Speak/Sing: Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo Takes the Next Step
The Virginia native has always used his songwriting to confront his anxiety about the future. On the eve of his biggest release to date, he reflects on where that's gotten him.
If Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo were to be inexplicably transported and forced to wander the halls of his old high school, there’s a sizable chance a teacher would ask to see a hall pass. Even at twenty-three years old, his young face centered by a pair of dark-rimmed eyeglasses, the Matador Records signee, who is sitting on the other side of a video chat in the New York offices of his label, could still easily play the part of his teenage self—a part the Seattle-based musician has expertly ingrained in his songwriting.
For Toledo, the age of adolescence, and the inherent anxiety that precedes impending adulthood, is the wellspring from which he’s already managed to record a staggering eleven albums during four years of college, self-releasing them all on Bandcamp. Now, with the support of a true distributor, Toledo is being given a proper introduction to the wider world in the form of two companion LPs. The first, released late last year and entitled Teens of Style, is a compilation of re-recorded tracks pulled from those early productions. The second, entitled Teens of Denial, serves as his proper debut, featuring all brand-new material (some of it, in fact, will be as little as two weeks old when the album is released; a last-minute sample-clearing problem forced Toledo to rewrite “Just What I Wanted/Not Just What I Needed” and is delaying the album’s physical release until later this summer).
The songs are anchored by chapter-length lyrics that sound like the divergent internal monologues of a millennial Holden Caulfield. They often feel as though they’re coming through deliberately cracked speakers, with Toledo’s weary, sing/speak vocals buzzing through brilliantly cobbled-together garage rock melodies. “When I started out I didn’t know what this project would be,” he says, regularly reaching to the back of his head and pulling at portions of his dark hair. “I was just making whatever sounds I wanted to. But after it started evening out, it turned into this thing where it was documenting my growth as a person and as an artist. Keeping a steady vision of that, it naturally turned into what I wanted it to be—as a sort of progression.”
Toledo was born and raised in Leesburg, a historic Civil War town in Northern Virginia that has since become a burgeoning hub for suburban DC commuters. Though he describes his upbringing as being “uneventful,” he benefited from having a family that encouraged a love of music. “I grew up listening to a lot of music around the house,” he says. “That atmosphere was just kind of fostered.”
It was as a teenager that Toledo first picked up the guitar and started listening to R.E.M., Guided by Voices, and Pavement. By the time he left home to attend college in 2010, he was already writing his own songs and experimenting with basic recording equipment. He bounced between colleges—starting at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University before transferring to the College of William & Mary—but spent the majority of his extracurricular time producing music, laying down tracks in his dorm room or at his campus’ radio station studio when an opening became available.
“When I started out I didn’t know what this project would be… But after it started evening out, it turned into this thing where it was documenting my growth as a person and as an artist.”
“Even at the time I knew what was really good and what was OK,” he says of his output. “And the stuff I thought was really good then I still look at and can see the quality in it. There are recordings I don’t think have aged so well. I kind of cringe when I listen to the earlier stuff, but I think that’s a good thing. I’d rather be in a place in my career where I feel like I’m a lot better off than I was.”
Retracing the full catalog of work is like experiencing a kind of auditory time dilation. In the time it takes some artists to complete a single album cycle, Toledo created his own hyperbolic test chamber, fast-forwarding through the typical creative growing pains and leaving in his wake a web-ready archive that channeled the more substantial growing pains of surviving adolescence. “[My upbringing] was marked less by events and more by emotional progress, I guess,” he says. “And that was marked mainly by my music and the albums themselves. That’s what Car Seat Headrest had come to mean to me over the course of however many albums—this documentation of my growing up into adulthood.” While he says he’s tried a few times writing songs from the perspectives of other people, he admits the results have never come across as genuine. “[The songs] are usually autobiographical in one way or another, but it’s all me. If there’s a viewpoint I want to write about, I feel like I need to occupy it first.”
The viewpoints that Car Seat Headrest most embody are those of chronic uncertainty (“It took me a long time / To figure out I don’t know what I want / That’s why there will be no answer,” goes a lyric from “Fill in the Blank”), insecurity (“Here’s that voice in your head / Giving you shit again / But you know he loves you / And he doesn’t mean to cause you pain,” from “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”), and despair (“They got a portrait by Van Gogh / On the Wikipedia page / For clinical depression / Well, it helps you describe it,” in “Vincent”).
“I think that everyone has a heavy load to carry, or at least a lot of people feel that way,” Toledo says. “I grew up a sensitive kid, and a lot of things got to me that didn’t get to normal people. And that always came out in my music and my art. I [was] less depressed and more anxious or neurotic, Woody Allen–style. But it came out a little less comedic and a little more dark. The reality of things is that I had a fairly easy life. It was all just sort of in the mental realm. I was always sort of intimidated by the next step. In high school I was afraid of going to college and in college I was afraid of what would happen after that. That just made it hard to enjoy my life in the present tense. I think that’s one of the biggest themes with Car Seat Headrest, this sort of anxiety about the future.”
Given the current trajectory that he sees for himself in the coming weeks, months, and years down the line, Toledo admits that his typical state of anxiousness isn’t what it once was. “I still think about the future,” he says. “But things are going pretty good for me right now.” FL