Lazerbeak talks about fatherhood, mental health, and redefining success


Lazerbeak's album
Lazerbeak's album 'Luther' and portrait of the artist. (Left: courtesy of the artist, Right: Nate Ryan/MPR)
Lazerbeak interview with Andrea Swensson
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On the March 3 edition of the Local Show, host Andrea Swensson sat down with rapper/producer Lazerbeak for an in-depth conversation about music, fatherhood, mental health, and success. Lazerbeak spoke candidly about his journey from living with debilitating anxiety to producing his latest solo album Luther, which is an atmospheric instrumental ode to meditation and mindfulness. The pair also discussed entering into parenthood and its effect on the creative process, reframing what it means to be a successful musician and the power of speaking freely about feelings.

Lazerbeak's album release show, An Evening w. Lazerbeak & Guests, will take place tomorrow — Friday, March 8 — at the Parkway Theater.

Andrea Swensson: So you have this new record — Luther. We're going to talk about the release show and that good stuff, but I would love to get into the background of this because we've exchanged some e-mails and I've read some of your stuff online about it, and I get the sense that there is a lot of personal journeying that led up to this album and I want to hear about that journey.

Lazerbeak: It feels like that. I never expected to get into any of this mindfulness stuff. I was always pretty skeptical and cynical about new age-y, hippy, whatever. But I'm now going to be 37, and so I've had a lot of life — 30s has been the best time of my life and it's also been some of the biggest challenges of my life. I started a family and took on more responsibilities and I think I finally was affected by stress and anxiety for the first time in a debilitating way. I know now, looking back, that I felt those things throughout my life, but this was the first time I'd ever compounded in a way that I was not myself. And so the last three years have been me trying to figure out how to remedy that or live with that, and try to day-to-day improve myself and work on myself so that I don't go underwater.

The making of this album was the first solo music I had made and the first solo inspiration I had felt to make something. I've been really collaborative the last decade, and the inspiration I get is off of other people and the energy from that. But it's very rare for me to get struck by a solo inspiration where I feel like everything in my body is screaming you have to do this thing, like this is your calling right now in this time. I've had that happen twice in my life, and the last time it happened was in 2010, and I assumed it might not happen again. [...] I really think that anyone that's creative in any capacity is chasing that feeling of inspiration. But I got hit with the lightning bolt again a year and change ago completely out of nowhere, probably because I resigned myself to the fact that it was never going to happen again. I didn't have anything to physically say, but for the first time the music felt profound enough that it was a talking point for me to share the things I'd gone through in the last couple years of my life. So this feels like a really great foundation to be like this music can be whatever you want it to be, but this is what it represents to me, and it represents a cathartic...kind of like coming out of a dark spell and discovery and all that stuff.

How old are your kids?

I have three kids. I don't recommend it. It's been a lot of work. I do love them. But my kids — Penny is my oldest. She's six right now. She'll be seven soon. And so she was cooking when Doomtree was on the big No Kings Tour, so I was gone for almost the entire pregnancy, and we had a lot of complications. I say we — my wife — and I wasn't around, and Penny was super premature and there was a 50/50 chance of her making it for a long time. It was a lot of stuff that went through that, and then also in that time, No Kings, that's the first time Doomtree [was] touring internationally. I was in Europe a week before she was born. So just a really pivotal time. And then we got pregnant again, oh my god it's twins. So we had three kids under the age of two for a period of a couple months. Again, I don't recommend it. Really, don't do that. But my boys, they're four and they're going to be five soon. So I finally really feel like I'm coming out of this blur that a lot of parents that I've talked to talk about, where it's like I really think I kind of blacked out, and it's just like survival. And now, God willing, they really are sleeping and amazing and as soon as they start talking I feel like I can — I'm a much better dad when I can talk to a kid. When they're just a blob I really struggle to be like "what are you."

This was the first solo music I made since having a family. I'm at an age where I feel like I'm really emotional and look back on nostalgia. I get weepy. I don't know if everyone goes through that at this time or if I'm on an elevated course, but this is a really reflective time for me like oh wow, this album is also allowing me to look back and for the first time see really clearly what the last seven years have been instead of just being like blinders on, just trying to keep people alive. Still trying. But they're alive! I did pretty good.

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No Kings. Less Teeth.

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It gives me so much hope to hear that you're at the other end of it, and that you've found that inspiration again. I've had little moments, but I definitely feel like I'm in that survival mode, and I really wonder how people who are professional musicians even do this.

