Interview: Nathaniel Johnstone
by Mark Rossmore
The Genre-Bending Multi-Instrumentalist Talks Inspiration, Collaboration, and His New Album of Dark Fairy Tales ect lender
June
29
2013
ARTIST PROFILE

The Nathaniel Johnstone Band
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There are musicians who play music. Then there are those who become the music. Nathaniel Johnstone is in the latter category, a man who's earned the respect of tens of  thousands of fans by simply being awesome. 

I've seen him perform live on numerous occasions. When I first saw him play in 2009, it was instantly apparent that this is a guy who loves what he does. Whether bowing out a fierce violin lead, laying down chunky guitar riffs, or picking the hell out of a banjo or mandolin, he executes it with an amazing blend of technical dexterity and emotional expressiveness. You can see his intense connection with the music carried out on his face, as wicked grins give way to peaceful introspection, swirling back again as the songs ebb and flow.  

While he's played with many notable acts, he's now struck out on his own, forming The Nathaniel Johnstone Band with dancer Tempest, drummer Jes Brown, bassist Jean-Paul Mayden, vocalist Mel, and artist Libby Bulloff. The band's newest album, Narratives, has just hit the Internet to much acclaim. This collection of unique and sinister interprations of fairy tales and folklore is as eclectic as it gets, blurring the lines between world, industrial, and folk music. You can read our review of it here. . 

Nathaniel took some time to answer our questions about the album, offer some insights into his own creative background, and talk about many other things--including his first time singing on a recording!

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Narratives began as a collaborative effort between yourself and Tempest to tell stories through music and performance. How did it go from that general concept to specific interpretations of myths and folklore? With centuries of rich folklore at your disposal, how did you decide which specific tales to feature?

The first three tracks written for the album were the instrumentals: "Amanita Ocreata", "Ella Cambia", and "Gamal". Tempest and I had long discussions about mood, theme, and the story that each piece would tell. It was a kind of experiment to see if we could tell a story through music and dance without any words to guide the listener. In talking with the audiences after performances and at workshops we found that the stories "they saw" were very close to what we had in mind to begin with.


Nathaniel and Tempest -- Image by TheDancersEye.com

When I started working up an album's worth of songs I wanted to preserve that narrative aspect so I began to think about the stories that resonated with me. About that time I was talking with Alyssa about my plans for the album. She and I began to brainstorm lyrics on folklore and myth. She added some twists to the stories, turning a few of them on their head and casting heroes as villains and vice versa. We both had our favorite stories that we wanted to put on the album and I feel we did an excellent job of picking the right ones. There was a wonderful lyric she wrote about The Little Mermaid that didn't make it on the album. I hope to revisit it for the next one.

Narratives has a ridiculous amount of genre-bending musical moments. Middle Eastern. Industrial. Romani. Hard rock. Bluegrass. Nothing is off limits, and many times they're all going on at once. When writing songs, do you consciously set out to mix these elements, or does it just happen organically? What's your process?

I am too much of a philistine to adhere to any particular style of music. I've played in so many different ensembles, building such a wide range of styles that it seems silly to ignore any of them. I'm at the point right now in my musical life that I no longer really care what style I'm playing. The song wants what the song wants and it's up to me to make it happen. I suppose there was a time when I would worry about whether it was ok to add a bluegrass-shuffle fiddle riff to a totally electronic industrial beat. No longer. The gloves are off, man. If a song wants genre-bending, that's what it's gonna have.

As far as my process goes, it's all over the map. But it generally starts with a fragment of a song in my head and the mad scramble to get it recorded before it fades. Once the germ of the song is down then I just follow the inspiration down the rabbit hole. Some songs come real easy ("Red" was written in a few hours) while others fight and twist against themselves. "Beast" almost didn't happen, actually. It wasn't until my friends Paul Mercer (on violin [Editor's note: From Ghosts Project]) and Jessica Leppaluoto (on piano) recorded their parts that it really came home. I'm really happy with how that one turned out.

The album features a long list of collaborators, including Jody Ellen delivering some smokin' sexy vocals on "Red" and Tempest crafting the beautiful artwork. How did the talents of other contributors--like Behind the Steam's Alyssa Rosenbloom and photographer/maker Libby Bulloff--come into play in the album's creation?

This album would not have been possible without all my friends. Seriously. I am blessed to be surrounded with such strong artistic souls. They are my inspiration.

Tempest has been my collaborator in music and dance for several years. I've been writing music for her dancing since 2010. She puts to motion the things I put to sound. So much of what we do is improv that I'm never really sure where it's going to go. A lot of my finished songs started out as an idea found while making stuff up on stage.

Alyssa has a mastery of words and isn't afraid to tell me when my lyrics need work. Thank heavens for that! I'm fairly new to the songwriting world and I need someone who can tell it to me straight. Between the two of us I think we wrote some really cool songs! We've already talked about what the next project might look like and I'm looking forward to getting on it!

Libby and I have been friends for years and we've worked together in a variety of non-musical contexts: putting on shows, art exhibitions, writing articles, and generally getting into trouble wherever we go. More than anyone else she gets where I've been and where I'm going. It was really only a matter of time until we were in a band together. She, like Alyssa, is one of the people I depend on to tell me when one of my crazy ideas is one best avoided. Basically, she's my Bullshit Detector. We all need at least one of those to get through life.

There are so many other things I could say about everyone on the album that I could easily take up pages on this interview. Let me just end this with this: My friends rock. I'd be lost without them!

