Now he's heading to Nashville, to AmericanaFest, and before then he's taking some Australian artists on a short tour called The Road to AmericanaFest. When I say it was an honour to talk to Nicholson about the tour, AmericanaFest, his work as a producer, and his latest album, Hell Breaks Loose, I am understating the case. Thank goodness he turned out to be as smart and interesting as I'd always hoped. The Road to AmericanaFest tour dates are:
Thursday 1st September - Suttons House of Music, Ballarat
Friday 2nd September - Baha, Rye
Saturday 3rd September - The Caravan Music Club, Melbourne
What does the term ‘Americana’ signify for you?
I consider it to be a catch-all phrase, like a big umbrella term that covers so many different forms of country music – but not just country music. Roots music, folk music, bits of rock ’n’ roll. It’s this kind of weird melting pot of stuff. It’s been around for a very long time but it’s obviously becoming a bit more known as a genre, I guess, and that catchphrase, that term. Which is a bit weird for us in Australia because it makes us think of the music as being American. But it’s not so much – we used to call it ‘alternative country’ but alternative country really to me is a subgenre of Americana. It’s kind of what these people who are fringe dwellers on the country scene are doing – they’re using a bit of rock and old blues and folk and all these different kind of influences in their music. But I certainly don’t see that there’s anything new. Neil Young was doing it in the ’70s, so it’s been around for a long time.
My next question was going to be, ‘In Australia, how do we define it?’ And I think it has been called ‘alt country’ but I’ve certainly seen the label being used more for Australian country music than it used to be.
There’s a real burgeoning alt-country scene in Australia which has always been bubbling along underneath but now that it’s been recognised at the Golden Guitar awards with its own category, the introduction of Lost Highway – the label that I’m working with, which is pretty much a boutique label whose whole mission statement is to try to recreate the feel of what the American Lost Highway label did, which was really hugely instrumental in the careers of people like Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams who really have pushed alternative country largely into the mainstream, certainly in American and also internationally. So I think there’s a push now – there’s a bit of a groundswell and a push for this kind of music and people are still gravitating towards it.
There’s a lot of country-folk-blues-rock music to be made in this country that hasn’t always had a home and I think that’s what’s good now: it’s getting to that point where a community is forming of people and artists who kind of know each other and get along really well and tour together, and that’s largely what this show’s all about that we’re starting, with the Road to Americanafest, which is going to become a bigger thing eventually. This is the lead-up to us going to Nashville for the Americana Festival but I want to turn it into the alt-country Americana roadshow and travel with it around the country, and show that there’s that melting pot of artists. That’s why I’ve got six people on the bill – the whole idea is that it’s seen as a community and people working together and playing, which is largely what they do in the States. All of our idols do that – they’ve all sung together and toured together and done all sorts of things where they cross-pollinate with each other, and that’s what I want to push in this country a bit more.
Certainly I’ve seen at Tamworth those shows at the Tudor Hotel upstairs, the late night alt country – it was really interesting to see that community coalescing. And part of what’s so great about Australian country music and the communities within it is that there’s so much respect for other sectors of country music, so those influences are there to drawn on and they’re also really respected by younger artists who respect older artists, so I think it means you can get all these different types of people involved and all these great sounds – and it sounds like that’s what you’re working towards.
Totally – and it’s got this outsider feel to it for a lot of the artists and I think they enjoy that in a way. And I don’t mean outside the industry, I mean outside other industry circles, and it’s a group of people who are like-minded and love the same music. I think it’s interesting that the public, listeners, music lovers are discovering music that they love and they didn’t know what it was called, they didn’t know what alt country was or Americana music was. But it’s always been here, you know – we’ve always been listening to American music. Slim Dustry was a really great interpreter of Jimmie Rodgers. It all comes from somewhere. So we’ve been listening to American music for a long time, and if you want to put a finer point on it, it’s actually Irish music in the first place.
I really get bored of the argument or the deciding about delineating between Australian and American, because music is one of the two universal languages, the other being mathematics, and I don’t know anything about mathematics. The thing about music is that if it’s the universal language, then I don’t really care where it comes from, who plays it – it’s all there on the table and it’s all for the taking, so use anything and everything to make the music you want to make. We do have to give it names to differentiate between it, but maybe less now – there’s not really physical record stores any more where you need to go in and find the pop section or the classical section. I guess you just look up the sections on your phone now, on iTunes or whatever, so we still need categories so people know where to go to find something they want to hear. But beyond that I think labels are a bit pointless, really.
