The last album from singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson was the award-winning Hell Breaks Loose, released in the last half of 2015. Since then Nicholson has kept himself busy as a producer, but thankfully he has also readied another album of his own, Love and Blood, for release on 28 July. I spoke to him about the album and about his upcoming appearing at the Broadbeach Country Musical Festival in late July.
I’d noticed you were booking quite a few gigs, so I figured there had to be an album coming – and, of course, now we know there is an album coming on the 28th of July. Are you excited? Nervous? Calm?
Not nervous. Certainly excited. I’m always excited when there’s a new album about to come out. It’s always the culmination of a lot of work, I guess. It’s always exciting to have it come out, not just for other people to hear it but almost as a cathartic process as well. You purge yourself and kind of move on. It’s a nice feeling. It’s hard to explain. Almost like a release. There’s an album release and an emotional release as well. So I’m very excited. It’s been a little while since Hell Breaks Loose so it’s about time there was some music out. Although I’ve been really active in that time. I’ve made a lot of albums – about twelve last year alone for other people – so I’ve felt like I’ve been really active and making music every day. But it’s easy for the time to get away and you realise, wow, it’s been two years since I made a record. So I kind of knuckled down and made a new one.
I’ve interviewed a couple of people lately who’ve had you playing on their records, so not only have you been producing but you’ve been doing a lot of playing too.
Certainly in our little group – sort of country world, producers – we all play on each other’s projects and help each other out. There’s been quite a few projects, especially ones that Matt Fell has been producing, that I’ve come in to play on and vice versa: we’ve had a lot of people who were just in there, working, when I was in the middle of my record. Just singing because they were there, so we had them singing on my album. It’s nice making music with your friends all the time and sharing around the love.
And I’m interested in the impact of that on the output overall. You and Matt, and Glen Hannah as well, have experience as musicians, you have experience as producers, you’re able to play for other people rather than demanding that it’s always you at the forefront, and I think the quality of work that’s coming out is really interesting. I don’t know that there’s anything else like it, where there’s this band of people working on lots of different projects, so I’m see this really high-quality work across a lot of different artists’ output. This is a musing more than a question, but I think it’s unique and really interesting.
That’s nice to know – I guess we don’t think of it from the outside in, especially people like Glen and Matt, myself, Michael Carpenter at LoveHz [studios]. Josh, who plays drums in the band, he’s a producer and he’s incredibly talented – he was here yesterday recording an EP for me for somebody else. I work with him as a drummer on my projects but then also as a drummer on other projects. So I was producing him yesterday and he’s so good. He’s a producer himself – it’s weird telling him what to do in the studio. So even drummers can be producers – it’s crazy!
You mentioned that catharsis of releasing an album – is there a feeling of a lull for you after that, or do you feel like the next body of work starts to come in straightaway?
Whatever the next project is takes his place. Obviously there’s touring that comes after every record and I’ve got quite a few months of touring lined up, but it’s the next project. I’ve got three or four projects that are currently under way in the studio – I’m there now. Once these interviews finish today I’ll be back to making a record with an artist today and then tonight I’ll be mixing a different one. So other projects just come in and fill the void, as such, and that’s kind of what I like. It’s different and you’re always doing something new. There’s not really a lull or a down period – it always seems to be full-on, go-go-go. I think that’s because I’m really terrible at scheduling. I’m just hopeless at scheduling. I have my manager who looks after my Shane Nicholson career but I have someone else who looks after the studio and that scheduling, and I’m in the middle just telling people, ‘Yeah, we can make a record – no worries!’ Totally screwing everybody up, and they’re trying to make the schedules work. It’s just a juggling act, but I have to have things happening, otherwise there would be a lull. Mind you, I’d love to have a day off – just go out in the boat or something.
Yeah, you say that … But speaking of the lull, I also read that you went to the Hawkesbury River area to write a lot of songs, so you obviously had to physically remove yourself to do it.
