Singer, songwriter and producer, Shane Nicholson has just released his new studio album, Love and Blood. Following that Americana-influenced, Country sound, it’s a follow up to the ARIA-award winning, Hell Breaks Loose released in 2015. About to kick off on a national tour, we sat down to discuss the process of writing the new album and the importance of creative isolation.
Your new album, Love And Blood, is released on July 28th. How were the feels leading up to its release?
I don’t think it’s changed since my very first album came out; it’s still that same feeling of excitement when something new comes out. It’s the product of a lot of man hours, time and work. It’s also a sense of relief – it’s like a purging. I can give it to the rest of the world and move on with my life (laughs). [Before it’s released] it’s just my album, but [once it’s released] it’ll be everybody’s. I love making records, but I’d do it anyway even if I wasn’t releasing them [so] it’s such a bonus people seem to enjoy them. As long as that’s happening, I’m happy to still keep making them.
Have you performed any of the songs live yet?
I’ve performed a couple. I tried them out in various stages when I was writing them. I like to try new songs out a bit to see how they float. You get a different perspective on a song when you sing it live in front of people, so I often play new songs every now to test the water. Songs are always in a constant state of flux for me – even after a recorded them; I still find they evolve over time. And, over years of touring them, you find different ways to approach them and ways to improve them. They’re always evolving for me.
The track I Don’t Dance caught my ears. I heard you got the idea for the song on Cruisin’ Country last year. How so?
It was during that cruise when I got the idea for the song. We were at an after party, after one of the shows, and my girlfriend really wanted to dance, which is something I don’t really do. It’s never been part of my shtick, so to speak, so I asked a friend of mine to dance with her. While they were dancing, I came up with the idea of the song. It’s less about the fact that I don’t dance; it’s a love song of I’ll do anything for you, but that’s where I draw the line – I’m happy to do anything else. Like the song says – I’ll paint the Mona Lisa or build the China Wall, but I don’t dance (laughs).
And yet, it’s probably the best track to dance to.
That was kind of the irony of it (laughs). I wanted to make something that, when I played it live, people would dance to it. I don’t know, maybe I created a monster for myself; I’m not sure. I wrote it in such a weird place, sitting on a little boat with a guitar on the Hawkesbury River [in New South Wales]. I’d been listening to Tom Petty that morning and I had the Heartbreakers kind-of-vibe/sound in my head. Strange things happen when you’re writing songs for an album.
Were all the songs written on the Hawkesbury River?
I wrote them all [and] most of them were written on the Hawkesbury. I would go up there every couple of weeks, and live there for three or four days in this little house that I found, specifically to write. I’ve been doing that for years. The only way I get creative is when I go somewhere where I can shut myself off from the rest of the world and get isolated. This place on the Hawkesbury River, it was only accessible by boat – there was no road, you’re just dead in the river and I would write songs. No one could get to me, [or] call me, there was no phone service. I went there about three or four times and I wrote most of the guts of it on the river.
But it’s less about where I am and where I’m not – I can’t write in my studio, because I work there so often [and] I can’t write in my house, because I’m there so often. For me [it’s about being] somewhere that’s neutral, isolated and disconnected from everybody else. I usually find that’s when the muse arrives – when I’m in a place where I’m not thinking about anything else, the outside world doesn’t exist and that’s when I start getting inspired enough to write.
I’ve known that about myself for quite awhile. [With the last album, 2015’s Hell Breaks Loose] I wrote a lot of that in the Outback, same thing it had to be isolated. Before that I had cabins in the Hunter Valley and sometimes just hotel rooms in a city. I actually kick started this album in Brisbane, stayed in a hotel and didn’t leave the room for days, ordered room service and wrote songs.
You mentioned you wrote all the tracks off the new album. How important is it for you to write your own songs? Can you connect to a song you’ve outsourced?
It’s always something I’ve mostly done on my own and I find it work better like that, I’m a bit of a control freak. I spent a lot of writing with other people, but mostly for them, not so much for me. I find it a really personal process when I’m writing songs for my own albums. I don’t see writing songs as a means to an end. I’d probably still do it, even if I wasn’t making records, because I really like the actual act of sitting down writing a song. I find it cathartic, enjoyable and creatively rewarding.
I was listening to an interview where you said you’ve lost a lot of song ideas because you accidentally put your phone through the washing machine.
That’s happened quite a few times. I try to stay philosophical about it and maybe it was like natural selection or something, those songs went missing because there were better ones to come and take their place. I would like to hear them all. There might be something in their worth using. I think now three times I’ve accidentally put my iPhone through the washing machine in my jeans pocket and lost quite a lot of songs. I know how to back it up now so it’s not as big a problem as it used to be.
