Morgan Nagler’s Parallel Lives

Published March 11, 2013

ABOVE: MORGAN NAGLER.

With 30 bands playing simultaneously at 30 different venues each hour for a week, SXSW can be a little overwhelming. One act we’re excited about, however, is Morgan Nagler’s Whispertown.

Orginally The Whispertown 2000, Nagler and her act are often compared to her friend and occasional tourmate, Jenny Lewis. The comparison is not without good reason. Filled with bittersweet, lo-fi, electro-tinged indie pop songs, Whispertown’s last album, the seven-track Parallel, feels decidedly Californian—the West Coast of Rilo Kiley, Best Coast, and She & Him. Like Lewis, Nagler acted throughout her childhood, appearing in a nostalgia-inducing array of family-friendly ’80s and ’90s sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Home Improvement, and Punky Brewster. This year, for the first time since Whispertown began in 2005, Nagler is returning to film with Pleased to Meet Me. We spoke with Nagler the week before SXSW about acting versus music and letting her brother make her music videos.

EMMA BROWN: I’ve heard that SXSW is actually a grind for musicians.

MORGAN NAGLER: It’s true. I feel like it’s more of a social engagement—especially for the industry side. It’s more fun on that side, I feel like, than as a musician. It’s always fun, but definitely hectic. Playing with a full band—I’ve sort of pared down since doing that a few times, because none of the venues can accommodate parking and loading, so you’re just carrying amplifiers and drum sets for miles. And it’s always really quick; there’s no a sound check ahead of time, you just load onto the stage, play, and then have to carry everything away.

BROWN: Do have a band that you always play with?

NAGLER: No, I’ve been reconfiguring according to what’s going on. I’ve been mostly playing as a duo with Jake Bellows, but around town in LA I’ll play with a full band, or if the tour seems to make sense. It’s kind of fun to have that flexibility of what kind of arrangement you want to do.

BROWN: What are the benefits of playing as a duo? What does it add to the show?

NAGLER: I feel like it boils it down to what it is at heart. It can be harder. In the perfect environment, I think it’s ideal. For me, at least, it’s really the songs or the writing that’s at the core of it—what I care about most—so I feel like that comes across most when there isn’t much distracting from it.

BROWN: I know that you used to act. When did you transition from acting to being a musician? Was it gradual?

NAGLER: No, it was not gradual at all. It was actually a very distinct decision. I think it’s been about eight years. I always enjoyed acting, but I had done it since I was five, so I had never really questioned it. I had always made money, but it was really when I started making music that I realized what it was like to really care about something. After a few years of juggling both, I thought of, “Well, I’m going to make this decision. I’m not going to have money anymore and I hopefully will be happier and feel better about my contribution to the world.” But I actually did a movie since then [Pleased to Meet Me] and it was really fun. So, who knows. It’s based on a This American Life piece and it’s starring Aimee Mann and Jon Doe from [punk band] X. It’s a super music-centric little indie film. I think it will be done by the end of March. I’m excited for that. I think it will go to festivals and stuff. I learned to play the bass for it, which is sweet.

BROWN: Was it easy to get back into acting?

NAGLER: It was. I was really nervous about it because it had been so long, but once I was there and we started, it was like an old hat.

BROWN: What was your first part as a five-year-old?

NAGLER: I was a fantasy child on Days of Our Lives. [laughs]

BROWN: Do you think it’s easier to be get by as an actor than as a musician?

NAGLER: I guess it depends on what it means to you. Money-wise it was easier for me, but fulfillment-wise it’s easier for me to be doing this.

BROWN: Were music and films always separate pursuits for you?

NAGLER: It was separate. Music to me was much more personal. The only connection is that I taught myself to play guitar while I was working on a TV series where I was a regular, and there was a lot of downtime where we had to be there. So I would just sit in my trailer and play. That was kind of the transitional time, but there was only a few years of crossover.

BROWN: Do you remember the first song that really spoke to you?