Well, I’ve been doing that for quite a few albums now, quite a few years since having children and not touring as much, I realised I couldn’t write as much at home – maybe the environment wasn’t conducive with children. And certainly once I was working as a producer a lot I couldn’t work in the studio, because I was spending 80 hours a week in the studio. Way back in Bad Machines days I found that I had to go out somewhere to write. So every album I’ve been looking for a different place to centre myself and get away from everything. This really nice house on the Hawkesbury I found, and it’s only boat access so it felt really nice and isolated – there was no mobile service or anything like that, so it was a nice place to go and write. I wrote a lot of this album on the water. Just anchored a boat, fishing and lying on the floor of the tinny and writing. A lot of it was written out there, which was completely juxtaposed to the last album, which was largely written in the red centre, in the desert. So it’s like the coastal record [laughs].
As you were lying in that tinny, was your guitar with you?
Yeah, sometimes. But I don’t really write with the guitar a lot. I like writing without an instrument a lot. But I had the guitar and I’d play sometimes, have a beer and write songs. It was really nice, and it’s really removed in a boat because you’re surrounded 360 by water, so you know there’s not really going to be any interruption. It’s a nice place to write because your brain shuts down – my phone didn’t work, I was unreachable, so my brain just completely shut down to the outside world and songs started coming. It was a really fun process. But I went up there about three or four times, I had to get the record written in three or four days at a time. So it was intensive – I’d get up and write all day and night. With the schedules now, like I said, it’s crazy busy so it’s not like I really get to just write when I feel like it, like I used to – I don’t really have that luxury, so I’m creating time to write now. The fear with that is that the inspiration won’t come when you need it to, but I’ve just learned over the years that you just create the environment for it to happen and then cross your fingers and hope for the best. Once you’re in that environment, I can kind of orchestrate it to happen most of the time. The biggest thing with this record was realising that I hadn’t been listening to music much – I’d been making so much music last year, a dozen albums back to back and overlapping. It meant that, without knowing it, I hadn’t listened to music for enjoyment all of last year. Because after 14 hours in the studio you don’t really go home and put on a record to listen to. So I realised that when I started to write I wasn’t really that inspired to go back to being a lover of music again. I had to remind myself of the twelve-, thirteen-year-old that I was who was inspired enough by the music I heard to want to create my own music. So I had to find time, force myself to consciously listen to music for enjoyment again. I always enjoy it but it’s very different when you’re making it as it is to just putting a record on that you love. So that was part of the process of the Hawkesbury – I wasn’t writing every minute, sometimes I was just listening to music and becoming a music fan again. So it was an interesting thing to learn, that I’d had a year full of music – absolutely jam-packed with music – but was then struggling to write because of that. I’d just forgotten to listen to music and love music. It was a good lesson to learn.
Were you listening to new music, or going back to things you loved?
Sometimes. I’d always take my trusty favourite records and listen to records that I knew had always inspired me over the years. It was whatever I grabbed – there was no real thought to it. But I always try to listen to new stuff, and I’m exposed to a lot of new stuff through a lot of clients I work with – they come in and they’re referencing other artists that they love to listen to. I’m finding a lot of new acts that I wouldn’t be aware of because you do live in a bubble, producing and being in the studio. It can be trap. You need to be aware of what’s happening and what music’s around and what people are listening to. I larger find out that stuff through other artists I work with. It’s like they do all the research and hard work.
That’s like paying tribute to the emperor, I think.
[Laughs] There’s so much music around, too, that we’re in danger of being swamped by it. Sometimes it’s hard to define something that you really love because there’s just so much to sift through. So I love taking recommendations from people who come to work here. And if they’re working here it generally means they like the same music that I do.
You are taking this new album on the road and the Broadbeach Country Music Festival seems to coincide exactly with your release date – so I guess it will effectively be your launch gig.
