With her debut EP Peaks, Laura Dreyfuss proves herself to be a rare multi-hyphenate. Armed with candid lyrics and effervescent electro-pop, she explores everyday highs and lows and finds comfort by looking inward.
New Jersey-born singer, actress and songwriter Laura Dreyfuss is probably best known for originating the role of Zoe Murphy in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, or for captivating TV audiences with her performance―and a parade of swoon-worthy 70s power suits―as Mcafee in Netflix’s The Politician. But Dreyfuss is stepping into a new era of her career with the release of her debut EP, Peaks. Winkingly tongue-in-cheek at times and quietly poignant at others, the 5-track record casts the award-winning singer in a new light. Chronicling anxieties, stagnancy, and unconditional love, the 33-year-old is not playing a character anymore. Rather, she is offering herself up, unfiltered and unfettered.
After spending most of the lockdown with her partner’s family in South Africa―”could have been worse,” she jokes―Dreyfuss is getting back to filming, currently situated in a serene hotel room with her dog in Atlanta. She chats with Tanis Smither about writing during lockdown, beginning her acting career, and learning not to put too much pressure on herself.
You spent some time in South Africa during the pandemic, right? Tell me about that experience.
It’s funny, we’ve been reflecting on it a lot in the last few days. With the existential dread aside, and being aware of how much the world was going through, as well as our own anxiety every day, the opportunity we had to just be in nature was incredible. We were really living a rural lifestyle. The closest place we could buy any kind of grocery was 40 minutes down a dirt road. I definitely felt like I learned a lot about myself.
Obviously your family was in the States at the time. What was that like for you?
It was really hard. My mum’s a doctor, and she was going into the hospital at the peak of COVID. She’s over 65, and I remember being terrified. I was so far away, and I couldn’t imagine what it would even look like trying to get home. That was fear number one. I was with wonderful people, but it was still very far from home, and my comfort zone.
And the downtime must have taken some getting used to. Are you the kind of person who has to keep busy all the time, or were you comfortable with taking it easy?
I really value my downtime. As an artist, I have to respect the ebb and flow of my own creativity. It was a very needed slow down for me. Fortunately, I have been going from job to job, and have been very busy. I never had a period of time where I could totally rest. It was actually really appreciated. There was always that fear of not being able to work—it’s one thing if you’re able to make a choice not to work, but there wasn’t even a choice or opportunity in this case—that was really scary. But, mentally and physically, it was great to have that time. I found time to slow myself down.
That’s probably a really good attitude to have, as an actor.
There’s a curse that comes along with loving what you do. When you love what you do, you tend to work harder. And you don’t realise how hard you’re working until it catches up with you―you get sick, or something bad happens. Then you’re like, ‘I need to slow down because my body is actually revolting’. But also, as an actor, you’re nearly trained to be comfortable with not working. We’re prepared for that, but we’re not prepared for it being completely unavailable.
I want to switch gears a bit. I know you grew up in New Jersey, so I want to talk about having access to the New York theatre scene on a regular basis. Do you remember the first play or musical you saw that made you think: ‘that’s what I have to be doing?’
Absolutely. I was 6 years old. I saw Les Miserables on Broadway. I’d always grown up seeing theatre in some form, because my sister is 10 years older than I am and she was also acting. I’d see her in community productions, or whatever she was doing. It was always a part of my understanding of art, but I remember seeing the little Cosette and becoming fixated on it. I was able to do little kid theatre classes that my Mum put me in for fun, but I definitely thought ‘this is what I’m meant to do’. It was amazing that that was actually able to happen.
And you went on to study at Boston Conservatory. How did you find the experience of focusing on performance during your education?
I think it was really helpful for me, because I was definitely very slow to grow up. There was a lot that I needed to learn. It was a really amazing time for me to learn my own abilities and be able to access them, and just to build the confidence I needed to go out into the world to try to work. I’m just so impressed by people who start working at 18, because I think about who I was at that age, and I was just so not ready.
