Five Questions: Rob Nance Builds on Folk Foundation
As a folk-rock fan who grew up admiring the greats of the genre, singer and guitarist Rob Nance decided it was time to broaden his own music in the hours spent on the highway between towns.
“I wanted to take the music that I’m comfortable with and see if I could push it in any new directions,” Nance says by phone after a recent show in Asheville, N.C. “I wanted to follow ideas wherever they led, even if they didn’t always fit.”
The result is Signal Fires, Nance’s sophomore album, out April 21. The record broadens the traditional fingerpicking guitar style sound Nance introduced on his 2013 full-length debut, Lost Souls & Locked Doors, incorporating everything from pedal steel to Casio synthesizers.
Nance, who is touring in support of the album with his brother, upright bassist and pedal steel guitarist Jordan Nance, drummer Ryan Lassiter, paused to answer questions during a recent interview.
Jeremy D. Bonfiglio: What have your live shows been like lately, and how are they different with this new album?
Rob Nance: We’ve really been an evolving act over the last few months. What I’m doing has grown from a solo singer-songwriter act to a duo show, and with the album that just came out in the spring there’s a full run of shows with a full band going into the fall. The first leg of the tour we’re doing it as an acoustic duo, so it will show more of the folk and bluegrass influence.
Your latest album, Signal Fires, is still rooted in the genre, but it also builds on that sound. Was that a conscious decision or a happy accident?
I’ve done two EPs and one full length album prior to Signal Fires. So when it got time to write the album I had gotten kind of burnt out on the average Americana sound. It’s the stuff I love because I grew up on that, but I had been doing it for a couple years and I was kind of ready for something different. A big part of what happened on Signal Fires was taking the foundations I was used to – folk, country and bluegrass – and trying to find ways to do some different things.
“Landslide Town” is a song on there that jumps to mind. We started playing that song last summer with a straight rock beat, but when we went to record it there were a couple of parts to it that just didn’t seem to click. One day after we got done with a session working on different songs, I said let’s just see what we can do with “Landslide Town.” We started taking stuff away from it and building it back up. We were using this old 1980s Casio keyboard and came up with something interesting.
What’s the backstory on “Landslide Town”?
I grew up in a tiny, tiny little town in the mountains of North Carolina. Some of that imagery of hanging off the side of a hill and the whole small-town motif of looking to get out played very much into it. Some of it is semi-autobiographical; some of it is pieced together from stories that happened to friends. It’s all centered on the Southern, rural, small-town angst.
Tell me about growing up there. When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
The nearest town to me was Spruce Pine, a town which still only has about 2,000 people. My family’s place is about 15 minutes outside of it in the country. My dad was a semiprofessional musician and played regionally in places like Asheville and Boone, which were short drives from us. My brother, Jordan, who is two years older than me, was enlisted as a bass player by my dad before I really had any interest in it. I was actually a little reluctant at first. I wanted to do my own thing. My later teen years I circled back to wanting to play that kind of music. It naturally came together. It was a slow build. I played in some bands in college. I even had plans to go to graduate school. I told them I was coming and then that summer before, I made a decision to play music and follow something I was passionate about.
What about your first album, Lost Souls & Locked Doors? How do you think you’ve evolved since that time?
When I listen back to that album, I get a sense of me trying so hard to get each song to fit exactly where I wanted them to fit. I’m proud of it. It’s a fairly consistent album across the board, but in some cases I may have sold myself short. I’m probably the harshest critic. I’d say it was good, but not great. But it still gave me the confidence that there was something I could build on, which is why I think I wanted to push into some new stuff with the new one. … Playing songs every night, you learn what songs have staying power and what don’t. That’s something you can only get on the road.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Southwest Michigan.