Nick Jaina’s music filtered through our speakers almost purely by
chance: someone added an unmarked copy of his album Wool to their
iTunes, then forgot about it for six months. Then one night it popped
up on random. It was a hit, quickly spreading through the RedFence
ranks. When we found out his newest album, A Bird in the Opera House,
would hit stores on April 13th of this year (click here for our
review), staff writer Sarah Carman called him up to discuss his new
work, musical history, and creative process.
RedFence: To start off, who and what are your primary influences in your music?
Nick Jaina: Tom Waits is a big influence just for the sense of trying to make every song sound like a unique thing from each other and also Paul Simon for the craft of it.
RF: Would you call Tom Waits and Paul Simon your mentors as well as your inspiration and influence?
Jaina: Yeah, I mean honestly . . . so much of that [mentoring] is covered by people you actually know. And friends who are at varying levels in music, some that maybe people have heard of and some I’m sure nobody’s heard of. There’s so much that [comes from] going out to a show and seeing someone do this thing that you never thought to try before — being inspired by that and being supported by those same people showing up at your shows, and being like, wow, this person who made this album that I think is amazing is at my show. To me, that’s what mentors mean, now. I still respect the really famous people, but the people that are directly in my life seem to have more importance now.
RF: How did music come into your life originally?
Jaina: It took me a while. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I asked for a guitar. There wasn’t much music in my house and my parents didn’t really listen to music, so it took a while to realize that . . . was something that I wanted to do. But even before I could play an instrument, I was writing lyrics for songs that I couldn’t write because I didn’t know how to play. So it was more of a vehicle for lyrics; I wanted to write, and that was the format I wanted to write in. I needed to learn how to play and sing to sort of justify that.
RF: So, it started as poetry that you put music to?
Jaina: Yeah, but I never thought of them as poems. They were songs, even though I couldn’t play any instrument I would write song lyrics and then … I wasn’t interested in poetry, really, I was interested in songs but I just didn’t know how to play them yet.
RF: Was there a specific point when you realized that you were going to make a living as a singer/songwriter?
Jaina: laughs I don’t know if I’ve figured out if it’s going to make me a living yet, but definitely I remember there was a moment.
I went to college at this school that was mostly focused on science and math, and there was definitely a moment where I was… coming up with chords on the guitar and had a little piece of music that I liked. Then [I] went to walk to the cafeteria for dinner or something and started thinking of something in my life . . . and realizing that “oh wait, I can put that with this piece of music,” and then running back to my room and playing it and having it work. I just remember that moment very clearly — that realization of this works and this is how you do it. You do the music and you do the lyrics and sometimes they magically meet up together. And at that same moment I realized that I was in the wrong place. I was going to college for science and math and I needed to get out of there. So, it was a exciting moment and a scary moment at the same time.
RF: When you’re putting together an album do you conceive your music as an album or do you collect a lot of individual songs and then decide which ones belong in an album together?
Jaina: I definitely think of it as albums, even thinking an album or two ahead, you know? If I write a song that doesn’t fit at all with the album I’m making I sort of comfort myself thinking it’s gonna have a place somewhere in the future, but yeah, definitely, I’m still very wedded to the 10-15 song format and songs flowing together. I don’t know to what degree people still listen to them in that order and you know, if that is the same to anyone … I mean it’s kind of sad to think about it because that is such a great format. That’s what makes most sense to me and that’s where I get most excited about it … just writing a song here and there and releasing it individually would just be … just wouldn’t make sense to me. I hope it doesn’t ever go completely in that realm where that’s how you release music.
RF: Putting them more together as an entire story that goes together in one album.
Jaina: Right. It fulfills that sort of larger format creative side. Sort of like writing a novel as compared to writing a short story. Or maybe just writing a collection of short stories that go together. That extra creative spark where you’re living your life and thinking about, you know, oh, this song would go great here like this and I’ll write another song that will fit in like this. That’s really one of the perks of music that I also enjoy.
RF: Can you talk specifically about a memorable recording experience that you may have had?
