“Two Dreamers, Together in a Dreamworld”: How Beach House Found Their Sound on ‘Devotion’

Read The Liner Notes For Our Exclusive Record Of The Month

On February 20th 2018 » By Simon Vozick-Levinson

Beach House

It starts with a shimmy of percussion, somewhere between a shuffle and a country swing. Then the other instruments—organ, harpsichord, guitar—join the eerie dance. “Hello,” a voice beckons. A question: “Would you cry / If I lied, told a tale?” A tease: “Oh, but your wish is my command…”

“Wedding Bell” is an irresistible invitation to Beach House’s second album. “It’s playful,” is how Victoria Legrand, the Baltimore duo’s singer, lyricist and keyboardist, puts it. “There’s a twinge of lovers playing a game. Or one person playing a game in their own mind, and the other person has no idea.”

Released 10 years ago on February 26, 2008, Devotion marks the point where Beach House found their sound. Legrand and her musical partner, guitarist and keyboardist Alex Scally, have traveled far since then. Later albums, like 2015’s gorgeous Depression Cherry, have made them one of the most beloved indie acts of their generation. But this one stands alone as a moment of discovery. It felt then and feels now like a glimpse of a private world. A secret worth treasuring.

Devotion is the most cult of all our records,” Legrand says. “It does appear to have found its way into a lot of people’s lives in this particular, personal way. There’s something precious about it.”

She and Scally spent the first half of 2007 writing Devotion, then recorded the 11-track album that summer. They both sound a little surprised that it’s lasted so long. “We’re really honored that anybody still cares,” Scally says. When he listens to the album now, he mostly hears mistakes—bad notes, off rhythms. It’s like looking at old photos of yourself as a teenager, he tells me.

“The only way I can even sum it up is innocence,” Scally says. “There are errors all over it. But it somehow works, because of that irrational belief you have in yourself at a certain point in your life. I hear that in a lot of people’s early records. This bizarre confidence that is unfounded, but it keeps the thing alive.”

Beach House had a good feeling heading into that year. About a month earlier, their self-titled debut LP had surprised them by placing highly on 2006 year-end lists. The sales bump wasn’t enough for either of them to quit their day jobs—Scally as a carpenter for his dad’s construction business, Legrand working at a restaurant—but it boosted their spirits at the right time. “We weren’t doing that well, but we weren’t doing terribly,” Scally says. “I remember, like, 40 people came to see us in some city, and we were like, ‘We’re going to be a band.’ We both felt this unbridled excitement to make another record.”

“Wedding Bell” was one of the first songs they wrote for the new album, working together at Scally’s apartment in Baltimore’s Charles Village neighborhood in between tours. They’d both been listening to a lot of ’60s pop. “Beach Boys maximum,” Scally says. “That was such a key feeling in those days.” (He points out that the distinct rhythm of its verses echoes the intro to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”—a subtle link between Side 1, Track 1 classics that flew over countless heads.)

Legrand, who was living nearby in Charles Village, recalls it as a time of focused creativity. “I had a certain kind of life that I don’t have anymore,” she says. “I remember being in my 20s, living with my boyfriend at the time. I had the black cat that’s on the back cover. Now I live in a different part of Baltimore. I’m not with the boyfriend. I don’t have my cat. So much has changed.”

Beach House is a quiet band, on the whole, but the sessions at Scally’s place came to an abrupt halt after they started getting noise complaints. “The neighbor was like, ‘You have to stop doing this. Get the fuck out of here. You’re ruining my life,’” he says dryly.

They found a new practice space near Baltimore’s I-83 highway, where they wrote “Heart of Chambers,” Devotion’s emotional peak. If “Wedding Bell” sounds like a seance, “Heart of Chambers” sounds like it could be someone’s wedding song, provided that someone has a fatalist streak and a sense of humor. “Would you be the one to carry me?” Legrand sings, a hint of Edgar Allan Poe in her voice.

“‘Heart of Chambers’ is a dark, psychedelic room with candles,” she says now. “I think it’s a love song. There’s a heaviness in that person, or in that love object. There are a lot of questions about the future of that love. But there’s also an acceptance at the end. Whatever happens, at least we have this moment—whether it’s real or imaginary.”

She likens the song’s undertones of “dark sass” and “witchy mysticism” to “Gila,” another major highlight written that spring during a tour of the southern states. “It was somewhere in Mississippi that we put the pieces of ‘Gila’ together,” Legrand says. “All of these songs were written in different places, because we kept having to move.”

Their next stop was another practice space where, in a twist of questionable karma, their fellow tenants turned out to be loud metal bands. “We couldn’t hear what we were doing,” Scally says. Even so, they managed to write one of Devotion’s most tender songs there: “All the Years,” the dreamlike waltz at the album’s halfway point. “Let’s go on pretending / That the light is never-ending / So we still have the summers / Let’s be good to one another,” Legrand sings, offering a realistic but generous image of love (or any close relationship). “I’m very proud of that song,” she says now.

They were still writing songs for Devotion, trying to finish everything in time for their upcoming studio visit, when they left to support the English indie-pop band the Clientele on a U.S. tour that May and June. “They had a decent following in America, so it was pretty full rooms all across the country,” says Scally. “We were opening, but it felt like people were listening.”

“We called it Devotion for a reason. It felt like we were chasing something together. Two dreamers, together in a dreamworld.”

Victoria Legrand

In July 2007, Legrand and Scally brought the nine songs they’d completed to Lord Baltimore Recording, a low-budget studio a couple of blocks away from both their apartments, where they reunited with engineer Rob Girardi. “We did it in 10 days, recording and mixing, which felt like a lot of time for us, because our first record was two days,” Scally says. “We loaded all our stuff in and churned through ’em.”