Essentially. I consider that every show I do in each city the first time for each album is a launch for that state. But I think Broadbeach is extra special because it’s not only the first time that I play there but it’s Queensland and it’s winter, which means New South Wales is rubbish right now and cold, so I’m always happy to get back to Queensland in winter. But I think musically it’s going to be fun. The new album is released the day before we play there, so it’s essentially the main launch, and I do have my whole band of producers, which is very rare, that I can get them not only at the same gig at the same time but certainly a gig in a different state. That was a scheduling nightmare because these guys don’t really tour anymore, so to get them all out of the studio, all being producers – everyone in the band is a producer – it was kind of a challenge but I’m really excited that the first show of the album tour is going to be with them, the guys who made the record. I think it’s going to be fun.
Since you’ll be playing a lot of new songs from the album, obviously a lot of your older songs will have to be jettisoned from the set list – but is there one song that you can never get rid of, either because you love it or because people ask for it?
I don’t have any normally, but when the band’s with me the only song that’s always in the set is ‘Jackson Hole’ because it’s just for the band – it’s purely self-indulgent, it’s really fun, and massive big, long extended guitar solos. It’s just the chance for everyone to stretch their legs a little bit. That one’s never not been in the set when the band’s with me, so I’m pretty certain that’s going to be in the set – they’re not going to let me not put it in there. But I don’t really have any favourites. I certainly don’t ever do a show without playing some songs – ‘Trick Knee Blues’, but obviously that’s not a festival song so that may not be getting an airing in Broadbeach. There’s nothing that I really feel compelled to play. Eventually, over the years, the more singles you have the set list starts to write itself. The trick is to keep it interesting, I think, and some nights jettison a song and replace it with something else. A curve ball, now and then. But every record there’s more singles and more songs that appear in the set list and it does get a little bit harder. I try to recycle them. I don’t like getting bored. Probably ‘Rattlin’ Bones’, too, a lot of people expect that. But that doesn’t get played every show either. I’m lucky in that sense that I don’t think I have a defining song – it’s not like I ever had a huge hit single that I have to play. So I don’t think anyone comes to a show really expecting or wanting to hear that one specific song. I’ve certainly never had that impression from my audience. I kind of like that in a way; I’m really pleased with that. It just means that it’s more about the song catalogue in its entirety than one or two things in particular.
I have to say that as a longtime fan of yours I do come to shows expecting certain tracks and I am often disappointed! But that’s the way it goes.
I remember the last time you did a tour you put it out on social media to your fans to suggest songs – did you like that method of choosing your set list?
That was fun – and it ended up informing a lot of the set list. That could have been the tour when I recorded it and made the live album. So pretty much the track list of that record ended up being from the votes, or my pick of the songs from the votes. I really enjoyed that because a lot of the songs that came back weren’t singles – a lot of the songs that were repeatedly voted for were album tracks that had never been played on the radio or never had a video clip made for them, they were just hiding down at track 8 or 9 on an album. I loved seeing what songs connected to people – I thought that was really quite interesting and sometimes surprising. But always good. I really loved it. And we do it live, too, a lot. I do this ‘Song Bingo’ thing where people can request songs in the moment, and sometimes it’s really interesting what people will come up with. Sometimes they’re just trying to stump me, picking things that are really obscure, and sometimes I try them and it’s a trainwreck – but that’s the point of Song Bingo. Sometimes the song that gets called out I think, Wow, I would never in a million years have thought to put that song in the set list tonight. It’s always interesting, what people connect with.
And also what they connect with over time. If someone has all your albums and they can go back to them – I’ve certainly done this with your albums, and there might be a song that I perhaps didn’t love as much as others at the time but somehow now I do. When you’re very good at what you do, writing songs that can stand the test of time literally, your audience will have that flexible relationship with them.
That’s nice to contemplate, that idea. It’s something you don’t think about very often, you know – you take cues from the audience and you know what floats and what doesn’t at a show. But I don’t often think about the idea of somebody living with the music over time. I always think of my records as a point in time – it’s like taking a photograph of you in 2006, that’s that album, that’s you then. But I guess you’re right – there’s records that I love that I’ve lived with my whole life. Harvest– I’ve lived with that record forever, and you’re right, it evolves over time, different songs speak to you at different times. I guess I’ve just never considered myself in that – I’ve never thought of it. You don’t really see the forest for the trees when you’re the artist.