Neil Nathan - D.I.Y. Music Production in the Material World
Neil Nathan may chuckle at the notion, but make no mistake about it – he’s the D.I.Y. bastard step-child of Jackson Browne and David Bowie. Ask anyone who has seen the singer-songwriter perform, or any one of the artists he has taken under his wing and produced – it is a new era of folk and glam rock with Nathan at its forefront.
By the time Nathan’s acoustic cover of ELO’s power ballad, Do Ya, was handpicked for the soundtrack of Showtime’s hit dramedy Californication four years ago, the New York-based singer-songwriter was already an old pro at getting his work into the eyes and ears of listeners. That comes with the territory as a self-produced musician in the modern world, where the tools of the digital age can effortlessly aid in every step of the production process – from initial concept to home studio recording; from album cover design and post-production to digital release; and finally, from viral marketing to targeting tour venues.
For the last decade, Nathan has done it all – and for the last two years, he has made it a point to share what he’s learned in the indie trenches with new artists on the New York scene.
“I think that producing an album, in general, has gotten a lot quicker and cheaper over the last decade or so,” says Nathan, adding, “and for the D.I.Y. artist, promotion can be more efficient and far reaching than ever. I have fans in Mexico, France, and Indonesia. It’s bizarre. No more just making EPs and selling them or handing them out, no more hand-drawn flyers and things like that… Now, an independent musician can go online and invite the world and make their music known. Those older, more traditional promo methods still have their value, but I’d much rather just get it out there on the internet and reach all sorts of people that way – save the trees! – so, yes, the evolution has been incredibly liberating.”
Having graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Economics, the New Jersey-born musician was originally pursuing a career in education, teaching World History in some of the toughest high schools in New York City when his dreams of rock and roll stardom finally got the better of him. During his tenure as a city teacher, Nathan had continued to play with power pop band THIS and even produced and starred in an off-Broadway dystopian rock opera, Automatic Superstar. In 2007, however, he officially launched his solo career, reinventing himself as a shining example of the modern D.I.Y independent artist – and learning the hard way both the satisfaction and frustration that comes with creating, producing, and marketing your own work.
Showtime’s selection of Nathan’s ELO cover for the David Duchovny-driven cable hit in 2008 largely aided in the artist’s first tinges of mainstream recognition. Now, with a string of EPs and LPs under his belt, Nathan has just come off one of his most taxing years – producing not one, but three debut albums for freshmen artists signed to his Pirate Vinyl label – and completing his own second LP, a power to the people concept album that may hit home to a lot of listeners, especially during a tumultuous election year.
“I think I’ve always gravitated towards conscious, timely music,” he says. “I’m not being overtly political with this album in the sense of, ‘You should vote for this person or that person.’ It’s more about being inspired by the spirit of the times… I mean, people are standing up together for positive change all over the planet, it’s incredible and unprecedented.”
Nathan is releasing the aptly titled Sweep The Nation under Neil Nathan Inc., a clear jab at corporate personhood. He also chose to create a Ziggy Stardust-inspired alien alter ego character named The Overlord to deliver this message of hope and citizen empowerment. “I think the songs are all quite earnest and sincere, so maybe it feels safer to be masked and play dress-up when saying these things. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to be in character than to be yourself. But it’s all a part of me.”
In addition, he quips, creating a playful yet dramatic counterpart also forced him to confront some of his own inner conflicts about politics, the nation, and what social responsibility music has now and will have in the future. But, to Nathan, personally-crafted independent music can help find that middle ground between artistic and social philosophy – but when you listen to the record, it’s clear that at the center of it all is the beating heart of a modern rock and roll animal.
For Sweep the Nation, Nathan applied what he learned from working with friend and producer Bobby Harlow (The Go, King Tuff), a kindred spirit who understood the conceptual nature of his songwriting. “I like the fact that the listener might not know it's the same singer from song to song – I get the idea of branding your sound, but it just doesn't interest me as an artist or a singer,” says Nathan. “My attention span is too short for that. So I do it on a song by song basis… Bobby said I approach each song like an actor and that sums it up perfectly.”
