Photo by: Kris Wixom
Perhaps it’ll be Israel Nash’s fifth album, Lifted, that finally earns the singer/songwriter a fan base in America. To date, Nash has made a bigger splash in Europe than he has in his home country. His 2009 debut, New York Town, (released under his full name, Israel Nash Gripka) was released by the Dutch label Continental Records Services and much of his early touring experience took place on the other side of the pond. After a string of folk-inspired Americana albums, the singer dropped his last name (Gripka) and evolved his songwriting, ratcheting up the sonic aspects on 2013’s Rain Plans, 2015’s Silver Season and this year’s Lifted. While the earlier albums had elements of Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams, John Prine, and The Rolling Stones, the more recent stuff incorporates the psych-rock of bands like Pink Floyd and Midlake with the songwriting style of Neil Young and My Morning Jacket.
Having just wrapped up a run of dates opening for Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Israel Nash embarked on a headlining tour which will bring the singer and his band to Rumba Cafe on Saturday night. Tickets are $12 in advance. Doors open at 9pm and Matthew McNeal opens.
I had originally planned to speak with Nash for 20-25 minutes, but the conversation wound up lasting nearly an hour. It felt more like a conversation with a friend than an interview with an artist – Nash is as real as it gets and it was a thrill getting to tell him that Lifted is one of my favorite releases of 2018 and that it’s helped me through some tough times.
Can you tell me about your high school years? I’m just trying to get into how you became who you are today.
You’re talking like 10th, 11th, 12th grade? Those kind of formative years? I was born and raised in Missouri, in the Ozarks in Missouri, not in the cities or anything, you know, agrarian places and ended up about 45 minutes north of Springfield, Missouri. When I was 14, I had started bands but I was still playing basketball and football. It was that time in your life when you do multiple things – I play football AND I write songs. I think I was in 9th grade and didn’t make the basketball team and I said, “Well, fuck it. I’m just going to focus on music now.” By 10th grade, while they were still younger songs and still about girls, they were starting to have a little more purpose and a little more quality. I started writing so much, that’s what I used my time to do.
I had a four-track recorder as my dad used to be a Southern Baptist minister, don’t say that too loud! I would get all these instruments from the church, like an autoharp and banjos and just weird shit and I had these four-track recorders so I got really into writing and recording and caring about my band. I was thinking about it seriously as a future because when you’re in 10th grade, that’s when the idea of college gets serious but all I wanted to do was play music. I was going to get out of the house and go to some cool city and play rock and roll. My parents said, “You go do what you want, but if you want our blessing, if you want our help, we want you to go to college. You can still play music and do as you want.” I was smart enough to listen to that and thought, “Okay, these guys are going to give me money, I’m going to sign up for the latest classes they offer in the day so I can keep playing music!”
I moved to go to college where my band, The Unknowns, lived. They were a year older than I was and I met them in high school. One summer, at the local guitar store, they were getting ready to jam and I was trying to find some strings. We jammed together and wound up forming The Unknowns. I was going to Springfield, Missouri – or other local markets – being 16 or 17 years old and going to bars to play, which was really exciting. My parents said, “It’s fine if you go play these bars, just don’t drink or smoke.” And, of course I’m going to drink and smoke!
It was during that time that I realized that this is 100% what I’m going to do – play music and go to college. I ended up getting a Master’s Degree in Political Science because I was thinking, “Maybe I can stay here forever and play music.” I transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia and that’s where I started a new chapter. I had been playing with this band and decided that what I really wanted was to be a solo artist. I wanted to do a solo thing for a while.
I guess I’m expanding past my high school years. I was just finding myself, finding that this is my life and realizing it wasn’t a bad idea to go to college if I could have mom and dad pay for some things while I was playing rock and roll.
Your formative years were in the late half of the ‘90s. What music were you listening to?
I feel like there was stuff that The Unknowns were listening to, which was the good, old, late ‘90s pop-rock stuff like Third Eye Blind and the Goo Goo Dolls. That was a really cool time of rock and roll. Some of those artists might not always be on my playlists or anything, but it was a nice time to be able to listen to mainstream radio and hear rock and roll, hear guitars. Early on, some of that music influenced what I was doing. I was always a classic rock guy. I grew up on that, though my dad was a preacher, he had once been a teenager and he still had a great record collection. He introduced me to Top 40 Classic Rock. He was never just some Deadhead guy, he loved all this stuff, so that influenced me as well.
There was a period in high school where it started to fall through, where I started to fall into other groups. I got into Velvet Underground and that was a big change for me, when I finally found music that wasn’t my dad’s music. I didn’t have that deep connection with some of the stuff that was on pop radio, but when I started listening to the Velvet Underground box set, I could even stand up for a while! It was crazy. I think I started going on that path of discovering new art and new ways to write songs.
