Though he’s long since left the area, I still have some kind of “New England native solidarity” with Lisle Mitnik. Lisle, the man behind Fireflies, grew up on the eastern seacoast of Massachusetts and, after attending college in California, has settled in Chicago.
Firelies is Lisle’s solo project, which began in 2003. Though the first Fireflies release on a label occurred in 2007, Lisle self-released a few albums for his friends in college. Fireflies has released several albums and EPs and contributed numerous songs to various compiliations over the last 11 years, including his brand new album, “In Dreams,” released on Jigsaw Records in April. In addition to Fireflies, Lisle has also been a member of projects such as Tiny Fireflies, Very Truly Yours, Edine, and Two If By Sea, which released their EP on February Records in December 2010.
Through the loose connections Lisle has with February Records, we thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him a few questions about his musical background in New England, his various projects, and the new Fireflies album.
March, April & May: You’re originally from Gloucester, Massachusetts. When did you leave New England? Why? How often do you make it back to the East Coast?
Lisle: I left New England in 2001 to attend college in California. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to get out of New England. As I was making my final decisions on where to go, California just seemed to be where life was taking me at the time. The summer before I left, I used to listen to “Goin’ to California” by Led Zeppelin a lot when I would drive around at night: “Made up my mind. Make a new start. Going to California with an aching in my heart. Someone told me there’s a girl out there with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.” Such are the shallow dreams of a provincial teenage boy.
I usually get back a few times a year to visit my parents. They have since moved from Gloucester, which is a fairly small fishing town, to the larger city of Salem, home of the witches! While my roots there have been cut somewhat, I still love the feel of New England. I feel quite fortunate to have been raised in such an idyllic place … the gentle sounds of waves crashing, seagulls cawing, and wind rustling through the leaves will always be in my blood.
M,A&M: Having spent a great deal of time in Salem myself and given the presence of Salem State University in the city, it’s most certainly an artistic and alternative type of place. Is this how you remember it? Do you remember there being any kind of distinct music scene in the North Shore area, perhaps one separate from Boston?
Lisle: I think the North Shore does have its own kind of vibe, separate from Boston, the South Shore, or Western MA. The way I remember it now, it’s kind of got a Maine-type of vibe. Progressive, but not Vermont progressive. Passively progressive. Like, “Let’s all just live and let live, and enjoy the scenery.” Everyone has their own thing going. Certainly Salem’s rich history attracts quite a lot of alternative-types of people. Gloucester’s laid-back coastal beauty seemed to attract wealthier people that were maybe a little too alternative for high-rise life in a suit, but then they’re mixed with the working-class fishermen types, so it never felt stuck-up. It even had an independent record shop (Mystery Train) and a venue called Art Space. It was run by the guy that wrote the cult film, C.H.U.D. (Look it up, you won’t be disappointed!).
Toward the end of my high school years, there was a distinct local punk rock scene happening around Art Space. The best way I can describe it was like, hardcore + ska. It was pretty intense. I went to a few shows there, but this kind of music didn’t really speak to me.
M,A&M: How involved in music were you before you moved to California?
Lisle: Before moving to California, my main source of playing music was my piano lessons. I started at a very young age, and continued mostly uninterrupted through high school. Though I was playing my assignments, at this time I think my true involvement with music was getting to know all about it, and establishing myself as a true music lover. My first love with music came from my parents’ record collection, which was filled exclusively with ’60s stuff like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, but I was into everything. In those freewheeling early days of the internet, I was seeking out more and more music from around the world. I had sophisticated friends from NYC that showed me all about Brit-pop, and a friend in Denmark who supplied me with endless amounts of electronica from Europe.
M,A&M: Quite a few of your songs, albums, and even some of the compilations in which Fireflies have appeared on have been seasonally themed. The EardrumsPOP Summer’s Here – vol 2 compilation, your winter-themed Butterscotch EP and The Autumn Almanac album, and Little Treasure’s Springtime! compilation. Why do you think this is? Are you at all inspired by nature and, if so, how?
Lisle: I definitely feel inspired by nature. I think this comes as a result of my upbringing in such a seasonal place like New England, coupled with the distinct absence of seasons going to college in the California desert, which is when I started to explore writing songs. I found myself longing for those seasonal markers: cosy winters by the fireplace, beautiful multi-colored autumns, and care-free seaside summers. I had a brand-new life, and I missed all the happy memories I had associated with this previous life, even though I knew I had truly left it behind. It took a lot to come to grips with that feeling of having my tether cut.
M,A&M: How do you feel your songwriting has developed over the years? Do you find that you’re still inspired by the same things or have they changed?
Lisle: I think the main change has been in the point of view of the songs. In the first few years of my songwriting life, I went from living in Massachusetts to living in California, to living in London, back to California, and finally, settling in Chicago. Everything was always in flux, and I used songwriting as a way to process everything that was happening. At that time, my songwriting book was like my journal, and I was making “entries” of new songs 3-5 times per week.
These days, my life is a lot more stable and settled. I’m still inspired by the same kinds of things, but now my songs aren’t always so autobiographical. There’s more elements that come from external sources, such as films, books, and in the case of my recent album, dreams.
M,A&M: While Fireflies in your solo effort, you have been involved in various other projects as well including Two If By Sea, Very Truly Yours, Tiny Fireflies, and Edine. Can you tell us what being a part of these various projects has been like? What have you learned from them?
