We’re not sure that many people actually know this, but Nathan Holscher has made one of the best Americana records of 2009 with Hit The Ground, his third album of heartworn road songs. With his band, The Ohio 5, this Cincinnati, Ohio songwriter and poet sounds like he’s still roaming the backroads of Springsteen’s Nebraska, lost, lovesick and without the ability to just get the hell over this chick who’s causing him all this heartache. We spoke to the extremely gifted songwriter about growing up on Townes, the intimacy of Cincinnati and his dear grandmother.
Interview by Soren McGuire
Do you remember the exact moment songwriting suddenly made enough sense to you to actually pursue it?
I begun fooling around with songwriting as a teenager- probably around 17 or 18, when I wrote some songs for a band I played in. I don't think any of them were particularly good. It took my leaving home to get my head around a lot of things, songs included. By the time I was 20 I was heavy into Townes. Listening to certain songs- You Are Not Needed Now or Flying Shoes- I started to appreciate what writing could mean. Though I am constantly fumbling around the form, the fumbling has made more sense after hearing those things.
This is probably a dumb question but what was it about Townes that inspired you? How did his songwriting suddenly make more sense to you?
My dad turned me on to Townes with a recording of live stuff - mostly just him playing with a fiddle or another guitar. That was a great way to first experience his music, because it brought the attention right to the lyrics. This lead me to think of songs as a form of poetry. From that point on, I told myself I wasn't going to sing anything that I couldn't just be said aloud - with no musical backing. Instead of being limiting, I found that it actually expanded the way one can approach words and music. I'd probably heard his name many times before but…
How would you define your background, both musically and personally? How does it all add up to become the artist you are today?
Personally, I've always had many interests- fishing, geography, reading, sports, food and drink, religion, etc. I've always tried to pursue them with no particular end in mind. Just for the hell of it, I guess. The same is true for my musical background. I like a lot of different things- jazz, rap, different kinds of folk music, lots of R&B. I just try to be open to stuff, and not get too caught up in what's gonna come of it on any particular day. My job is to brew a pot of coffee and let curiosity do the rest.
Yet you have a pretty distinctive sound, don't you? It's funny, but with the label "alt.country" being put on pretty much anything these days that's vaguely reminiscent of country, Hit The Ground is actually one of the most alt.country-ish records I've heard in a long time.The sound is solid, very layered yet organic at the same time. What's your approach this whole alternative country thing we all keep going on about?
I think you hit the nail right the head with the idea of a record being organic. No matter how many people are playing, or what a song is about, I think there's an argument for letting each song breathe.
It seems like lots of things have fallen under the "alt country" umbrella over the years. My approach is just to put the focus on songs. If I think I can get the most out of a song by just playing it acoustically, or with a steel guitar or piano, that's what I'll do. But if I think a song is best presented in a textured, semi-orchestral fashion, that's fine, too. I mostly write songs on my acoustic guitar, or occasionally through messing around on the piano.
When I listen to Hit The Ground, I feel there’s a sense of restlessness in there, like you’re eager to hit the road and leave behind whatever or whoever’s hurting you or holding you back. How would you describe the themes of this album?
There's definitely restlessness in there. The more I live with the characters in that group of songs, the more I think there's some underlying decency to many of them as well. Yes, these are people who have made some poor choices and are paying an emotional cost. But they are also fairly earnest, almost old-fashioned in their willingness to make a choice and commit to it. They aren't sending text messages to would-be lovers as the bar closes. They are accountable to their feelings, and are probably sleeping alone after last call. Most of them, anyway. Characters also give recognition to landscape in a couple songs. The theme of personal void is sometimes mitigated by the vastness of the natural world.
Oh yes, the pre-web 2.0 Twitter generation. I once belonged with these people. These days my girlfriend and I communicate mostly on Facebook. Those people will always live on in heartworn love songs even when the last romantic has left this life, won't they?
I think there is something to be sad for the old-fashioned forms of communication. Of course, these days phone calls seem old-fashioned. I love reading letters. I've read some letters from the Civil War era and before, when people really had to deal with larger notions of space and time. To me, that stuff is usually much more compelling than the drivel that is turned out by electronic devices. Plus, if someone actually writes you a letter, it means they've really committed to the idea of communicating with you. It doesn't take much effort to write an email or text. The only person I get real letters from these days is my grandmother. I really look forward to getting them.
Where were these songs written?
Mostly in my bedroom. A couple in the kitchen or on back porch.
So they weren't written on the back of a napkin in some desolated bar on the outskirts out Cincinnati at 3 am with George Jones playing on the jukebox?
Na, I tend to be somewhat of an isolationist when it comes to songwriting. I'm not at all good at multi-tasking.
You sound pretty heartbroken on a lot of these songs. Is it the classic case of guy meets girl, girl dumps guy, guy records an album of broken-hearted love songs, girl hears it on the radio and comes knocking on guy's door again?
I've always kept that door locked. Most folks have had their hearts broken in one way or another, I'd expect. And it only needs to happen once to be able to write that way for the rest of one's life. I've been mercifully free of that sort of thing for a while. I can go there in song; that's more than enough. More than anything, I think I lucked out and knocked on the right door for once.
To be able to write about heartbreak like you do without actually being in the middle of one right now takes a pretty damn good poet, doesn't it?
A couple of these songs do date back to less sunny days. But I think you can always remember what that feels like. And of course you are reminded of what that experience fees like when a friends goes through it, or through reading or whatnot.
Tell me about working with Ric Hordinski who produced this album
Working with Ric is a focused experience for me. I come in with a group of songs and play them for him. We'll toss around ideas for an hour or two. Then we just record the songs. This time, the band and I played and sung them live - I didn't want to lose any of the feel with overdubs on vocal or rhythm tracks. Ric is as good an engineer as he is producer so that part was fairly easy. On many of the songs, he'll add his own guitar parts. He's got a good sense of where to play and where to breathe. The process unfolds over a few 6 or 7 hour days, and it's pretty laid back. We usually drink some beer.
Unfortunately I've never been to Cincinnati, but I sense there's something very intimate about that city. Has it influenced your songwriting? I don't know, I just imagine this American version of Prague or Paris, with small brick lanes, old houses and lots of rain...
Lots of rain. And yes, there is something intimate about it. It's a fair-sized city, but people tend to know each other. There are lots of older buildings, and some really nice views. It's a pretty hilly landscape, sitting on top of one of the country's largest rivers, the Ohio. Though there are other settings that have greatly affected how I view writing - a lot of the West. I think it's fair to say Cincinnati has been an influence, too.
Nathan Holscher & The Ohio 5’s Hit The Ground is out now. For more info, songs and how to purchase the album, go to myspace.com/nathanholscher