Nicole Andrews is a self-taught pianist from Portland Oregon, now based in Wellington. Her self-produced debut is an impressive piano-driven album that draws on some of her musical influences, but also has it’s own unique identity. We caught up with Nicole and asked her some questions about the making of ‘In the Shallows’…
You’re originally from Portland, Oregon but have been in NZ for 9 years & moved to Wellington 5 years ago. What was it about the music scene in Wellington that attracted you?
Before I lived in Wellington, I was living in Queenstown, which at the time, didn’t really have many opportunities for musicians. Most of the music you hear there is meant to keep the tourists happy, which means dancing and cover songs, and that’s just not my thing. So, as much as I love Queenstown for other reasons, I just needed to live in a place that had more creative culture. Although, I must say that I think Queenstown has come a long way from where it was five years ago, musically, but with Wellington, I just felt that it had the quirky artsy vibe that I’m comfortable with, being from Portland.
For a debut, your album is really impressive. I read that you taught yourself piano at an early age, but were you involved in the music scene in Portland as a teenager, or before you came to NZ?
Thanks, the album is basically the result of a lifetime of work. Going back to the beginning, I did perform in my teens and did try to get out into the Portland scene, which is a bit tougher to break into than here in Wellington, because there’s a huge number of bands and musicians you’re competing with there. Portland is about 3 times the population of Wellington, but you’ve got about 10 times the amount of bands and musicians there. I’d dare say more than that… But I did manage to get some attention while I was there, and the fans I made still follow my movements while I’m in New Zealand. My Portland support is really strong still, which is great.
Musical influences? Names like Tori Amos & Kate Bush – strong piano driven female singers – are probably artists you get compared to a lot. But you’ve said you also have a strong love for guitar based artists like Nick Cave & Nine Inch Nails. How do those influences come through, given that the piano is the primary instrument in your music?
Since I’ve always played piano, obviously I was drawn to artists who were like me, except when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of good influences on piano doing what I like to call “angry music” which is really what I’ve always been into. So with the piano influences, I naturally was drawn to people like Tori Amos, who plays alternative piano, but also, ‘Nine Inch Nails’ and Nick Cave do have a strong piano presence in their music. But then things like PJ Harvey, ‘Tool’, ‘Portishead’, Bjork and so on, had just as much influence over my musical world as any pianist. It comes out in my vocals, in the lyrical content, in my arrangement ideas, and everything. Actually, when I was getting the album ready, ‘Nine Inch Nails’, ‘Puscifer’, ‘Queens of the Stone Age’ and Bjork and ‘Radiohead’ were on constant rotation, just because it’s what I felt like listening to. So, the guitar/rock influences are definitely there, but I think that because the piano is generally not thought of as a very grungy instrument, that it’s harder to hear these influences in an obvious way. I can hear it in my own music, and every now and then someone else will connect the dots and say “you sound like (insert guitar chick as opposed to expected Tori Amos comparison) and it totally makes my day, just because someone has noticed.
Your album was recorded and mixed by Lee Prebble & mastered by Mike Gibson. Do you want to talk a bit about what it was like working in Lee’s new Surgery Studio & at Munki, which has just moved from Martin Square…
I never saw the old location of Surgery Studios, so to me, the new location seemed like it had always been there. It’s a cool space, and Lee is a great person to work with. I spent about eight days at Surgery, so every morning I made us coffee and really settled into a little routine. I actually felt really at home there, and I think that helped to get the best work out of me. The recording and mixing process can be very stressful because you’re working to a timeframe on something that you are possibly overly passionate about, and every little detail affects the final outcome. But this is why it’s so good to work with people like Lee Prebble and Mike Gibson, because they know their stuff and you can trust them completely. I didn’t spend nearly as much time at Munki, because the mastering process only took a day, but I still had a great experience there and had spent some time in some of the surrounding muso studios, even working on bits of the album there. So I feel a strong link with my album to that space. In fact, I was at the Munki Mash Live Streaming show the other night, watching all those great Kiwi bands whose music was birthed there, and it was so amazing to see all that had been accomplished there. As I walked out of the building for the last time, I just felt sad, because although I know that Mike will do great in his new space, I do personally feel a strong connection to the space and will miss it.
