Saturday, 17 January 2015

Interview with Kevin Nolan

Photo by Mihai Cucu

Introduction: Regulars to the blog will be aware of the fondness that is held in these parts for poet and musician Kevin Nolan who released his debut album, Frederick & The Golden Dawn towards the end of 2014, and also featured in my 20 Best Irish Tracks of 2014 with his wonderful track 'Drowning'. One of the objectives I set out with when I started the blog a few years ago was to introduce music and film that may have gone under the radar or may not have received the publicity I felt they deserved. With that in mind, it's always a bonus when an interview serves this purpose to a degree as well, and the following responses from Kevin Nolan certainly do that, as he shares his inspirations and influences with us. It's a thought-provoking interview and a great insight to his song-writing process and personal struggles also, enjoy.

Kevin Nolan, 'Splinter'

Remy: Your debut album Frederick & The Golden Dawn has received a lot of positive reviews from both online and print media since it's release late last year, were you happy when you finished recording that the album reflected what you had set out to do?

Kevin: I really didn’t set out with any idea of the whole, it was more like a mosaic. I just put all my energy into each and every miniscule element of that album and then hoped that because each part was executed with the whole of my being (sometimes to the point of madness) that somehow that would legitimise the whole. I don’t think anyone is really fully happy with a work when it’s finished. I think it was Auden who said a work is never finished, it’s abandoned. But I guess there was a certain mark I was aiming to hit, a kind of standard and for the most part I feel I hit it.

Remy: As a published poet ('Vibrations Of The Soul') and a musician, which do you derive more pleasure from, and do you feel these separate interests cross-over into each other?

Kevin: For the most part they don’t cross over for all sorts of technical reasons but occasionally I’ve tried. For the lyrics to my song ‘Ballade to St. Dymphna’ I wrote the lyrics using an old poetic form known as the eight line stanza ballade, it’s a thirteenth century French form and was believed to have magical properties associated with the number eight. Jean Cocteau once said that even though he worked with Film, Writing, Design, Art, among others, all his work was really just poetry.

For me, even though the two forms I work with don’t explicitly cross over there’s an underlying quality which I’d like to think you can derive from both. You can tell if a song or a poem is genuine or comes from a genuine place, you can tell if it has Duende, you can tell if it’s an expression of something real, no matter what the medium or genre, and in this way I like to think there is a cross over with my poems and songs. Their cross over or relation is that they are both my expression of Duende, of something genuine, something real, something guttural. Duende is a term I first read in a lecture by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, in which he outlines the properties of the expression. He says ‘All that has dark sounds has Duende’. It’s a type of  life exuding fire and this fire comes from the author of a work of art, from the person, the plight, the place and then this is distilled and poured into the work. In time the author may die in the Barthian sense but the Duende remains. It pours out of the pages of Proust, it leaks from the lips of Lautreamont; Waits has it, Billie Holiday had it. Lorca gives an example of a lady he saw perform. She performs an old Gypsy song. The woman sings the first song and it is less than impressive for Lorca but then she takes a glass of whiskey before she sings the next, and it is then that Lorca says that she has Duende. It’s a fire in the soul. Maybe this woman could have sang that same song twice but only one of the renditions had Duende, so you see it’s an exaltation of the spirit, borne out of a great celebration of sadness and it’s capacity to uncover the deepness of life, it’s an expression of the inexpressible, but it is none the less immediately discernible to any audience. 

It’s is something you can’t derive from the lyric or the music explicitly. It’s a quality that accompanies or underlines these elements and if it’s there, you know it, it’s immediately apparent. It serves as a kind of validation, a sense of something true, something real, something genuine behind the song or poem or any work of art for that matter. Leonard Cohen once said that poetry is a verdict, if a poem or song causes a reaction in you, if it moves you in some way then that reaction in the listener or reader is the affirmation of the verdict and this verdict is a validation for work as a work of art. Incidentally, I have a new volume of poetry coming out soon titled ‘Schizo-Poetry – Fragments Of Mind’ and is a collaboration with Artist/Poet Susanne Wawra, which I think is my most successful attempt at expressing Duende.

Kevin with Julie Feeney who appears on 'Aubade'

Remy: Having watched some of your live videos and also when listening to Frederick & The Golden Dawn, it's clear there's a strong element of performance art in your work, where is this theatricity borne out of?

Kevin: I’ve always loved theatre, some people say I’m an actor trapped in a composers body. When I was making this album I loved the power of music and words as separate from one’s inner feelings (on an explicit level at least) and the theatrical was a way of doing that. I used to think a work of art bereft of the inner feelings of the author (inasmuch as is possible) was a truer expression of creativity. I thought that just to report your inner life and call it art was just some type of objet trouvĂ© or archaeology and I had a strong distaste for it. I thought that to make something from nothing (inasmuch as it is possible) was a truer expression of the idea to ‘create’. Making music to me was more like carpentry or like an inventors task. I loved Tom Waits, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weil, Dagmar Krause, Gilbert and Sullivan, West Side Story, Hanns Eisler and many more. I read the essays of T. S. Eliot and the Russian Formalists and it all seemed to make sense to me. I though this is what I want to do. I thought of the making of music as a kind of conjuring or a casting, an evocation or an incantation. One summons the song into existence, it has a life of it’s own and if you're lucky and you mean it, it will answer that call.

