Songwriting catches up with the talented American folk artist who is currently in the middle of an ambitious recording project
ailing from North Carolina, Tyler Nail is a folk musician well known in his home city of Winston-Salem. His second record, Feathers, is the latest instalment in his project The Album Release Series, which sees him trying to catch up with himself and finally make time to record the songs he’s been carrying around in his notebooks. Fusing traditional Americana influences with jazz, soul and the music from Appalachia, Tyler’s songs capture all the experiences of his life so far.
Songwriting caught up with him for a chat about his history, his latest album and to find out what the future holds…
When did you start writing songs?
“I started messing with the idea as a very young kid, just writing down words and coming up with melodies. I was a drummer at that point so I would just play drums and hum these songs in my head. I was probably 7 or 8 but it got more serious when I was 16 or 17. I had an interest and a passion for writing which I had cultivated through school and, when I started playing guitar more seriously, the two passions collided and complimented each other.”
Was that in Winston-Salem?
“Yes, I was born in Winston-Salem. It’s a small city that has a nice history to it. Half of my family lived in a little farm town just north of Winston-Salem so I went back and forth between the two.”
How much do you think the local area has inspired you as a songwriter?
“Very much. I was unaware of it for a long time, but I think the culture of gospel, jazz and American traditional music is present here, and some bit of the Americana poetic culture is represented here in full glory. I think all that stuff affected my vision a lot more than I realised until a year or two ago.”
Was that when you were writing Feathers?
“Maybe a little before then, the space between the two albums that I’ve released so far. There was a lot of artistic development and awareness that took place in that time.”
Do you think that mixture of influences comes across in the music?
“I think so, although it’s not as though I went into the album saying ‘I want to make an example of all these things’. They just seemed to bleed into the songwriting in some sort of way.”
Who are some of the people who have had a direct influence on your writing?
“Oh man, plenty of bands and plenty of artists and plenty of things. Especially Iron & Wine – I think when I really started observing what he does, and asking myself why I liked it so much, it uncovered some abilities that I otherwise wouldn’t have come across. That was a big one for sure.”
Is Tom Waits an influence at all?
“Tom Waits has become a huge influence. I don’t know if it’s strictly the lyrics that he chooses or if it’s just his artistry in general. I get the impression he explores art in the way we hear art talked about. He’s a different type of musician. When I look at what he does, and consider it, I don’t think of it as him saying ‘this is a craft I have and I’m just doing the best I can’ – I feel like it’s a real sense of exploration and curiosity and that stuff has definitely inspired me.”
A lot of the songs on Feathers seem to come from your own personal explorations and curiosities. Are there specifics moments that inspired them?
“The whole album is a scrapbook of a five month period in which I met a girl and we did some travelling and hung out. She would come to my house and some of these songs are portraits of that time. Some are portraits from Texas, or Maine or Florida. All the songs have their own specific stories – Valentina is an example of a song that is pretty cut and dry, what you hear in that song is what went down. I met her at a bar as described in the song. Then Sycamore, which is probably the work that I maybe the most proud of, speaking in terms of lyrics, came from walking to a river near my house and it’s as brief of a story as that.”
Do you find it easy to write while you are travelling?
“No, I actually don’t find it easy to write while I am experiencing anything in the moment. I don’t write about things as they happen, I write about things as I reflect on them. I might write about being on the road but it’s usually once I am off the road when I’m writing.”
And when you play your songs on the road, do you find they take on a different meaning?
“I suppose, that’s just something that happens with art. People find things in my songs that are out of my hands and I don’t care, I don’t try to dictate what people get out of what I do. The songs do change from performing them. That’s more so from the experience of me and my band playing them and allowing them to change in our hands. We keep an improvisational spirit in our band so the songs do evolve over time but the message and the content itself doesn’t change for me – my experience of them stays the same.”
Do you and the band write together too?
“We don’t write together. We are all songwriters and composers in our own right. The band consists of myself as well as Johnathan Loos on guitar and harmonies and Quique Rodriguez-Pastor on bass. John is a band leader and a songwriter and Quique is a composer, plus we’re all recording engineers. They help me to accomplish my vision, I help them to accomplish their vision but we don’t write together. John and I partner up on a lot of stuff. I was all over his album, I am his drummer and sometimes I play Weissenborn, banjo, guitar or sing. He contributes to mine in any way that is convenient.”
You’ve said you play drums and started as a drummer – when you’re writing, do you start with the drums?
“I don’t. My expression on the drums is very different from my expression as a composer. When I am behind the drums it’s all about rhythm and pace but when I am writing words I just sit with a guitar. I don’t write on a piano or any other instrument, I just get with the guitar and write that way.”
And you also produced Feathers?
“I did produce the album. John is very much my mixing partner as he has more hands-on experience with sound engineering and mixing. I recorded it all and knew what I wanted to achieve, but John with his mixing skills was able to help me accomplish those things.”
Has that changed the way you write?
“No, it has changed the way I record. I used to have a very minimalist attitude toward recording, I wanted to sit in front of a microphone with just a guitar and myself and record. That has changed, I have learnt to be thorough in a way that is conducive to success but the writing itself has stayed just what it has always been.”
Where do you record?
“I record in my home just north of Winston. The evolving nature of art in this form is that everything is DIY. These are all skills that I don’t have to depend on someone else for. I have a really good recording setup at home. John has taught me a lot about recording engineering, we can play a lot of instruments and pretty much accomplish what we need to accomplish, so it definitely adds a nice character to it.”
And a lot more affordable?
“Absolutely, and more fun.”
What are you working on now?
“I write in moments of inspiration. It’s not a thing that I sit down for a month and say ‘I’m going to write an album’, but what I am doing now is a thing I’m calling The Album Release Series. Over the last three years or so I wrote a lot of songs, a lot of them I’ve played live and a lot of people liked them, but I haven’t released albums as quickly as I’ve written songs. I have always had clear in my mind that this collection is this album and this collection is that album. I know what they are, what they represent and what time period they came from. So to me right now, what is important is to release all the material that I have been sitting with for so long. I’m finishing up an album called Under Evergreens and as soon as I release that album I am going to release another one and so on, just to get all of this stuff out of mind and out of my notebooks and into people’s hands.”
You have lots of recording to do then.
“I’ve got my work cut out for me”
Finally, what is the thing you most want to achieve as a songwriter?
“As a songwriter I suppose there is this tier of success through which you can reach a lot of people – you can share art and inspire new art. I hope to expand the experience I have had with that as much as possible. If that means I can tour to share my art with people internationally and throughout the country, that would make me really happy. I’d love to be able to see as much of the world as I can and share as much art as I can. I’m doing that same thing, I’d just like to do it to a larger audience.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell Pictures: Justin Saunders (justinsaundersphotography.com)
Feathers is out now. You can find out more about Tyler and his band at www.tylernailmusic.com