Jaina: Well, I try to make each one really different from the last one, as much as possible, so the last album … I have a band, a seven-piece band and we were playing a lot, and touring a lot and playing on the street a lot, and we decided that the best way to record it would be to do it live in the studio as much as possible and we just decided to go as far as we could with that idea. And it ended up all playing in the same room and we recorded the mix to tape live and then, so everything was in one take and was done, so coming out of that it was really exciting, and definitely the most enjoyable recording experience because everybody in the room was always a part of it at every moment and weren’t just sitting around watching someone edit something on a computer. That came out last year and I decided I wanted to make something more sculpted and polished, and so, I started in a complete opposite way where I had half-finished songs and I would put down tracks and sometimes the band didn’t hear them until they were done, and sometimes I played all the instruments or sometimes I spent hours just crafting a guitar sound, so I don’t know, I enjoy the idea of bouncing around and trying a completely different approach every time.
RF: What would be a dream venue of yours?
Jaina: For a live show you mean, or a recording?
RF: Well, how about both? For a live show and also a recording?
Jaina: You mean, like a type of place? I guess for a live venue, it’s generally pretty simple. As an audience you don’t necessarily think of this and when I go to shows I don’t necessarily think about it, but — how inspiring the physical place is bleeds so much into how inspired you are to play and how well you play. There’s a place that I love in New Orleans that used to be a bare-knuckle boxing ring like years and years ago, but now you play and there’s the balcony where people used to stand and look down at the fighters fighting. It’s a bar now, and there’s a bunch of old junk that was thrown in there and stuff on the walls and it’s just so rich that you know it’s not something that a sound designer could go in and figure out . . . it’s alive on its own.
It’s really hard to play and be inspired when you’re just in this box you know was designed to make money basically. And it’s the same thing with a recording studio too. It’s amazingly hard to remember the inspiration for why you wanted to write the song or sing the song in the first place when you’re just sitting in a room and somebody’s staring at you saying they’re ready to record. It helps a lot when there’s just something else there . . . just little things. The wood on the walls or the metal in the building or something.
RF: How much do you visualize as you’re writing these lyrics?
Jaina:Tom Waits is a songwriter whose lyrics are full of distinct imagery. You know, you just let that sort of wash over you, and close your eyes and picture all the images in your head. One of my most enjoyable musical experiences, as a listener, is that sort of lyric. So I definitely really enjoy being very concrete and specific and pinpointing certain images that illustrate something bigger than that thing. Definitely I’m thinking of images in my head as I’m writing. They probably end up being different images from what people see in their heads. You know, what you see as crows riding bicycles might be different from what I imagine. It might be a completely different interpretation. That’s what’s really exciting about it. The more you leave open, the more somebody can create that in their head and then they’re part of the whole experience. And that’s really fun.
RF: Do you have a favorite instrument?
Jaina: I love the piano. It’s terribly impractical because it’s so big . . . it’s just heavy. I wish I could bring one around with me and play it all the time because it’s really the perfect instrument. And then any sort of digital recreations of it really, to me, are not sufficient. Pianos have a soul to them. When you hit really hard on a digital piano it doesn’t groan in the same way that a real piano does and so … that’s a big part of what an instrument is to me … you can sort of misuse it. So yeah, my favorite instrument is the piano but it sort of makes me sad because they’re so hard to find and then use.
RF: Have you had any brushes with major labels? How do you think being independent has affected your art?
Jaina: For me the experience of touring has been so much about the places I’ve gone and the people I’ve met, and making friends and returning to those places and having a relationship. And I guess it would be hard for me to have somebody just say to me you’re not going to this city anymore, you’re going to a new city. And you can’t put out two albums in a year. I feel lucky because that comes hand in hand with anybody who’s calling you saying I want to sign you. They have their own stipulations and how they want your career, how they see you being successful. You can’t play this many shows, you have to play here, you have to make an album like this … it’s not necessarily like they’re dictating what you sound like or how you dress, but in little ways they do . . . I just take it as a blessing that I get to decide where I go and what I play and how many albums I put out. Nobody’s questioning that.
RF: When you’re on the road do you write while you’re traveling or do you concentrate on playing what you know?