Having said all that, things have changed ‘dramatically’ since I finished my debut album. I’m turning more and more toward the confessional genre which is something I looked down on before. Maybe I feel I’ve done the fictionalising, the theatrical and the biblical enough now. I think when the confessional is done well, in the likes of Dylan or specifically Cohen it is deeply affecting and enriching as an art form. And so I have the sense that for my next album I will add something of the confessional.  

Remy: Tell us a bit about the younger Kevin Nolan as a child and teenager, with regard to your earliest memories of literature, poetry and music which set you on your current path, books, poems, albums etc.?

Kevin: I was a precocious kid, I first read ‘Nausea’ by Jean Paul Sartre when I was fifteen years old also around that time I read Rimbaud, Kerouac, Hesse, Mann, Burroughs, Camus, Eco, Mallarme, Huxley, Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer and many many more. I read ferociously and it was the same with music. As a teen I didn’t like Cohen or Dylan, because lyrics didn’t really mean that much to me at that time, I was more interested in music, sound. I always loved Waits, Can, Stereolab, Joy Division, Zappa, Johnny Cash, The Smiths, Radiohead, Prince, Thelonious Monk, Captain Beefheart, Billie Holiday, The Beach Boys, Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Debussy, Chet Baker, Cornelius, Mozart, The Pixies, Monade, Gilbert and Sullivan, West Side Story and I really really loved Jazz and film music, really there’s too many to mention. Then as I grew older my musical tastes got more and more refined, I still love all sorts of music now but really for me now there’s only really, Waits, Dylan, Cohen, Walker, Beefheart, Cave, Stereolab and Brel and to some extent Tindersticks.  

Remy: When I reviewed F&TGD back in September I mentioned the sounds of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Frank Zappa, and Neil Hannon (on 'The Guess'). Of all of the reviews of the album since it's release, is there any influential artists that have been left out, or do you think it's more for other people to find those comparisons rather than you pointing them out?

Kevin Nolan: I must say Neil Hannon is a surprise for me, I’m not familiar with his work at all really, anything I did hear failed to reach me. The reviewers have been pretty much on the money though with my influences i.e Brecht, Waits, Cave, Weil, Reich, except to say that Nick Cave really isn’t that big an influence for me. I think Cave has a few scintillating songs but the majority of his music although I respect it, it’s just not for me. I think his highly respected presence in music is based on just a few songs. But they say if a poet is remembered for one or two poems, then he’s a major poet, I think it will be that way for Cave. When I was making my album in the very beginning my blueprint was to mix Tom Waits and Stereolab with my own vision. This is the way I started but then I guess the album took on it’s own identity over time. But no reviewer has ever seen the influence of Stereolab.

Remy: I was delighted when I found out that your new album was being released on vinyl. Was it important to you that F&TGD was released on this format? By all accounts it's making a very strong comeback and for the first time there's a generation buying albums on record who would have been born at a time when it was all but extinct in terms of new releases.

Kevin: I’m an avid record collector and I knew the market for them was returning. But I guess more than anything it was the fulfilment of a dream of mine, to have my own album on vinyl. I’m glad they're coming back, there’s something soulless about a download and something very special about a vinyl record. Also on the vinyl version of my album on the inner sleeve there is a story of the making of my album written by Author Rob Doyle which was a special joy for me. 

'Aubade', Live with Julie Feeney at The Grand Social, 2014

Remy: One of the most enjoyable aspects of F&TGD for me personally is the diversity of mood that is portrayed throughout, unease on 'Peggy Sue', the pomp of 'Oil On Canvas', the dark desperation of my favourite track, 'Drowning' and the escapism of the excellent 'Splinter'. Are these a reflection of how you feel when you're writing your songs or is it a case of setting the backdrop for the story you're trying to convey?

Kevin: The songs on Fredrick & The Golden Dawn are all fictional inventions, dreams, stories, wonder-tales, except for ‘Aubade’. As I spoke of earlier the underlying emotion is genuine but the stories, the characters, the myths and all the references are all fiction, just me having fun with my imagination. I approached the album more like a novelist than a composer. The only way I think I can say they were connected with my feelings is that I was trying with this album to get as far away from my own feelings as possible, and I think I was successful. In the eight years it took me to write the album I was trying to maintain my illness called Schizo-affective disorder. This is a coupling of Bipolar disorder and Schizophrenia. So to completely immerse myself in something far far outside of myself was a type of therapy. Sometimes I think I just create atmospheres, so yes the music is really just the place in which my characters find themselves. I don’t think anyone takes on the regime I took on for making this album unless you’re up against the wall in some way and there’s a fundamental need to escape your self. I woke every morning at 5am and worked through the day at a desk, writing lyrics and poem and diary entries, and not to be to clichĂ©d but this album saved me. I would spend months working on one line or one stanza. It was a medicinal approach. So the writing in some way was a reaction to how I was feeling at the time in that the work was a fundamental need to escape from the self. But as I said earlier for the next album I will be looking inward for material.

