By Gareth Hipwell.
To paraphrase the Beatles: picture yourself in a tinnie on a river. Tumbledown fishing shacks – boxy fibro cubbies hemmed-in by dense bushland – crowd parcels of verdant lawn, while the languid Hawkesbury licks at shelves of oyster-encrusted rocks along the shoreline and the wavelets patter against the broadside of an anchored boat.
That’s the kind of setting in which alt. country lynchpin Shane Nicholson set about composing the songs of masterful tenth album Love & Blood.
Late last year, Nicholson decamped from his Sound Hole Studio on the NSW Central Coast and set about the alchemic business of songwriting during a series of fishing trips on the Hawkesbury River.
“I’ve always tried to find some kind of place where I can isolate myself from the rest of the world,” Nicholson says of his songwriting practice. “I wrote a lot of the last record – or it gestated – in the outback, so it made sense to write this one on the coast. There are no songs about fishing – there are no Jack Johnson tunes on there! But I did find myself loving the seclusion of lying in the bottom of an anchored tinnie and writing songs on the water. There’s just an amazing sense of isolation and seclusion – no one can get to you. I found myself just loving that environment.”
Did he catch any fish, I wonder?
“No – just a bunch of songs! That’s why I was there, so that’s fine. I was the worst fisherman. I’d throw a baited hook in, but then just leave it there for two hours – I wouldn’t even check it. I just liked the idea that I was at work with a fishing rod and a beer!
Process is what I enjoy, as much as anything else. So going up there, crawling into your own little universe, your own little bubble, for a week at a time and writing songs – that’s as much fun as any other part of the process.”
Following the tearaway success of previous outing Hell Breaks Loose (2015) – which took out the ARIA for Best Country Album in 2015 and netted Nicholson the 2016 Golden Guitar for Alternative Country Album of the Year (his ninth CMAA gong) – Love & Blood is, true to its title, a decidedly romantic turn (if far from sanguinary).
“Don’t waste your time on anything but love,” Nicholson urges on gently swaying album closer ‘All I Know’. It’s an apt coda for the record as a whole. Sweltering blues-rock entry ‘I Don’t Dance’, too, gives flight to the singer-songwriter’s romantic streak: an up-tempo devotional, the track was inspired by a country music cruise last year, during which Nicholson – an avowed non-dancer – offered to pay a friend to dance with girlfriend Emma in his stead. Another dedication to Emma, ‘Song for a Sad Girl’ is a uniquely uplifting love song informed by tribulation.
“She don’t talk about the weather and hates it when I say she’s with the band / she jokes about her cancer and we laugh at things that she don’t understand.”
“This is a song that I wrote for Emma when I first met her,” Nicholson explains. “She was going through a particularly tough period, and I wrote it for her as a kind of a gift, to try to make her feel a bit better.”
Enlisting mate Matt Fell to produce, and rounding up a band of established collaborators including drummer Josh Schuberth (Josh Pyke) and multi-instrumentalist Glen Hannah, Nicholson took Love & Blood from the Hawkesbury to the heady atmosphere of Sydney’s taste-making Love Hz Studio.
“I love being in the studio – it’s actually my favourite place to be in the world,” Nicholson says. “I’d made about a dozen records last year, so when it came time to make mine – to write and record mine – yeah, there was no way I was gonna do it in my studio, so I needed to find somewhere removed. That’s also why I worked again with my good friend Matt Fell: because it means I can hand over the reins a bit, trust his judgment implicitly, and I can just enjoy the process. It’s not work for me, it’s fun. That’s important – especially now that I’m making so many other records throughout the year. When it comes to mine, I just want to enjoy the process from the perspective of an artist. It was actually scarily easy to make this record. The team that we’ve got, that I’ve actually used for quite a few years, is so good.”
The resulting record is the work of an established master at his most relaxed and fluid.
“I’m very pleased with this record,” Nicholson says. “I’m really proud of it. I’ve felt that with the last few albums. I think that means I’m heading in the right direction – at least I think it means I’m not getting worse at making records! The bottom line is I started making records because I loved doing it. It wasn’t to have a career. So I try and remind myself of that every time I’m in there – the process has got to be enjoyable, it’s not just about having a record at the end of it. Basically, for us, it’s hanging out with your mates and making the best music you can, something that you would want to listen to yourself. Every successive album – every record I’ve made – I’m getting less and less concerned or cerebral about it. It just becomes another record.”
Read the full story in Issue 86…