As Twin Shadow, George Lewis Jr’s music may conjure up the spectre of fey ’80s pop and lovelorn ’50s crooning alike, but its preoccupations with memory and experience are more interesting still.
There's a few hairy minutes before I get hold of George Lewis Jr, missed calls going to the neutral tone of his answering machine message. Then, on a last-ditch effort, he picks up. "I was like, where the fuck is this coming from?" he laughs. It turns out the stretch of interviews he has to complete today has slipped his mind. His debut album, Forget, belies its title by evoking the "sweat of bedsheets", the way winter "crystallises the bad times", old school friends driving into oblivion. You get the feeling that if Lewis is a forgetful person, he hangs onto the right details.
Lewis was Dominican Republic-born, Florida-raised, and fairly well travelled by his mid-20s - it was shortly after writing music for a traveling dance and theatre company in Northern Europe that he reached the epiphany about what he wanted Twin Shadow to be.
"The theatre company work was strictly a day job. I'd like to say that I was immersed in performing arts and drama, but it was really more of an anonymous thing. Stuff like assembling Velvet Underground and older rock covers that paid the bills and kept me moving."
By Berlin, he felt confident enough to cut out on his own: "I'd been in punk bands and stuff since my teens, and I felt like the seeds of what was on Forget had been there germinating for a little while. You get a few years into your 20s and maybe feel a bit more concrete about what you want to make, and don't necessarily need to start out with a band to do it."
With the 11 songs that would form Regret, Lewis went into the studio with Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear. The beautiful but slightly arch and stuffy sound of the Grizzly Bear records Taylor had a hand in producing in may seem at odds with Forget's synth anthems, more indebted to Prince and late-era Roxy Music than most mannered indie. But Taylor has also presided over the mixing and restoration of posthumous releases by disco producer Arthur Russell, and that meticulous eye for detail creeps into the work.
"I think when you go into the details and touches in the work, like those little stabs of violin in Shooting Holes or the synth flute on I Can't Wait, that's part of what Chris brings to it. But that interest in creating something with r'n'b elements, to craft it around those lines, had been with me a while." Somewhat of a perfectionist, Lewis admits that he'll go back to Forget at times and feel frustration. "I guess you're never your best critic."
Though Twin Shadow is now an honest-to-God seasoned live outfit with multiple players, the project remains Lewis's - in a stretch of downtime at 2011's end, he's been working on the material that will form the basis of his second album.
"I did a lot of the writing on Forget in isolation, in hotel rooms or in my place in Brooklyn at the time. I think there'll probably be other players on the album, and I'm interested to see what they add after the songwriting's done."
There's a paradox in talking to Lewis - he avowedly rejects the shyness and emotional distance of indie rock, but he's also not a big fan of discussing the direct events, people or inspirations behind Forget's songs. Parallel to that classic croon of his, he adopts a gentleman's distance from the emotional heft of the work.
"I guess the songs do a bit better at capturing those experiences. There are definitely a few different vignettes, ranging from really vivid teenage experiences I had, to some interactions in my early 20s, and then the experience of returning and seeing old friends again from that teenage time and seeing a lot of ways in which things had really deteriorated for them."
Forget highlights When We're Dancing and Shooting Holes are the most vivid evocation of that Florida teen-hood, but there's also something to be said for his ambiguity around it at a time when so many new artists get dwarfed under a biography's worth of press-kitting.
Lewis has already taken to remixing the work of others under the Twin Shadow moniker - he tells me that he intends to turn his hand to producing next. "I'm definitely interested in how a producer plays that role in shaping the sound of another artist, and what they contribute to that process." Which means we may yet get a sense of what truly makes Twin Shadow tick - albeit on another's musician's record.
*Twin Shadow play St Jerome's Laneway Festival on Monday 30 January at Silo Park, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland with Anna Calvi, Feist, The Horrors, Gotye, Laura Marling, Pajama Club, SBTRKT Live, Shayne P. Carter, Washed Out, Austra, M83, Cults, Girls, EMA, Yuck, Toro Y Moi, Wu Lyf, Glasser, Opossom, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Austra, Transistors and more.By Joe Nunweek