I was raised on music that MTV spoonfed to me. I’m still a huge ‘80s glam metal fan because it was everywhere when I was a teenager. Then, when Nirvana came around, I got into grunge. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I started looking back on all the music I missed out on that was around before MTV. I didn’t have older siblings to teach me and my parents had a limited record collection so I got into early Pink Floyd and Neil Young albums much later in life. For the last 20 years, I’ve been going back and listening to all the stuff somebody should have exposed me to when I was a teenager.
I kind of was the same, I feel like I didn’t get into Floyd or heavily into Neil Young until my mid-20s. I was listening to a lot of stuff but in my 20s it started to become a lot more focused on paying attention to sonic production and on the craft of songwriting. I went to this deep place of being obsessed with ‘70s style songwriting, like Jackson Browne, where people were writing these reflections of themselves. That’s something I’ve tried to do with my songwriting. It’s where I get my energy for songs – writing a story about myself, my life, about what’s going on.
In the 70s, there were, as I’m discovering later in my life, amazing artists. In the 90s, I would have never bought a Jackson Browne record. My friends would have made fun of me and I would have been like, “that’s my parents’ music.” I bought a record player, the first one I’ve had since I was a kid, probably five or six years ago and whenever older relatives or neighbors find out I bought a turntable, they show up and give me boxes of their old records. That’s where I’m getting all the old Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel albums, stuff that I never listened to other than the hits, and I’m like “these are awesome records.”
That is a great way to get records and that’s what happened to me 10 years ago. I got a record player and people were coming with cars full of records. I had stuff that was unopened, I have almost every country album made from 1981 to 1986, stuff that’s still sealed. I look at how much it means to me, how much vinyl started to shape me as a songwriter even more deeply because it’s the only format that I can really give myself to. Now there is Spotify on the computer and you put that on while you’re going through e-mail. A record still represents this holy process of going to the altar and putting the vinyl on the turntable and, then, “Oh, it’s done. We must flip it.” There’s something that makes it serious to me and something that really shapes the way I wanted to make records. I wanted people to get back up and flip it over again. That’s what really turned me on to this concept of trying to make these albums mean something. We have 45 or 50 minutes here, let’s make it really good and something people want to keep listening to.
When I’m sitting and reading or doing whatever and I’ve got an album on, I don’t always flip it over, sometimes I just let it start over. Those four or five songs were great and I’m going to listen to them two or three times in a row. I never do that with a Spotify playlist or a CD.
I haven’t done that but that’s great, that’s the beauty of how that opens stuff up. Just because things are new doesn’t mean they are better. Spotify has some amazing qualities, some things that people have to figure out from the artists’ side but, at the same time, I feel like I listen to new music more than I ever did before. It’s probably also being in the industry, like, my buddy or someone says, “this album’s good, let’s listen to it. Just keep up and know what’s going on.” But overall albums are just such a beautiful format, it just feels a little more organic, a little more closer to the earth, I guess.
I so appreciate you saying that to you because I often hear musicians say, “I make music, I don’t have time to listen to new music. I’m listening to this album from 1974.” I’m like, “So you’re not listening to current stuff?”
I have to be honest with you because I don’t think that was always the case. I think when you start out, as you go on, you make more and more friends that are doing the same thing that you’re doing. And those people are just around all the time. When you find people doing it, it becomes really incredible. You have people you can bounce ideas off.
At a business level, if you break it down, artists and musicians are just a bunch of these different entities going around – different band, different vibe. It’s really meant a lot to meet new players. Not necessarily always talk about music, it’s talking about perception and life and “When was the first time you went to Europe?”
Making some of these friends, I’ve been reinvigorated and just want to listen to what they’re doing and generally follow what’s going on. “What’s being released? I want to hear something new!” We live in such a visual world now, we watch anything we want on our TV and our computer. And it’s such a robust format for entertainment. I think music has a hard time competing in some of those spaces. But it has just as much, or more, joy. If that’s what Spotify can do, if people listen to more music when they normally wouldn’t have and discover stuff, I’m happy.
I watched your electronic press kit the other day on YouTube. I’m wondering, how much video stuff do you do? With the availability of cheap, good quality video cameras, I hope bands are recording stuff because I love watching rock documentaries. There’s not a ton of that stuff from the 70s. The bands that did it may have never thought that all the stuff they were filming would be important some day but I’ll watch a rock documentary about any band. Are you trying to document stuff via video?