The piano parts on the album have such a fullness & clarity. They were apparently recorded separately at ‘The New Zealand School of Music’. Do you want to talk a bit about that? Also how do you go about replicating that in a live setting?
Since my music is so strongly piano driven, I knew I’d need to record on a good piano, and in talking to Lee Prebble at Surgery Studios about the recording plan, I realised I’d have to find an offsite piano to get the feel I wanted. I was working at the New Zealand School of Music, so I asked my boss if I could record there, then brought in a separate sound engineer to record those bits; Thomas Voyce from Rhombus, who went on to work further on other bits of the album with me, and really played an important role in the whole project. Then the remaining recordings were done at Surgery, where Lee and I pieced it all together there. But when I perform live, I will usually perform with on my Roland keyboard, because most venues don’t have pianos. The rare times that they do, I definitely make sure I’m performing on it. Usually they are a bit out of tune, but still, playing on a real instrument has an energy that you just can’t replicate.
Do you want to talk a bit about some of the musicians who contributed to the album? I know Reuben Bradley arranged the strings on one track, David Long (The Mutton Birds) played Guitar on a track & Thomas Voyce (Rhombus) did some programming. As a debut artist how did you get involved with people like that? Had you worked together before?
Again, this is from my experience working at the school of music. I happened to personally know a large pool of some of New Zealand’s best musicians. Some of the people I had been friends with, and others I knew as co-workers. People like Reuben, for example, I was friends with and we had worked together before; we had a short lived cover band with just piano and drums, playing Tool, King Crimson, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie covers. Some of the other people involved, I had to be introduced to, often by co-workers from the school. Everyone there knew I was trying to get my album underway, so they’d just do what they could to connect me to people who could help. I met David Long because a friend thought we were a great match musically, and I agree. I’d love to do more with David on another project sometime.
You talked before about how you demoed the songs yourself as part of the production process? How did you go about doing that? Were they just piano arrangements, or did you use a laptop?
I recorded piano and vocals, mainly in Garageband, and then layered up backing vocals, string arrangements, harpsichord, and whatever else I could come up with. I was basically just working out exactly how each song would sound on the album, because, since I don’t read music, and most of what I do is very improvisational, I had to commit my ideas. So, the demos were pivotal. It was a great way for me to free myself from having to play the song and just get creative with the overall sound.
Some of the songs on the album are actually few years old, some originally recorded in 2009. Do you want to talk a bit about how some of the songs evolved into the versions on the album?
I always say that I could have released two or three albums in the amount of time I spent putting this one together. I think that my enemy was trying to make the album absolutely perfect, which meant I spent years trying to write that one song that would make the whole album. It got to the point where I had so many songs, I would write a new one, then toss out an old one. I think I was going a bit overboard, but it means that the songs that are the oldest, which survived my scrutiny, are probably the strongest. Or they were flexible enough to grow as I grew into my music. One of those songs is ‘Time,’ the last track on my album, which is almost exactly the same as the day I wrote it, except for little nuances, which continue to grow for me even after the album release. It just keeps expanding. I feel like I could have a new version of this song on every album.
Do you have any plans to go back to any of the songs you discarded in the future?
I do sometimes revisit those songs. Every now and then, I’ll get a line from one of the old abandoned songs stuck in my head, and then I’ll think “how did the rest of that go?” and sit down to work it out. Since I write so improvisationally, I don’t always write down the music when I’m writing a song and will just work off of memory (a terrible idea, that I do less of now), those songs will often change when I revisit them, with a more current twist. Sometimes I can only salvage that one line and then they are lost; but sometimes I can then write a new song and keep that one line. I actually tried to revive one of my really old songs that people used to really love, and was committed to getting it ready for the album, but when I revisited it, I just wasn’t happy with it anymore. It just was not the standard I would expect for a song that would make it on the album, and my rewriting was not doing it any good and I was short on time, so I dropped it. I still secretly want that particular song to work, but I think I’m going to have to almost completely re-envision it. It will still have it’s core essence. So, the songs don’t really ever die, they are there and just not played.
