It’s clear that Nicole Reynolds has a bit of a knack for songwriting. Check out her debut release, “Wolves Won’t Eat Us” for a few examples; a fascinating mix of songs with liberal themes of protest, love and even travel. So what does this folk artist look to, to get those creative juices flowing? What path lies behind Nicole Reynolds? What experience does she carry?
It started out in Pittsburgh, born into a blue color family of steelworkers. This lead to songs that conveyed the struggle of the working class, music of a somber tone that recognized her roots. At age 16, Reynolds took a trip to New Orleans and discovered the Preservation Hall, introducing her to folk music. It was at this point she began to understand just exactly what music meant to her, watching people “play jazz and folk as if their lives depended on it.”
Today, Reynolds is hitting the road playing tunes from her latest record, “This Arduous Alchemy” with artists like Melissa Ferrick. The album, “a collection of amorous songs with punches of wit, fused with traditional folk roots along with a modern twist” are simple, but yet so important. Reynolds will be planning a few tours in the coming months, so get out and catch a show. After all, her music is “meant to be listened to in a live setting.” She continues, “It’s hard to capture songs and put them onto a CD. I like being able to let them breathe.” Jump into the XXQ’s.
XXQs: Nicole Reynolds
Pen’s Eye View: How and when did you first get into music?
NR: I started playing guitar and drums as a freshman in college and ended up majoring in music. The school I went to put me in a dorm room with a nun. She was also taking guitar lessons and she would pray to Saint Cecelia, the music saint, for our lessons to go well because our teacher was such a hard ass. It was very interesting because my side of the room had a bunch of liberal mumbo jumbo and she had posters of the Pope and Jesus. Anyway, I didn’t start singing or writing songs until after I graduated.
PEV: Growing up in Pittsburgh, what kind of music were you listening to?
NR: I was mainly dissatisfied with what I heard on the radio growing up. When I was sixteen and I took a trip down to New Orleans with my cousin and discovered the Preservation Hall. About that time I also found out about folk music and I finally felt like I understood what music meant to me. It was such a release… The people I was watching play jazz and folk were playing as if their lives depended on it.
PEV: Was there a certain time or event that you realized music was going to be a career for you?
NR: When I decided to major in guitar, I was hoping that I’d be able to make something work with that. So I started giving some lessons in Philly and then I randomly started to write songs. I made my first album before I had ever played them in front of anyone. Then I moved to a farm back out in western PA where I took care of a bunch of sheep and a goat -long story- and wrote a whole new batch of songs. Still without playing in front of anyone except the sheep. Well I ended up getting a call from Melissa Ferrick asking me to go on a tour with her in the southeast, so I did it and loved it. So I’ve been on and off the road for about a year now.
PEV: Tell us about your 20 song debut album, release, Wolves Won’t Eat Us. How was it to see your work, physically in your hands?
NR: I wrote this album after studying and writing about union songs from the early 1900s. So it’s about half full of Joe Hill/Woody Guthrie/ Dylan type of protest topical stuff. I also fell in love for the first time and took my first cross country trip out west. So the other half of the album is full of love songs and traveling songs. I actually recorded it about 6 months before I got it pressed. I waited because I wasn’t sure what to do… I didn’t really have plans to sell it when I recorded it.
PEV: How is your second release, ‘This Arduous Alchemy’ different from your previous recording?
NR: My first recording is pretty much just me sitting down for a couple of days singing into a mic and then it was done. This arduous alchemy took much longer… I had about five or six other people playing on the record. It’s more produced. I still play my shows as a solo artist, but I thought it would be an interesting experience to liven up the record a bit. ‘This arduous alchemy’ is also lacking the red lefty topical songs. It’s mainly a break up album with some love songs thrown in. It’s not all depressing, just a little bit.
PEV: What can people take from ‘This Arduous Alchemy’?
NR: I mainly write simple lyrics for my songs. I studied those union songs for such a long time. They are very simple songs, but at the same time they are so important. So this arduous alchemy has the same simplicity as my first album, but it’s probably more universal because I was working my way through a big loss in my life when I wrote it.
PEV: In all your travels, which city do you think offers the best environment for music?
NR: Well, I’d have to say Philadelphia. There are so many venues and a great radio station, WXPN, which is a huge supporter of independent and local music PEV: Is there a certain atmosphere you surround yourself in when you write music?
NR: I usually have to be completely alone and out of ear shot from anyone else.
PEV: What was it like the first time you stepped into a studio to record your own music?
NR: I was very serious and nervous. It was strange hearing my voice recorded. I didn’t like it so much. I think i’ve gotten just a little more used to it since then.
PEV: What do all your friends and family back home think about your success?
NR: They think it’s alright. When I’m passing through Pittsburgh, my grandmother gives me a stack of five dollar bills because she knows I sell my cd’s for fifteen and never have change.
PEV: If you could collaborate with one artist, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?
NR: Well, I think I would have trouble collaborating with anyone because of my issue with having to write alone. I’m probably also avoiding the question because I don’t know who to pick.
PEV: What kind of advice can you give to people who are just now starting a band or picking up a guitar?
Nicole Reynolds: Just try and be patient with it… and keep going. There are so many ways to play guitar. Learn more than one way and then you’ll fall into a style that works best for you. It’s also good to give yourself a little goal for each day. Learn a new song or a new chord or take a lesson with someone who plays totally differently than what you’re used to.
PEV: What helps fuel your drive to create music?
NR: It’s really just therapy for me. I feel my best when I am writing. No matter what kind of mood I am in, if I sit down with my guitar and thump out a song, I’ll feel great by the time I’m done.
PEV: How has life on the road been for you? What are the best and worst parts?
NR: I love driving around. I’ve mainly been going up to wisconsin, down to georgia, and back up through Massachusetts. The best part is just getting out… I feel so free. The worst part was in Georgia when I was camping. I hung up my clothes to dry and when I came back, I found a bunch of potato bugs in my underwear. But that wasn’t terrible. Driving around so much can also be very tiring and I do feel weird about using up so much gasoline.
PEV: If I were to walk into your house right now, what is one thing I would be surprised to find?
NR: That I don’t have one. I mainly just migrate around.
PEV: There are heated debates about offering free music online. What is your opinion?
NR: Well, I think it’s fine. I feel like if a musician is going to be successful, they’re going to be successful regardless of whether or not people are getting some of their music for free. I also think free music can be a very positive thing. It probably has the potential to generate more fans for the artist. How many times have people discovered a new artist by listening to a copied mix tape?
PEV: What can someone expect from a live Nicole Reynolds show?
NR: Expect for me to have to lower the microphone stand. The sound engineers always set it way too high.
PEV: What is the best part about playing live?
NR: I like the possibility that I can potentially say something really stupid or really interesting between songs. Also, I think the kind of music I write is meant to be listened to in a live setting. It’s hard to capture songs and put them onto a cd. I like being able to let them breathe.
PEV: So, what is next for Nicole Reynolds?
NR: I have a bunch of new songs. I’ll probably be making another new album for the spring. I’m also planning some tours for January and February.
For more information on Nicole Reynolds, check out www.NicoleReynoldsMusic.com