Written by Lisa Han
Pop music is very hard on sequels. There exists a term that is widely distributed by critics on the subject, it’s called the “sophomore slump.” The theory behind the slump is that for many breakout (or “breakthru”) artists, the second album is the hardest to write and also the most likely to crater because of the pressures imposed by the success of the first. The dilemma stems from a choice between ambivalence and egotism: Either you acknowledge that which made you famous, trying for bigger and better in the next round, or you admit that it’s impossible to make the same hit twice and take the artistic gamble in attempting to change directions.
Music lovers are quick to point out instances when the wrong decision led to total disappointment. Take MGMT, for instance. 2007’s Oracular Spectacular produced two of the most popular hits of the 2000s (“Kids” and “Time To Pretend”) and made it on to Rolling Stone’s revised 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. The sequel, Congratulations, took an artistic left turn from pop to a more progressive/psychedelic sound, which resulted in lukewarm reviews and the album’s eventual erasure from the indie rock cannon.
MGMT’s slumping sophomore effort Congratulations.
On the other hand, some of the greatest records of all time were second albums: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Led Zeppelin II, Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Radiohead’s The Bends are all pretty concretely regarded by critics to be better than (or at least worthy of) their predecessors.
In more recent years, this improvement in sequels has seemed even more dramatic. Crowd funding through sites like Kickstarter and the rise of the collectivist nature of internet culture have made it much easier for unsigned artists to create hype around first albums made with minimal resources. Such hype paves the way for second albums with much higher budgets, and huge improvements in quality. Hip-hop is teeming with examples of such sophomore ‘triumphs’ —just think of the attention garnered by artists like Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean for their mixtapes, or even just around viral Youtube videos like Azealia Bank’s “212.”
Every genre, however, has its share of sophomore success stories. In 2010, folk musician Anthony D’Amato released his breakout album, Down Wires, a collection of 10 tracks recorded in his college dorm room. Upon its release, NPR called his music “a modern folk gem,” and he was featured everywhere from the New York Times to Paste Magazine. In the last two years, D’Amato has been busy touring with the likes of Pete Yorn and Ben Kweller, and has gotten the opportunity to share the stage with Bruce Springsteen.
Anthony D’Amato playing guitar in the forest. Photo Courtesy of Diamond D Photography.
However, just a few months ago on May 29 D’Amato underwent his moment of truth with the release of his proverbial sequel album, Paper Back Bones—a record that some critics have called “his best album yet.” BTR spoke with D’Amato to get some insight into how to craft a sophomore triumph.
BreakThru Radio: Did you feel like you were under a lot of pressure following up on a successful debut?
Anthony D’Amato: I’d actually recorded two albums prior to Paper Back Bones while I was at Princeton that I’ve since let drift out of print, so in a lot of ways Down Wires didn’t really feel like a debut, but it was the first record of mine that press paid attention to and I realize for most people out there it was their introduction to my music, so I really wanted to build on that and reflect the development I’ve gone through as a musician and a writer since then. The songs came more slowly for the new record. I was a lot pickier and a lot more focused as an editor.
BTR: When writing Paper Back Bones, did you feel an artistic demand to do something different than your first album?
AD: You don’t want to make the same record twice—that’s just as boring for the musician as it is for the listener. But at the same time, you’ve got a voice as a writer and a performer that you want to be true to. If you force any changes on that just for the sake of being different, it doesn’t really come out well. So my idea for this record was to expand, to take what I’ve been doing and build on it with bigger arrangements and new instruments and collaborate with musicians who would take me into directions I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable. Very few of the songs actually turned out on record the way I first heard them in my head when I wrote them, and I think that’s how you keep things different and interesting.
BTR: After Down Wires dropped, was there anything that you immediately felt like you wanted to change about it?
AD: I wished I’d had a budget to record it in a studio and have it properly mastered. I did it all in my dorm room at Princeton, and there are certainly limitations that come with that.
BTR: Did you have any fears about how people would receive the sophomore album as opposed to your break out? In other words, were you thinking much about pleasing your fans?
AD: I certainly hoped people would like it, but at the end of the day, you can’t control that aspect of things really. All you can do is write a record you’re proud of and enjoy playing live and hope it connects with people in a meaningful way.
BTR: Did others around you, either fellow musicians or friends or mentors give you advice about creating your second album?
AD: I sought a lot of contributions from musicians like Gabriel Gordon, Mark Stepro, Jason Darling, Amanda Shires, Aaron Johnston, Rich Hinman, Tim Walker, Derek Cruz, Brittany Haas, Katy Pinke, Seth Rothschild, and I’m sure I’m forgetting others.
I was looking less for advice than for sounds. Everybody hears something different when they approach recording a song, and I wanted to build out these tracks beyond just what I was hearing…I was probably listening to more country/folk-influenced stuff at the time of recording the new album. I got really into the pedal steel.
BTR: What advice would you give another artist working on their follow-up album?
AD: Start early—it’s a lot of work and a shorter timeline than making that first record. You don’t want to take too long with it and lose the momentum you generated with the first.
BTR: What are your all-time favorite second albums of any artist?
AD: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle by Bruce Springsteen is pretty untouchable.