Nigel Wearne is a one-of-a-kind artist. The kind that follows his creative nose wherever it leads him, building new skills and musical possibilities along the way. His latest single Black Behind the Blue is a great testament to that, so I spoke to him about how it all came together.
Congratulations on the new single. Would you say this is your most ambitious recording to date?
Thanks Les. Interesting question… I haven’t really thought of it like that… Perhaps it is. In the past I’ve made a point of going into the studio and recording things as live as possible, which in its own way is ambitious. Trying to get things down in one sitting; to capture that synergic moment in time. But given the few years we’ve just had, I suppose you could say the recording of this song is somewhat of a hybrid model. The guitar, drums and bass were recorded live at Isaac Barter’s studio, the vocal and mixing were done at my home studio and the horns were composed and recorded in Montreal. It’s been a different process this time, but it’s come together nicely.
It certainly has its musical feet planted in the sounds of New Orleans. Does that city have a special place in your heart?
I’ve been fascinated by the sounds of New Orleans for a long time. About 20 years ago I was in a Zydeco band for a short stint that broadened my understanding of the blues. Before that, I got into Jazz when I was about 12-years-old. There was something about Louis Armstrong and that jangly trad jazz that I loved. As a sidestep to that NOLA sound, one of my all-time fave bands is the 30s French band Hot Club Swing. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli going toe-to-toe is something that has always moved me. In my mind, there’s a distinct crossover between Manouche (Gypsy Jazz) and American Trad Jazz.
In early 2020, I was lucky enough to go to the Folk Alliance International Conference in New Orleans. The hype of The Big Easy is true. It has an electricity and tradition that’s unmistakable. With all its hardship and socio-political challenges, the culture lives on; I’ve never been to such a friendly city. Not to mention the 100 piece second-line marching band that grooves past your door while you’re cooking dinner… I’ll never forget the sheer volume of walking alongside those horns and that drumbeat; the cars just stop dead in the street and let the spectacle pass. And this was all a practice for a junior-high school band leading up to Mardi-Gras. Let’s just say dinner got cold…
Thanks, I do love dynamics. I like songs that hold something back, but ‘go there’ when necessary; to get brash and make a statement. I gave the band the go-ahead to do just that in the song structure.
Black Behind The Blue (BBTB)is inspired by dream amnesia; that feeling when the emotions and flashes remain, but the details evade your consciousness. I’ve had dreams like that, and I wanted to write something to evoke that feeling. I’m also partial to a long chorus, ala Dave Rawlings Machine’s Pilgrim … Not that this song is like that per-se, but I love the way that Pilgrim winds its way through that long and melodious refrain. It’s like a song within a song. BBTB has a long chorus too, so that, with the musical interludes and brash dynamics, I guess the song has emerged with distinct ‘chapters’ as you say.
The brass and clarinet add new colours and textures to your sound. Tell us how those ideas and arrangements came together? They also act as a strong counterpoint to your vocals.
I’ve always loved clarinet; probably my favourite wind instrument. I love its dynamics, black artistry and the chops required to make it fly. I’ve had quiet designs on doing something with clarinet for some time but haven’t had enough songs in the right vein to make a project out of it. So BBTB has been lying dormant for some time.
One morning during lockdown, I woke up with an idea: what about adding bold, jammy jungle horns? I knew straight away who I should call. I met Aurélien Tomasi at the Folk Music Ontario conference, back in 2019 when he was playing in a band from Montreal called Les Royal Pickles. Every player in the band was top notch, and when Aurélien went into a jazz trance, banging out tasty highest-of-the-high-Benny-Goodman notes, I was hooked. A Frenchman living in Quebec, Aurélien has traversed the world honing his craft; a composer, clarinettist and saxophonist. We struck up an instant connection and in the halls of that Toronto airport hotel, we jammed long into the night. We reconnected in New Orleans in January 2020 and when lockdown hit, we got to work and the rest is in the tape-reel.
