For years, I've really fought to dissuade people as categorizing me or thinking of me in singer-songwriter terms," Joshua Novak says. "Not that it's bad. I felt like those people in the '70s who were singer-songwriters, they all had bands. But something happened in the '90s, when the coffee-shop singer-songwriter really stuck in people's heads. So you automatically get put into a box when you say that. I really don't feel that's what I do at all."
While Novak is most certainly a singer and definitely writes his own songs, his new nine-song album, Dead Letters, should clear up any misconceptions about him as an artist. Lush and sparkly, the album represents a brand-new start for Novak, which is what he intended.
"The Love That I Want," for example, is slathered in '70s glam swagger — not all that surprising, actually, considering that David Bowie is one-third of Novak's holy rock trinity, which also includes Michael Jackson and PJ Harvey. And then there's the Brit-poppy "Makeup," which was inspired by a peculiar experience Novak and his friends had while talking with a transsexual at a bar. "She kind of looked like she'd been around the block a few times," Novak recalls. "Every once in a while, she'd have this bizarre flash of wisdom come in. You kind of wanted to instantly characterize this person. It was like a real sense of self-awareness. It was really bizarre. All of us who were there felt the same way."
While many of the songs on Dead Letters are personal, Novak tried to stay away from the first-person perspective. "That's something Bob Dylan did best thirty years ago," he notes. "I definitely tried to write almost from the perspective of these characters, in a way, and not really have it be about me and my broken heart."
Rather than Dylan, Novak looks for inspiration to British musicians, everyone from Harvey to London Suede, Bowie and Radiohead. "There's probably a lot of that unconsciously in my writing," he admits. "I always picture — not on purpose — London and what it looks like when I'm writing. Or this is what it would sound like if I was there."
From the beginning, Dead Letters, a followup to 2004's five-song EP The 5-Day Romance, was a major challenge. "I thought, 'I don't know if this is going to work,'" Novak says. "It kept going through all these weird doors and coming out fine. Changing bandmembers, time and money and a bunch of different things. It's been through a lot." Dead Letters was also Novak's first attempt at a produced and polished album. He brought on producer/engineer Ian Hlatky, who's worked with Born in the Flood, the Swayback and Hello Kavita, and recorded it in analog at Time Capsule Recording Studios and at Woodshed Studios.
"I didn't want it to be decade-specific," says Novak. "I didn't to want to make a '70s record, necessarily, but a lot of my favorite things growing up and stuff, I felt like I totally had that sound." As a kid, Novak loved what his parents were listening to. "We didn't have a lot of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez," he remembers. "We grew up more on the Beatles, Tears for Fears, early Elton John and Michael Jackson. I have absolutely no shame about it. I'm a huge Michael Jackson fan. That was my first absolute love. I feel like it's a cliché, because a lot of people say that.
"All the people we were listening to were great singers. The drama of it: Elton John, Tears for Fears — they had these emotional highs, and I very much reacted to that. I found that I like to write that way, too. Things would go from a whisper into a real build instead of a clean-across-Americana song — not that that's bad or anything. I think I definitely had a sense of that drama in there."
The thirty-year-old Novak's love of music goes way back. "I was always so into it," he recalls. "My sister and I would get into fights over what song we wanted to hear next. It was always that stuff, like I was very emotional and connected to my reaction to music."
Novak wrote his first song at eight and taught himself guitar at fourteen, turning a right-handed guitar upside down so he could play it left-handed. While still in high school, he started playing coffee shops. For the last decade or so, he's always played with a band, even if the lineup has changed over the years. His current band includes bassist John Rasmussen, guitarist Nate Marcy and keyboardist Tiffany Meese.
Although his music has changed stylistically since his debut, 2001's Metropolis Songs, Novak says his approach to writing has stayed the same, even if he's found better ways to present it. "I still get that feeling that nothing in the world is comparable to when you have something, like when writing 'Tidal Wave.' It seriously came in like five minutes," he says. "It just kind of clicked. And the feeling of euphoria that comes when you feel like you've done something that you complete, like a complete thought. And, you know, it wasn't because I sat there working on pages and pages of lyrics; it just happened. There's no feeling in the world that's better than that. And you really learn to protect that."
While some songs might reveal themselves quickly, that doesn't happen all the time. If he starts writing and nothing's coming, Novak says, he doesn't force it: "It's almost like baking — like the second you do something wrong, it's wrong. I'm always afraid when I start something that it's going to be ruined if I keep pushing it. I'll have this great melody or something, but I'll have to start over with it or not use it because it's been ruined or something. There have been times where I haven't written a song for, like, seven months because of that. Personally, I don't believe in that whole you-need-to-write-ten-minutes-every-day or write-a-new-song-a-day."
Novak would rather spend a few years making a quality album than putting out a bunch of albums with mediocre songs: "If I'm like Kate Bush and put out an album every twelve years, at least it's something I'll be proud of."
In the end, Novak's goal is longevity. And not just longevity, but timelessness. "I think that 'Bittersweet Symphony' is great," he says. "I think you can listen to that anytime. Something like that just feels like it doesn't belong to anything. I feel like you should make an effort to make something that's going to stick around and not have that compartmentalized thing on it. So if it takes you five years to make records, then that's what going to happen."
Dead Letters is available now for free to the first hundred people who visit Novak's website; he plans to release the album properly in October.