Singer-songwriter discusses the landscape that created his sound
Over the weekend, Nick Waterhouse performed at the first ever Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival. Along with the previously mentioned beverages and team horseback sport, there was also a small music festival that saw Waterhouse play on the same stage as Macy Gray, LP, and others.
Waterhouse fits in with the mix of genre defying musicians perfectly, as his blending of styles often includes blues, soul, and jazz. He is currently working on his follow up to last year’s Never Twice, as well as a collaborative project with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste. Both albums are set to be finished up this year, and hopefully will be pumping through our ears in early 2018.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Nick Waterhouse to discuss his relationship with California, his background with polo, and his new material.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you are playing the Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Nick Waterhouse: I think it’s gonna be a really cool show. I love that part of the state, and it seemed really interesting to be playing in a new setting there rather than… I’ve done a couple club shows and gigs, but the notion of an outdoor sort of mini-festival seems really cool to me.
CF: Do you have any experience with Polo? If so, can you please explain it to us?
NW: With polo? No [laughs]. I’ve never been around polo before in my entire life. This will be as curious for me as I think many of the attendees, although who knows? Maybe there is a really big polo market in Santa Barbara.
It seems like a very ancient and actually quite dangerous game. From what I understand you are basically playing field hockey, but from eight feet above the ground because you are riding on a living creature.
CF: You’re a Southern California native. How has the landscape of this region shaped your sound?
NW: I don’t think I have any other choice. I think that it’s part of my identity. I was actually just speaking to a friend this week about this because actually over the past five to ten years I’ve been touring a lot, and every time I come back from being out in the world, whether I’m in Nashville or Berlin or New York, when I get home I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m really a Californian.” I actually feel reinforced in my experience, and a lot of people kind of have preconceived notions about me based on my aesthetic I guess, but I really did grow up in just about every aspect of the natural world here, which is what kind of makes California so great.
I grew up sailing to Catalina and surfing at the beach and hiking and mountain climbing and camping in the Sierras and spending holidays in Central California, which is kind of rancher country, and I lived in San Francisco, so I kind of feel like all of that has informed my identity, with California being almost like a microcosm. I think Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson really were aware of that, and I kinda can relate to those types of people more than I can to the slick perception of Hollywood that I think the rest of the world has, which even Hollywood is pretty fascinating and nuanced when you get into it.
I’m sort of a true child of the country here. I have to laugh when I meet somebody from Texas or Tennessee who is like, “Well, we got the real thing here.” Like, “Well man, we got that too.” And for me the culture around that was my dad was a fireman, so that’s kind of being around a lot of working class guys who, like military men or oil workers or whatever, they listen to ostensibly American music like rock and roll. It wasn’t a really arty upbringing, so I think being around a huge Hispanic population, and then also my dad’s co-workers, he worked in Anaheim and Santa Ana, there’s this whole thing, like a rich history of soul and rock and roll, and a lot of that informed probably where my taste came from. But being near L.A. was still being near a vital independent rock and roll scene, and growing up with people in Orange County who kind of informed the contemporary garage rock world, they were all part of my fabric.
CF: You mix a variety of different styles when it comes to your music, from soul to blues to jazz. Can you take us through a bit of your songwriting process?
NW: Well I’m working on a song today actually, before you called me. A lot of it starts with lyrics actually, but sometimes the lyrics don’t have music yet, so I just have cross media like iPhone notes, scraps of paper, receipts, notebooks, word document files. I keep telling my brain I have to choose one format to put everything in, like a master book, but it doesn’t ever work that way. So I have tons of phrases and even structures, full lyrics, fully developed songs, some that are just choruses, but usually it takes my brain almost getting triggered by a phrase, or if I’m playing something on the guitar or piano, suddenly words that I remember fit.