Just listening to you talking about mathematics and music – I think there is some science now that proves that people who are great at music tend to be great at maths, so you may know more about maths than you think.
[Laughs] Well, it hasn’t presented itself to me yet.
That degree in pure mathematics awaits you.
Yeah, awesome, that sounds boring. I don’t think I can do that [laughs].
You can look at the numbers on the mixing desk, maybe. Speaking of which: you’re the house producer for Lost Highway Australia, so I’m wondering how conscious you are of shaping current and future sounds in Australian music. I think you’re in a unique position as a songwriter, performer and doing this much producing for one label. Are you thinking of that when you’re producing – that you’re shaping the future?
Not really. Not on such a grand scale. What I’m really doing when I’m producing is thinking about what sort of album they want to make and is that what we’re achieving. Every record essentially is about what that artist is trying to achieve and steering them down that path and around the obstacles and trying to make that come to fruition. I don’t produce everything for Lost Highway either – artists are able to use other producers. Most of my work is separate to the label, but it’s still because of that. People still come to me because there’s a certain sound they’re after or judging on records of mine that I’ve made in the past or for someone else – they become your business cards. [Those artists] come to you for a certain reason. I don’t get pop artists coming to me wanting to do a Top 40 song – nobody’s got an idea that that’s what I do because I’ve never done anything like that. So the people who come to me are generally more in my vein or the Lost Highway vein, and I think by virtue of that there is a knock-on effect producing a lot of those artists where it does become a bit of a group. Interestingly I don’t really think about it in those grand terms, I guess – it’s just about every record to me. As long they’re really great and I’m super pumped about how great they are, that’s as far as I think about it.
If you are concentrating with every project you have, that becomes an aggregated whole which is a great cultural contribution, at least from my perspective. But just back to what you said about pop – I’d argue that on your first two solo albums you showed extremely good pop sensibilities.
I guess it was a bit more pop back in those days [laughs].
You can write a catchy tune – it’s nothing to be underestimated!
No, no, and I loved doing that. There’s still large elements of those records in what I do now. The people you grow up listening to are always the people who come out in your work and you end up using all those influences as you get older. But obviously it changes over time. I find that the latest record [Hell Breaks Loose] is the first record that’s tying those earlier ones to the more recent records. It’s actually got elements of every record I’ve ever made on it. That wasn’t intentional at all but it certainly seems to have done that, from my perspective as a writer.
As someone who’s listened to your albums many, many times, I’d agree with that.
Cool. It just seemed to be that. It wasn’t till it was finished and I had some distance from it that it occurred to me that it references little bit of everything – It’s a Movie, Faith & Science, all that old stuff, but then kind of incorporates all the different shades of country I’ve tried in the meantime. It was a nice surprise, when I’d finished it, to realise that.
One question I’ll ask about this album before I go on to ask about AmericanaFest is whether you’ve been back to Hermannsburg?
I haven’t. I’m going back in a couple of months to play a show out there with Warren Williams – a big outdoor festival show, I think in the historical precinct. And I want to feel a whole bunch of doco footage and retrace my steps from my last trip out there. It was just a trip at the time that I didn’t realise how pivotal it would be until later. It would be kind of cool to go back and retrace my steps and have a keepsake of it. Try to drag a filmmaker along with me, and play a show, which I think will be pretty special.
You’ll probably get a lot of people. I interviewed Warren a while ago and I remember him saying that if you put on a show in those parts of Australia, so many people come because they’re so keen to hear music.
And they love their country music out there. Here’s a really quick story: when I was walking through Hermannsburg one day on my own, having a stroll, I heard music but it didn’t sound like a record. I thought, That sounds like a band playing. I followed the sound and walked into this corrugated shed with a dirt floor and there’s three guys jamming [with] this broken drum kit and this bass guitar with two strings, they just had the shittiest equipment but they were going for it and loving it. It was awesome. I sat there and watched them play for a little while. It was really cool.
