Jon Nolan – Back to school
A cluster of major life changes struck all at once for singer-songwriter Jon Nolan a couple years ago. Say Zuzu, the band Nolan started with his brother and their mutual best friend, broke up after fourteen years and seven albums. Around the same time, Nolan and his wife Laura bought a house in the small New Hampshire town of New Market. They also found out Laura was pregnant. With twins.
“Talk about shifting gears big time,” Nolan says now with a laugh. “I figured it was finally time to get that 9-to-5-er. I was ready. Those carefree days of being a touring rocker were definitely over.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the punch clock: Nolan couldn’t stop writing songs. As a result, he never made it to that 9-to-5-er. Instead, he stays at home with his daughters Riley and Sophia while Laura works as a schoolteacher. “I’m just a lonely house husband, waiting for the milkman,” he jokes.
Seriously, though, the stay-at-home-dad gig has worked out well for him. The family is expecting a third child in January, and Nolan has embraced his new life. He gushes when talking about his children and family and the joy they bring.
Songs continued to come to Nolan — during the children’s naps, on walks to the park, late at night. And he kept pursuing them, even though he had no planned outlet for them at the time. This batch of stolen-moment compositions eventually led to his recently released solo debut When The Summers Lasted Long, which took a couple of years to make.
The music has a Marshall Crenshaw-meets-the-Jayhawks kind of vibe, loaded with strong hooks and frequently reinforced with two-part harmonies. The lyrics tackle a number of crossroads themes.
“I like to think of the album as my Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” Nolan says, then tries to backpedal quickly as soon as he hears those words come out. “I’m not saying I’m Bruce Springsteen by any means. But this album discusses innocence, loss of innocence and the sort of struggle to figure it all out.”
Even the title looks back on the whimsical days of youth. “Remember when you were in third grade and you left school for the summer, and it felt like three years before you were going back for the fourth grade?” Nolan asks. “Well, this album is a lot about growing up, the end of those long summers.”
That’s not to say the tracks are filled with disappointment and regret; rather, they’re more about assessment and bemusement. And there are some happy moments. Part of what feeds the happiness for Nolan is that he no longer feels any pressure to write for anyone but himself. The freedom is exhilarating, he says, and inspiring.
“What ended up on this record was as free from others’ opinions as could be,” Nolan says. “I wasn’t trying to have any kind of defined success. I am just hanging my hat on the songs.”
His whole process reinforced that. Nolan would write a few tunes, document them on his home recording equipment, and then invite folks in to join him. Along the way, he hooked up with prominent producer Paul Q. Kolderie, whose credits include albums by Uncle Tupelo, Radiohead, Morphine and many others. Kolderie liked the music, told Nolan what he thought the songs needed, and agreed to mix the album.
“It was like he was reading my mind,” Nolan says. “Every time he touched a knob, he improved the recordings. I feel very fortunate that Paul got involved with this project in such a major way.”
As happy as Nolan was with the finished product, he’s even more excited about his new approach to music. “In my experience with the music industry, there’s always been that carrot that draws along the donkey,” he says. “Say Zuzu started when I taught my brother the only three chords I knew. Together with another friend, we started playing music, and we were all ecstatic at what we were doing.
“The next minute, though, we talked about getting signed. That is almost always when we musicians take our eye off the ball and forget that it is the music, and not the music business, that got you fired up in the first place. While making this record, I made the conscious decision that I’m not chasing that carrot anymore. I’ve snipped that string, and the carrot is on the ground. For me, it’s now all about the music, all about the songs.”