The song features Aurélien on clarinet and alto sax, Alex Bouchard on trombone and Christian Leclerc on tuba, all Montreal based musicians. It was a really smooth process… I sent the session files to Aurélien and he composed the arrangement and worked his wizardry. My favourite section is the quirky, offbeat horn arrangement counterpointing the guitar solo. Seriously amazing stuff. I’m lucky to have him on board.
Interestingly, up until the horns idea with BBTB, I wasn’t even going to put it on my next record. The songs I’d written just didn’t fit the vibe. But what’s happened instead, is that BBTB has been the catalyst for a whole string of songs in a blues/jazz flavour and it’s shaped the process moving forward. As it turns out, it’s meant a bunch of other songs have now been bumped for future projects.
Fans of Marc Ribot will definitely hear some of that come through in the lead guitar, which I’m a complete sucker for.
I love Marc Ribot! Since Rain Dogs, he’s been integral to Tom Waits’ sound. There’s a jagged mystique and rustic dexterity to his playing that adds so much theatre to his work. It’s certainly rubbed off. I also love the theme song to the TV comedy Black Books… perhaps another Marc Ribot inspired track? So cool. I’ve ended up using lockdown as a pseudo retreat to work on my jazz chords and electric guitar playing. It’s definitely been an up-side to the uncertainty of the last few years. I dig guitarists from many realms, but relevant to my style here includes players Billy Strange, Link Ray, James Burton, Bill Frisell and Poison Ivy. I also love Red Rivers’, Roy Payne’s and Glen Hannah’s work with Don Walker.
When I saw your recent Union Hotel gig I really noticed how much you’ve stepped up your guitar work, building a new custom guitar on top of that. Not only do you play, but you’ve been making your own instruments for a long time. Tell us about how building and working on your craft has helped you arrive at this point in your musicianship.
Building guitars has certainly helped shape the way I play. Up until 2020, I’ve been performing almost exclusively on acoustic for the past 12 years. My style has been guided by three key instruments that I’ve built; a Martin ‘000’ style guitar, Martin ‘0’ style guitar and my open back banjo. Swapping between banjo and guitar has really opened up the neural pathways and helped expand my range of finger-picking patterns. It’s been great to get back on the electric and apply some of the tricks I’ve conjured up.
On BBTB I’m playing my 1968 Gretsch Streamliner that I restored in 2018. I gave it a neck reset, a solid brass bridge, Bigsby trem, some minor electrics mods and a total fingerboard level and re-fret. It’s a truly inspiring instrument and it sounds amazing through my trusty ‘ole Aussie amps; an early 60’s Goldentone Reverbmaster and Moody BA40.
More recently I’ve built a Coodercaster of sorts; an electric inspired by Ry’s Cooder’s famous slide Strat. Mine, however, has a long 26” scale, b-bender, Wudtone vibrato, crazy electrics and mojo pickups … that and a black and silver sparkle top. It sings, it snarls, it’s awesome. I can’t wait to play it more onstage.
Given the way you meld genres – jazz, blues, folk, Americana – what relevance do you think they have at this point in musical history.
Artists that I like most take musical traditions and work well within them or Frankenstein them into something new. I dig Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings and Ry Cooder to name a few. As an artist I find myself naturally diving into roots genres and writing songs with different flavours. This isn’t so much planned as it is musical osmosis. What I’ve explored in my writing of late is something I’ve coined Americana-noir. There doesn’t appear to be an existing genre that captures it succinctly. I guess at the end of the day, storytelling is at the core of my songwriting.
I think it’s important within all genres that we look forward by looking backwards. To inform how we’re going to evolve by taking the traditions of those before and moulding them into a shape we need now. And to be prepared to break traditions. To dismember, disassemble and reanimate ideas; to be interesting and daring. All the while, being observant, critical and kind. There are so many stories crying to be told at this moment. Let’s tell them.
How will you be presenting these songs live?
For this run I’ll be performing solo interstate and with my three-piece band for Victorian shows. I’m stoked to have a great rhythm section on board, Danny McKenna on drums and Isaac Gunnoo on double bass. I’ll be slinging the Gretsch for most songs with a couple on acoustic and banjo. This is the first step toward a bigger sound that’s coming… Stay tuned!