For me it was really difficult because my whole life I really wanted to have a career as a musician. I was in an indie rock band and we dabbled in a little bit of national success and toured a lot, and then Doomtree really grind-ed it out. We obviously had a ton of support locally and regionally, but 2011 was the first time it was like the rest of the world is starting to pick up and we're selling out shows. [...] To be for the first time finally doing the thing I always thought maybe could be the thing I wanted, and then be like and I'm having this kid and now that changes everything, I definitely dealt with a little bit of not anger, but frustration. Like of all the timing in the world, why couldn't I just be able to focus on this? Obviously the pros far outweigh the cons of that, but it was a real struggle because not only was it like okay I definitely can't tour anymore for long periods of time. It was like what am I going to do? I had just a few years prior quit my job. I did ten years as a pizza delivery and takeout manager guy in order to follow my passion of music. Am I going to have to be working the night shift at Domino's to take care of this kid? Luckily we were able to find a role for me more behind the scenes — I'm CEO of Doomtree Records. That sounds really fancy. I still have a windowless 400-square-foot office. But I run Doomtree Records, and I started managing bands, and that allowed me to still keep a foot in the music world and be creative in a different way and learn a lot of new skills that I had kind of toyed with. But in the moment it was terrifying. And then I finally got a groove going. Then the twins came, and then it was like oh, God, now what are we actually going to do.

But through all this I've really learned to appreciate when I can feel it [inspiration] coming on, and in the moment really try to take advantage of it and recognize that it's a special time, and it's fleeting. And that's what this record was. It was like my day-to-day — probably less than 10% of my work is actually creating music these days. I never would've imagined this when I was day dreaming in 8th grade about playing Lollapalooza or whatever, that I would be sitting in an office just cranking out hundreds of emails and doing conference calls all day. But it's really cool that that happened. I've found a new passion, in a way, about that. But I really have to schedule time to make music. And that really only happens — and I have to actively seek out those three hours a week or whatever. So when I made the first track for this album and was immediately like oh, this feels different and I need to explore this, it was immediately like I pulled out my schedule and was like I got to carve out two hours on Tuesday and two hours on Friday and I got to just keep going because this is going to go away really soon. And sure enough, it did. I made this record. I made seven songs. I didn't have like 15 songs that I cut down to seven. I barely got the seven done in this two to three month period of the real creating process. And then it was gone. And I'm so happy. Maybe if it hadn't left, maybe this album would be eight or nine songs, but it's seven.

So I'm really impressed that you were able to put aside the time. And I wonder, too, that because you're a parent and because you're juggling so many things, does that bring a focus to that time that you do have to work on this?

It really has. My whole entire workflow has changed for the better because when I wasn't a parent I didn't understand what free time was, and so I didn't use it the way that I use free time now. It didn't mean the same thing to me. Literally my schedule is down to the 15-minute. Like we met at 9:15, and I know you do that too. [...] But through that I was able to gain a focus. I spent years literally sitting in my basement studio. Every day my goal was to make a beat. And that was my 9 to 5. But they weren't for specific projects. It was just like my mindset was I will just create an absolute arsenal of music so that anytime someone want's to do something we can just go through these 500 tracks and create a project. As soon as kids came, that's out the window. And I watched that vault of material get whittled down. But the cool thing is that through this I only work on music for a reason, so it's very specific. I don't just sit down even anymore and just like I'm going to make something and who knows what it's for. It's very much like this is for the new Shredders project, and because of that — or this is for the solo project, or this is for the Dessa album. But because of that I think I'm able to tap into more of a producer role instead of just a beatmaker role, and really have some foresight, like this is what I really want to go for, instead of just no parameters at all. And it's helped make me a better artist in a lot of ways, and it's helped me to be precious with that time, but also give my all to that specific thing instead of just whatever, take your pick. I actually am really happy for that in a weird way. Still, there's days where I'm like if my job was just to make music, that would be insane.

You mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that it's been a three-year-long journey. Tell me about getting to a breaking point with all of this balancing act, and then how did you know that you needed to make a change, and how did you do that?

No Kings comes out in 2011. Doomtree starts to pop, and it really does elevate — that was the biggest jump we've ever taken. It's always been slow and steady, but that one really kicked us up a notch. And then through having the kids and working on the All Hands record, which is our last crew album, my role changed, and nine to five became fully running the label, fully managing Doomtree, and really kind of being the guy. And in that same time we put an end to our Blowout series. We had 10 years, and every year we would do a week of sold out shows, and it was a lot and we crushed it. I loved that time, but our mindset was like Blowout 11, Blowout 18, like what more can we do? How can we keep getting better at this? I think we kind of nailed the idea.