NAGLER: The first artist that really spoke to me was Joni Mitchell.  I started listening to her when I was eight or nine from my mom’s tape collection. And that was a truly life-changing experience. I had been into The Beatles and stuff beforehand, but that was the first time I really struck a part of me that I didn’t know existed. Elliott Smith was also a big turning point in my life— actually, it was Elliott Smith, and Modest Mouse, and Built to Spill, all at the same time. That was the first modern music that actually shifted me. Before that it was mostly old music and gangsta rap that I listened to.

BROWN: What gangsta rap did you listen to?

NAGLER: Like, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. I think it’s the feeling and the rhyming. I think that still influences me—the rhythm and rhyming aspect.

BROWN: Do you listen to current hip-hop?

NAGLER: Not that much, though I just got the Kendrick Lamar album and I’m pretty into it.

BROWN: Do you get more recognized for your work as a musician? Or do people recognize you as an actor?

NAGLER: Definitely more as a musician, at this point. Weirdly, if I get recognized from acting, it’s usually from something from when I’m so little that I can’t even believe people can match up the way I looked then with how I do now. Like I did this one episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where I was this super-nerd in love with Carlton, and I was 11 or something, and every so often, some dude is like, “Wait a second…” It’s so bizarre.

BROWN: Was that an enjoyable experience?

NAGLER: Yes. That one was very fun. Almost all the time, actually, working was really fun; the parts that weren’t fun were that you had to go on auditions. But that was particularly good. We filmed it the week Will Smith’s single “Summertime” came out, and so it was a huge thing. They literally had a DJ on the set and it was a dance party the whole time. And I was like, “Hey! I’m a nerdy white girl!”

BROWN: Has the technology changed a lot?

NAGLER: I did a lot of work in sitcoms where it wasn’t film, it was video. It was taped in front of a live audience and it was really a whole different experience than you would have now. Each episode filmed in one week, and the first four days would be rehearsal, like you’re doing a play. There would be rewrites every day, and you would block it out, do it, and tape it in front of a live audience, and you’d be trying to get laughs.

BROWN: That’s very strange. Do you miss that?

NAGLER: I do miss that a bit. That was really fun. Later in my career I was doing this bit part in this movie, but it was kind of a big-budget movie, so there was a bunch of people in the crew, and I ad-libbed a line at the end of my bit, and [everyone] was just dead silent, and in my head I was sort of like, “Fuck! Why did you say that? That is not good!” And then when they said, “Cut!” everyone started laughing, and I was like, “Oh right, you can’t just laugh in the middle of filming a movie; this isn’t like a sitcom, where they are trying to get the laughs on tape.”

BROWN: If you could only play one song from your entire catalog, what would you play to introduce people to your music?

NAGLER: I think it would be a song called “Time Will Welcome Anything,” and it’s actually not recorded. It’s been around forever, and people kind of know it. There’s clips of it on YouTube and stuff.

BROWN: Is there a video for it? I was watching one of your music videos with clips from an Iranian film.

NAGLER: No, that’s an old song. My brother has been making all these music videos with all of this found footage—public domain footage—and he started this YouTube channel for Whispertown, and it’s pretty amazing. He’s been working 18 hours a day putting together these really insane videos. He started making videos for these insanely old songs that I didn’t even remember. I was like, “These are amazing! You should make one for something actually new!”

BROWN: How does that work? Do you send him a song and tell him what it’s about?

NAGLER: No, it’s completely him. He’s just been listening to the songs forever, so I’ve had nothing to do with it. They’re just his representation of the songs.

BROWN: Has he ever sent you something that you weren’t sure about?

NAGLER: No. He’s a pretty radical dude, but his heart is in the right place and that comes across to me. Even though it does represent me, in a way, I didn’t make the video. I think he’s doing an amazing job and he really has the purest intentions, and that comes across in everything.

WHISPERTOWN IS PLAYING THIS WEEK AT SXSW IN AUSTIN, TEXAS. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.