from “Castles in the Snow.” I know for a fact that a card company actually took the line and stole a few my lyrics. We had to send a cease-and-desist letter and sic the lawyers on them.
“Castle in the Snow” gets misquoted like crazy and, admittedly, it's because my enunciation is horrible on the actual record. One the lines is “Now we are bold as breath, we walk along our golden crest.” And it's a tongue twister, but people get like, “Now we are big as breasts.” Seriously! Or my favorite: “Now we are old as bread.” I've seen that a bunch times.
The Song That Best Showcases Me as a Vocalist: Something f my new record, because for the first time I feel really comfortable with my voice. Maybe “Saturdays.” It feels the most representative ] my personality. It's a solid vocal take. It's hard, because the merits that people give to vocalists can be very different. I wouldn't consider myself a virtuosic singer, so for me, it's more about how honest it feels to me. The song “Little Woman” is definitely one the coolest vocals that I've produced. It's not Auto-Tune or a vocoder. It is a trick that I use that I don't tell anybody about. I really wanted it to feel theatrical, the way that Bowie would do a vocal in the late ‘70s on Low or something like that. A vocal that just doesn't feel like from this world.
The Song I Have to Include in Live Sets or Fans Will Riot I'm being quite rebellious about a song called “To The Top.” I'm not playing it, which I know is upsetting a lot fans, but I really don’t like that song. I'm so glad that people like it, I just don't love playing it because it never was exactly what I wanted it to be. We performed it on Conan, and that version] was really close to what I wanted it to be. It requires this big band and a lot singers. I think if it had more a ‘90s George Michael gospel overtone to it, I would have liked the song better. But I produced it out in this big stadium rock way, which I don't really like.
The song I know for sure I have to play forever is “Five Seconds.” That song always gets requested. It's from my second record, Confess, and from that record until now, we used to play it as the first song every set — the idea being that it was the most energetic song that I had. I always thought if we played the most energetic song first, then we had to keep the rest the set energetic. It sets the bar. So now we include it, but I've remixed it a little bit to keep it exciting, and I think people like it actually better now.
The Song I Always Want to Perform No Matter What: There's a song called “The One” from my second record, and we've never ever played it as a full band live. I always play it just by myself on guitar. I created this version — probably for a radio show at some point — that has this weird Jimi Hendrix “Castles Made Sand” vibe. And I love playing it because it's the one time in the set where it's just my voice and a guitar. It gives me a really good gauge on whether the audience is really paying attention. Or if I need to throw it in the middle a set to quiet thing down, it can reset the energy. It's just become this great tool for me to get the audience to go in the direction that I feel the show needs to go into.
The Song I Wish I Could Fix With One More Day in the Studio: There's a song called “Run My Heart” which I really love dearly that I just don't think I aced at all on the recording. Had I aced it, I think it would have been a bigger song. Vocal delivery, production, the mixing — I’d fix] everything about it. I’m pretty sure — well, I won't name the person — but someone involved in finishing the song was very drunk. Some sobriety probably would have helped give it some perspective.
The Song on My New Record That Was Easiest to Write: “Little Woman.” What you hear on the record is the actual demo I made in an hour. I tried to build it and turn it into something else and ended up just going right back to the demo and putting the demo on the record. That was it. It's not super rare. “Castles in the Snow” was particularly fast. “Five Seconds” had a million versions. My favorite songs are usually songs that don't take much time. That's the golden rule for me: If it's taking more than a week's time to put it together collectively, it's probably crap.
I started “Too Many Colors” at the end day working on some other song. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. I had most it done. I worked on the lyrics the next day. I finished it the next day after that]. I just snuck it onto the record. I wasn’t even supposed to be working on the song — I had tons other songs for the record, but I really liked it. That song is great for me, too, because it is just very direct and honest. I consider myself a romantic, and it’s easy for people like me to get lost in the words and the lush qualities language. It’s nice to sit back and have a conversation with either myself or the audience that is very much how I would just sit down and talk to you.
The song is about my desires to not be labeled, to not be stuck in a box. Coming from a mixed background — I have a white father and a black mother — my life has been lined with this idea from the outside , “Well, which side do you identify with more?” I’ve never had an answer, and that’s what the song is about. There are too many places I come from.
The Weird Sound I Am Most Proud Sneaking Onto an Album: On my new record, there's an audible, subliminal sound, and I can't even say what it is. I can't say what song it's on. It's someone else's voice. The only person who will figure it out is the person whose voice it is. Which means I'll probably get sued at some point — I’m kidding! What's the likelihood someone figuring it out]? Probably zero.
The Song That Still Makes Me Emotional On Stage: “The One.” Last night I straight up got teary-eyed thinking about the person I wrote it about. A lot my songs have this harshness to them, and I hope people see through the harshness and see it as a realness.
That song is my version , “If you can’t have the one you love, love the one you’re with,” but I’d like to think it’s a bit deeper than that. It’s more about when you’re with someone and you absolutely know it’s never going to work out in a million years, but you choose to stay there — not for comfort, but because this person really loves you back and gives you life, and you also do that for them in that moment. It’s this tragic song in that it’s admitting it’s not going to work out. It’s not right. But the fact that it’s going to become a disaster is completely unimportant. Love is honest, no matter what your plans are or what the future gives you.
I thought about the person I wrote it for last night. I didnt invite them to the show, and they live in New York. It cracked me last night. I was feeling on stage, Oh, I should have invited them, but it was too painful.
The Deep Cut I’m Surprised Became a Fan Favorite: There’s a song called “Half Life” on my record Eclipse that we call the sleeper hit. It’s weird. You look at your streaming numbers, and all a sudden the song is coming out nowhere, and I really have no idea why. There was no licensing for the song. There’s no particular reason. It was buried deep in the record, and I do notice with streaming that track 10 is going to be the least-listened-to song if it wasn’t a single. But people are listening to it! And it’s interesting that it’s called “Half Life.”