Interview: Nick Flora!

Underneath This had the enjoyable experience of interviewing talented musician Nick Flora. For more information about Nick and his music, please check out the interview and these social media pages: http://www.nickflora.com, http://www.twitter.com/nickflora, http://www.facebook.com/nfloramusic, and http://www.youtube.com/nickfloramusic

What were some moments that sparked your interest pursuing music professionally?

There were a lot I’m sure. My dad is a professional jazz musician and music theory professor. Growing up, I watched him pay our bills by working hard at making music. It never occurred to me that THAT wasn’t an option on “career day.” So I filed that away from an early age.

Also being a teenager in a small town who had just started plucking away at the guitar and pouring over the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines. Seeing pictures and interviews with artists I looked up to–playing the instrument I had in my bedroom–had a profound impact on me. Another big moment for me was seeing Ben Folds Five on a short lived PBS series called “Sessions At West 54th” one night in 1997. They were dressed like me and my friends, they talked like us too. But they sang and played their instruments like true pros. I figured I could get to the point where I was doing this professionally if I just kept at it. I just needed to connect the dots; to get from here to there.

How has Nashville been influential to your career?

There’s a thing that happens to creative people; perhaps other types to but I can’t speak to that specifically. When we get in the room with other people in our field that are at a higher level—talent-wise, experience-wise, etc—we tend to step up to the plate and push ourselves to be better. It’s a fight or flight mentality that a lot of us have. So moving to Nashville for me was more than a experiment, it was a necessity.

It’s so easy to get comfortable creatively, I knew I had to get around musicians who would help inspire, encourage, and push me to a level of potential I was not able to get to alone. It’s Indiana Jones walking out over the invisible bridge in The Last Crusade. Even though your brain tells you otherwise, you have to trust it’s there and walk out anyway. So moving to Nashville and seeking out and surrounding myself with the amazing artists that live and work here was a bold move. Because, what if I didn’t have it in me? What if it takes more work to get to that level than I’m willing to put it? But that’s a risk we have to take sometimes.

The community in Nashville is incredibly nurturing and supportive. One that WANTS you to do well and to be great. When one of us does well, we all do well. It feels like a family in a way a lot of “industry towns” don’t have, I think.

You have blended wit into your songwriting. How has your sense of humor developed over time?

Comedy has always been a love of mine. I had early aspirations of being a stand up comedian or performing on SNL. When I started getting into music I always gravitated towards the off-beat songwriters that weren’t afraid to be witty or tongue-in-cheek on one song, then flip it on it’s head and be earnest and wear their hearts on their sleeves in the next. Guys like Ben Folds, Fountains Of Wayne, and Randy Newman showed me this was possible and I was hooked. I love the idea of being an Entertainer—capital E. To give people a show that’s shaded with all different parts of the human experience. So comedy or laughter is a big one for me.

When I was a kid, nothing made me laugh harder than Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, or Chris Farley. Over time, seeing comedy take many different forms, as in the seemingly mundane (Christopher Guest films, The Office) or the downright unfortunate or sad (the films of Woody Allen, The Coen Bros, or Wes Anderson) was fascinating to me. So using that in my music was a challenge I was up for. So writing a song that has a potentially sad premise, like my song “Temp Job” which is from the POV of a guy that who’d rather wait for the things he wants in life to find him, instead of risking pain and embarrassment to pursue them. So the song about the resident “lazy, sad guy” around town could easily be a ballad that is as depressing as the life that guy leads. But I decided to make it up tempo and fill it to the brim with wit. If you talk to those types of guys you’ll find the way they “spin” the truth is always impressive and towards the positive. It’s almost as if you’re trying to convince yourself of the lie as much as the person you’re telling. The comedy is there, for sure.

How does gender affect the songs that you make?

My gender? Well I’m a dude and we go thru things differently than, say, “non-dudes.” There’s a struggle I’m trying to wrestle with in my music (and my everyday life) which is if the stereotypical male role in society is valid anymore. It feels like men are allowed more than ever in any point in history to have and emote feeling; to not always be the strong, silent type who’s carrying the weight of a job and a family on his shoulders. These are the ideals that were passed down by the previous generation, and definitely the one before that. Gender roles are fascinating to me, mainly because I’m not sure we should be assigned roles by our gender, but by our specific personality types and talents. The idea that we can be summed up as a person by any broad generalization is an offensive and archaic idea. I love writing songs from the person’s point of view instead of assigning gender roles to it. Not to mention, you eliminate half your audience when you do that!

Is your music feminist, and if so, how so?

I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but my gut response is to say “sure!” Most of my songs deal with a male POV because, well, I’m male. But I often write with the female perspective in mind. I’m in awe of women. Some of the strongest, most interesting, and creative people I’ve ever met are women. Women often aren’t afraid to be earnest and heartfelt at the drop of a hat which is one of the most courageous things we can do as people. Be who we are and express that in the purest forms. I often resonate stronger with female artists than male.

Have any female artists inspired you? If so, who?

Absolutely. I grew up in a household where Ella Fitzgerald was played on the regular. Honestly a lot of the artists I tend to go to for inspiration when writing are women. Feist, Jenny Lewis, Kathleen Edwards, Regina Spektor, Brooke Waggoner, Allie Farris, Stacy Lantz, to name a few.

You have listed Ben Folds Elvis Costello, Josh Ritter, and Fountains of Wayne among others as artists similar to you. Who and what have been other creative influences?

