Friday, January 21, 2011

Franz Nicolay

Above all, Franz Nicolay is an Artist.

Certainly he's a musician, well known for his work with the boisterous, cabaret-punk collective World/Inferno Friendship Society; his curly mustache and fedora also became a familiar fixture beside Craig Finn and the frat-rock storytellers in the Hold Steady until he left the band abruptly in 2010. A respected session player, Nicolay has contributed accordion tracks to records by a range of artists, from Evelyn Evelyn (the siamese twin sideshow performed by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley) to politi-punks the Star Fucking Hipsters and, recently, British troubadour Frank Turner; he even pounded the piano for Against Me! during their recent summer tour.

There are other projects, too—Anti-Social Music, for example, a cooperative of composers and chamber musicians, and the eclectic gypsy-klezmer consort Guignol—and his prolificacy only promotes the notion that Nicolay is making more than music—it's cross-cultural, and mixed-media, and convention-bending. In fact, the songs on Luck and Courage, his second full-length, feel specifically narrative in nature, like a short story set to music. This might be because Nicolay's approach to songwriting is more literary than most musicians', with characters and conflicts and themes threaded beneath the surface of each song.

The concept behind Luck and Courage came to Nicolay in a manner fitting an Artist. “This is the worst kind of cliché,” he begins, “but I had this dream in which I wrote this song named 'Felix and Adelita'. It was one of those rare occasions where I dragged myself out of bed and wrote the whole damn thing down.

There's three ways that can go,” he continues. “You have a dream where you've written a great story or song and you roll over and say, 'Eh, I'll probably remember that' and, of course, it's gone. Or, if you actually have a notepad by your bed, you roll over and scrawl something down and, when you wake up, it's some illegible, stoned epiphany—like, 'Blue is Blue'—and you're like, 'Aw man, that wasn't good at all.' But this one was basically the song as it ended up as the first track on the record.”

Nicolay, curious about where his subconscious guided him, Googled the names “Felix” and “Adelita” and was intrigued by what he found. “'Felix' turned out the be Latin for 'luck,'” he tells, “and 'Adelita,' in Mexico, is this mystic icon of courage; she's a woman warrior. So I was like, 'Luck and Courage...that sounds like an album title!'”

Though he had already written some of what would become Luck and Courage, Nicolay was inspired by the ideas revealed during this dream. Featured in the lyrics of “Felix and Adelita”, for example, is a conflict between the safety of domesticity and the freedom of living a life untethered; Nicolay saw this as a theme that could tie some of his other songs together.
There's a another theme, what Nicolay calls a meta-narrative, that connects the songs on this release. “There's a sense in love affairs where you sort of create your own little country,” he explains. “Kurt Vonnegut calls it the 'nation of two.' It has its own language and its own customs and its own geography and history. And when that starts to go bad, it can feel like this country's coming apart, like there's something rotten at the heart of this society.”

Both themes appear in “Felix and Adelita”, which leads off Luck and Courage. Nicolay's candid, crisp voice introduces his characters within the song's first few syllables as an organ hums behind him. By the time his banjo enters, sparkling at the start of each line, it's easy to sense this crumbling “nation of two”. As song softly proceeds, driven by the steady shuffling of brushes on a snare drum, Nicolay sings, “But when you leave again leave something of you with them / Tie your fishing lines to the fence posts and do your best to reel them in / The candle flickers, you measure morals by unsturdy things / tear leaves off of the sycamore, and pin down the butterfly's wings,” and the tug towards stability against the pull of independence seems apparent.

The record closes with the title track, which seems to both parallel and oppose the opener. Propelled by a popping banjo and the bright kicks of a piano, the history between Felix and Adelita seems further revealed; unlike the chorus on “Felix and Adelita”, though, which rings with reeling in and pinning down, “Luck and Courage” seems more about casting away. Especially considering the bridge—where the snare drum stirs the song into a sudden and frantic frenzy, where these two doves are described oceans apart, where the banjo seems to spin like a pinwheel, where Nicolay concludes with the line, “and her absence at the altar”—one might imagine Felix and Adelita's little country divided at the end.

When Nicolay contemplates the “nation of two” and considers the struggles sparked when an enclosed culture starts to crumble, he isn't relying strictly on his experience in romantic relationships. “Every band is its own culture as well,” he explains. “It has its own inside jokes, it has its own ways that people adjust to being around each other for long periods of time in strenuous circumstances. With some bands, I've been a part of it as that develops; being in a band that's been around for five or ten years or longer, you're inventing from the ground up both a family and a small business, and everybody sort of figures out their own way of doing that. With other bands, though, I sort of parachute in like an anthropologist onto a Pacific island.”

It's been easier for Nicolay to drop into some bands than others. Despite his tenure with the band, he found it difficult to fit in with the Hold Steady even though he complimented them musically. “My touring background was with World/Inferno,” he says. “I was from punk and from that kind of world. When I joined the Hold Steady, it was like, these are some guys that are into sports and Budweiser and Led Zeppelin, which was the kind of mindset that I hadn't run into in the New York punk world. It wasn't the same world, culturally.”

Like Adelita (or Felix, depending on one's interpretation of his songs), Nicolay found freedom by fleeing his permanent spot in the Hold Steady, by abandoning what was holding him back. And, though he continues to contribute his accordion to records that may require its wheeze, becoming a solo Artist has allowed him to truly stretch—to set his short stories to music, to thread his songs with meaningful and thoughtful themes, to pull characters from his subconscious and let them lead him. Because he set his own course, Luck and Courage is a record like no other; it's folky without suffering from simplicity, punk-rock without the aggression or anger, catchy without coming off as cliché, experimental without pretension. It's cross-cultural, and mixed-media, and convention-bending, and more than mere music.
It's Art, but only because Franz Nicolay is an Artist.

Nicolay took time off from engineering a record for Pearl and the Beard with Dan Brennan at Soundtrack Recording Studios in New York to record these songs a few days after Christmas. Brennan was able to patch a condenser microphone into the studio's landline phone so Nicolay performed these songs in the studio's sound booth, wearing headphones and a banjo, instead of directly into the telephone.

"This Is Not a Pipe" appears on Nicolay's 2010 record titled Luck and Courage. "Not Superstitious" is a Leatherface cover; the song originally appeared on the 1991 album Mush.

Visit the Nicolay's website for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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