He adds, “As a result of that approach, my records probably sound more like mixes than coherent albums, but that's who I am. Even my covers EP, Songsmiths, had me exploring these different personalities from song to song.”
Nathan’s recent foray into dramatic glam on his latest release comes as less than a shock when taking into account just how many hats he’s worn over the last twenty-four months. Before production of Sweep the Nation had even begun, the singer-songwriter spent the majority of his creative energy during that time both producing and guiding three new acts signed to his Pirate Vinyl label – Engines, a one-man band led by recent high school graduate and acoustic prodigy Tom D’Agustino; New York singer-songwriter Caren Le Vine; and Michigan-born songstress Susannah Conn, whose lyrical and melodic style immediately garnered comparisons to Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce.
“Really, I just enjoyed – with all of these three artists – the fact that, because it was a debut record for each of them, I was able to incorporate my experience as a teacher and a mentor of first-year teachers,” says Nathan. “Even before we stepped into a studio, that role was attractive to me and is something I’ve been doing for years. With Caren, I heard a really nice mix of styles and I was drawn to that diversity, which is a lot like me. There was some Americana in there, some county-rock stuff, and then she had a few harder rockers… Susannah is pretty singular as an artist and I get excited about her phrasing because it reminds me of old school folk, but sung with the voice of an angel.”
Of eighteen-year-old musical wunderkind Tom D’Agustino, Nathan adds, “With Tom, it was hysterical that a kid that age could be so ridiculously comfortable in the studio, it was like he was born there. It took me years to get there… and this kid was still in high school.”
When all three albums were finally completed with their own respective productions, the smoke was clear for Nathan to get cracking on his own work again – reinvigorated, rejuvenated, and having seen enough unrest in the daily news to quickly find inspiration for his concept album. “The experience of co-producing three artists these past two years with Riley McMahon (Spottiswoode & His Enemies) at his New Warsaw Studio in Brooklyn definitely got me thinking more deeply about how I approach recording and songwriting,” says Nathan. “The albums were all made consecutively, then my latest album just flowed very organically out of those experiences working with Riley. ”
For Sweep the Nation, Nathan had no problem adapting the benefits of independent production and viral marketing to the project full-force, although he admits to not losing his nostalgic sensibilities for the era of analog and vinyl. “With this new album, the message in essence, is ‘power to the people,’ so making it a digital release that exists only in the ethers, makes a lot of sense aesthetically. This will be the first album that I’ve done that I won’t be making physical copies of for sales… whereas with my last album, I went hog-wild with physical copies, CDs and vinyl. ”
Nathan continues, “In theory, I wouldn’t make a CD anymore if radio didn’t still, kind of, demand it. To me, it should just be vinyl or mp3 – completely traditional for those who collect it and enjoy the higher quality of sound while listening at home, and then the digital version for listening on the run.”
Yet, aside from the liberating elements that the digital age has brought to up-and-coming independent artists, Nathan is still quick to advise indie hopefuls that some things never change – especially in the record business. “There are a lot of websites that prey on independent artists and their dreams of making it big,” he says, knowingly. “A whole industry that centers around up-and-coming musicians who may feel that they have to pay for a certain career service and then end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars on stuff that’s not going to help them… I always think of that quote attributed to Hunter Thompson – ‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.’"
Neil Nathan is clearly one of the good men, but he’s somehow persevered and prospered – something that many up-and-coming indie hopefuls can learn from. “Recording, writing, and performing are an addiction in some ways,” he says. “You have to be compelled to do this, it has to be in your veins. And most of all, you have to love the process. Because in the end, it’s not about anything else.”
Spoken like a true teacher.
All photos courtesy of Neil Nathan/Pirate Vinyl/Serena Creative.3 January, 2013 - 06:55 — Chad Kushins