Americana music is defined by the Americana Music Association as "contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw." Ignoring the incredibly specific restraints placed on the genre by this definition, I've often felt contemporary Americana is anchored in folk, rock, and classic country. Singer-songwriter Jay Nash tends to agree. I spoke with him one very sunny Sunday in San Francisco.
Vermont is Nash's home, and when we spoke via phone he mentioned he was on his way back from a day spent catching some waves. Now, I know I'm not the best with geography, but I'm pretty sure Vermont isn't exactly coastal. Nash spent nine years in Los Angeles before making the move East, so when the weather is nice he drives up to Maine to spend the day surfing. We spoke about his tenth album, Letters from the Lost, which came out yesterday, May 14, 2013.
For Nash, a seasoned musician, this record was a chance to try something new. "I would start every day with a clean slate," he said. "I'd record a soundscape, or a guitar part, or a mandolin chord. The story revealed itself as I went. It ended up being a bit more of a stream of consciousness, I wrote probably 30 songs, and then curated the songs that related to each other. This record was sort of the sound that was in my head." The collected songs are about being lost, which is something Nash feels is important when seeking a new creative voice: "In order to step forward," he states, "you need to be lost for a moment."
Though this sentiment is felt throughout the album, the opening track, "Wander" is the best example. It was written in its entirety on the shortest day of the year. The song embarks on a journey of wandering through dark and cold snow. The lyrics ("Wander where you will / that voice you hear, you know somehow"), coupled with echoed guitars, an upbeat percussive rhythm, and snaps does not conjure feelings of fear or anxiety, but rather those of contentment in what one might stumble upon.
In dissecting the songs with Nash, he divulged that "The Art Thief" is in fact about a relatively recent event that took place in San Francisco involving a thief, a Picasso, and one very expensive cab ride to Napa. Nash gravitated to the fact that Mark Lugo "didn't feel remorse, but rather raised the question of 'who does art actually belong to?' It's such a cool story," he says, "in the age of post-Napster where music has become all but free. Whether you call that stealing or not is up to you -- the argument has come back up." The musical arrangement found on Letters to the Lost is reminiscent of another example of Americana music, Jim Ward’s project out of El Paso called Sleepercar. On "The Art Thief" we hear Nash's ethereal background guitar, and the slide of his fingers on the fret. This particular song calls attention to Nash’s experienced voice.
At times Letters from the Lost feels less like folk and more like pop-rock, especially when songs are backed in volume by a band. When Nash makes the journey to San Francisco at the end of the month to play at Café Du Nord, he'll be accompanied by a drummer for an uplifting but stripped-down set. Even though it's always a cold summer in San Francisco, we won't have to worry about wandering through the snow to find inspiration; Nash takes care of that for us.