Jaina: I guess writing to me is always sort of happening because it’s not just when I’m sitting down with a notebook and a pen. Even in a sound check or something coming across some cool little chord or something and not having the time to work on it but just finding other ways. It’s just collecting little bits of ideas and stuff, or things that people say, or events that happen and then just start collecting all of that in a bag, then getting home and opening that bag and spilling it all on the floor and sifting through and putting those pieces together. Like, oh this riff? Yeah, I remember that. Or this thing that happened. I’ll pretend that I’m back there describing the situation. I guess I never think of it as stopping or starting, it’s just always sort of happening.
RF: How have you met the different members of this band you’ve put together?
Jaina: They just sort of fell in my lap. In Portland there’s just a circle of really great musicians that play in each other’s bands a lot, and literally I’ll be playing with a band and there will be a great trumpet player, and I’ll be like, “Hey, you want to play on a couple of my songs? They’re really simple.“That’s generally how it’s happened with everyone in the band. It’s not like you put out an ad and audition people. It just happens really easily, and it’s kind of nice actually.
RF: How did you meet Nathan Langston?
Jaina: Oh, you know Nathan?
RF: I do, I graduated with him from high school.
Jaina: Oh, he’s actually the oldest or longest member of the band. I was playing guitar in a band and we went down to Eugene to play a show and he was playing with his band. I think it was his first show ever actually. He was instantly a striking person and somebody I wanted to know more. And we started putting on more shows with our bands and then he played on a recording and then he started showing up at shows and then he became like the tightest member of the band. And we did some tours where it was just the two of us. Yeah, he’s been a great member of the band. And now he’s moved to New York and so he’s temporarily not in the band so we’ve had to replace him, but … yeah, he’s a good friend.
RF: On your new album, one song in particular, “Ashville,” sounded so different from anything I’ve ever heard from you. What was the inspiration behind that?
Jaina: Like I said before, I just look at the last stuff I did and say okay, I did that as best I could now let’s try a totally different process and let’s do everything we didn’t do last time . . . For this album I was really working on my singing voice a lot, and taking lessons, and training and trying to expand my range and trying to find new ways of singing and at the same time I also would write on an acoustic guitar before. Now I live in a house with some electric guitars and I would just pick them up and play them. That song especially was a combination of those, where I was writing on an electric guitar and trying to sing in a completely different way than I ever had, and so that led to a song where I’m singing really high in my range, and the music is different because it was generated on an electric guitar. There are other pieces like that throughout the album and to some extent I try to pull it back a bit when I seem to go too far astray — I didn’t want to completely confuse everyone. That song especially was put more toward the end of the album because it was very different, and I thought some of the pieces on that album give hints of that and lead up to that so that it doesn’t seem too jarring.
RF: Who is Mary Ann? (in reference to the first track on Jaina’s third album, Wool)
Jaina: It’s actually … a couple years ago my friend had a friend who died, and I didn’t know the person who died but I wanted to support my friend and she was going to the memorial service and so I went to the memorial service of this person I didn’t know and somebody was talking about his life . . . and mentioned that he had been about 45 years old when he died, and he’d had a sister who died at birth and her name was Mary Ann.
There was just that brief of a mention in this eulogy, but somehow it struck me so much that we were sitting here and it was 45 years later, and this person was given a name and remembered so long later when they died at birth. They didn’t really live at all. And I just took it to be comforting in a way that so many people especially in music are striving for some permanence and to make a mark and be remembered years later. When I die I don’t want people to just forget about me. It was kind of amazing that this person didn’t live at all and was still remembered. And it was heartbreaking in a way that they didn’t get to have a life but comforting in the thought that if there are multiple lives, or you know, whatever you think, that maybe next time there will be a chance for this person to have a longer life. So, it came out of that — wanting to honor that person. Her name was Mary Ann and it was a real person.
RF: How long have you lived in Portland?
Jaina: I moved here in the summer of 2001, so it’s almost nine years now.
RF: What’s next for you?
Jaina: I just have finished the album and sent it away to be manufactured, so now it’s just in that fragile time where a relatively small amount of people have heard it and I’ve gotten very little feedback, so I’m just constantly wondering what it means and if it’s good or not. Try moving through that and then setting up a tour and all the promotion for the album and trying to keep writing too.
RF: Well, it has been wonderful getting to talk with you, and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Jaina: Oh, thanks. It’s good to hear your feedback. I appreciate it.