Then I will typically flush out a song through… it could be like a week. You kind of live in the song and you leave it alone. So you can leave it alone and know that it’s 50 percent done and then return to it whenever you feel like it, or if you’re feeling inspired. Around the 70 percent point is when I typically bring it to some players, and sometimes that’s in the studio, like if it coincides with having a session or sometimes it’s a rehearsal or soundcheck, and around then is when I start almost… I’ll give people strategic information. I never reveal it all because I kind of want to see what’ll happen when you let a musician live in your changes. From reading, this is very popular with jazz musicians and a lot of the producers I love from the 50’s and 60’s will do this, where they are like, “Well, so-and-so is a very capable piano player, so if I just give him the changes and the time, I want to see what he comes up with.” And a lot of times that will, again, trigger something else in my brain and maybe you’re starting to like dance with it.
At that point because I tend to play with a lot of people, I’ll have a structure in how I feel I’m gonna deliver it, and then you really start performing it because often times the recording of a song is the recording of a performance that ends up defining the thing that you learn and play for the next two to five to ten years.
There are tunes that I have done charts for with my co-arranger, sort of compatriot, who I grew up with. He wrote two of the songs on my last record with me. When I have more complex stuff, I’ll have to chart it, and also a lot of times that has to do with time and budget because if you give somebody a chart they can come in and do it in 30 minutes, versus the liberty of fooling around with something for a while.
CF: How do you approach preparing for a festival concert like this?
NW: Well, maybe it speaks to my lack of true success, but there is not a lot of difference in my preparation [laughs]. I just try to put together a set that is a little more exciting and less dynamic than a club show would be. So I get rid of the slow stuff, that’s about it.
CF: How did you end up playing this event? Did someone pick up the phone and call you?
NW: They just offered it and they said they were putting together sort of a new and interesting smallish festival around Santa Barbara, and Charles Bradley and LP were in, so I thought it would be great.
Like I said, I love playing in California and fall is sort of just a couple… I’ve been doing some cool regional stuff. As a native, that’s always great for me because it’s like we’re doing this and we’re playing in Palm Springs, and we’re doing a Northern California date too. While I’m working on my new record, this is a great way to get out and get in front of a lot of people without it being a conventional Coachella-esque way.
CF: You released an album, Never Twice, last year and you have one more show planned for this year, which you said, but what’s next? You’ve got a new album you’re working on. Are there any surprises?
NW: Yeah, been writing a lot, and I’m in the groundwork portion of the new record, sort of organizing. It looks like we are going to be cutting it October/November, and lately I’ve been working on this album with Jon Batiste as a producer and a co-writer, and that’s a real thrill. I’m very excited about finishing up. I think we’re mixing that before the end of the year and I’ll be finishing my record before the end of the year too. I have a pretty full autumn and winter.
CF: Playing the blues, jazz, and soul comes with a certain amount of historic understanding. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s society?
NW: I think the voice of the artist right now is much closer to the Medieval Era than it’s ever been [laughs] because we are… The actual voice of the artist is very quiet. I think the conception of entertainment and consumption is at an all-time high. I also think that the pomp and circumstance and self importance of the court in that period of time, sort of represents the industrial aspect of entertainment, meaning not record labels anymore. Everyone is complicit now in the consumption of the kabuki of… It’s almost like, I was reading this book recently about the Russian postmodernism right now, and the guy who works for Putin who created a feeling of like, “Everybody knows that nothing means anything, but then some things mean something.” That’s sort of how I perceive the voice of the artist [laughs]. We’re like a resistance. It’s like being in the underground in occupied France.
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences, but is there one moment that stands out – a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
NW: Thankfully that happens for me a lot in, not mundane moments, but just when you are actually playing music and everybody is working together, I am reminded. I played a show a couple weeks ago and there’s one flash moment, you know, people always want some sort of like theatrical meaningful thing, but if a band is just locked in for eight bars and it feels right, that takes me outside of space and time to like what it was I liked about music when I was first getting turned onto it. When I was 9 or 10 or 14 or 15 or 18 or 19. You kind of dip in and out of non-linear time when you’re getting that.