Long Neck on Mary Oliver, Songwriting, and their new album Soft Animal

By Amy Garlesky

How do our creative practices survive a pandemic? When the health crisis swept through our lives in 2020, it did so like an unavoidable and unwavering hand of change—requiring us to swiftly readjust, adapt, and ultimately muster up some form of acceptance. However, finding new routines and new motivations while remaining grounded is simpler said than done. Yet, it’s a reflective process both guiding and challenging Lily Mastrodimos in her newest release as Long Neck.

The project’s fourth full-length, Soft Animal, is a collection born out of uncertainty—both for the future of the band and for Lily herself. As the pandemic began to shake up the music industry and her daily life, Lily set her sights on trying to build new roots. The resulting album became a testament to reconstructing and understanding one’s own creativity even in light of our constantly changing world.

We sat down with Lily leading up to today’s release of Soft Animal. During our conversation, we discussed the underlying literary influences behind its namesake, how Lily reconnected with her love of music, and what the future holds for the project. Read our interview below.

Slumber: If you could describe Soft Animal in three words to someone who hasn’t heard it, what would you say?

Lily Mastrodimos: Evolution of whales.

Slumber: The title Soft Animal refers to a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”–where she writes: “You do not have to be good/You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Why did this line in particular strike you and become such an influence behind the record?

Lily: The record is about taking care of yourself, survival, and reclaiming parts of you that you thought you’d lost. After we released World’s Strongest Dog in April 2020, I remember being so hyper-fixated on how it wasn’t getting a ton of writeups or publicity; when tour announcements started up again and we weren’t getting offers, it felt devastating. And it was all I could focus on: “Where did we go wrong? Why does no one like this album? Maybe if we changed A, B, and C about our whole ‘thing’, we’d be more popular”, etc. I was working at a grocery store, waiting for the pandemic to end and for WSD to blow up so I could get the fuck out of there, but it wasn’t happening and it made me spiral a bit.

Looking back at this time, I am so disappointed in myself. I had turned something I loved, and something that people supported and loved too, into something gross and ugly. I made it into a means of escape rather than an extension of who I am. It was selfish and immature, feeling disappointed in something that I am actually incredibly proud of. Absolutely wretched.

I returned to Mary Oliver’s poems a lot during the worst of the pandemic, but “Wild Geese” struck me most. It’s about following instinct, accepting your place as another imperfect creature in an imperfect ecosystem, and taking care of your primal needs. Oliver asks her readers how they plan to live their lives, [and] how they plan to honor these instincts and these needs. I kept thinking about the ways I had ignored myself, my interests, the things that brought me the greatest happiness and fulfillment. I had forgotten to honor myself. The soft animal of my body loves creating and loves writing music. I had lost that part of me, and I wanted it back.

Slumber: This record is almost completely acoustic, which is a change compared to Long Neck’s last two releases. Was that choice made intentionally, or rather, what was the process more generally behind the sound of the record?

Lily: I’d say it was more a matter of circumstance than intention. I was exhausted and burnt out, I was broke, I had just moved back in with my parents. My bandmates and I hadn’t practiced together in over a year, and we didn’t have the funds to pay for studio time, so I recorded most of the album myself. I didn’t go into this with a plan, I had my instruments at home and my little interface and just kind of ran with it. But the more I started working with these songs, the more I started to see the opportunity to do something different.

When things started coming together, I realized that Soft Animal was the album that I was meant to make at that time. I know that sounds goofy, but I don’t know how else to say it. Writing Soft Animal helped me start processing the pandemic, the exhaustion, the fear, and anger. It’s a representation of how I was feeling for 2 years. Being able to write about my emotional and physical well-being like that had been the original intention behind Long Neck when I started it back in 2014–to be straightforward about how I was feeling when I couldn’t vocalize it any other way. Soft Animal allowed me to tap back into that.

“I had forgotten to honor myself. The soft animal of my body loves creating and loves writing music. I had lost that part of me, and I wanted it back.”

Slumber: In a future world with no risk of COVID, where is the first place you’d like to perform this record?

