Sometime in the early 2010s, Portland musician Dave Depper decided he wanted to record a note-for-note cover of Paul McCartney’s second post-Beatles album, Ram, all by himself.
So he bought gear, holed up in his home, and spent a month doing exactly that. It was a “personal experiment that went haywire,” Depper says now—his own private crash course in recording techniques. But local label Jackpot Records got wind of the project, and released his version, The Ram Project, in 2011. Which was great, but afterward, Depper found himself in essentially the same position as when he started.
“I toured a bit and worked at my day job, and I was sitting on my hands with the equipment I’d used to do Ram, but I had no material,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe this. I still can’t write songs.’ I just really felt frustrated at my inability to come across anything that sounded authentically like myself.”
Enter local songwriter Nick Jaina, who challenged Depper (among others) to write 20 songs in 12 hours. Depper met the challenge—in a “frantic creative mode of panic,” he says—and a couple of the songs that “popped out” were very melodic, melancholy synth-pop. They sounded unlike anything he’d created before.
Depper used those songs as a blueprint, and suddenly his songwriting faucet began to gush. He recorded “tons” of songs in a similar sonic style, but struggled mightily with writing lyrics that really resonated with him or with others.
“I spent a year or two just flowing with all these songs that came out of the mental freedom of the 20-song game,” Depper says. “But lyrically, I was really frustrated and super afraid to reveal anything about myself.”
And then, out of nowhere, came a song called “Hindsight”—a gentle little electro-pop number that’s now on his solo debut, Emotional Freedom Technique. In it, Depper wistfully reflects on a long-lost relationship, and puts up no emotional barriers whatsoever. “It’s super emo,” he says. “I was embarrassed by it.”
But a friend who heard the song loved it, and pushed Depper to keep exploring a more honest style of writing. So he started retrofitting his stockpile of synth-pop songs with emotionally rich stories from his own life.
It should be noted that Depper toured with Ray LaMontagne throughout 2014, and at the beginning of 2015 joined indie-rock giants Death Cab for Cutie after the departure of their founding guitarist, Chris Walla. And he spent much of that time living an entirely new lifestyle, flying across the world for gigs in front of huge crowds. But he was also dealing with the after-effects of a divorce. What should have been a happy time never felt all that happy.
“Instead of a normal response to emotional trauma, I was living in this total fantasy world, being in a new city every day and meeting an entire new cast of characters every day and dating people that lived thousands of miles away from me,” Depper says. “And then I’d go home and work on this album, which, without me really noticing, suddenly became this series of little glimpses into my emotional state during that time and trying to figure out what it all meant to me.”
Translation: Emotional Freedom Technique is a lonely record. Sonically, it’s a palette of overcast synth-pop powered by pitter-patter beats and streaked with melodies that shimmer and sigh. It’s a beautifully constructed collection of pop songs. But thematically, it ranges from “Do You Want Love?” (“I don’t know what that means anymore,” answers the chorus) to “Lonely with You” to the hopeful title track, which ends the record in a cathartic shower of new wave digi-sparks set to a buoyant pace.
“It’s such a cliché, but actually making the album really was therapeutic for me,” Depper says. “I feel like I worked through so much of what I needed to by making these songs and committing myself to this hyper-honest lyrical ethos that I really didn’t think I was capable of.”
Depper is fine now, by the way. He’s a full-time member of Death Cab, who have begun recording their next album, and has a legion of new fans who are excited to hear Emotional Freedom Technique. And as far as his personal songwriting goes, he has not only overcome his earlier blockage, but left it far behind. Now he’s just searching for his next lyrical direction.
“That’s the neat lesson from this record,” he says. “I can do this. I know I can do this. For so long this album was the thing I was never going to finish, [and now] it’s like, ‘I did this. It’s done. I can do this.’
“I think that was such a big block for me,” Depper continues. “So I don’t know what the next one will be about, but I do know that it will be about something, and I do know that I will find that thing. I just need to, like, take ayahuasca and go hiking in South America and figure it out.”