At that time too, festivals and block parties were just starting to really boom, and artists were starting to get involved in putting on their own festivals, and we're like let's switch it up. Let's totally go hard left and close out the blowouts and try to put on a big huge festival. And so I kind of came onboard right during that time. I really took the challenge on. I was like okay, we're going to do it. We called it the Doomtree Zoo. I think it was 2015, but it really was like six months of preparation, and it was all these things that I just don't think about. It's more behind-the-scenes stuff. Like when you show at First Avenue there's an entire amazing team that is handling all the little things like running the power — checking IDs at the door and a million things you would never think of. And I got very quickly in way over my head. I was meeting with the Chief of Police in St. Paul to figure out the police plan because you have to have cops there, and setting up the security plan. But I also became a booking agent because now we're trying to actually bring in national acts. So I'm writing offers and dealing with other booking agents and trying to do that. For the first time we had to go out and try to find sponsorship money, so now I'm doing that. And then also figuring out the catering and the flights. It was so much, and I went so quickly down a rabbit hole without realizing it. I run off of productivity and crossing things off my list. That's how I get stuff done. I have a notes app on my computer every day and I delete that every time I do something, and it fuels me.

Feels so good.

It's the best. But what's not the best is when there is a date six months out, and so much of that stuff wasn't checked off until the show's over. So that stress starts to build, and the amount of people I'm dealing with, and also feeling this need to fatherly provide for Doomtree and kill it at my job and really make this a success. And that, couple with — now looking back, I was literally sleeping on a couch. We had to separate the boys because they wouldn't sleep when they were in the same room. So I had three kids in three different rooms, and I would nap for 40 minutes at a time until one got up. So I was getting three hours of very broken up sleep a night. So that was like I'm losing my mind essentially. I thought that the show on the outside was a real great success. I'm very proud of that, but it was, for me, the deep dive. I really felt like a shell of myself, like I was not me. And I had never really felt that, especially for a really long period of time. It was super scary. I didn't know what was happening, but I was getting tingly. My body parts were falling asleep. I was getting chest pains. They say that's because your brain is panicking, and so it's sending all the blood up to your brain to be like "fix it." I really did just kind of lose it, and still tried to — God bless my wife, who was like "I don't even really fully know how to help you." Because I didn't even know how to talk about it. But she was like I'm just going to hold it down at home because you're not even here when you're home. I was just sitting there. I couldn't do anything. By the end I lost the ability to even bang out an email. I'd just stare at the computer.

I thought when the show's over it will all go away and everything will be back to normal. And it just wasn't. It persisted to a point where I was like I got to go see my doctor. And I did. And the day I did that and just sat there, I cried. It was like what's going on and I was like I don't know. I'd filled out the form that you fill out when you get there and I was like I'm really checking yes to all this. I just broke down, and she was so kind and really walked me through — it was the first time I had opened up about it, which automatically feels good, and I cannot say enough. [...] In that process of opening up and finally sharing, I also became a lot more open to the idea of meditation. I'll never forget there were a couple people that really steered me in that direction. Kyle Frenette — he was the manager of Bon Iver. He runs Middle West Management. We had a dinner. We had never met. We were like "we should know each other." He recommended this headspace app.

Yeah, I love that. The little British boy...

It's so good. It changed my life. [...] Like the first day that I sat down and breathed and just listened to somebody calmingly walk me through the idea that it's important to look inward and take care of yourself before you can be the person that takes care of others, or before you can be the best person to others — was a total 180 shift for me. I always thought — and I think this has a lot to do with Midwestern tendencies too — but I always thought you're not supposed to ever think about yourself. You're only supposed to think about others and be as humble as you can and don't talk about your feelings. Just help other people. It's the first time that I was like no, this is connected. And if I can't be at my top, then I can't be any help to anybody else.

When I talk about this stuff I just want to be really clear that these are just things that have worked for me and I'm trying to say it out loud so that we are at least thinking about it. But for my wife, she cannot just sit in a room for 10 minutes. That doesn't work for her. For her, it's like going for a walk out in nature or whatever. That really clears her mind and gives her some alone time. For other people it's exercise. For other people it's reading. Whatever it is, I just think it's so incredibly important, especially in this current timeframe with a lot of distractions and noise and social media and inboxes.

Whatever we can do to talk and spread joy and communicate I think is the move, which is why I'm happy about this album. It just gives me a platform to talk about these things. If it had lyrics, that would probably minimize the audience. My target market goes down. But because it's so open-ended, my mom will listen to this. My kid will humor me and listen to a song. Like you're a Republican — great, you can listen to it. You're a Democrat — whatever. You're old or young or from any background.

