Herald Nix – Hark! He sings, again
Herald Nix isn’t exactly what you would call prolific. The 53-year-old singer’s first two records — a rockabilly EP called One Night Only and a neo-country EP follow-up, The Fugitive Kind — hit the streets when vinyl was still king and Ronald Reagan sat in the oval office. After laying low for eleven years, he returned in 1997 with Open Up The Sky, a disc marked by blacker-than-cancer lyrics and expansive, echo-drenched guitar.
Another seven years of silence followed until Nix clocked in recently with his second full-length album, What A World. Nix admits he didn’t really have a burning desire to get back into the studio; more than anything, the record was made out of necessity.
“I enjoy playing live,” says the soft-spoken Canadian, who lives in a 1908 farmhouse in Salmon Arm, a rural community five hours outside of Vancouver. “It sort of occurred to me that if I wanted to continue playing live, I would have to reinvent things a little bit. The songs that I had been doing were starting to get old. And the more that I thought about that, the more I started to think that I hadn’t done a record for seven years.”
The infrequency of his recordings has done nothing to diminish Nix’s stature in the region’s roots-music community. He first surfaced on the club circuit in the early ’80s, when Rank And File was just starting to teach West Coast punks to love Johnny Cash. Two decades later, Nix is considered a founding father of a scene that has birthed such breakout acts as Neko Case and the Be Good Tanyas.
That Nix is virtually unknown beyond Vancouver seems neither to surprise nor disappoint him. “I’m not the kind of person that would endeavor to hop into a van and make my way across the country, playing anywhere that will have me just because I’ll get paid a bit of money,” he explains. “But I’ve been thinking, though, lately, that maybe I’d like to play more, maybe even do a bit of touring. The opportunities are definitely there. I think that maybe it’s up to me, though, to pursue them.”
Read between the lines, and it should be obvious that Nix isn’t the world’s most career-oriented artist. Strange, then, that he shows no shortage of ambition on his records. The Fugitive Kind contained a genuine classic in the organ-drenched, heart-full-of-sadness title track. Open Up The Sky found him making a hard left, creating a distortion-flared, skeletal sub-strain of country so original that critics had problems coming up with a description for it.
What A World heads further down the same Gothic-country path, albeit in a slightly more organic fashion. The disc kicks off with the jazz-dusted “Sometimes Once In Awhile”, a gorgeously hushed jaw-dropper that approximates Lyle Lovett channeling Django Reinhardt. From there, Nix mixes things up: “Down Home Girl” walks the line between vintage rockabilly and menacing Americana, and “I Watch For You” is the Velvet Underground if Lou Reed had been obsessed with Texas singer-songwriters.
Elsewhere, solar-flare bursts of guitar on “I Call Her Baby Doll” and “Tell Me Robert” sound directly inspired by Neil Young’s monochromatic soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Just when you think you’ve got Nix figured out as a hard-core iconoclast, he pulls out the harmonica and plays his country wistful and straight up on “A Letter Home”.
Recorded in a run-down, turn-of-the-century home on Vancouver’s working-class east side, What A World is proof that sometimes the best things are left to chance. “All the songs were not only unrehearsed but also pretty much made up as we went along — not the lyrics, but the arrangements and the guitar parts,” he says. “And it was all recorded live with no overdubs, not even for the vocals or the guitars. Even I was surprised that we were able to get through songs from beginning to end and have everything fall nicely into place with no problems.”
More than any of his past releases, What A World reveals Nix to be a double-threat. As a guitarist, he’s an accomplished chameleon, moving effortlessly from 3 a.m. blues to ghost-town country to left-of-center roots-rock. Lyrically, he conveys the bemused world-weariness of someone whose luck is usually bad. That sensibility is perhaps best represented by the title track: Against a backdrop of distortion-splattered reverb and metronome-steady drums, Nix sings of rolling cigarettes till dawn and the girl who got away, before finally throwing his hands up with the desperately blunt chorus: “Oh, what a fucking world.”
“I tried singing it without the ‘fucking’ part,” he confesses, “but it somehow didn’t sound right. So I put it back in.”
Nix’s willingness to push the boundaries of Americana, combined with the ambitious nature of What A World, make one wonder if he’s finally determined to become more than a regional attraction. “I really like the way that this album turned out, so I’m planning on recording another one right away,” he claims. At a pace like that, you could almost start to call him prolific.