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February 14, 2014IM -
Vermont based singer songwriter Jay Nash recently discovered the importance of the AFM to indie musicians like himself as he jumped into commercial composing and studio work. “I don’t have to worry about negotiating anything. There’s a set rate for playing an instrument on a recording; it’s cut and dry. I represent myself, so it’s nice not to have to enter into any negotiations,” he says, adding that whenever he has a question or concern he has someone to turn to at Local 171 (Springfield, MA).
Working as an indie musician for the past 10 years, Nash began his music career fresh out of college with a degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Vermont. He concedes that all he ever really wanted to do was make music, but he didn’t pursue a degree in music because being a professional musician seemed like a long shot, plus he had doubts about going after it in such a structured way. “I guess I had the mentality that, if I was going to be a musician, it was going to happen one way or another,” he explains.
In 1998, just after graduation, Nash relocated to New York City to make a go of it. “I spent a year there,” he says. “The goal was to live off music, which I did by playing any gig I could get. I played bars on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, where I did a bunch of covers; in places like The Living Room and CB’s Gallery I did sets of my original music. I would play on subway platforms—whatever I had to do.”
“Toward the end of that year, I was 22 years old and realized I had no idea who I was as an artist; I bolted from New York,” he concedes.
Eventually he got back into music in Los Angeles. He worked at a club booking acts, and began hitting his stride as a songwriter, building a following both nationwide and in Europe. Nash released his first album, Open Late, in 2002. It was followed by another five albums and three EPs as an indie artist.
In 2010, Nash moved to Vermont, where he built his own studio, allowing him to stretch out and take his time creating his seventh album, Letters from the Lost, using a fresh creative process. IM talked to him about what it’s like to work in his new studio, and the latest projects he’s taken on.
IM: Your music crosses many genres. How do you like to describe it?
Nash: I generally evade this question as much as possible and let people draw their own conclusions. It’s a synthesis of something that’s new and different, standing firmly on the shoulders of the music that I grew up on—the Grateful Dead and The Band, a good bit of jazz like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and songwriters like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. I kind of skate the lines between folk rock and old country. I don’t get a ton of commercial radio play, so there is less demand for me to have my genre strictly defined.
I think the listener’s standpoint is a lot more important than the artist’s standpoint. Music is a unique oral tradition. As a musician/writer/composer, you digest experiences and other musical ideas, and then you synthesize something new. I think when you set out to say something specific, or sound like a specific thing, it limits the potency of the art. The important thing I’ve learned is to be open and not put any kind of a label on it, but just try to make a statement that is pure of heart.
How did you gain a following in Europe?
I saw some of my friends going over there and having semi-viable tours as truly independent artists, without a European booking agency or record deal. The early European tours were kind of set up through mentioning it in an e-mail blast, ‘Hey, I want to go play some shows in Europe.’ The first time I went, I played one or two club gigs and a bunch of house concerts. It grows rather rapidly over there because there’s a less dense pool of artists of this ilk. There’s less competition, and it’s a bit more of a delicacy.
How are the German, Dutch, and British audiences different from those in the US?
I think the American culture of songwriting is in vast contrast to that of Germany and Holland. They love this music. People react really strongly; it’s an inspiring experience. It causes quick, almost exponential growth in a lot of places without [the use of] conventional things to grow a fan base or following.
London is different. The first time I went to London was 2006. There was a small club full of people for my first gig there. I think they found me on Myspace, and through the grapevine from Los Angeles. Around the time that I lived in L.A., there was a real community of singer songwriters coming up and a lot of cross pollination of audiences. Everywhere else there’s been small pockets of fans, three or four people, who are super-enthusiastic about the music and have gone and told their friends about it, and they told their friends.
Is gigging overseas an experience you would recommend to other young singer songwriters?
People definitely hold art in high regard, generally speaking, in Western Europe. It’s a different story in a lot of ways from touring in America, where I’m sure they’ve experienced either playing to a room with very few people in it, or a room full of people that are totally unenthusiastic. There’s no guarantee you’re not going to experience that once or twice over there, but by and large, people are so enthusiastic. It can be a real inspiration.
What is your songwriting process like?
