North Vancouver’s George Nixon released his debut EP in 2012 – a dark, alt. country dream called Ghosts on the Road - and is currently recording his first full-length album. Described as sombre acoustic blues and country-noir, his music has a traditional folk sound laced with vivid urban imagery and a dusty, gritty edge that makes it feel modern, a bit punk, and incredibly unique. Geyser talked to George about his upcoming album, the literary aspects of song-writing, and the blues.
G: On your website, your genre is described as “country-noir.” Can you tell me a little bit about what that means?
GN: The term "country-noir" speaks to the combination of more classic country styles infused with gothic storytelling, minor keys, and a certain edge that is found more in punk music than in country. It's a result of the freedom we have to experiment; to use older styles of music and take them a step further, rather than preserving them in an airtight bubble, fearing they may evolve.
G: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
GN: My biggest musical influences are the bluesmen. I mean people like Robert Johnson, Son House, Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker - the list can go on and on. The individual who had the most influence on me was Mississippi John Hurt. When I first heard the way he played finger style guitar I couldn't believe or define what I was hearing. It sounded like two or three people playing. He was a genius. I knew immediately that I was to follow in his footsteps.
There is also, of course, Townes Van Zandt, the greatest songwriter that ever walked the face of the earth. He was a classic example of someone who took the old music and took it that step further. His lyrics have brought people who were on the edge back to life, he possessed that kind of power.
G: You’re taking a break from live shows this summer and working on recording a full-length album. Can you give us a little taste of what we can expect from the new stuff?
GN: The record I'm currently working on is a departure, of sorts, from Ghosts. By that I mean a fuller, less minimalistic sound. We're working with drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, and violin. We have the bed tracks finished and are currently halfway through vocals. After the fact we will go back and add all of the mandolin, banjo, organ, and autoharp parts as we see fit. The songs are also more self-realized. The imagery has more purpose and the narratives are clearer. The sound is closer to being that of an alt. country outfit than a singer-songwriter project. It's something you can both absorb the lyrics and dance to - if you like to two-step, that is. This is not to say I'm embarrassed by the EP. I think it was essential that I went through that process during that specific time in my life. I still play a couple songs from it live.
G: You say on your website you wanted to be a novelist. How has that affected your song-writing style?
GN: The novelist comment is just a reminder to myself that songs have a purpose, and that purpose varies from one song order to another in a live setting. The same goes for an album. To me, albums are stories and songs are chapters. And the story can only make sense if the chapters are properly placed. Timing and placement is everything.
G: Do you write prose in your spare time, or does all of that creative energy go into song-writing now?
GN: It's actually been quite a while since I've written prose. I'll sometimes write in a free form, stream of consciousness format when I'm faced with inspiration I can't define or place. These writings often turn into the meat and bread of songs I'll write later.
G: You thank Jack White in the liner notes of Ghosts on the Road. Is there a story behind that?
GN: Ah yes, the Jack White story. When I was sixteen, I was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward while the Raconteurs were in town. My dad actually wrote an email to Jack White's publicist telling them that his son has found himself in a very bad situation. He probably thought nothing would happen but sure enough, I pick up the phone behind my bed one day and I hear, "Hi, this is Jack White. Is this George Nixon?" I was breathless and didn't say anything for a few seconds. I eventually answered somewhat intelligibly and we had a brief and interesting conversation. The real significance of this story is that he gave me song-writing advice. He told me (and I'm paraphrasing) to take what the old guys had left us and take it further. He's a very gracious, down to earth guy for doing what he did.
G: A few times so far, you’ve mentioned that concept of taking elements of older music and taking it to the next level, making it into something new and unique. This is something that a lot of great artists have done extensively and effectively – from Woody Guthrie to Jack White – but can you give me an example of how you’ve done this in your own work (either on your debut EP or on the album you’re currently working on)?
GN: Well, when Ghosts on the Road was recorded, three people were on the sessions: Neil Miskin, a jazz drummer who also engineered the work, Alex Hauka, a classical cellist, and myself. I love all kinds of folk and roots styles, but I still had the need to amalgamate different doctrines of music. We went into the studio not knowing exactly what we wanted out of the sessions, and with certain parts remaining to be written. I think the best epiphanies happen when you're under the gun. The sessions for the new record are similar; I actually fired the bass player the first morning of recording (it had nothing to do with his playing) and the lead guitarist, Eric Campbell, played the parts right off the cuff. I guess the manner in which I try to take roots music to new places has little to do with my actions and almost everything to do with the natural progression of art forms. The truth is, folk music needs no protection and certainly needs no one to help it go where it needs to go.
G: Last, who are some of your favourite local bands?
GN: Some of my favourite local bands are Eric Campbell and The Dirt (a few of them played on the new record), Colby Morgan and the Catastrophes, Dirty Spells, The Ruffled Feathers, Gina Loes, Rodney Decroo, Geoff Berner, The Wandering Halls, Three Wolf Moon, Filthy Liars, Lunchlady, Leah Barley, The Wayward Hearts, Megan Twist, Good For Grapes, The Plodes, Pale Red, Max Kashetsky, Wooden Horsemen, Four on the Floor, Dusty Bones, Jim Byrnes... I'm forgetting a ton of people, Vancouver is full of great independent music.
G: Thank you for talking with us, we look forward to the album!