Words by Nolan Gawron / Photo by Julia Robbs
He’s recorded under a handful of names—Page France, Cotton Jones Basket Ride, and most notably as the slightly truncated, psych folk outfit Cotton Jones. From project-to-project, Michael Nau’s music has varied slightly, but his dreamy soundscapes have remained a unique and beautiful constant.
Soft-spoken in interviews, his music is fleshed out by a warm warble and cathartic croon compounded both lyrically and lovingly by his wife Whitney McGraw. Their albums are entrancing with songs emanating from the back of your mind to the depths of your soul. Theirs are records to get lost in. Now, for the first time, Michael Nau ha decided to go solo—well sort of.
On February 19, Suicide Squeeze Records will release Nau’s first eponymous recording. And while this may arguably be considered his first solo record, Nau employs the largest cast of players on any record to date. Recorded at friend’s studios in Vermont and Connecticut, Nau is joined by Seth Kaufman of Floating Action, Scott McMicken from Dr. Dog, Will Brown, Benny Yurko, Ryan Spellman, Greg Bender, Oliver Gebhardt with several vocal contributions from Nau’s wife and longtime singing partner Whitney McGraw. Monster Children caught up with Michael Nau to ask about the past, present and future.
Photo Nolan Gawron
I guess we’ll start with the obvious question. Why a solo record? Is this even a solo record?
It’s being released under my name, so I guess that makes it a solo record. But there are more people that played on this record than any of the Cotton Jones records. I think one reason is that many of these songs span over the course of a bunch of different recording sessions over the past few years. With Cotton Jones records I think that one of the threads that ran throughout was that Whitney was involved in all of the songs. Both of us were involved in the writing and finishing of the songs. This new record is more of a scattered affair. With Cotton Jones it got a little tough to tour and for both of us to be on the road. The main reason is that we had a kid. So we really couldn’t do Cotton Jones full-time as much as I’d like to. So this is kind of a way for me to be working more.
Were these songs that had been around for a while, but you knew they were too different to be considered Cotton Jones songs?
No, not at all. Some of these songs are actually from when we were making a Cotton Jones record and there are two or three of those songs that were in fact intended to be Cotton Jones songs. I was going to friends’ houses and studios whenever possible and we would have these mini sessions where we would do as many songs as possible over the course of a few days. So then when it came down to it, there were a couple of songs that were different sonically and we wanted to start to work them into a record, but nothing really fit together in any specific way. I just stopped trying to make a record as I had in the past. In the past I would always do records pretty quick over 2 weeks. It was never really a challenge to get things to sonically feel like they’re from the same place. It was always pretty easy because they were from the same place. That’s what I like about this new group is it’s a little more scattered.
Would you say that one of the differences on this record was that you had more of an autonomous writing style without Whitney?
Well Cotton Jones was like that as well. I would record and write the songs. I wouldn’t say there’s a big difference in the way I’m writing songs or anything, but I’m enjoying stepping back from feeling the need to do everything myself. In the past, I never really wrote songs. Before I would write instrumentals and would write words and melody over top of them after a song was pretty much done as an instrumental. I would spend a lot of time with headphones on and working with recording equipment and experimenting in that way. A few years ago I just got rid of all that stuff and all I had at home was just a guitar. I think for the first time I had songs that were finished on guitar and would just record them when I was with someone somewhere that had equipment. That was a different process for me where I would actually have a song finished before recording it. With this record there were a lot of songs that were done with and pieced together and a lot of songs that were done in a room with a group of people as well. That’s definitely something that’s changed.
You’ve changed your name several times. Do you see each name change signaled a new era and a new sound?
I never see it while it’s happening. And I think that’s probably what led to why I’m releasing under my own name. It’s not something that I really think about too much. I can’t change this element of it. It’s my name and I’m playing songs.
Is Cotton Jones alive and well or is this signaling an end to that chapter?
Well, I’m not sure. I’m leaving that door open. Like I said, we have a kid that started school this year and we have another baby on the way—any day now really. It’s made it hard to commit to certain tours.
You’ve always had an interesting way of presenting lyrics. You have recurring allusions, but the way you integrate things like nature into your lyrics is very abstract. Is this a conscious decision in the way you write?
I don’t know. I don’t talk too much about it, but when I do I long to be more straightforward than I am. As I’m writing I’ve given myself that challenge, as of late. For me, the harder songs to write are the ones that are really straightforward. It’s just been the way that I’ve always written.
Every time I listen to a Cotton Jones record with my girlfriend we are always someplace truly stunning—driving through the mountains, going up the coast, looking out onto the ocean—they are go-to records for something completely beautiful in our lives. What do you feel is the ideal listening situation for this new Michael Nau record?
That’s a tough one man. I can see that. I can feel that in my own choice of records. There are daytime records for me and there are nighttime records for me, but I don’t know where this new one would sit.
Will any of your small run EPs and sold out music see the light of day again?
Well I don’t know. With the EPs, and even with the full-lengths, they’re all out of print. It’d be cool if that stuff would eventually get re-pressed. We had talked a little bit about putting together all of the EPs on a 12-inch, but we’ve talked about that on and off and it really hasn’t happened. It’s definitely something I’d like to see happen in the future for sure.