After more than two decades of songwriting, Kevin Nolan‘s work lives largely in an intriguing world of self-examination.
Taking his leads from Nick Cave and Lou Reed, Nolan ponders and layers his tracks with meaning, producing much of his content entirely off his own back. In the process, he became the subject of a documentary by RTE.
Recently released second album ‘Let’s All Get Nervous’ was five years in the making. I asked Kevin to talk me through it…
First of all, congrats on the new album. They seem to be few and far between for you – does that make releasing one the culmination of years and years of work?
Yes, years and years of work, and months and weeks and days and hours and minutes and moments, as Leonard says, ‘thought by thought’.
Can you tell me how, from your perspective, this record compares to your previous work?
I would hope I have raised the bar somewhat with this new one. My debut ‘Fredrick & The Golden Dawn’ had a lot of rules and I freed myself of these rules on ‘Let’s All Get Nervous’. For example, when working on Fredrick, I purposely refrained from using any effects except reverb and a distortion sound which I created myself. During those days, occasionally my live musicians would ask me why don’t you use any effects, and I would always reply the same: that’s for the next album. Sure enough on LAGN I explore, albeit tentatively, the world of effected sound. Check out ‘Human Story (stet)’ featuring Mik Pyro on lead guitar.
All the songs on Fredrick were piano-based fictions, whereas for this new album the electric guitar is at the centre of the songwriting and the songs are my first forays into the confessional form. A lot of the songs on ‘Let’s All Get Nervous’ were conceptually written and for most of them, I jettisoned the metronome altogether in favour of an organic rhythm.
There are many many other differences besides, not least of all that I invited Mik Pyro (Republic of Loose), Vyvienne Long and Alabaster DePlume to add their expression to the album. And also after a project exhibited in the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “A Vague Anxiety” in which I collaborated with Susanne Wawra, I asked Susanne to join me on this album. Making ‘Let’s All Get Nervous’ was an entirely new experience for me.
How does it feel to release a record into this kind of environment? I guess the title, ‘Let’s All Get Nervous’, seems strangely appropriate right now!
There is no time in which that title would be inappropriate. We’re all in this thing called existence which is pretty nerve-racking even at the best of times. And hopefully, my title invites us all to celebrate this fact together rather than be destroyed by it in isolation.
You were the subject of an RTE documentary recently. What do you make of that experience, and how it portrayed you?
It was no small experience. The director Nathan Fagan and team of ‘HUM’ were extremely respectful and I think they did a great job. Certainly, the festivals and awards reflected that. I played the Musee de Beaux Arts in Montreal just after Leonard Cohen died, and the whole place was in bloom with odes and homages to the great man from street graffiti to skyscrapers adorned with his image. That film led all to a table in Salt Lake City on a stage in front of an audience conversing with the district attorney of Utah. So as I say, no small experience.
You seem to take on almost all the roles on your own work. Is that kind of artistic control simply part of the process for you?
It’s an amalgamation of a lot of things which in retrospect now have become features of my process. Musicians, producers, studios, gigs, engineers, all these things have always been beyond my means. So when I started becoming earnest about making music around 2006, I think I must have understood on one level or another that I was going to have to do everything myself.
Can you tell me the stories behind a couple of the tracks on the new record?
In the liner-text of the physical version of the album, there is an accompanying note to each of the lyrics. ‘The Dead-Beat’, takes its name from a poem by Wilfred Owen and themes like glorification, the end of language, the impossibility of realism, freedom, the fiction of consciousness, and many more besides, all explored through a number of archetypes. But in a way that’s beside the fact, these are conduits used to get closer to the core subject matter which in essence is deeply personal, hard-earned self mining.
The album follows a timeline with ‘The Frozen Present’ at the apex representing a present moment. All the songs before it are past and all after are future, culminating in a 10-minute torch song called The Coming Of complete Night.
Given the break between records, do you worry about holding onto your audiences?
Like every artist, I worry very much about holding on to my audiences. However, I would wish for an audience whose sensibility is not too far from my own. Because as a listener and a lover of music myself, I feel there are so many artists who have songs that I absolutely love, these artists have put out lots and lots, and lots of albums since, but I still go back to that one song by them, you know what I mean? I would hope my music could achieve this sort of intimacy with a listener, too. I think that’s when art is at its best.
What are you spending your time on whilst under lockdown? Is there much music involved?
Well, I’ve just been gifted a custom made guitar made by Irish master luthier Chris Larkin who I am told supplied the instruments for U2. It is a beautifully crafted axe with which I will hack away at the new ideas for my next album.
What are your hopes for the future?
Ultimately I would hope to get signed in some capacity and really get my foot solidly into this world, so I can finally get down to business surpassing all past laurels.