Lily: I had booked a solo UK tour that I had to cancel because of COVID. I’d still love to make that happen for Soft Animal. Until then, I’d love to play this in the woods on top of a mountain. (I’m being completely serious.)

Slumber: In the song “Ants” you repeat the phrase: If I can’t put a pen to paper, what good am I?, which only reminds me of how you’ve described the underlying theme behind the album: “to prove to myself that writing music is something I can still do and that I still love doing.”

Can you say a little more about this sentiment? Did you completely stop writing during the last few years or how did your writing process evolve/change during the pandemic?

Lily: I didn’t stop completely, but I really wasn’t proud of or happy with the songs I was writing. I put a little EP out in the summer of 2020 called The Blow that had some songs I really liked on there, and in 2021 dropped two holiday singles. But overall, the music I was writing didn’t feel right. I didn’t have any motivation to sit and play. In the rare moments I did, I’d just be second-guessing myself on quality, intent, or meaning. I just felt so stuck and uninspired and heavy. It really wasn’t until maybe August of 2021 that I started to feel back in the swing of things.

Slumber: What’s the song you’re most proud of on this record? Why so?

Lily: “Soft Animal”. It took me 4 or 5 years to write, and every incarnation it’s found itself in during that period of time has been, frankly, corny. It was like I was just setting the poem to music, which would have been a disservice to Oliver and not musically interesting at all. The version on the album now is the result of endless rewrites and decisions to throw caution to the wind. It’s become one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.

Slumber: There’s quite a bit of imagery connected to nature on this record. Ideally, where should someone be when they hear Soft Animal for the first time? What type of landscape or environment would be most appropriate?

Lily: Ideally, somewhere they feel safe, comfortable, and at home. Or, if they want to go on a walk, or a drive, or just sit outside somewhere. My go-to, though, is the woods. Get me to the woods any day.

Slumber: Who is a musician who convinced you that you can make music the way you want, and how did they do so?

Lily: I was in a group chat with my friends and Adult Mom bandmates Stevie Knipe and Emma Witmer where we swapped demos with each other for a couple of months. They were the first folks to hear “Gardener,” when I was having trouble writing the ending. Stevie came up with the lines “I thought you’d know this/where all the colors go” that I just adored. Having their support and being able to get feedback from them was invaluable. It felt like a brief return to normalcy, and I’m so thankful for them both.

I went to London in August to visit my sister, and while I was there got to see my friend Rob Taylor, who sings on “Gardener” with me. We started talking about our respective songwriting processes, creativity, and the pitfalls of the music industry. It felt so refreshing to talk about these things with someone after so long, and especially in a place that wasn’t Brooklyn or New Jersey. I felt so inspired by that conversation and that trip that, when I came home, I started working on what would become Soft Animal.

“When I started writing 'Soft Animal,' I wrote in my journal that from now on, I’m making music for myself. It seems like a silly and stupid thing to write, but again, it was something I had forgotten...”

Slumber: What would you like listeners to gain, learn, or feel after they listen through this release?

Lily: I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I’m honored if people connect with anything I’ve written. Maybe one thing I’d like to impart on folks is that, if you want to write music (or do anything creative), just do it. Don’t be afraid to experiment with what you have at your disposal. Take the risk, go for it.

Slumber: And to turn it back around, what have you gained or what lessons do you think the album has instilled in you?

Lily: When I started writing Soft Animal, I wrote in my journal that from now on, I’m making music for myself. It seems like a silly and stupid thing to write, but again, it was something I had forgotten over the course of the pandemic. If people like the album, great! If not, that’s ok too! I can’t control how people feel about the art I make, I’m just thankful if people give it a chance. It’s been a lesson in letting go, and it feels so freeing if I’m being honest. I feel more confident now in my musical abilities than I have in years.

Slumber: Lastly, what’s next for Long Neck–do you have any ideas, or what do you hope is next?

Lily: We’re going on a small tour this summer, our first in 3 years! We’re so excited to hit the road again. And after that, who knows! I’m going to grad school soon, folks are moving, life is happening. We’re not wrapping things up by any means, just adjusting and growing. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m looking forward to whatever happens.

Long Neck’s new album ‘Soft Animal’ is out now via Specialist Subject and Plastic Miracles