Folk singer/songwriter/guitarist Leila Lopez's second album, Fault Lines—voted the 2010 TAMMIES Best New Release—is a dark and powerful dozen.
From the first chords of opener "Pick Your Prize" to the sweet solemnity of the last song, "Low Level Flight," Fault Lines depicts the 29-year-old Tucson native both expressing emotions and showing off her musical chops.
"(Fault Lines) came in a period of my life when a lot of things were changing around, and I was just observing it," she said over the phone during her recent tour.
She noticed only after the fact that many of the songs reference one another and connect thematically. "I was looking at the lyrics—because I typed them all out, and I put them on my website—and when I looked at one song and then another one, I could see the meaning sort of hanging together," she explained. "It was a good way for me to process things in a healthy way, but it was funny that I didn't intend to do that, and it ended up happening."
Running throughout the record are themes of impermanence, change and growth. The title, taken from the lyrics of the first track, is a metaphor for instability: "You can't rest on your mountain of hope / When you've built it on a fault line," sings Lopez. Later on, in "Vacancy," the same idea pops up in a slightly different form as Lopez sings again of building unstable structures: "Watch it shatter through our arms / Fold in two / And wash away."
The theme of instability runs even deeper through Fault Lines; the record itself had an unstable beginning. It took two years for Lopez to finish recording, in part because during the process, her computer crashed, and she lost several songs.
"It was discouraging," she said. "I had to try and re-create everything."
Through that process of re-creation, the album became more of a documentation of a processing of turmoil. Lopez records most of her songs herself, which gives her music a raw, homemade ambiance that the pressure and polish of a recording studio doesn't always allow.
"It's kind of a raw thing when I go into it," Lopez said of her recording process. "I get wrapped up in it in a way that's more uninhibited than I think I would go about it in a studio. I think I would be a little more reserved, and I think (studio engineers would) be really helpful, but I feel like when I'm being watched or people are waiting for me to do this thing ... it might affect the outcome."
That raw, uninhibited emotional quality is what makes Lopez's music enigmatic. She's often compared to Ani DiFranco because of her guitar technique, but on Fault Lines, Lopez's songs are less about fancy guitar tricks and more about simple, memorable melodies that best express whatever emotion each song is expressing. As a result, Fault Lines shows Lopez working through things in her songs, which gives them an air of earnestness and immediacy.
With Fault Lines, explained Lopez, "I didn't really care about trying to be impressive with ... how I play the guitar; I was trying to be a little more open to relaxing a little bit and just seeing what came naturally instead of trying to force something, like some sort of lead or riff here or there. I just wanted it to be more organic."
One of the best songs on the record was written as a result of Lopez just stepping back and seeing what came to her. "Sometimes when I sit down and I write a song, it'll take a really long time, but the one that came super quickly is the last track. It's called 'Low Level Flight'. It just sort of materialized in front of me, and I think that it meant that it really needed to happen, so it's more moving to me than some of the other songs."
"Low Level Flight" begins with a signature Lopez guitar melody—one that showcases her talent for deceptively simple and gorgeous chord structures—and drums played with brushes. "I know less than before but I've got more to say/ I'll put it sweetly where you lay," Lopez sings, with a warm and intimate enunciation. By the end of the song, the mountain image from the first track appears again, but imbued with action and hope. "Crawl over the green and shine a light / Move your mountain of worry with all your might," Lopez sings, "Because I'm blowing through the barricades and caution signs / Just to see your eyes tonight."
The leaving and loss at the beginning of the record has transformed into a homecoming. The last line of the song reiterates this sense of growth even more: "I've held my ground alone/ Shone light to darkness on my own / My arms are open now come on home."
On Fault Lines, this is essentially what Lopez does: She holds her ground, shines light on darkness and welcomes listeners in.