You were quite vocal about going through a rough time in your life when you wrote Hell Breaks Loose. How does where you are in life now reflect in your lyrics on Love and Blood?
I draw on a lot of the same things, but they’re from a different perspective. A lot of the things I write about are pretty universal and staples in songwriter’s diet. I’m three years older than I was when I wrote those songs on Hell Breaks Loose; three years is a long time in anyone’s life, so you’re gonna be in a different place and writing from a different perspective. There certainly is slightly more positive aspects of this record than the last one, but I still think the last record is quite forward looking. I didn’t think of it as too down in the doldrums. It was me trying to be positive and look forward. I guess this one maybe is positive and didn’t have to try so hard.
That album also won you two ARIA awards (Best Country Album and Best Alternative Country Album). Do you see winning awards as a sign that you’re doing something right or to not stray/do something different next time?
It’s both. I’ve always done what I do my way and I haven’t had to change what I do to suit the industry. Hell Breaks Loose was respected, received really well and got some awards, but I see that as a bonus, certainly not as a stifling thing that would create expectation on whatever came next or change the way I would work on anything. The best thing about getting an award is having the opportunity to thank all the people that don’t get any of the limelight but are working just as hard, if not harder, to make it happen. I don’t think you’d ever find an artist that started playing music or writing music with the aim of winning an award, but no one would obviously give one back. They’re pretty cool to have and it’s nice to be acknowledged. I never used to have mine on display. I had them all in a cupboard because it felt weird having an out and everyone would see them when they came to your house. In the last year, I’ve [put them on] display because they remind me of the hard work paying off, to keep working and to keep your head down doing what you do.
Where do you keep your awards?
They’re on top of a big cupboard thing in my lounge. I’ve got young kids, [and the awards are] pretty heavy and pointy, especially the ARIAS are really dangerous. I have to have them up high out of reach.
As well as writing and recording music, you’re also a producer. When you’re writing or recording, can you take a step back and enjoy the pre-production period or are you always thinking with a producer’s mind?
That is something I’ve done all of my creative life; I’ve been pretty heavily involved in the production of my own albums and largely, that’s how I’ve learned to do what I do now. It’s by trial and error and doing it on my own records. But I do also notice when I get so involved in my records on a structural level as a producer, I don’t enjoy them as much. They don’t live with me as nicely as they could, because I’ve just been too involved in them and on a too scientific level.
In the last few decades, I’ve been working with Matt Fell, who’s probably the best producer in the country. I’m really comfortable working with him, because we’re best mates, and so I’ve been handing over the reins to him. I can trust that he could make the record I would like, even if I wasn’t there, so it’s not that hard handing control over to him. Obviously I’m still there and I still have a producer’s mind, but I’m getting better at distracting myself during the process so that I don’t get bogged down in the details. I enjoy the process [to] just be an artist and sing, play, drink coffee and sit back and enjoy the process. I’ve never enjoyed making records as much as I have the last two – it’s a whole different ballgame for me now, which took a long time to learn and to get my head around how I could do that, and find someone to work with that I trusted enough that could enable me to do that as well.
Does that mean you enjoy being in the studio more than performing live?
Pretty much, I always have. The studio is kind of my safe place. That’s where I love being. It’s a suspended reality the outside world doesn’t exist. It’s fairly nocturnal – there’s a severe lack of vitamin D going on – but it’s a creative point of origin for me. I love playing live, I love writing songs, I love doing all this stuff, but none of it really comes close to being in the studio and working on stuff, because it’s that desire to be creative. If I can go to sleep at night, having made something that didn’t exist that morning when I woke up, I feel good about myself. The studio’s the place that keeps me sane. It’s like an antidepressant – it keeps me on an even keel.
Well now with the album having been released, you are about to start the Love and Blood national tour. For those who haven’t seen you before, what can people expect from your live shows?
I’ve got The General Waste, my studio band, which is rare, to get them out of their studios because they’re all producers themselves, that was tricky. I’ve got them on the road this weekend, but then, for the rest of the tour, it’s going to change state to state. I’ve got many people friends, who I have worked with over the years in different states that I’m bringing onto the tour as I travel around, so musician line-up is going to change. As we travel further around, it’s going to be constantly evolving, which I’m excited about! Because it’s a fairly lengthy tour, it’s a good way to keep it fresh and keep changing the personnel and the set list. After 20 years, I’m just touring and trying to find ways to make sure it stays exciting and that’s one of the ways to do it. I started doing that on the Hell Breaks Loose tour [and] I really enjoyed it. It meant that I’d go to Queensland, it was like starting the whole tour again, and then Victoria or WA, and you have a whole new band and feel like you’re starting on a whole new tour, instead of just extending the existing one you’re already on. I’m looking forward to it!
[Originally posted at the AU Review]