Interesting. I definitely had a similar feeling at that age, I was completely unprepared. I went to a performing arts high school, but the program really made me realise I was not cut out for the world of acting.
It’s hard. I think it’s one thing to have a passion, and find joy in something, and the minute you’re put into an environment that is cutthroat and intense, it can very easily change from a passion to something that you feel negatively about. There were definitely a lot of kids at my conservatory who had that experience.
I mean, it all worked out. It pushed me toward something else I wanted to do. It didn’t take the passion away, in the sense that I still love the theatre―I just found an alternative creative outlet to what I thought I would be doing when I was a teenager.
Which is really incredible, because I believe we always end up doing what we’re meant to do. There’s no missed opportunity. I think the only time you miss an opportunity is if you think: ‘what if?’ And if that’s what you’re thinking, you didn’t actually try. Experiencing the different avenues is really valuable, because you can say: ‘I did that, and it wasn’t what I expected’.
It’s all a learning experience, right? It’s all a part of figuring out who you are. So, I feel like I can’t really get away from talking about theatre without talking about Dear Evan Hansen. I think I read somewhere that you did the show from the time it was workshopped for two years, right?
Yeah, it was a long time.
When you are playing a character like Zoe for so long, does it take a long time to let go?
Yes and no. That show in particular was really difficult because of the subject matter. My dream for my work in theatre was to create a character from the very beginning and then see it through. With Dear Evan Hansen, it had that perfect trajectory. We were able to collaborate artistically in this really beautiful and pure way. To go from off-Broadway to the Tonys and see it win Best Musical…you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect journey with a show. We had so much respect for our creatives and fellow actors, and everyone involved. That said, it was such a difficult show to perform. What was asked of us each night was really hard. It wasn’t so difficult letting go of the character, even though I felt very protective of it, but I was physically crying 8 times a week. There are obviously worse things going on in the world, but when you’re doing that 8 times a week, your body doesn’t know that you’re acting. Even still, I can’t watch sad movies, or things that require any emotion [laughs]. I’m still drained and it’s been like 3 or 4 years! That, I think, is the hardest thing. The empathy level almost gets too high.
So is that when the desire to start writing your own music started cropping up?
Yeah, I had been doing the show for a year. The performance part of the show was very fulfilling, but creatively I wasn’t super stimulated. I couldn’t do another show, so I was looking for a way to fill that void. I didn’t have any expectations, and I was really afraid to do it, because it was scary and vulnerable. It’s very easy to write a bad song―and you’re worried people are going to say mean things about it. But I was very intrigued about what it would feel like. It was very safe, and I was writing with a good friend who is an incredible producer. We just thought: ‘let’s give it a go and see. If it’s bad, we tried, and if it’s good, great’. But we weren’t going to be high-stakes about it. It ended up being a cool song that we really liked. We kept writing, and here we are.
That’s such a good way to approach it. Because there’s often so much riding on releasing or writing a song.
It was totally taking that pressure off myself. We’re so afraid of our own failure. The worst thing that can happen is that you write something bad. It was really liberating to get it out there.
I’ve been feeling that a lot with my own writing, I guess in the last couple of years. I had such a huge block about whether or not it was my place to say something. Like, what do I have to say that is relevant? The conclusion I seem to have come to in my own brain is that everyone has something to say that is of value, and as long as you’re contributing from personal experience rather than a perspective of trying to teach people.
That’s really valuable. Oftentimes, especially with the aid of social media, it’s very easy to get to a place where you feel like you’re preaching. Because if there’s something going on in the world that is terrible and you feel the need to comment, there’s some strange expectation that you’re supposed to have a perfectly curated response or opinion. And often, we’re still processing as humans ourselves. I don’t know how things make me feel, or how to eloquently and perfectly describe it. All I know is my own personal experience. That’s the most valuable thing that you can share, because ultimately, that’s what will resonate.
