The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Nathan Bowles

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Interview with Nathan Bowles.

“I like the clawhammer approach to open-tuned banjo because it allows me to express ideas melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically in a way that feels closest to how I think of music in my head.”

—Nathan Bowles

Words: Mark Carry


The Virginia-native, Nathan Bowles has long been synonymous with treasured folk and Americana music of today, having collaborated extensively with the Black Twig Pickers (banjo, percussion), Pelt (percussion), Steve Gunn (drums, piano and banjo), Hiss Golden Messenger (banjo), Jack Rose, and others. This November marks the highly-anticipated release of Bowles’ sophomore solo full-length, ‘Nansemond’ – named after the Virginia wetlands landscape that he grew up in that has long since drifted off the map – that features the windswept beauty of timeless folk gems (‘Jonah/Poor Liza Jane’ and ‘J.H. For M.P.); brooding, cinematic soundscapes (‘The Smoke Swallower’) and soul-stirring Appalachian old-time traditions (‘Sleepy Lake Bike Club’ ). The seven sonic creations contained on ‘Nansemond’ transports you to a place that has long since vanished but with each divine note and rhythmic pulse, fleeting moments of past lives and faded dreams flood into the present just like the deep blue Nansemond River that continues to find its sea.

Aesthetically, ‘Nansemond’ is a marvel of a record. The tender lament of ‘Golden Floaters’ unfolds gradually like the embers of a morning sun; a piece of music akin to Glenn Jones’ own transcendent banjo works. Moments previously, the full-blown traditional opus of ‘John Henry’ is steeped in age-old traditions that feels as if it’s at once immersed in familiar tradition and the compelling unknown. A rich narrative runs throughout ‘Nansemond’’s sprawling sonic canvas as a searching for truth and meaning serves the vital pulse to the shape-shifting compositions. Bowles is joined by Tom Carter (guitar), Joe Dejannette (guitar), Steve Kruger (fiddle/voice), and Jason Meagher of Black Dirt Studio (recording, production, mixing).

The North Carolina-based label, Paradise of Bachelors has delivered yet again another exceptional and utterly timeless work of art – hot in the heels of Steve Gunn’s careerhigh of ‘Way Out Weather’ which incidentally features Bowles’ peerless musicianship – that represents music to truly savour, now and forever more.


‘Nansemond’ is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.



Interview with Nathan Bowles.

Firstly, congratulations Nathan on the incredible and stunningly beautiful new record, Nansemond. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about this very special and enlightening record. I would love for you to discuss the album-title, which is the place name of where you grew up in Virginia? The album itself takes you to these wonderful places – the Chuckatuck Creek, Nansemond River, the lakes and beyond – where the music becomes an enriching experience, dotted with childhood memories and a distant past that is far removed from today. Please recount your memories from these particular places and indeed your childhood, growing up in the wetlands landscape?

Nathan Bowles: Hi, and thank you. Glad you’re enjoying the record. I’m not sure the places are wonderful in and of themselves, they’re just places that played an important part in my growing up. They’re wonderful insofar as they were the physical background for a lot of my imaginings as a child, and as a backdrop for my early music studies on piano and drums. I’m not sure what this question is asking, exactly: I can’t obviously recount memories wholesale. It was a mostly confusing, occasionally exciting, mostly introverted childhood spent between my inner world and the outer realities of muddy lakesides, times with friends romping around the woods, spacing out driving along flat, swampy roads wondering when I was going to leave… the places and feelings evoked in the record aren’t as specifically fond as much as they are specific in their confusion and haziness.


The album itself feels like a collection of suites that are tied together by the geographical trajectory of your hometown and family roots, where ‘Nansemond’ becomes one gorgeously crafted mood-piece. Please talk me through the opening Sleepy Lake Bike Club – which serves the fitting prologue to the record’s sonic voyage – and the construction of the song’s beautiful soundscapes?

NB: The sequencing is wholly sonic; there’s no attempt to trace any geographic trajectory. ‘Bike Club is the title I gave that piece after reflecting on the images it brought it up as I was composing, scattered memories of biking around the wooded paths with a few friends and coming up with idiotic excuses to hurl the bikes into little creeks or play games of chicken around corners. It’s wistful but sad, too, maybe. Those games always ended prematurely when the sun set and came out to nothing, really.


