Nichols for Your Thoughts
Singer-songwriter Jeb Loy Nichols is flattered that many of those who've heard his new CD, Lover's Knot, feel that his writing is poetic. But that doesn't mean he does.
"I don't write poetry; I write lyrics," he says. "And the lyrics that I write are very structurally concerned with being a song. Poets don't usually operate with choruses and instrumental bridges and so on. As such, I would hesitate to call myself or any other pop artist a poet. I'm not opposed to poetry within music, but I am wary of music being passed off as poetry, with anthologies and the like. I think that pop music and poetry have totally different agendas."
Indeed, Nichols's melodies and arrangements cannot be dismissed as musical afterthoughts. His contemplative melding of folk, soul and R&B is self-consciously crafted and thoroughly postmodern. This approach comes naturally to him--although not to the executives at Capitol Records, the company that released the new CD. "Most of the work involved with Lover's Knot was explaining what kind of a record it was," he claims. "I didn't want to make a rock record or a folk record. I wanted a synthesis of many sounds."
Nichols's background helps explain his eclecticism. He was born in Landers, Wyoming, but from the age of seven, he lived in Warrensburg, Missouri. "I grew up listening to bluegrass and folk," he notes. "My father was a complete fanatic when it came to bluegrass, so I became enamored early on with the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, the genre's premier banjo player. We would follow the festival circuit around the states and sell popcorn to fans and performers."
When Nichols came of age, however, he abandoned the nation's heartland, moving first to New York City to attend art school and later to London, a metropolis he's called home for the past fifteen years. During that span, he's been employed in the requisite number of odd vocations: Aside from toiling as a printmaker and installation artist (his drawings and typography adorn his current disc), he says, "I've worked in bookshops and cinemas; I've been a carpenter and a plumber." During the early Eighties, he also performed with the Fellow Travelers, a combo that allowed him to explore different sounds. "By the time I got to New York and London, I was hearing the first waves of urban reggae and hip-hop," he relates. "All of this was stewing about in the back of my head when I decided to make Lover's Knot."
After securing a contract with Capitol, Nichols set out to make the record of his dreams. "Obviously, I wrote the songs over a period of years, and I had a pretty strong idea of what kind of a record I wanted to make--and Capitol was very happy to indulge me," he reports.
Before long, Nichols was in a studio in Woodstock, New York, with engineer Danny Kopelson and producer Craig Street, a veteran of several platters by jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson. According to Nichols, Street helped him secure the services of an impressive roster of sidemen, including Curtis Fowlkes and Roy Nathanson of the Jazz Passengers, Tackhead and Sugarhill Gang bassist Doug Wimbush, and session percussionists Cyro Baptista (Laurie Anderson) and Dougie Bowne (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop), as well as John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood and the members of the blues/soul trio the Holmes Brothers. About Medeski, Nichols says, "I just liked his style, and Craig knew him, so he joined us on many of the tracks. He really got enthusiastic about the project and spent some time with us." He adds, "I was also wanting some horns in the mix, but I wanted to avoid that tight rhythm-section sound you hear in typical R&B bands like Earth, Wind & Fire. I thought jazz musicians would be the solution, and I have been a fan of the Holmes Brothers for years, so when I discovered they were available, I was quite excited."
The Brothers are largely responsible for the New Orleans strut of Lover's Knot ditties such as "Our Good Good Thing (Just Gets Better)" and "Yesterday's a Long Time Ago." But equally provocative are some of the other flavors on the album, such as the bluegrass banjo, organ bass lines and crying harmonicas that accent "Dark Hollow." The recording's dominant theme, meanwhile, is love, a topic that has transfixed composers as disparate as Noel Coward and Janet Jackson. Why is Nichols so obsessed with this issue? "When Jane Austin was asked that same question, she said the only subjects that ever interested her were love and money--and I agree with her," he responds. "I write love songs because love is the one constant that never seems to make sense in life. That's why I do my art, whether it's writing or drawing or making music; it's an attempt to make sense out of love and life's other difficult questions."
Right now Nichols is in the midst of his first American tour--if you don't count his travels with his bluegrass-loving father, that is. He knows that his wide-ranging sound may not be all that easy to market and that he has other options to fall back on if stardom as a musician is not in the cards. But at the present time, he says, "I'm interested in this new job. And I'm very intrigued as to how it will turn out."
Jeb Loy Nichols. 6 p.m. Friday, October 10, Ninth Avenue West, 99 West 9th Avenue, free, 722-1943.
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