That sounds like it will be an amazing show and experience – and also good for you to return, just going on what the song is like on your album and what the place meant to you.
Basically, it was more having the perspective for a little while and going away from your bubble. I wasn’t going to write. It was the one time I’d got on an aeroplane without an instrument. It was weird getting on a plane without an instrument. The plan was not to play music at all because I’d been recording so much in the studio and I was a bit all musicked out. But I guess that’s why and how it happens. On my first day there I sat down outside this church and started writing ‘Hell Breaks Loose’, ironically, steps of the church. And then I had to go and find a guitar off a local – I had to get Warren to find somebody who had a guitar so I could keep writing that week. So it’s just the way it works – nothing ever goes to plan.
You created the vacuum and nature rushed to fill it, I guess would be the physics way to put it.
That’s a good way to put it.
Now, to this tour: you’re heading off with Lachlan Bryan, Gretta Ziller, the Weeping Willows and Andrew Swift. Mr Bryan has been known to wear a three-piece suit on stage – will you be joining him?
[Laughs] Absolutely not. If I wanted to wear a suit, I wouldn’t be a musician [laughs]. It’s just not comfortable enough for me. These days I will wear a bit snappier jacket or that kind of thing. But, you know, I’m a musician and I’m quite happy wearing my jeans forever. That’s getting dressed up for me anyway. Right now, I’m working in the studio today and I’m still in pyjamas, because that’s what I love about doing what I do: I don’t ever have to get dressed.
You could probably wear pyjamas on stage and it would be a fashion statement.
[Laughs] Maybe so. I don’t know that I’ll go that far. But I’ll leave the suit to Lachlan because I get too claustrophobic and can’t sing in a suit. If I was an accountant, maybe I’d wear a suit.
Well, he can wear suits for both of you. I presume you chose this line-up for the tour?
I did. Because this is a Victorian one, I wanted to choose some of my favourite Victorian artists who are working consistently in this world, in this genre, in Americana/alt country. And I’ve played with all of them before. I took the Weeping Willows on my Victorian Hell Breaks Loose launch tour and I’ve done some shows with Swifty as well. And obviously Lachlan over the years. It was a really nice group to put together, all being fairly local to Melbourne. Then the idea is that I’ll move it to another city at another time. I’ll do a Sydney one and have Sydney- or New South Wales-based musicians come and do it. Then one in Brisbane. That’s the whole idea: move it around eventually. This one in particular is just the three shows down there. They’re some good people who are really good to hang out with on the road, and I thought it would musically be a pretty fun night.
And also quite a good balance of acts, because the Weeping Willows are traditional country, Gretta has her very distinctive and fantastic thing going on – and every time I think of Lachlan I think of Alfred Lord Tennyson and The Highwayman.
He’s probably cool with that.
He’s got that every-song’s-a-novel thing going on.
Yes. He’s a very intelligent bloke too. And he’s been around a long time – he’s been something of an alt-country stalwart. He’s made a mark. I once presented him and The Wildes with Alt Country Album of the Year at the Golden Guitars. So they’ve kicked a lot of goals in the past. So I think it’s a pretty good line-up and it’ll be special night, really. And there will be guests and other musicians – it’ll be a bit of fun. In the future we’re going to expand it and have American barbecue food – make it a travelling road show.
To conclude I’ll ask you about AmericanaFest in Nashville. You’re going over there to play. It’s a big industry as well as fan experience – once you’ve done your shows, or in between shows, will you be a fan or industry focused or both?
I’ll be both and mostly a fan. I’ve got a few different things I have to do over there. Just one showcase but a few other performances. It’s a gathering once a year when all of my entire record collection descend on the same city for a week, so it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself. You never get to see all the shows you want to see or see all the people you want to see – and also a lot of Australian friends living in Nashville. There’s so much to do in that way. I’ve done this festival twice before and I love it, I really love it. It’s got an incredible vibe and I’ve never done a music week festival anywhere in the world that’s anything like it. It’s always exciting to be there.
Hell Breaks Loose is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal.
AmericanaFest in Nashville runs from 20 to 25 September 2016.
AmericanaFest in Nashville runs from 20 to 25 September 2016.