In terms of influences, the album is rooted in both the familiar traditions of Appalachian and folk music from the south (and beyond) and the avant-garde and cinematic drone. For example, the beguiling minimalist drone of The Smoke Swallower is wonderfully placed before the traditional folk tune of Jonah/Poor Liza Jane. Can you discuss these worlds of music that lies at the heart of your transcendent solo works and indeed the artists and records that have introduced you to these worlds of sounds? It’s clear you have one foot steeped firmly in tradition but the other is rooted in experimental and this for me, is the essence of your unique blend of music.

NB:  I’m not sure what the question is here. It’s all music to me. ‘Experimental is a pretty crappy term; I’m not experimenting, I’m playing — even the most freely improvisational elements of my music are focused in their ultimate aims. Traditional Appalachian music catches my ear as much as the best freely improvised music and everything in between, and I think I’m as picky and discerning across all of those genres. It’d be impossible to isolate what particular ‘worlds influence the music I’m making.


The pieces on Nansemond are primarily based on your compelling banjo-based melodies. Would this often be the starting point when writing a piece of music, Nathan? Can you discuss the banjo’s possibilities and the reasons you believe the banjo is such a unique and special instrument? 

NB: The songs are generally composed on banjo, excepting instances when they’re improvised around a rhythm or scale (‘Smoke Swallower for instance). I like the clawhammer approach to open-tuned banjo because it allows me to express ideas melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically in a way that feels closest to how I think of music in my head. I feel very lucky to have found that kind of match with an instrument. I’m not sure how to express it beyond that.


You consider yourself first and foremost a percussionist; collaborating with a wide array of the leading U.S. contemporaries, including Steve Gunn, Hiss Golden Messenger, Pelt, and The Black Twig Pickers to name but a few. I can imagine being part of these various projects must tap into (on a subconscious level at the very least) the solo music you are creating? What do you think are the values you have learned from these varied and awe-inspiring collaborative ventures?

NB: Collaborating is what makes one a truly better musician; listening, adapting, finding spaces, understanding dynamics. These are applicable to solo music, it just means you have to listen very closely to yourself and your environment. Patience is an important lesson.


You are joined by a formidable cast of musicians on Nansemond. Please talk me through the players on these sessions and what were the sessions like? Were the pieces of music very much written and mapped out prior to recording, Nathan? Any happy accidents occur during this process? 

NB: Tom and I improvised ‘The Smoke Swallower and ‘Chuckatuck in the studio, to different degrees. ‘Smoke Swallower was built around a banjo scale and a rhythm… ‘Chuckatuck was a little more defined, though the arrangement and separate movements happened as a result of studio collaborating. John Henry is a tune that Steve Kruger, fiddler, and I play a lot when we get together around town, and Joe is a singular bassist and guitarist/recording engineer that could easily hop in on that tune. The rest of the tracks are composed but also heavily improvised during each recording.


The album’s penultimate track, Golden Floaters/Hog Jank is my current favourite, and I love particularly how these two pieces merge together, and the slow-building banjo patterns that casts such a hypnotic spell. Can you recall writing this piece of music, Nathan? It’s such a beautiful and moving piece of music, reminiscent of Glenn Jones such is its brilliance. 

NB: Wow! Thanks. ‘Golden Floaters originated as a tuning and a kind of circular riff after a hallucinatory experience on the gulf coast of Florida. Much of the melody and arrangement was improvised during the recording. ‘Hog Jank is a slide riff that I’ve been toying with for a while now. It made sense as a bridge, tuning-wise and mood-wise, between ‘Golden Floaters and ‘Tire Swing. I’m currently integrating it into another piece I’ve been working on… we’ll see what comes of that.


What’s next for you? I am sure you must have quite a few ideas currently floating in your mind.

NB: There’s a handful of collaborations in the works that I’ll keep on ice for the moment.  Oh, but there’s a Steve Gunn & Black Twig Pickers collaborative record on Thrill Jockey dropping in February. And another Black Dirt Oak thing in the mix… and … well, you’ll have to wait and see. Needless to say I’m very busy.




‘Nansemond’ is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.




Written by markcarry

November 20, 2014 at 12:07 pm

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