It’s frustrating to watch a towering talent fade into comfortable obscurity more or less unnoticed. This is a common enough event, which is part of the ingrown sadness of the music business. Last night Juliana Nash had a last-minute goodbye party out in Williamsburg, marking a quiet shift in her musical life. Pierre and I dropped by for a quick drink and scooted just before the pesky rain began, and like so much else these days it got me to thinking.
Over dinner with the Divine Maggees a couple of weeks ago we were talking about How Things Change. The Maggees are a Maine band with a dash of Boston and a current residence in Athens, Georgia, and they’re not taking well to the South. I don’t take well to any state where folks are likely to serve you white gravy without warning, so I can appreciate their feelings.
We were talking about strategies and plans, and labels and bands, and how to get things done, and how to waste money or not, while making a difference or not. Because there comes a point — there come many points, actually — when it’s time to make changes, great or small. I put it this way: imagine you’re standing there in front of a wall. It’s a nice wall; it’s your favorite wall. You’re knocking your head against it now and then, because that’s what one does. Bang. Bang. Bang bang. After each thwack you rub your head and comment: Ow, that hurt. Or Man, that was a bad one. Bang. Whoa! One more of those and my teeth are shaking loose! Every once in a while you smack your head up there and say, Hey, that time it hardly hurt at all — I must be making progress.
In a world of vanishing mystique, disposable fads, force-feed publicity and MBA-culture focus on products rather than process, I’m not even sure there is such a thing as success in the music business any more. Except for occasional routs from the indie left field — today’s darlings are Montreal’s The Arcade Fire, and from what I’ve heard so far the band is absolutely terrific — the dance cards are tightly programmed, and filled at the whims of hands on high.
Eventually, you look up at the wall, now dented and hammered. And you say to yourself, What the hell was that about?, and go about the rest of your life with fire in the memory and bruises on the head to show for it.
Juliana Nash matches a voice of amazing range and texture with a pen shaved down to the pithy core, and adds an instinct for easy, rolling hooks. She fronted a rock band called Talking to Animals, which was signed in the ’90s to Columbia Records, warehoused for a couple of years, and then dropped. Eventually the band’s one album, Manhole, was released on Walter Yetnikoff‘s ill-fated Velvel Records, and although the CD is a fine one, that was pretty much that. “Turning into Beautiful” from Manhole is one of my favorite uptempo happy ferocious bouncy tunes EVER.
When I came to know Juliana, Talking to Animals was fading. She had phased the band into a wiser and deeper machine that layered her melancholic musing melodies with soft detailed lines and the gentlest touches of harmony, and drew out her inward silences with sympathy and care. Our modern world has no handy box to squeeze grown-up music into, and her shows became rare over time, sweet treasures buried in the calendar.
Story not over: Juliana became one of the owners of a new enterprise, Pete’s Candy Store, an unlikely music bar launched on the residential fringes of hopping Williamsburg. Pete’s is small, cozy, and unique, and as booker and den-mother she was instrumental (heh) in making it into one of the essential we-care acoustic music rooms in New York City. Now, five years and two kids after plunging in, Juliana has sold her interest in the Candy Store. The venue continues, power to it, and if a music-friendly child center opens up just outside New York anytime soon … well, let’s just say that some people are built for forward motion.
Meantime, take this moment to visit Juliana’s page on CD Baby, which (if you don’t know it already) is the best indie music store around. Her self-titled EP contains the only commercially-available recordings of Juliana’s post-Animals music, and it is rare and gorgeous stuff. The buttons on the left of that page will stream mp3 samples of the first four songs: listen. She is still, and beautiful and strong.
In other news, it’s hella windy over here and we’re all wondering if this building is going to fall down, or what: the wind is screaming past outside, and up here on the 10th floor even the kitchen is creaking.