An encounter with Michael Nau, the touching hero of American folk music
The prolific songwriter Michael Nau releases 11 new tracks on an album entitled “Mowing”, his first solo opus in the purest tradition of American pop-folk.
After eight years of devoted service under the name of Cotton Jones – the group founded by his wife Whitney McGraw – American songwriter Michael Nau has started a new chapter of his career by stepping out alone. Recorded in Maryland, Burlington and Nashville, his first solo album Mowing is making waves as a product of pure Americana : stripped back pop, sometimes baroque (Winter Beat) and constantly evoking the vestiges of the grand tradition of folk.
The spectres of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, of Nick Drake but also the much missed Elliott Smith hover over these compositions with their sublime melodies carried along with minimalist instrumentals and a bewitching voice in the foreground. “I’m also a big fan of JJ Cale, in fact I was listening to him last night again in the plane for Paris.” But as far as he’s concerned, the comparison ends there. “As the composition progressed I really tried to concentrate on the musicians I was working with, on what they inspired in me. For me that’s the only reference that’s really palpable.”
Because while the album bears his name alone, the songwriter couldn’t detach himself from the collective mentality cultivated with Page France, his former band. “Five years ago, I said to myself it was time to focus on a solo album, but I was too immersed in work and ended up losing all perspective on the compositions. It was through the live recordings and by surrounding myself with people that gave me the capacity to properly judge again.”
The spectres of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, of Nick Drake but also the much missed Elliott Smith hover over these compositions with their sublime melodies
This went with a huge need to work in a much more settled manner to reduce the anxiety that sometimes happens when you set out on your own without a band to cushion the blows. The recording sessions became increasingly disparate over the years and journeys, without the artist ever knowing if that material would be usable in the end or not. “During that time, I was moving from town to town without ever actually being on tour. I managed to earn money by selling material, and this made the configuration for recording different each time. The tools and the instruments changed and that really pushed me out of my comfort zone, like I was trying to reinvent the sound every time.” Only at the end of this process, did the unity of these tracks appear to the musician “as a happy accident.”
I consider myself more a stage musician than a studio guy
It’s this tightrope walking approach to songwriting that inspired the name of the instrumental escapade Mow, and which finally became the title of the album, Mowing. “It was quite an arbitrary choice in the end,” he admits. “But I liked the hesitant and unstable side to this word. It’s also linked to the overlapping of these scattered pieces, each one with its own story and personality.” Out of this solitary vagabondage came a work that occasionally swarms with trusted musician friends like Benny Yurco, who toured notably with Bryan Adams. Enriched by these kindly interventions, the album is recorded almost entirely from demos. The American considers himself more, “a stage musician than a studio guy”, which we can feel in the immediacy of the sound born from the fact he likes to record all the instruments at once. “On stage everything is more spontaneous, more collaborative. My mind doesn’t hinder my pleasure with doubts or constant questioning.” An idea of salutary harmony that we’ll be delighted to see again on December 8th at the Point Éphémère.
Michael Nau, Mowing (Full Time Hobby/[PIAS]), now available.
By Marion Ottaviani