There are two quarters on the table and Greg Laswell can't leave them be. Flip, flop. Flip, flop. Absentmindedly turning them over through his fingers, Laswell rolls them faster when the conversation grows more personal. Flip, flip, flip, flop, flipflopflipflop.
"My job isn't to be depressed, hurt or devastated all the time," Laswell says about his new break-up album, Through Toledo. "Just because I got divorced and wrote an album about it doesn't mean that's what I'm always going to sing about forever."
Laswell is now staring intently at the quarters. The din of music and air conditioning and clanging glasses inside Nunu's, the Hillcrest dive bar, grows temporarily quiet. He shifts his weight back and forth in the lumpy booth and sighs. The San Diegan has a heavy demeanor, partially hidden behind his big fedora hat. It's a weight born either of his wife's leaving, from the stress of a long tour, or from his own conflicted worldview.
"I went to counseling for a while and my therapist suggested I bring in these songs I had told her about," Laswell says. "She was so ecstatic. She told me that she wished all her clients did this to face their feelings. [Writing songs is] the best therapy in the world."
Laswell thought he would put the album out for 1,000 to 2,000 people to hear in San Diego. Just a few local friends, he thought. A few months later, Vanguard Records caught wind of Laswell's stunning confessional and signed him up. Vangard released Through Toledo to the masses this week.
"It's terrifying," Laswell says. "I never expected the album to do this. It's like telling someone a secret and then seeing it on a billboard."
Most singer-songwriters aren't short on emotion. In fact, most suffer from an inability to contain it. That's Laswell's gift-the skill of understatement, of tempering heavy thoughts with elegance. He's also benefited from producing other artist's records, including actor Minnie Driver and San Diego singer-songwriter Anya Marina.
"I get a feeling about Greg that he is in and out of the everyday world," Marina says, "that he is present at times, and at other times that he consumed with some feeling-be it grief or the creative force or some mysterious emotion-which excuses him from being a part of everyday life and conversations."
The world's probably better off that the musician didn't follow through with his mother's advice and become a teacher. Laswell grew up in a conservative family of four in Long Beach and didn't have an interest in music until his sister received a piano as a gift.
"I would wait patiently until she was done trying to play "Wind Beneath My Wings' and I would jump back on," he says.
Laswell moved to San Diego to attend college at Point Loma Nazarene University. He graduated and enrolled in a teaching accreditation course. But he found himself idling, and he hated his job. He tried his hand at acting for a while-even starring in the Sea Lion and Otter show at SeaWorld-but it didn't feel right. So when he saw his roommate bringing home huge paychecks as a copy machine salesman, Laswell started touting the benefits of things like "collating multi-page documents."
"I figured that if I could just live through it for a seven or eight months, I could afford to buy the studio equipment that I wanted and I would quit to do music full time," Laswell says. "And I did."
Buoyed by his newfound independence, Laswell worked to produce a cadre of local artists, fronted a series of local bands ("I'd rather work by myself," he says) and wrote and produced his own debut, Good Movie. The album won the 2004 San Diego Music Award for Best Local Album.
Regarding what happened next, Laswell is less straightforward than his own album: "Found a letter from a man I might've met, addressed to you, Laswell sings on "High and Low." "And I'll steal the words he ended with: I miss you... and I do. Miss you."
It's about finding love letters addressed to the character's wife-simple and profound over a bed of piano and echoed vocals. Through Toledo is filled with arresting tidbits like this. Some have made his fans cry when performed live.
"At its root, this is an album about love," Laswell insists. "If you are not a little scared by the things you say as a songwriter, then I think you have failed on some level. I can tell the difference, and I think other people can, too."
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Laswell has a uniquely developed sense of humor. (He says that if his life were a movie, it would probably be The Little Mermaid.) But he thinks Brad Davis, drummer for local rockers Reeve Oliver, describes him best.
"He says I am the funniest sad person he's ever met," Laswell says. "And maybe I am."
Greg Laswell plays his CD-release party with Simon Dawes and Anya Marina at The Casbah on July 14. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $10-$12. 619-232-HELL.