I'll admit, when I first put on the album and "Gepetto's Lament" burst into my ears, I was caught off guard. "Who is the fellow singing?" I thought, thinking it was another collaborator. I honestly didn't know you sang--and well, may I add--although I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised considering your other musical abilities. Are there any other recordings where we can hear you sing, or is this your first?

This album is my first real attempt at singing vocals. For the longest time I was able to let it slide by letting other people sing. Once my name was on the marquee though, I felt that it behooved me to step up to the microphone and do the heavy lifting myself. I'm glad I did but it's still pretty terrifying when I have to, y'know, actually sing in front of an audience!

I'm really looking forward to writing more songs and performing at more shows. This is fun!

It's safe to say that many people first heard you via your work with Abney Park, with whom you recorded four albums and toured around the USA and Europe. To many, it was a shock when you left in late 2011. Was it just time to focus on your own songwriting? 

I've always had my hand in a variety of music projects, each one demanding a certain amount of my time and commitment. When I first joined Abney Park I already had a couple of projects that I'd been working on but none of them were all that time consuming. As the band got busier and busier I began to let some of those other projects slide into the background to make room for the larger commitment required.

Eventually, we got to the point where we were rehearsing/recording upwards of 2-3 times a week on top of shows 2-3 times a month. That was a lot of fun for a long time but I began to feel like I had other things I wanted to say musically. As a musical entity, Abney Park has a sound and approach that is pretty specific. I had a lot of ideas that weren't really appropriate for that so I began to build up a backlog of "tunes to work on one day". Eventually I reached a critical mass of music on hold that I felt I really needed to get them out.

Narratives is just the first of many to come. I'm already working on the next one, actually. Got lyrics for two songs in process and more to come!

You've moonlighted with many different bands on stage, like Hellblinki, The Extraordinary Contraptions, and Ghosts Project. Who haven't you played with that you'd like to add to your dance card? What's the most ridiculous thing you've experienced on stage?

I don't even know where to start with this one, there are so many! I don't want to spoil any surprises so I'll just say that I'm already starting up new collaborations on record and on stage for the next year.


Nathaniel performing with Ghosts Project at Dragon*Con 2011--Image by Mark Rossmore

As far as the most ridiculous? The first time I ever performed with Tempest. She invited me to improvise with her in front of a room full of bellydance luminaries, teachers and performers alike,  and I realized upon mounting the stage that I hadn't the slightest idea what I was going to play. I remember standing there in front of hundreds of professional dancers and my mind was completely blank. All I remember of the moment was deciding to just play and hope for the best. I'm told we were brilliant but I was so focused on Tempest and the improvisation that we were making that I really haven't any memory of it.

Many readers know your talents as a guitarist, violinist, bassist, banjo player, and mandolin player. What drove you to learn so many different instruments? Is there any advice you'd offer to those looking to broaden their musical horizons?

I kinda cheated. All those instruments are really very similar. Here's how it went: I started with violin and added guitar when in high school. When I tried the mandolin later on, I found what was basically a guitar-like instrument that was tuned exactly like a violin--I was just fine without ever having played one before. Of all the instruments fell into place similarly. It gets easier with each new instrument. You begin to see patterns and shapes in the music that become universal across all the different instruments. At that point it just becomes an exercise in developing muscle memory.

The best advice I can offer to someone who is starting out is to just do it. Don't wait for someone to give you permission to start. Beg/borrow/buy an instrument and start making noises. If you need help get a teacher. But whatever you do: make music. And start now. Many of my very favorite musical adventures were written by novices. When you don't know what you can or can't do on an instrument you can often make magic.


The entire band throwing down at Steamcon IV.

Is there a particular instrument out there that's managed to craftily avoid your attempts at learning it?

I once tried to play the bagpipes. After about 5 minutes of heavy breathing I got so winded that I passed out. Seriously.

Art never exists in a vacuum. What has most inspired your creativity, both in the past and in the present?

My biggest inspiration these past few years are my friends who dance. I love performing with them so much that I was driven to write music for them. As a bribe, I suppose. "Hey! I wrote you a tune. You should come dance with us at our next show!" All of the songs on my prior CD Evidence of Past Misdeeds were written for just that reason. I got a great response off that music and plan to continue doing just that.

As far as future inspiration? Who knows. I will always be writing music and will happily take whatever inspiration that comes along!

What does the future hold for you and your own band, and are you working on any other musical projects at this time?

I have my hands in on at least 5 different projects at the moment. A couple are just me adding some violin to tracks that are going on friends' albums. I'm working on a full-length album for my friend Kate (who performs under the name Dogwood here in Seattle), and another instrumental dance EP. I have started on a followup to Narratives but am going to take it slow. I have some lyric ideas and a few musical bits started but I'm going to take my time with this one.

Thank you for taking the time to speak about yourself and your work.  It's always a pleasure to hear new music from you!

Thank you! I was surprised and gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response people have had for Narratives. We put a lot into it and it makes me happy to see that people seem to like it.

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Keep track of Nathaniel's musical endeavours via the following links:

Nathaniel's music--including Narratives--can be purchased via his BandCamp web site: http://nathanieljohnstone.bandcamp.com/

  
Author Bio: Mark Rossmore
Mark Rossmore has released three atmospheric albums of steampunk-inspired music as Escape the Clouds. A multimedia artist who enjoys telling dramatic stories, he has self-produced three acclaimed music videos and is a published author of steampunk short fiction, aviation articles, and music-related non-fiction. Learn more about his music, videos, and writing at: http://www.EscapeTheClouds.com .
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