When Kelcey Ayer meets me for coffee in Los Feliz, he’s nothing but smiles. As soon as we recognize each other, he waves and his eyes light up. “This is Tasha,” he says like a proud dad, introducing me to his 4-year-old Siberian husky.

Ayer has a warm spirit and a soothing presence, but creatively he’s drawn to the dark and somber. “I’m not a sad guy, but I don’t know, [sad stuff makes] me really happy — sad music, sad movies, emotional things just scratch this itch that I really love,” Ayer says once we sit down with our drinks. “I remember walking out of Black Swan and feeling so pumped to go work on something.”

That sentiment was the catalyst for the Local Natives vocalist-keyboardist to start his own project. Over the course of four years, he had collected melodies, chord progressions and songs that he had written on the piano and recorded on his iPhone — ideas that he presented to the band but never came to fruition or ideas that he knew from the get-go wouldn’t work in that context, because they were too dreary. During a three-day stretch of downtime, Ayer decided to take these pieces to Michael Harris at Electro-Vox studio on Melrose (where Local Natives had recorded some of their third album, Sunlit Youth) and see what they could make of it with the short time they had.

“I ended up getting seven songs almost totally done in three days, and we were both kind of stunned and like, 'Oh, this is something that feels really easy to do because we feel like we speak the same language,'” he explains. “So after that, I did another few days and had 12 songs, and all of a sudden I had a record and decided I should finish it.”

Out of those 12 songs, 10 made the final cut for what would become Tasha Sits Close to the Piano — a collection of complex, heavy, piano-centric love songs, one of which sparked the name of Ayer’s project: Jaws of Love.

“After that second session it dawned on me that all the songs kind of had to do with the highs and lows of being in a relationship, and love in general,” the musician recalls between sips of his iced latte. “Jaws of Love just felt like a good representation of this dark, visceral, passionate project. Once I had that, and it felt right, then I got really excited to use a lot of Tasha imagery. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek — I like riding that line.”

Aside from being a breathtaking body of work, Tasha Sits Close to the Piano was also a journey of self-discovery for its creator. “I’ve never loved writing love songs, because they always feel cheesy, but it just ended up working out,” Ayer admits. “I don’t know really how to explain it. I think the whole project has been me realizing stuff about myself, so maybe things that were there that I never really understood or explored or noticed before ended up showing themselves. Like, holy shit, I have 10 songs about a thing I didn’t think I liked writing about.”

That’s what’s great about navigating a project yourself — you have no one to explain your decisions to, and in turn can learn invaluable things about your songwriting technique, production prowess and even your own psyche. But that’s not to say Jaws of Love was exclusively a one-man project.

Ayer had Harris’ help in the studio and Cian Riordan’s when it came time to mix the record. “Mixing is such a huge part of the finishing touches,” Ayer explains. “Everything can change in mixing, and I feel like I learned that over three records with [Local Natives].” With some added synth and electro flourishes from his friend Mark Nieto, an electronic artist who goes by Combat!, Tasha Sits Close to the Piano is the album Ayer has always wanted to make.

“I’m really surprised that I don’t regret any of it,” he says, recalling the short amount of time he had to make this all happen. “It’s so rare for that to work out. I’m kind of riding on that, and feeling really awesome.”

That’s what happens when you follow your instincts, and that was Ayer’s mantra during this whole process. “People have asked, ‘What is something you would tell your younger self?’ And I’ve answered, ‘Just trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, change it,’” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m proud of myself for sticking to my guns with a lot of things, and my ability to get to the finish line. … I think now, being older, I feel more confident than I ever have, and feel proud of myself for knowing what I want; knowing when it’s right or when it’s wrong.”

This album is something Ayer should be proud of. It’s vulnerable and introspective, complex yet subtle, dark yet hopeful. It showcases Kelcey Ayer stripped down to his barest form and exposing himself in a way he hasn’t done in the decade-plus that he’s been playing with Local Natives.

“When you’re all together and [you] make something and put it out into the world, even if people don’t like it, you can be like, ‘We all liked it. We all agree, this is fucking awesome,’” Ayer explains. “But with this record, I’m experiencing that all by myself, so it feels like so many feelings I’ve had before but heightened so greatly. I feel like I’m the most invested I’ve ever been before, because it’s all me, and I’m probably the most excited because it’s 100 percent me, and also the most nervous, and vulnerable. … It’s the feeling of really betting on yourself.”

Jaws of Love's Tasha Sits Close to the Piano comes out Friday, Sept. 22, on House Arrest and K-Rizzla Records and is available for pre-order here. They play a sold-out show at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Thursday, Sept. 21.

LA Weekly