Up until recently, that was a pretty simple question to answer. Prior to Letters from the Lost, and the preceding EP, Of the Woods, I almost always started with an idea of something I wanted to write a song about—a story, concept, or emotion. I started with a lyric or a phrase, and built a song around it.
In the past, my favorite songs were kind of just a stream of consciousness. The words and music happened simultaneously, and five minutes later, the whole thing is done. When that happens, it’s kind of a miracle. You are writing every day in order for that to happen one out of 100 days.
I went into the creation of these [my latest] songs without any expectations. I wanted to write songs that uncovered some new facets of my music vocabulary. I started with a rhythmic motif, drum pattern, loop, or riff, and built the song out of there. When I started to feel something that was resonant I would start singing over it—just kind of phonetic nonsense, and record that, and give it a little bit of time. The only stipulation was that I would give myself a day for each song, to write and record a demo.
Every day I started from scratch. I wasn’t filtering or editing myself as I went along. Throughout the course of the day, as the song would develop, the story that the melody was trying to tell would slowly reveal itself to me, which was a real cool, mystical kind of experience because I didn’t know what I was talking about when I started. I was able to tap into some more candid emotions and emotional snapshots of stuff that had kind of embedded itself into my consciousness.
How did having your own studio affect the process?
It was something I had kind of dreamed of. I loved the time I spent in Los Angeles. I wrote some songs and made some records that I think I’ll always be proud of, but I had a different approach. You’ve got to keep your voice down because you’ve got neighbors next to you, and above you, and you know that somebody is listening somewhere, and that affects you. So I kind of dreamed of having a laboratory, or playground.
As much as I am proud of the records that came before this one—The Things You Think You Need (2008) and Diamonds and Blood (2011)—I didn’t have a lot of time or opportunity to explore. I came into those records with the songs, and we got together in a room and it happened. I didn’t have a chance to geek out on guitar or mandolin, and find the little complementary parts that were in my head and get them on the record. It is kind of cathartic and therapeutic to explore that space and gain confidence in my abilities as a producer and as a musician, and to have the satisfaction of having the record sound just like the songs did when I imagined them. That was unique to the experience of being able to play around and make music and not be on the clock.
Was all the recording done in your Vermont studio?
In January and February 2012 I was recording in my studio, and then in March I started collaborating on the mix process with Bill Lefler in Los Angeles. I pulled out four songs from the collection of 30 or so that I’d written in that time period. That became the EP Of the Woods, which came out in May last year. Bill produces a lot of pop leaning stuff, which is a real departure for me. Most of my stuff has leaned toward roots and Americana, but we found some common language. We recorded basic tracks and brought in a couple Los Angeles based musicians.
You’ve done three EPs now, what is it you like about that format?
Sometimes the writing happens in smaller clusters of four or five songs, or the opportunity presents itself to record in a spectacular location (see All the Stars in Copenhagen), but for a limited period of time. I try to get the music out there while I’m still excited about it. I want to be sincere in my performances and in the promotion of material. Also, I really enjoy the format. It suits shorter road trips and dwindling attention spans nicely.
Why does the EP Of the Woods contain demo versions of some songs?
I thought it would give nice insight into the development of the songs. I also like the idea of giving fans as much value as possible for their dollar. I think we will include at least a few original demos along with the iTunes package for Letters from the Lost.
What are your tour plans in support of Letters from the Lost?
There will be a handful of headline shows in May, pretty close to the release. There will be additional shows and a handful of festivals throughout the summer. I plan to do a more comprehensive headline tour in the fall in the US, and probably Holland, Germany, and the UK in September as well.
What other types of projects are you working on?
I’m producing some younger artists who are just getting started. I love collaboration. I think of music being this connective force.
I’ve also been doing work for advertisements—a bunch of commercials for the new Aleve campaign. Creatively that’s a huge departure for me. It is really fun because it broadens my palette of sounds and textures. It’s a learning experience. As a solo artist, you have to work hard to keep it fresh and exciting, and to feel like you are making progress and learning and broadening your horizons.
IM: What advice do you have for young indie singer songwriters?
Nash: The most valuable lessons I’ve learned are that you should surround yourself with people who truly inspire you. And ?you should always tell the truth, especially in the art you make.