I’m very influenced by all kinds of art-makers. Filmmakers, probably the most. I love a great screenwriter/director combo as much as I love singer/songwriters. Guys like Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Christopher Nolan, PT Anderson, etc. I’m a fan of story and characters, and these guys are some of the best out there, in my opinion. A lot of the themes covered in their films, I resonate with and will often write songs based around them, whether I know it or not.

Your style has been described as “alterna-pop” and “singer-songwriter.” What does these designations mean to you?

Descriptors are hard when it comes to creative stuff. I don’t feel like any artist can be summed up by a couple words. I like saying alterna-pop singer/songwriter because that at least puts people who haven’t heard my music in the right ball park. My music is pop accessible but has the quirks and turns in it that wouldn’t exactly place it on Top 40 radio.

How did making your solo debut, “Great Escape” compare to the making of your later albums?

Great Escape was my 3rd time in a studio but really felt like my first attempt at something substantial. It feels like a first album to me. It’s a gathering of the previous years of songs I’d written and toured behind. I had played the songs hundreds of times on stage and worked out every beat and kink, leaving almost NO room in the studio for tinkering. Which can be good, but the latter albums Hello Stranger and The Reintroduction Of Nick Flora were basically put together in the studio. I came in with the songs about 60-80% finished and my producer, Andrew Osenga and I, took them the rest of the way. That’s a fun way to do it since the ideas are so new that you don’t have time to be precious about the material. If a verse needs to be cut, or a different drum beat needs to be added to change the feel, then you’re more game for changes which allows songs to reach full potential growth.

Your live performances have been generally reviewed positively. How does performing compare to recording?

Live performance and studio recording are like choosing between children for me. Haha. I love both equally for different reasons. Studio is where you get to build something special for a finite amount of time that will theoretically live forever and reach corners of the planet that you may never reach in your lifetime. It’s capturing magic in a box. Live performance takes that magic and adds a special ingredient that can’t be contained and shares it with an audience. No matter how big the crowd, each live show is something that can only be experienced in that point in time. Even if you play the same song over and over, night after night, the performance shifts and changes. It’s truly special because it will never happen again in that exact way. It’s incredibly addicting.

How has playing house concerts differed from performing in public venues?

First off house, concerts tend to be much more personal. There’s no sound guy telling you to wrap up, or band waiting side-stage to set up their gear. It’s just you, your instrument, and the audience. That environment lends itself to stories, spontaneous moments, and getting to know the crowd better. It might be my favorite way to perform music—in it’s purest form. Something powerful happens when you remove the stage and share your songs in an intimate setting, like a living room. It’s almost impossible not to feel like you’ve been a part of something special.

What is the meaning of the title of your latest album, “The Reintroduction of Nick Flora?”

It sort of started as a joke. I mean, every new album is a “reintroduction” of sorts to that particular artist. Then when I started writing the songs I realized I was writing a lot about the things I’ve learned about myself and the world around me. Things, thoughts, and beliefs I’ve had on lock down for a decade or more that might not necessarily hold up anymore. So in a big way, this album is a snapshot of the ideas I’ve been “reintroduced” to. A different way to see the world, relationships, community, love, and the lives we’re all living.

You so deftly tell stories through songs. What is the story behind “Part 1: Hometown Kids” on this album?

That song is based on a family story involving my Great Uncle and his divorce from his high school sweetheart after they got pregnant. The love they had was just too young and idealistic to handle the massive undertaking of marriage and parenthood, so he took off for California. It’s a sad song in some ways, but also shows there are two sides to every story. He had three marriages that ended almost cinematically like this.

How does this song relate to the “Part 2” and “Park 3” tracks?

Parts 2 and 3 are the other two marriages ending. My Great Uncle was a bit of an eccentric fellow and had a knack for marrying wild women. It’s these types of family stories that are so unbelievable that I felt the duty to turn into song just so they could live on.

I have enjoyed your cover songs from films as well, especially “You’re the one that I want.” Which have been your favorite to make and how did you decide which songs to cover? What inspired the cover album series overall?

Thanks! That was a fun project. I knew I wanted to record some cover songs, and when I made a list I noticed that most of them were from film soundtracks I love. So I made the whole project (all three EPs) film based. So the songs are from movies I love. You’re the One That I Want (from Grease) is actually a song I normally don’t care for, and especially despise the movie. (No offense to Grease lovers.) That was a fun experiment, to see if I could make this shrill song (in my opinion) listenable. I’m proud of the end result. Especially Stacy Lantz’s involvement in that song.

I have liked your collaborations with Stacy Lantz. How has it been working together?

Stacy is the best. I love working with her. Not only is she one of the best female vocalists in Nashville (maybe the country) but she is a GREAT writer and really knows her stuff. So collaborating with her is so helpful because she can lend a writer’s ear to songs or melodies. Her album “Ready This Time” just proves how versatile and effortless her talent flows. Truly gorgeous work.

Your song, “One (Better Off as Two”) written for Leigh Ann Kopans’s book “ONE” was moving. What inspired that track?

That was fun to do. I’ve never been asked to write a song for a book before. I took the themes and some of the character quirks from the book and formed the song around that. It was really fun and came out rather quick. Sometimes it’s fun to have parameters to work in, to make something work in the small space you’re given. A challenge like that can really open up your writing chops.

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

I get asked this a lot actually from upcoming musicians, and I could tell them a million little nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned. But the most important thing is to write a lot, get on stage as much as possible, and find a community of artists who will push and encourage you to be the best you can be. Find out what you have to say, what makes your point of view different and special and write the fire out of that. Especially the stuff that you feel no one will relate to. That’s often the material that resonates the most.

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