Maybe it’s something in those icy North Atlantic waters. Two of this young year’s finest, most quietly intriguing records have come from a couple twenty-something artists approaching what you might broadly call American musical traditions – folk, country, blues, indie rock, etc. – with a contemplative, slyly curious outsider perspective and from unexpected corners of the Anglophone world.
From Ireland, Dublin-bred guitar whiz Cian Nugent, who made his first decisive foray into singer-songwriterdom with January’s Night Fiction (Woodsist); from Nova Scotia, folk-rocksy Haligonian quartet Nap Eyes, the brainchild of biochemist-by-day Nigel Chapman, whose playful, poetic musings on February’s sophomore outing Thought Rock Fish Scale (Paradise of Bachelors) strike a balance between casual and considered. I caught up with Nugent and Chapman, in their respective maritime hometowns, in advance of a joint American tour which brings them to the Boot and Saddle on Thursday.
On record, Chapman comes off as hyper-articulate and self-consciously cerebral, very much a words-first sort of songwriter – he was, indeed, delightfully chatty and effusive in our conversation – and Nugent as a man of fewer, cautiously chosen words; a patient instrumentalist equally comfortable letting space and silence (and his nimble fingers) speak on his behalf. But both described similarly gradual, even painful processes of finding their voices. When Chapman first picked up the guitar in his teens, he says, “I felt like I certainly couldn’t sing and also certainly couldn’t write songs” – but he made a conscious determination that the latter was the “more important” goal; a decision whose pay-off is now gloriously evident.
Nugent, likewise, recalls that “when I started singing, at a young age, I was like ‘Augh! I don’t like the sound of that!’” As an instrumentalist, he progressed from learning Green Day covers in his preteen bass lessons to self-schooling his way into the ranks of this century’s finest “American Primitive” fingerstyle guitarists, alongside folks like Daniel Bachman, William Tyler and Jessica Pratt (all past tourmates; all of whom he says are “hilarious.”) Still, “singing was something I wanted to do for a long time but I hadn’t figured out the right way to do it.” His solution, for quite a while, was simply not to. His first two full-lengths are almost entirely instrumental, each comprising two or three expansive, shape-shifting pieces which begin squarely in acoustic, Primitivist mode before broadening outward toward heavier psych-rock riffage and/or layered, symphonic zone-outs you might call “chamber drone.” (His usual backing band, the Cosmos, features viola and fluegelhorn, although the line-up for this tour is pared down to a bass/drums trio.)
While Night Fiction encompasses all of the aforementioned styles – there’s a dazzling solo acoustic number, “Lucy,” and a twelve-minute closer, “Year of the Snake,” that slow-builds into a chugging, Krauty rave-up – the bulk of the album is more restrained and song-oriented than anything he’s previously attempted. His craggy but hardly disagreeable tenor first appears on pace-setter “Lost Your Way,” a laid-back, bluesy shimmer reminiscent of recent vocal ventures by Ryley Walker and Steve Gunn – both Nugent pals whose fans should definitely take notice here.
Despite the album’s range, it all seems to stem from the same place. Nugent concurs: “I was trying to bring in the different elements of the different things that I do and get them to sit together naturally.” (His numerous projects also include punky Dublin power-poppers The Number Ones and scrappy folk-rock outfit The Cryboys, which both provided opportunities to “test the waters” for the singing and songwriting he’s now unleashed under his own name.) Though he’s “happy with how [this album] turned out,” he’s already looking forward to refining his “amalgamation” next time around – “layering the guitars a bit more, [having] more unusual arrangements, loosening things up…” – but he definitely plans on “going with the singing more. Now that I’ve done it this much, I’m excited to go forward with it.”
If Nugent’s work is teeming with musical ideas, Nap Eyes stick with a comparatively consistent, straight-ahead sound – clean, tuneful, generally low-key guitar rock that nods to both ‘60s folk-rock and ‘90s indie without being especially overt about it – as the vehicle for an impressively dense proliferation of lyrical ideas. Chapman, it’s clear from the album but even clearer in conversation, has a witty, perceptive and continuously active brain. He’s given to spontaneous but resonant turns of phrase, reflecting on the sometimes evasive distinction “between trying to follow your dream and living in a dream,” and offering a Ecclesiastean image likening the complementary phases of his writing process to “sowing the seed, harvesting, and then eating, enjoying your harvest.”
Or take his explanation of the whimsical, multivalent layers of meaning in his band’s new word-salad album title: it combines his parents’ meditation spot at their shoreside cottage (the “thought rock”), which could also be ”a joke name for a music genre” – actually, an exceptionally apt one for this band – with “a pretty cool and iridescent phenomenon in nature” that’s also a (dorky) musical pun (but not, at least intentionally, a cocaine/Ghostface reference.) Asked whether he himself meditates – the topic also comes up in the album’s catchy, endearingly self-aware opener, “Mixer” – Chapman demurs, launching into a nuanced and rather handwringing discursus on personal authenticity, perfectionism and ego that echoes his Zenlike lyrical grapplings in songs like “Don’t Be Right” and “No Man Needs To Care.” Still, his description of his typical, intuitive songwriting process – circumventing conscious inhibitions by “strumming basic chords… focusing on that and being distracted by the movement of my arms and the rhythm of the guitar, then having some words with some melody flow out” – sounds quite intrinsically meditative.
Nugent, meanwhile, is cagier when the subject of spirituality comes up – “some things tied up with that feel very true to me, and others don’t” – though it’s one readily invited by both his music (not for nothing is his band called The Cosmos) and Night Fiction‘s deeply ruminative lyrics, most of which he wrote in the dreamy late-night “sleep-deprived” state that inspired the title. But he acknowledges the inevitable, undeniable influence of his countryman, the great mystic Van Morrison, and allows: “I am interested in that kind of indefinable harmony that can happen – whether you call it spirituality, or whatever you call it – it’s something that can really blow you away, and is really inspiring for me.”
Despite a strong mutual admiration (Chapman calls Nugent “a crazy musician; he’s so good,” while Nugent “listened to [Nap Eyes’ first] album more than anything else last year”), their team-up for this month’s American invasion will be the two artists’ first time meeting in person. Next Thursday will also be Nap Eyes’ first real visit to Philly. Nugent, however (whose last album was released on Philly-based No Quarter records) has some experience here: “I’ve always ended up with a nasty hangover after being in Philadelphia” he laughs – “which can only be a good thing.”
Nap Eyes and Cian Nugent perform at Boot and Saddle on Thursday, March 10th with Zachary Devereaux Fairbrother of Lantern. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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