There are more videos of me playing a song than Led Zeppelin playing “Stairway to Heaven”. It’s just the time we live in. When you’re making your record, you have all these big ideas, “We’re going to document this. We can document it ourselves.” My manager found this guy that will do it for $5,000 and it’s like, “I just spent $3,000 on analog tape. I can’t pay somebody to film us.” We did try to document some of the album recording.
My wife is really cool and let’s me buy weird toys. So I think cameras are on the list. I’ve been talking about wanting to make a movie, a movie script I write on my own, nothing to do with music. I just want to create art out here and do crazy stuff.
But I’m with you, I love movie documentation and I love the concept. Somebody told me that a record is a record in time. This is my fifth record and each record represents this time of my life, musically. I think we’re going to keep shooting more and more video because that’s where it goes. I think the next step is to have my own video cameras and just have them rolling.
After college you moved to New York where you spent a few years. How did you end up in Dripping Springs, Texas?
Shortly after the first album, I made the second album, Barn Doors, which didn’t do anything in the States but it really solidified stuff in Europe and it felt like, at that time, I didn’t have to live in New York anymore. I was touring Europe every few months at that point either with a band or going solo and making a few bucks. My wife was working at a remote job so she was at home, we were at a point where we could go anywhere.
Half the band was from Texas and always spoke so highly of it. I always had a great time at South by Southwest and we were eager to have a place where we could have some more space and a place that didn’t have Missouri or New York winters. We knew that we liked Austin a lot, it was a music town … before we moved to New York, it was between Austin and New York but we thought New York was the more adventurous one. I’m glad we did it in that order.
We found there was this place called Dripping Springs that was 40 minutes from Austin and you could get a bunch of land. It was a rental house – this house was 2,000 square feet on 15 acres and it was $500 cheaper than our New York rent! It was great – my art changed, my connection to music and things changed deeply. We had a daughter and we lived there for about two years, we were just testing it out to see if it would work for us and after the two years we were like, “yeah, let’s go find something”.
We bought 15 acres about 8 miles away and refinished this house. Then we started building a studio. I always had this dream of living in the country again, my grandparents owned 3,000 acres in Missouri and this big cattle farm. I grew up going there. We still lived in rural places but they lived in the country, really. I always felt like myself there. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted what I have here – a studio that has some dirt roads leading up to it, out in the country.
How big is Friday night high school football in Dripping Springs?
Dripping Springs is like 1,200 people, it’s small. I haven’t even made it to a football game. I’m sure that will happen as my daughter gets older. We came out here, it’s pretty isolated. Even subdivisions out here, we don’t live in a subdivision, but there are subdivisions and everyone has 5 to 10 acres, there are trees everywhere. It doesn’t look like a typical subdivision. People live so privately out here that it’s really started to change once my daughter started going to public school here. I’ve met parents that are fans, I helped do the talent show, you just immediately get into this new world so I’m sure that stuff is coming.
We sold two acres to my parents, they retired out here. My wife’s parents live in a fifth wheel on the land part time. We’ve made it this family compound, there are paths that go down to grandma’s house. We spend less time going in town, to football games or into Austin, we spend a lot of time making this place our world.
We throw this party for South by Southwest, we’ve had it three years in a row. We had like 600 people here, food trucks, outdoor stages – it’s a mini-festival out here in the hills.
To wrap this up, I’m going to name some different situations and I want you to tell me the artist, song or album that you’d listen to in the situation.
Driving into town to buy groceries.
Definitely KUTX, our local NPR station.
A long distance drive for a vacation.
That means there’s a lot of visual stuff, so that’s going to be a nice sonic thing … probably an Ennio Morricone album.
Something that, when you are already in a good mood, you throw on just to dance around the house.
Mungo Jerry, “In the Summertime”.
When you’re feel sad or depressed and you want to wallow in that sadness.
I would go for On the Beach by Neil Young
An album you’ve owned on multiple formats, something you keep buying because you want to have it on every format.
Dark Side of the Moon
Favorite album that you own that you think most people have never heard or don’t know about.
I have really smart friends who know a lot of music. I got that album by Khruangbin. I’ve been listening to that pretty relentlessly for a while.
Background music when you’re working on projects around the house.
Classic rock mix – you might hear “Hotel California” twice in one day, some CCR, some Springsteen
An album you throw on to get pumped up for a high school reunion
I think it would take a lot for me to go to a class reunion (laughs). I guess it would have to be that entire box set of the Velvet Underground
And, finally, an album that you would like to cover start to finish.
I’ve been covering “No Surprises” by Radiohead. I had this goal to re-record OK Computer in this kind of folky, cosmic Israel Nash way for the 20th anniversary but I ran out of time. I think I’m going to do it some day. I wanted to rewrite some of the music so that it wasn’t a note-for-note cover.