Dave Depper never expected to make a solo album.
That’s not humility talking: The Portland musician, now a Death Cab for Cutie member and a prolific sideman to artists from Ray LaMontagne to Fruit Bats to Corin Tucker, took years to even get started.
“It really wasn’t my plan,” Depper said, sitting down after leading his own band through their OPB studio session. “I’m very happy just being a guy on stage left.”
But “Emotional Freedom Technique,” his studio debut (not counting a full-length tribute to Paul McCartney’s “Ram”) finds him in the spotlight. It’s keyboard-driven but not an ‘80s revival, funky but low-key enough for headphones. The album’s secret weapon is a Roland Juno 6 synthesizer that Depper bought from composer Peter Broderick.
“I plugged it in and it felt like the sound I’d been looking for my whole life in my head,” Depper said. “I’d recorded about half the record using plug-in software synths and they sounded great, but I went back and replaced almost everything with that Juno 6.”
Another tool was an exercise called the “20-song game,” a friendly competition that’s been making the rounds in Portland’s musical circles in recent years. The goal is to write and record 20 complete songs in 12 hours, a creative sprint that Depper did with musicians including Nick Jaina and Danny Seim (Lackthereof, Menomena).
“There were a couple things out of that that seemed really fresh and different for me, and everyone that day commented on — this wistful, synth-pop sort of sound,” he said.
For Depper, it was just the push he needed to find his own voice after years of tailoring his playing to others’ writing.
“I was like, am I a folk acoustic guitarist? Am I a bass player? Do I just play synthesizers? I just didn’t feel like I had any personal musical identity at all and I sort of found it through this,” he said. “I don’t think this would’ve happened if I hadn’t done that one thing that day.”
The “Emotional Freedom Technique” tracks, including “Your Voice on the Radio,” a duet with singer-songwriter Laura Gibson in what Depper calls “disco diva” mode, are longing and confessional, biographical work that traces “a four- or five-year period where I was pretty lost.”
“I never thought that I was going to do a hyper-confessional emo record, but that’s what happened, so here it is,” he said.
His work on the album was already well underway when he joined Death Cab, but being in a band with Ben Gibbard — an unflinchingly honest, intimate songwriter — was another shot of confidence.
“It definitely goosed me to get toward the finish line and feel like, yeah, this is OK,” Depper said.
He won’t have to stand in the solo spotlight for long. He’ll head down to Los Angeles later this year to work on the next Death Cab album, but not without a challenge for his frontman: 20 songs in 12 hours.
“I even convinced Ben Gibbard to do it for the next Death Cab record,” Depper said, laughing. “We’ll see if anything comes out of it.”
Audio recording: Nalin Silva with William Ward and Randy Layton
Mixes: Steven Kray
Editor: Nate Sjol
Videographers: Nate Sjol, Jarratt Taylor, Andrew Barrick, Kaylee Domzalski
Interview: David Greenwald
Executive Producer: David Christensen