Perhaps more than any other artist in the 2013 Bunbury lineup, Jay Nash is a classic troubadour. He’s got delicate acoustic guitar stylings and a soothing voice. On top of that, he has a stable of songs rich with melody and deep with character, narrative, and meaning. To get these songs noticed, Nash has been on the road constantly over the last few years. A few years ago, he moved from Los Angeles to Vermont and built his own studio, where he had the freedom to write and record his most recent album, Letters from the Lost.
Nash talked with me about how the new album came together, his early days in music, and the kinds of news stories that influence his songs. He’ll be playing Bunbury on Friday, July 12th at 7:45pm on the Cincinnatus Stage.
Eachnotesecure.com is contributing to CincyMusic.com to help preview artists performing at the Bunbury Music Festival. John Crowell began writing for Each Note Secure in 2009. He writes interviews and live reviews. Because he likes things that are weird for the sake of being weird, he is Each Note Secure’s resident aggressively unpleasant music enthusiast. When not on the internet, John enjoys drinking banana daiquiris.
Can you tell me about how Letters from the Lost came together?
On this record, I took a much different approach than I had on previous records. I ended up writing and recording pretty much at the same time. After a busy season, well actually a busy year, of touring, I set aside a couple months of free time to explore new creative directions in the home studio I built up in Vermont, where I live. Rather than going in with a set of stories I wanted to tell or individual concepts I wanted to write about, I kind of went in with a blank slate. The recording process was merged with the writing process.
Most of the time I would start with a musical motif, whether it was a bass line or a riff on the mandolin or guitar. I would go through the song with that, trying to find harmonic and rhythmic resonance first, then building it up. As the song would build up in the recording it would reveal what it was saying lyrically, if that makes any sense.
It was kind of a mad scientist approach to writing songs. I kind of constructed all the parts myself and built it from the ground up. Taking a day to write and record a song, I did that for a couple months until I had [. . .] what I thought was a cohesive batch of songs thematically.
Are your songs based on specific events, or do they stem from larger, more abstract ideas.
In the past, for the most part, songs were based on specific events. I used a little more stream-of-consciousness on this record. In a lot of cases I didn’t know what a song was about until I finished writing it. In other cases, like “The Art Thief,” there's a specific story. It’s a summary of a story I saw on the news in the San Francisco area. A guy named Mark Lugo stole a Picasso drawing off the wall of an art gallery in San Francisco. He took a cab to an art gallery and literally had a cab wait for him while he went upstairs and casually took this Picasso drawing off the wall. He downstairs and had the cab take him out to Napa Valley, to wine country.
He really believed he had done nothing wrong because he didn't believe in ownership of art. But I didn't realize I was writing about that specific story until after the chorus was done. Sometimes the melodies relate to specific lyrics, and sometimes there’s a little bit of black magic involved in letting the truth of the song reveal itself to you.
How old were you when you got into music?
In high school, I was the kid who played in all the musical outlets possible [. . .] I had a band. In college I played casually – I studied engineering. After I finished college, I decided music felt a lot more natural to me than engineering. I’ve done it with varying degrees of professionalism since then. Music has always been a part of my life.
How did your parents feel about you pursuing music rather than engineering?
[Laughs] My mom has always been a “Follow your dreams!” kind of a lady. My dad was a little more reluctant I think just because he was worried I was setting myself up for a lifetime of squalor. So they were a little hesitant at first. Of course, I didn't know anything about setting up to make music your livelihood. There’s a lot of distance involved. It takes time . . . I moved to New York after college. It was just sheer will. I started out playing on a subway platform.
I understand you’ve been on the road a lot since then?
2008 and 2009 were really busy years. I probably played close to 200 shows each of those years. I made a couple laps around the United States. I kind of considered those years as planting the seeds. I moved to Vermont in 2010 from Los Angeles, so I’ve scaled it back a bit. So maybe I do 75 shows a year now. I think touring will always be a big part of it, but I figured out it doesn’t make sense to play a show more than once or twice a year in most cases, otherwise you’re just oversaturating the market.
What’s it like being on the road so much?
In some ways it’s a real joy because every night you’re doing the thing that you love most. These songs were written in relative isolation. It’s pretty exciting to take them out and see people connect with them. On the other hand it can be hard sometimes. I think I speak for many artists and musicians throughout the world – I’m a bit of a road warrior. You suck it up and trudge on. You get sleep when you can get it. It’s kind of the greatest life in the world, all things considered.
What kind of person is a Jay Nash fan?
It’s a pretty wide in terms of demographics and ages, actually. I think the people who end up being “superfans,” there are some similarities: people who are really focused . . . I hate to use the term, but “music geeks.” But there’s a wide variety. Ages range from late teens all the way up to early 60’s. There’s some musical correlation, I think, to the music Baby Boomers listened to in their formative years. I think the Americana element tends to be popular right now.
I’d like to say it was a “scene,” but I think there’s something in there for everybody.
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