I'm wondering if part of the evolution that you've had creatively is maybe letting go of some expectations, and saying for this album to be a success, maybe having one person have this really cool moment with it would be better than playing in an arena.

Totally. Absolutely. I think another thing of doing this for a really long time has been it's a little bit easier for me to set expectations per project, and through a lot of trial and error and a lot of crushed hopes and dreams. I'm able to recognize that we've been at this long enough. No one in their late 30s is expecting this next song is going to be the one that catapults me. So I've been kind of beaten down in a way over the years, but it's been good. It really has helped to center like why am I doing this ultimately. With this one my expectations were very well set because I actually finished this record about a year ago, and the Doomtree schedule — we had our busiest year last year. We put out so much stuff that it just kept getting pushed to the side, and that detachment helped a lot because in the moment I know this feeling, and I see it from the artist's side and also from the management/label side of like "you are so in it when you've just finished it that it has to come out tomorrow." And it's the most important thing you've ever done.

But with those feelings come a really immediate negative side because it's never good enough. No matter who covers it or who says it's good, you've already set yourself up that it's the most important thing you've ever done. That goes away after a time. And then you push that towards the next project, but having that detachment with this record helped me so much. And just giving myself some time away from it and then putting it out a year later really refocused what it meant to me. Music these days — I talk about this a lot — is almost like the story is more important than the music. I'm sure you know that in your role. You can't just have a good song to talk about a good song. And that's not necessarily even a bad thing, but it really has framed music differently I think recently. So a lot of our job as musicians is to figure out what that story is because it's not always so clear. That detachment period also allowed me to really realize what this was about and things like that.


I do a gratitude list every night. I just write down three things that I'm thankful for that day, and I've been doing that for probably a year and a half now. Meditation can feel really difficult to conquer and a hard thing to get into, just like exercise. I've been putting off exercising for quite a few years now. I would say a really easy way to try this stuff out is to try to write down three things you're thankful for every day, and really don't stress that it has to be super deep or groundbreaking. When I go to bed it's literally like cherry pie, and the second thing is I really thought The Rock was funny on Instagram today. It's always the dumbest quickest stuff that can come to mind. But it doesn't matter what the stuff is.

There's science completely proving that you do this for 30 days in a row and you actually rewire your mind to think with a more positive outlook from the jump. [...] It's like something immediately changes even if you know it's stupid or you don't really feel it, something changes and a lightness is presented and a light is presented, and I think that — so I made Lazerbeak gratitude journals for the pre-order of my record. But that's another thing. So being more in that mindset has allowed me to appreciate the success that I have achieved and really be grateful that I even have an audience to begin with, and that there are people that care and are willing to follow me on a journey musically. When I put out a solo record it's always very different, and I know that people are like "oh, he's the rap guy" are like "what the hell is this." I have an audience that, no matter how big or small it is, it is there and willing to walk with me on that, and that means a lot to me.

I do want to talk a little bit about this event coming up. Tell me about March 8.

March 8 I'm doing the Luther album release show, but it's a little bit different. It's my first grown-up show at Parkway Theater, which is newly renovated in south Minneapolis. I was like, this record is different. I don't want to try to even think about how I'm going to play it out live or put a band together. I also don't want to put people to sleep. It would not work. But I want to celebrate it, like this is a year and a half of my life and it feels like an important moment for me. So I was like screw it. Let's do it. Let's have a night and have it start at 7:30 for once, for all you parents out there and old guys. Door is at 7:30. Show starts at 8:00. [...] We're going to talk about a lot of stuff. I'm going to try really hard to get the whole room to mediate for like three minutes. Like we're going to really go into it. We're going to talk about process and inspiration, and I'm going to break down the beats. We're going to get a little technical on the music side, and I'm also going to bring out a ton of special guests and loved ones in my life that have really shaped me.

It's going to still end in like a total rap party, and I'm going to bring out all the people that I've worked with over the last two decades, so there's going to be all sorts of Doomtree members there, but there's also going to be newer artists like Mixed Blood Majority and Longshot and Sophia Eris. In a way it does feel like self-referential, and it is. It's literally called An Evening With Lazerbeak. But it's like I said. I'm nostalgic and emotional and taking in this time, and it feels like enough time has passed where I'm like "oh my God, I'm looking back." It's like, this is your life.


Call to Mind

The time is now to move forward and address mental health. Call to Mind aims to inform and mobilize new conversations about mental health.

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