All their stuff wasn’t all that much. On tour, they’d been getting by with one organ, one other keyboard, and a guitar. “Just those three things that we took everywhere,” Scally says. It felt like a big deal when a percussionist friend, Ben McConnell, came by the studio to play triangle, shakers and tambourine: They’d never recorded with a drummer before.

Devotion also features a few new instruments—early entries in what Scally calls “our endless collection of weird keyboards and organs,” acquired from various local music shops on their travels. “‘D.A.R.L.I.N.G.’ used this one keyboard made by Korg that has been on all of our albums since then,” he says. “The drumbeat to ‘You Came to Me’ came from a box that we found in Montreal that went on to be the beats for tons of songs later on—[2010’s] ‘Zebra,’ and ‘Norway.’ That was the album where we started to find more gear to keep the thing going. We’d used every sound we had.”

As the sessions went on, they recorded a rainy-day cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last A Long Time” and revisited “Home Again,” an unfinished sketch from around the time of the Clientele tour. It ended up becoming one of the keys to Devotion, sequenced last in the tracklist and summing up many of the album’s themes. Not coincidentally, it’s one of two songs whose lyrics include the word “Devotion,” along with “All the Years.”

Legrand remembers working on “Home Again” in that last stretch as one of the more challenging parts of the process. “Alex and I were kind of fighting every day, just having crazy tension,” she says. “I have this memory of being in the studio and feeling so stressed out and unsure.”

The arguments weren’t personal, she says. There was never name-calling. It had more to do with the inherent conflict of trying to create something from thin air. “We’re trying to move in a direction, and we need to be on the same page,” she says. “You have to be good at communicating. It always resolved, and I think that’s why we’re still working together. We have an ability to go to some dark places and climb our way out.”

That fall, they convened at her apartment to shoot Devotion’s cover art with photographer Natasha Tylea. In that image—the first and, to date, only Beach House album cover to show the two musicians—Legrand and Scally sit across from each other at her candle-lit dining room table. There’s a sheet cake between them with the album title iced in blue cursive, but neither is looking directly at it. Their expressions are ambiguous, their body language symmetrical. It looks like two people at the beginning of something: a moment of silence, or an oath being sworn, maybe.

“It’s a portrait of us, but a little extreme,” says Legrand, who was thinking of favorite ’60s album covers by the Mamas and the Papas. “There’s a lot of symbolism.”

The cake came from a local supermarket.“They did not know it was for a record cover,” she says. “It was amazing: Someone unintentionally being part of something artistic that they have absolutely no idea about. Probably sitting back they were going, ‘Why are we making this cake that says Devotion on it?’”

She can’t recall who ate the cake after the photo shoot, “but it was definitely consumed by art,” she adds. “The cake was not just a cake. That cake had a Warholian existence. It went to the Factory and partied and got lived on.”

In early 2008, first-generation iPhones were a pricey new luxury item and Twitter was a niche site. Readers in many American cities could choose from multiple print alt-weeklies for their local music news, or go online and survey a dizzying galaxy of personal MP3 blogs and DIY publications. It wasn’t perfect, because nothing about art and commerce is, but it was a good time for bands like Beach House.

“I’m so glad that Beach House happened before the internet had taken over everything completely,” Scally says. “Our growth was relatively quick—three or four years. But it was crucial for us to have all that time to fuck up and perform badly and learn. We might not have survived if we’d emerged in 2011.”

Two days after Devotion’s release that February, they started another six-week U.S. tour. Scally recalls the head of their label, Carpark Records, loaning him some money around this time: “My bank account was zero’d out, and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be able to pay it back soon.’ That was how confident he was about the record.”

The album went on to sell enough copies in its first week to enter the Billboard 200 chart at No. 195. “Maybe 3,000 records, which was unimaginable to us,” Scally says. Legrand notes that Devotion didn’t change their lives the way their next album, 2010’s Sub Pop-released Teen Dream, did. “It didn’t splash water in our face,” she says. But it kept the band moving forward.

Neither member of Beach House is much for nostalgia. “You can’t go into the past too much, because you end up crying,” Legrand says. “You get all overwhelmed by a ‘Where did it all go?’ kind of feeling. But it’s all in there.”

She recently revisited some old notebooks for this Vinyl Me, Please reissue of Devotion, which includes a full lyrics sheet for the first time. “There’s so much writing on this record,” she says. “It’s mind-blowing how much work went into it. “

On some level, she says, it feels now like an album about the creative partnership that she and Scally were embarking on in those days. “We called it Devotion for a reason,” she says. “That was part of the story, and it’s part of our union. It felt like we were chasing something together. Two dreamers, together in a dreamworld.”

She quotes a favorite line from “Home Again”: “Constant home of my Devotion / Must be you, the door to open.” “You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but you are open to all that is present,” she says. “At the end of the album, that’s what it feels like to me. Looking back, I can talk about the history, the good times and the bad times. But you don’t get to the end without all of the things that happen to you.”

A few years ago, they heard that song in a bar. “We didn’t recognize ourselves,” Legrand says with a laugh. “I remember actually enjoying it, saying, ‘What is this? Oh my god, it’s ‘Home Again.’’ Sometimes you throw something out there, and it turns into a little twinkling star.”

SVL

Simon Vozick-Levinson

Simon Vozick-Levinson is a writer and editor in New York City. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vulture, Billboard, and elsewhere.

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