Do you want to talk about your songwriting process? When you get an idea, does the shape of a song originate from a few chords on the piano, or a lyric fragment that you associate with a certain instrument or sound?
I tend to write the piano and vocals together, at the exact same time. Sometimes songs come together really quickly and basically write themselves, and sometimes I need to get in there and try to bend them to my will. But I don’t ever write lyrics first and then try to put music to it, because it just doesn’t seem to work for me. I listen to what the song wants to do, and often, that means I need flexibility with the lyrics, because if I go in with lyrics ready, and the sound/beats of the words don’t match the direction the music is heading; then my poem is out the window. I once read something from Mike Patton from Faith No More, where he said that people are always so impressed with his lyrics, but he’s really just writing the words that make the sound the song needs in that spot. That’s exactly how I’d describe what I do. Obviously, I still try to make the lyrics work in the song as lyrics should, and not just as sounds, but I just have a different approach.
Some of the songs seem to reference previous relationships, other tracks seem more generally about strength in adversity & maybe the perception of women in relationships and, more obviously with the first track, the role of women in music. Do you want to talk a bit about some of the meanings behind your songs? Is there a general theme or themes that tie the songs together?
I honestly think you’ve described it better than I could have. I don’t always set out to write a particular story, but then a story will often just reveal itself while I’m writing it. So, I write about topics that resonate with me on an emotional level, which sometimes means that I’m writing about my life, and sometimes it means I’m writing about another person’s life. I think that we all go through personal turmoil, and I’m just writing about turmoil as I see it.
Part of the album was funded through a Creative NZ grant. Applying for that kind of thing can be a daunting prospect for a first time artist. Having gone through the process can you give young artists a bit of idea as to how it works, and the best way to approach it?
I’ve had people approach me asking for help with their application, and the main thing I usually tell them is to be very clear about every aspect of the project. You are essentially convincing them to give you money, so you should think about why they would want to do that. Also, realise that you’ll need to spend a lot of time putting the application together and making it absolutely perfect. I worked on my application for months and months, and was still worried it wasn’t enough.
You’re working on a video for the song ‘Whisper’ with Bradley Garner, which is coming out on the 23rd of Sept. Do you want to talk a bit about that process? Why did you pick that particular song to make a video?
Bradley and I have worked together a few times, so when I found out he was doing music videos, and I knew I needed to make one myself, it seemed like the logical path to take. He’s great to work with and is obviously a really talented photographer, so I know I can trust his judgement. I came up with the premise for the video, and planned the whole thing out completely, then Bradley and I would meet up and work out some of the details. I’m not an experienced filmmaker, although I have made my own homemade music videos before, but this process was clearly outside of my skill set. I asked for a lot of advice from friends who know what they’re talking about, and then on the days of the shoot, I was lucky to have a team of experienced people there helping guide the plan along. I picked the song ‘Whisper’ because I think it’s the most accessible for a wider audience, and I hope it might get people interested who might not have initially connected with one of the other tracks. [Check out the video for ‘Whisper’ here].
What are your plans in terms of touring? You’ve played solo around Wellington at Meow and other venues, and then at Moon you played with a three piece band and a string trio. Will you be doing a nationwide tour with a similar lineup?
I’m going on my album release tour in October across the North and South Island. I’ll primarily be performing solo on this tour, with a bit of guitar accompaniment, just because the logistics of getting the full band on the road is a bit out of reach at the moment. However, I will perform with the three piece band for my Wellington tour date, which will be at Rogue and Vagabond on the 17th of October. This is going to be a really special gig, because I’ve only performed with the band once before, at my album release gig at Moon, which was an incredible night.