Lisle: To answer what being in these other projects has been like, the first word that comes to mind is, “refreshing.” When I first started out, it took me a while to find my groove, so I experimented a lot with whatever I could find around. I shared a recording/practice space with some other musicians in my dorm at school, so there was never any shortage of gear around. I tried everything from solo piano ballads to straight up electronics … as I started to figure out my style, I lost some of that kitchen sink, “let’s try this weird thing” approach. I have a much better sense now of what works and what doesn’t. As much as that saves me some time, it sometimes is limiting. Working with other people, and in other styles, helped re-wire my brain so that I can use my experience, but not be limited by it. For example, when I was writing for Edine, I felt that I could write lyrics that were a bit more vulnerable, since I wasn’t singing them. I also was trying to use electric guitar as little as possible. In Tiny Fireflies, Kristine is always pushing me to try things that don’t fit into my normal musical M.O. All this helps to make sure I don’t get too settled in my ways.
M,A&M: You have a song on the new Jigsaw/Dufflecoat Records singles club, appearing on a 7” with Japan’s Wallflower. How did this project come about? What has the experience of being a part of this singles club been like for you?
Lisle: Going into 2014, I had a *lot* of songs that were sitting around that I wasn’t sure what to do with. Chris from Jigsaw originally had reached out to me about doing the singles club, and I sent him a bunch of the songs and told him, “sure, take your pick!” It was from there that the idea about releasing the album came about. He was the one that suggested I share the split with Wallflower as well. I was more than happy to do so since I really like their music. There’s a lot of great indie pop coming out of japan right now … Masami from Wallflowerr also has a band juvenile juvenile … there’s Homecomings, Twinkle Twinkles, and also Boyish, who Tiny Fireflies collaborated with for Between Two Waves on Eardrumspop.
M,A&M: In addition to the singles club, you’re newest album In Dreams was just released on Jigsaw Records. How long did it take you to write and record the album?
Lisle: In Dreams has been brewing since the release of Autumn Almanac in 2011. Since that time, I’d been working on several different styles of songs, and I had about 7-8 songs for each style. Ultimately, the real assembly of the album was an editing process of picking which songs fit together as a cohesive unit. It wasn’t until I had the track list finalized that I realized that part of what held these songs together was the recurring lyrical theme about dreams … I’d been struggling with what to call the album, and it came to me while listening to a track, “En Rêve,” a French cover of Roy Orbison’s song by Tiny Yong. It kind of hit me all at once that all these songs were about dreams, and that was the perfect title.
M,A&M: Who created the artwork/layout for the In Dreams?
The cover artwork was done by Nicola Colton, an illustrator based in Ireland. I found out about her from the work she did on the Niko Niko single for Eardrumspop. I sent her the songs, and a dreadfully vague impression of what I wanted and she totally nailed the feel I was going for. It was inspired by Anh Hung Tran’s film adaptation of Norwegian Wood, which is also my favorite book. I wanted to try and capture the dreamy feel of he film through illustration. Nicola also picked up subconsciously on my love of Hayao Miyazaki, and included some animal-esque characters reminiscent of Princess Mononoke. Both films feature a lot of forest scenery. Forests have always felt somewhat magical and dreamlike to me, because they are kind of outside of the human realm. There’s an otherness to them.
M,A&M: Since Fireflies is your solo project, can you take us through your recording process? What kind of equipment do you use?
Lisle: Doing everything myself, it sometimes is a lengthy process. Once I have the basic structure of a song figured out in my head, I start to layer instruments and just see what works, one instrument at a time. Once the arrangement feels “done.” I go back and pick out my favorite parts, and then mute what I was originally doing and build new parts around that part I like. There’s a lot of trial and error, and often times I end up with several completely different versions of songs.
As far as equipment, I tend to use a lot of older recording gear. Ive got a cabinet full of various mics from the ’70s, and some cool vintage compressors, preamps, and such. Though I’m recording into a computer, I like to at least have some interesting flavors going into the digital world. Sometimes I get a little jealous when I hear a really well-recorded indie band, quite high-fi and such … but that’s just not me. When I listen back to old recordings from the ’60s, some of them are quite lo-fi! I can’t really imagine a song like The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” recorded by today’s proper standards … so, I keep reminding myself of this fact that what’s more important than capturing 20-20,000 Hz, is capturing the emotion of a song.
M,A&M: Of all of the songs on your new album, which are you most proud of and why?
Lisle: “Seventy-seven” is probably my favorite. Of all the songs, I think that one comes the closest to a part of what I’m trying to achieve with Fireflies. It feels like a legitimate Song with a capital “S.” It has a melody, a proper chorus, and each instrument’s part really felt interesting on its own.
M,A&M: Where do you see Fireflies in future? Do you have any distinct goals for the project or for yourself as a musician?
Lisle: My goal has always just been to keep on writing better and better songs. Whether or not I’m really getting better or worse I suppose is up to interpretation, but I think I will always keep on writing. It’s something I just feel compelled to do. As long as people are still interested to hear what I’m doing, I’ll keep on releasing them into the world. When I started, I never expected anyone would really care about what I was doing, so the fact that I’m even doing this interview right now feels pretty special.
On the more concrete side, I wouldn’t mind getting out there and playing some shows, I suppose. I recently did my first public singing of my songs since college during an acoustic Tiny Fireflies show, and it felt like something I wouldn’t mind doing again sometime.
Interview conducted and compiled by Kristin Gill.