John Nolan interview


I was lucky enough to sit down with John Nolan at Straylight Run’s tour stop in Austin on the Mile After Mile Tour. It just so happened to be the same day as Nolan’s solo release, Height, on Doghouse Records. We talked about his recent release, upcoming Straylight Run plans and how he has grown as a musician over the course of his career.

Big day today,
how has the response been?

I look at the responses on my different [social networking] sites. I always feel like you get a positive feedback from the people looking at your Twitter page every day. [Laughs] I don’t know how it’s going outside [of those sites], but it seems good.

Is it overwhelming in any way, with all the projects you’ve done, to be out there on your own?

It’s not overwhelming at all actually. It’s kind of the opposite. I’m really psyched that the album came out today, but I’m not really thinking about anything other than it’s out. I’m just glad that it’s out. I think with the past, dealing with larger labels – being more conscious of record sales in the past – it was much more overwhelming thinking about that stuff when an album came out. It doesn’t matter at all now with this one. So it’s just nice to have something out there that got made and got put out. It really doesn’t matter that much at all with how much it sells. I think it’ll be fine. That was always the one thing I freaked out about, and it was stupid. I always try not to. Now I just don’t think about it.

Why would you not freak out now?

I never wanted it to matter. Now it really doesn’t matter for some reason. I always tried to make it matter. Now it just doesn’t. I don’t really know why.

When you first started asking fans to submit song ideas, what was the initial response? Was it a gradual growth, or a rapid response?

It was a lot at once. It was actually really quick. It was really surprising. When I posted it on MySpace initially [before it went up on any other site], two days later – I forget now – a lot of e-mails. Two hundred e-mails? Something like that, I don’t remember. It was a lot more than I thought really quickly. Then I had to say to people that I wasn’t going to be able to hear much after [the initial bulk of e-mails]. I was only going to be able to spend time listening through those first e-mails, looking for something that caught my attention. That was going to take weeks. It was a pretty quick response. It was crazy.

Were they full songs or mostly samples? Was their a range of the two types?

It ranged – the songs that I chose. “The Bering Sea” one I remember. I edited down this long piece of music that was sent to me and added a little bit of instrumentation, but not much. Then I added vocals…The one that ended up on the album [“Not to Let Go”], I actually took a loop of what he did and added my own new guitar chords over it. He did this melody and this beat that I just could repeat and just change chords underneath it to make it sound like something new was happening, even though it was just the same loop. I based everything around his loop. I added all this stuff around it, but the sound of it stayed in tact of what he sent – this very subtle feel. [The length of the submissions] was different for every song.

Why did you take on this task? Was it writer’s block, or more of attempting a new way of collaborative song writing?

The initial thought was that I was going on tour and the album was not coming out as soon as I had been planning for it to come out in September initially, early September. So the plan was to do just a little bit of touring leading into it, then being on tour when it came out and then that was not working out. The music wasn’t going to get out there longer than I had hoped. I just figured, in the meantime, it would be a cool project just to put some songs out there. It was also sort of a challenge to myself. I can take a long time sometimes working on songs, and I kind of wanted to challenge myself just to do this as quickly as possible, just to see what happens. It was kind of an experiment really. Just something to do until the album came out.

Besides the submitted music, what other things influenced you with writing Height? Why did you choose Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” as a cover song for the album?

I’m sure there was music that influenced me on the record, but the big thing was getting back to a certain attitude in making music. That was the whole idea for this project was to get back to this attitude of having fun and messing around with ideas. Just to get back with the feeling I had when I was 19-20, recording songs on my four track. When I was doing it at that point, I had no aspirations for what those songs could mean to people, or where it could get me and wanting what people would think of it. [It was about] enjoying it, and to help me get something off my chest in a way with those songs. I just enjoyed it so much. It does get hard after awhile. It’s so easy to get get caught up in how people are going to respond to what you do and what you want to do and what you want to put out there and what you want represented as your music. It’s really hard for me to get caught up in that. It takes a lot of the fun out of making music. For this, that was just it. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to do something that I liked to listen to basically. To make that something I’d like to hear.

With “Phone Booth,” I just covered that song because I’ve always loved it. It’s a song I wish I had written from the first time I heard it. It’s almost a song I could have written if I was a better songwriter. There’s something about that [song] that felt natural to do. I just enjoyed it. It was fun.