Speaking of personal experience, one of the songs from Peaks that I want to discuss is ‘Nose To Nose’, which is about your dog.
Yes! She’s here with me right now, actually. She’s just the light of my life. I started writing the song with my producer, when we had been writing a lot of downers. Every song is either angry at something or about a negative relationship. I was also really afraid of love songs, because I had yet to write one that wasn’t really cheesy, so I was trying to conquer that. We started playing around and I thought: ‘how fun would it be to write a song that is very much about a dog but could also be interpreted as a person?’ So it’s being very specific with the language. These things could be human, but are very clearly about my dog. It’s also very much a joke in my current relationship. Like, ‘if you and the dog were drowning….I would save you, but I’d have to think about it. I would probably have to hesitate for a while.’
Well, it’s certainly universal. Unless you don’t like dogs, but if you don’t like dogs there’s something wrong with you.
Those people don’t have souls.
Exactly. The other song I wanted to talk about is ‘Pillow’. What were you trying to explore with that track?
That song is very special to me. It was very vulnerable, and I really wanted to capture what I felt in the last year and a half. That feeling of isolation and almost despair, even though I was surrounded by love and had immense support. It’s about finding support when it feels like life is really difficult. This whole year was about managing anxiety, while also having an incredibly supportive person beside me. How do we navigate the ups and downs of life, and how do we show up for our people? And when do we put our own anxieties aside to care for someone else, and when do we allow someone to take care of us? While all of that happens, there’s a loneliness that still exists. And nobody can really fill that void other than ourselves.
That idea of low-grade anxiety throughout the year, and not being able to pinpoint what, exactly, is wrong with your life has been a big theme recently. And self-care, really―although I feel like that’s a very millennial term to use―became an important thing during the pandemic.
We all want these solutions, from a partner or family member or therapist, and the thing I kept thinking about while I was writing this song is how when I’m low, all you can really do is just hold me. There’s no quick fix or magic word you can give me to change the feeling, but that simple human connection is all this person can give me or all I can ask.
There’s another track on Peaks called ‘Better Drugs’, and it’s a musing on social anxiety and medication, but it’s couched in this effervescent electro-pop. Musically speaking, why was that important for you?
The song is very real, and also kind of a joke. It’s about those moments when you’re listening to the list of all the things you can do to take care of yourself, and you just want the quick fix. Like, ‘I don’t know how to make it better’. It was written from that point in my life, and I was like, ‘let’s make a pop song from this’.
A lot of the best pop songs are like that. Like, ‘this is extremely depressing but we’re going to put some happy synths behind it’. Do you think there’s a difference between the level of vulnerability you express when you’re acting and when you’re singing your own songs, or something you wrote?
The amount of vulnerability is equal, but it’s a different kind. Acting is very soul-baring in the sense that you’re on stage or in front of a camera showing parts of yourself visually that are uncomfortable. That act is very vulnerable. With writing, it’s incredibly vulnerable to put words out into the world that are permanent. Words that you’re using to describe a moment that was maybe five minutes of your life. ‘Better Drugs’ was a thought I had that lasted an hour. But I wrote an entire song about it that now exists in the world, which is somehow supposed to represent me as an artist. That’s such a weird feeling, but it’s honouring those moments. When you’re truthful, and you make art that lasts…people are going to hear that and maybe it resonates with them. It doesn’t have to be your truth forever, but reckoning with that has always been interesting.
Do you think, once the song is out, it’s not yours anymore?
All art in general, I would say, is never actually owned by anyone aside from the people who consume it. The feeling it evokes, that is yours. I’m a big believer that as artists, we’re just bridging the gap between consciousness and putting it into something for people to interpret, but it’s not actually up to us to claim it. It’s really liberating to remember that―there’s no ego, when you think of it that way.
Peaks is out now.
Interview by Tanis Smither