Temple was trained in art school as a painter to understand the compositional values of light and dark. As a sonic artist, he applies the same principles of shading to his use of space and dynamics.
Photo by Michael Leviton

Luke Temple has such a deep, personal connection to what he sings and writes about that it seems as if he was born doing it. Listen to the electronic-acoustic psychedelia of his band Here We Go Magic, or the avant-garde traditionalism of his solo work, and it becomes quite clear that over the past 10 years or so Temple has matured into the quintessential folk artist of our time. His lonesome falsetto has conjured comparisons to Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley, and his songcraft is weighed against other contemporary masters, including Cass McCombs. Still, musically he nods to Hank Williams and Roger Miller.

Temple’s career in music didn’t start with the concentrated, intuitive focus he possesses today. His current trajectory can be traced back to his freshman year in college. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Temple initially got into playing with his high school friends when he picked up bass as a teenager, but when he enrolled at Tufts School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he didn’t have anyone to make music with.

“Bass is an ensemble instrument, for the most part,” he explains. “So I started teaching myself guitar and it just evolved from there.” He even admits he was too shy, initially, to sing. “I had a sense that I could sing,” he recalls. “But, like guitar, I started because it is something you can do by yourself.” He also developed a keen compositional perspective as a painter at Tufts that he would eventually apply to songwriting. Even his deft fingerpicked licks seem to resonate from the pattern-oriented headspace he discovered in college. “My natural inclination,” he says, “was to figure out patterns [on guitar] and then write little songs from those ideas.”

After Tufts, and struggling to make it as a visual artist, Temple recorded two folk albums under his own name, Hold a Match for a Gasoline World (2005) and Snowbeast (2007), before forming the New York-based indie-rock band Here We Go Magic in 2008. Their eponymous debut was released the next year. It was recorded almost entirely alone by Temple on a simple 4-track recorder with nothing more than a drum, one microphone, a synth, and an acoustic guitar. Here We Go Magic eventually morphed into a five-piece, gaining critical acclaim for The January EP (2011) and A Different Ship (2012). But whether working with a band or alone, Temple seems to prefer a songwriting palette that blends stream-of-conscious lyrics and melodies with groove-inflected bedroom folk music.

I really like holding a whole-step above in the bass while the other chordal instruments move down a whole-step. I think that’s a beautiful sound.

On A Hand Through the Cellar Door, Temple’s latest album, this auricular template once again manifests itself in quirky, compelling songs. Musically, the set is a whimsical expression of minimalism featuring the trio of Temple on guitar and vocals, Ben Davis on bass, and Austin Vaughn on drums. Lyrically, Temple’s meditations on life take the listener inside the head of someone seemingly immersed within his own thoughts. On “Birds of Late December,” Temple traverses a memory he has about his parents’ divorce, while his gently twined vocal and guitar melody evokes Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train.” In “The Case of Lewis Warren,” Temple sings about a former high school classmate as he channels the ’70s folk-crooner vibe of Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. “Smashing Glass” touches on the destructive aspects of anger in its lyrics, and Temple’s fluttering, nimble fingerpicking sonically paints an Eric Fischl-like figurative image. Reminiscences such as these abound on A Hand Through the Cellar Door, set in relief by the role space plays in the songs’ minimalist arrangements.

The symbiotic relationship between influence and expression in Temple’s songs illuminates an organic approach that is both familiar and refreshingly original. His storytelling demonstrates an inimitable intuition for the fascinatingly askew. And his guitar playing skips and hiccups unpredictably and effortlessly within the sparse soundscapes he creates as a backdrop for musical and personal nostalgia. Yet his trips down Memory Lane are never sappy.

PG recently caught up with Temple at his adopted home in Los Angeles to discuss the influence of musical traditions, the illusion of space in music, the cathartic aspects of songwriting, his artistic evolution, and his unpretentious oddball gear.

When you first picked up an instrument, was the catalyst to write your own songs or learn cover songs?
I always wanted to write my own music. I started just jamming with friends and improvising. We never really learned covers, even back then in high school. I always felt like it was much cooler to write my own material. Maybe it was my compositional brain coming from painting. Now, in retrospect, I wish I had come up learning more covers and, at this point, I’m interested in going back and learning more covers.

FACTOID: An element of A Hand Through the Cellar Door’s seductive sound is bleed. The album was recorded live with minimal miking, including a Telefunken U47 for vocals that also picked up Temple’s nylon-string guitar.

I think there’s strength in tradition. Whether I realize it or not, there’s always some attempt to avoid clichés—little songwriting tropes—as a songwriter. But inevitably I’m influenced. Like the 12-bar progression, for instance. There’s always room for that. It could be considered a cliché, but there’s always a different way to reinterpret that. And right there I’m being influenced by American songwriting via Scotch-Irish music that goes way back. Whether or not you’re learning covers you’re still influenced by the lineage of music that predates you. Actually going in and learning covers and different forms probably enriches your palette.

You have a strong, educated background in painting. Does that ever cross over or influence your music?
I don’t think about them both at the same time. But I’m probably utilizing the same part of my brain. There are similar considerations with regard to composition and bookending narratives and things like that. Whether it’s visual or auditory, it comes in and is processed by the brain in the same way. It goes into the darkness and then it is just information. There are a lot of similar considerations writing a record and working on a painting.

What is your songwriting process?
It usually starts off with throwing shit at the wall and then editing out the parts that don’t work and finding the narrative thread in there. It starts from a more subconscious place. Or I’ll have an idea about what I want to write about, but then I just let that spring up from the subconscious. If I don’t try to be too literal about it, it eventually just sort of shows itself. And then the rational brain takes over and you have to roll up your sleeves and get into the editing part. That’s always the hardest part for me, but it’s really important.

Why do you find that’s so hard?
Because part of me wants every tiny little pearl and jewel in there, and every little metaphor, but you have to remember not to try to impress too much and just get the idea across—the story. To get stuck in minutia can be a trap.