Remy: Your album was written over a long period of time, I saw in a recent interview you started to write 'Splinter' at the age of 15, surprisingly the record doesn't sound in any way disjointed, as someone might expect with the writer being in completely different spaces at different times, why do you think that is?

Kevin: I had a blueprint for the album and I never faltered from it for all the eight years it took to write it. I had a palette with just a few colours on it and I used this palette for every song on the album, my own sensibility was the only shifting colour. When I was making the album I had tunnel vision. I had a spirit level which I consulted regularly, so every song is fitted with the same tools. It’s a little like an actor keeping in character for the whole movie. I also had an abundance of belief in what I was doing, to the point of insanity, which is always helpful I find.  

Remy: When I was going through your YouTube channel a few months back, I luckily stumbled upon author Rob Doyle's 'A Meeting with Kevin Nolan' where he describes in great detail your interactions and your creative surroundings in a bedsit in Rathmines. Over the course of the writing of the album, was it essential to you that you were in isolation and completely immersed in the task at hand?

Kevin: Yes being alone is preferable. The composing process can be a pretty ugly enterprise at times and I wouldn’t want to subject anyone to it. My song 'The Guess' took four years to write and during that time I went through moments of glee, ecstasy to burning elation while making it, but there were also times of deep despair when I wasn’t getting anywhere with it, doubting myself and questioning my sanity. I guess you can’t command the muse, all you can do is be it’s best friend and spend as much time with it as possible. The saying ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’ comes to mind. Some elements of song come easy but then the endless intense work to make the small bit of inspiration into a fully finished and realised song is a testing matter to say the least. On one level it is tremendously enjoyable but on another it’s an excruciating test of the self as to how much you can push yourself to achieve exactly what you want, least of all because I was doing everything myself.

Remy: With so many outlets for finding old and new music these days, how do you come across music that you enjoy that you've not heard before, be it a long lost rarity from decades ago, or something more contemporary?

Kevin: Biographies, interviews, studies, commentaries, eavesdropping in coffee shops. If you read a biography on someone you like or admire you’ll find out about all the people they like or admire. And because you dig the way that particular artist’s mind works in the first place, it’s usually the case that you’ll dig the stuff they dig. In my experience I know this to be true, I’ve come across some great finds in Jazz Biogs, Cave Biogs, Waits, Biogs, Beefheart Biogs and many more. That’s chiefly the way I become aware of music, art, literature, film, theater etc. Also, the other musicians and artists I know, they’re undergoing the same investigation that I am, so we compare notes regularly. I know a few people who are real walking encyclopedias when it comes to literature and music, they are an endless source for me. My advise to you is if you find people like that, keep them. But really if you wanna find artistic gems, research the artists you already love, for their journeys are always eye and ear opening.

Remy: I know you recently played at St. Patrick's Hospital hosting Kevin Nolan's Hootenanny, have you any more live shows coming up in 2015?

Kevin: My next show is on the 5th Feb in The Odessa Club. I was asked to play there by Peter Murphy of The Revelator Orchestra, someone I really respect. After that I’ll be appearing on RTE Arena to promote my new book, ‘Schizo-Poetry – Fragments Of Mind’. After that I want to do as many concerts as possible.

Remy: You've mentioned previously that you have a lot of unreleased songs written, can we expect to see some of these on a forthcoming release or do you think your next venture will be entirely from scratch?

Kevin: I think both, I’ll try my best to rework the material which was left over from the eight years working on my debut album (and there’s a lot of it), but I’ve also a lot of new material now. I was chattign to Vyvienne Long and I hope to work with her on my new album and also novelist Rob Doyle and author/musician Peter Murphy of The Revelator Orchestra. I got about forty little ideas and I am quite excited to see where I’m going next, it’s quite open at the moment. All I know know is I can’t repeat myself, that would be death for me. I’ll be starting my new album in earnest now that I’ve finished my book. I have a sneaking feeling it will be a little more accessible than the first and will incorporate something of a confessional strand but still with the same old banging and clanging you would of heard on my debut. 

As I write this interview for you I’m residing in the confines of a secure psychiatric hospital in inner Dublin City and I’ve been going down to the hospital piano every day working on a new song, which I’m very happy with. It’s kind of a cross beween something from The Boat Man’s Call by Cave and Straight No Chaser by Thelonious Monk. I’ve also started writing an aphoristic novel. 

Remy: Finally, is there any chance you could provide us with a selfie?!

Remy: Thank you for obliging Kevin! and for such an in-depth interview.

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