There seems to be a lot more digital instrumentation going on with this album. When I heard you were doing a solo, I thought it would be more stripped down. It surprised me that it came out the way it did.

Like I was saying before, the goal for me was to make it fun and make it interesting to me. Right now, I wasn’t very interested in making a really stripped down acoustic record. Part of the reason I felt it appropriate to make it a solo project is because all the songs are still coming from that intimate, “alone in my room” place. It’s just me, alone in my room, on my computer with the music I’m making, rather than messing around with an acoustic guitar. That’s just what I felt like doing. That seemed interesting and exciting to me right now. I think that at another point, I could do an acoustic record, if that’s the right time. If I was getting excited about that idea, you know? That’s about all it was. It was about what was intriguing to me.

What’s going on with the future of Straylight Run? What comes next after The Mile After Mile Tour?

We’re not really sure. Things are kind of up in the air. We’ve been talking about doing another full length album. We’re going to definitely record the last show of this tour. We’re not sure what we’re going to do with it, or how it will be put out in some way. We’re not sure if we’re going to put out a straight live album, or maybe bonus material for a future album. I don’t know. We’re going to record that and do something with it. We’re talking about doing a full length record at some point. Hopefully in early Spring or really late Winter, but that’s very preliminary.

With the EP’s, were you not ready to do a full length at that point?

Originally we wanted to…we were supposed to do a lot more EP’s in the year that those came out. We wanted to at least do three in a year. We just did not stay on top of it basically. We wanted to put out a full length of material, which if we would have put out one more, it would have been. The original idea was, we would put out a full length album in installments. We just took a little bit too long and just ended up doing seven songs. That was about it. We wanted to try something different. We also weren’t ready to sign with a label and commit to doing another full length right away. We didn’t really know what we wanted to do. It was, in a way, to figure out what we wanted to do musically, and style wise.

With Michelle’s departure, why did you guys opt not to replace here?

It kind of just felt like the right thing to do. It made sense. I think we may have looked at it as a challenge, to make it work with the three of us and see what we could do with it, rather than immediately trying to find someone else to fill our sound out.

Of everything you’ve ever worked on, which album, and if you can even think about it on the spot, which song are you most proud of?

That’s an interesting question.

Sorry to put you on the spot here.

No, not all. It’s an interesting thing to think about that kind of thing very often in my life, not spending time usually thinking about, you know, songs I’ve written five years ago, or longer, I usually don’t think about. The first thing that kind of pops into my head, if I have to say something is that, “For the Best,” the one that comes first to my mind that I’m most proud about. It’s mostly because it was something personal to me that up until that point, I didn’t know what to write about and didn’t even know how to talk about, and felt very happy with myself. It felt really good to get that out there – a song to begin with. Honestly, when I first got done with it, I felt it was going to be a song for just me, that people maybe would like, but not necessarily relate to, or get. Probably more than any other song, I’ve had people come up to me and not only get something out of it, but there’s a real connection over that song. The people that respond to that song that I talk to, respond through it the exact same way I felt when I wrote it. A lot of times, people respond to something, and it’s always great when people get that out of a song, but a lot of times it’s something different than you would have imagined, and that song has always been – the people who respond to it – always get the same thing out of listening to it, that I got out of writing it. That’s a really good feeling. I like that a lot.

What would you have to say about yourself as a song writer through the years?

What do you mean? Looking at it as me, but somehow objective, or someone who is just being introduced to what I’ve done?

Just your reflection as a songwriter.

It’s like the same thing as thinking about what songs I’m the most proud of…I feel like I’ve always grown as a songwriter, the same way I’ve grown as a person in my life. I don’t know what that means to other people, or what other people think I’ve done. It’s hard to say…I don’t know. I feel like I wouldn’t have done what I have done if it wasn’t something I was proud of, or something I thought was better than I did before. I guess what I am saying is that I think I have grown as a songwriter and I’m in a better place than I have been in my life. I’m always going to feel like that. That’s the only way I can do anything. I don’t know if that has any baring on how good I am as a song writer, [Laughs] or how my songs are effecting other people. I don’t think there’s anyway to be objective about it. [Laughs]


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