Q&A: Nick Eberhardt on Self-Recording, Album Titles, and Eating Your Vegetables

Nick Eberhardt started playing live at the tender age of 16, long before he settled in Florida -- and just before he started training under master finger-picker Tim Sparks. With stints playing in blues bars, being on the road, and sleeping on couches, Eberhardt has had enough rugged grooming to mold him into the folk musician he is today.

His debut, Can You Feel It (available for free download here), is filled with the kind of heartfelt, folky rock that makes for warm listening, but he is good at maneuvering himself into the realm of something grand. Just listen to the echoes on the title track's chorus. The songs are strong, and Nick -- always sincere -- is unafraid of big soul, whether that manifests itself musically or lyrically. We spoke to him about his traveling-man roots, his release, and his rules for doing things right. 

New Times: You recently completed an album, but how did you get your start as a musician? What were you working on before?

Nick Eberhardt: I started playing impromptu blues jams in bars when I was about 16 years old. At that time, I was studying guitar with a blues artist who really turned me on to roots music. It wasn't until I was about 18 that I started studying guitar with national finger-picking champion Tim Sparks, who really got me into more eclectic styles as well as some fundamental jazz stuff. But I threw a lot of the technical out the window, discovered whiskey, and joined a jam band. I played regionally in Fargo, North Dakota, with them for about three years as well as at a few coffee-shop tours between Fargo and Seattle.

Up to this point, I don't think my lips had ever touched a microphone -- I was just playing guitar. I moved to Florida when that was over, and my friend Clark Hohman -- a producer and engineer -- put me up at his house, and we started developing some songs I'd been working on. I would literally record all day with him, and then at night, sit up in bed until 3 or 4 a.m. and write melodies and lyrics and then the next morning present them and we'd start working on them. I spent a few years going back to guitar and traveling with a couple of signed acts but all the while writing my own material. This past year, I was working on a few new songs with the Darklights, playing a little guitar with my friend Logan Rex, and starting to write an old-school gospel record with my friend Chris Wood... but that's on hiatus.

So you've got a really eclectic background. The material on your album -- were these songs written at Clark's house, while on tour with signed acts, or more recently? All of the above? What inspired you to put everything together into a collection of your own stuff -- had you always had the idea to do it?

No, all of the songs were written and recorded by me in my house in February. Every year, NPR has a challenge for artists to write and record ten songs in the month of February, and this year I took it. As for the inspiration to put something together, I lost my dad suddenly in December, a day after my birthday. And, like most guys I guess, I don't really outwardly express myself correctly when things of that magnitude happen. I spent the first week grieving appropriately. I knew I had to get the heartache out of me somehow; I actually remember telling myself, "You're not allowed to write a song this month, because it's just going to be about sadness." As it rolled into mid-January, I remembered that my friend John Buscemi had his heart broken by a girl almost exactly a year before and asked me if I'd record some songs in my living room, as he was about to write for this NPR thing.

The timing for me this year was perfect. I had just a massive amount of pent-up creativity wanting to get out and someone challenging me to do it. So I did. The words for "Golden Now" were the first things that came out, and then there was "Can You Feel It" and "Heirs to Attend." Once I got through the songs that were in honor of my father, I started to write about other things. I had a friend that was struggling with addiction, so I wrote "Get Well." I thought back to nonsensical, nitpicky quarrels I'd had in relationships and wrote "Sweet Marry."

It's brave and good that you wrote songs based on how you were feeling. These songs you were challenged by NPR to write -- aside from the fact that a lot of them were inspired by recent events, how are the songs on the album different from what you'd been working on earlier? I'm wondering how your songwriting process has evolved as you've grown and changed.

The one word that seems to be making its descriptive appearance regarding this record or my live shows for this record is honest, and I think that is exactly what separates this set of recordings from any other that I've that done. Because I played 98 percent of the instrumentation and recorded in solitude, I had zero outside influence in the writing and tracking process. In any other setting, I'm always dealing with someone else's creative influence melding with mine. I think that's a wonderful bond to share with anyone, and I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in the world. But for the first time on this record, there is no outside influence between writing and tracking. It was a very liberating experience, and the lack of outside influence (whether making the record better or worse) was what I needed to be as "honest" as possible. I can only liken the experience to some sort of artisan craft like building a log home with your bare hands or something. That sounds ridiculous, but it was very rewarding. I'm sure I'll find my way back to studios in the future, but this time I'll have terms.

Yeah, the record is very honest; you can glean that from each song. Where and how was this album recorded, since you did it mostly in solitude? Though it was necessary to do it alone this time, was it more technically difficult?

I recorded the whole thing in my dining room. I have hardwood throughout the house but not in my office, so I tore it down and set up the dining table as a new work station, with the drum kit behind me and the stringed instruments around me, and just started going for it. I only had one mic, and I did the whole thing in Garageband. I actually think "technically" it was way easier. I think every time I go to someone else's studio there's a snag, whether it's ghosts in the machine or just total machine failure. I just had my iMac and one mic, so the details were more about where to put the mic to get the sound I needed out of that particular instrument.

Can you talk about the album's title and how you chose it?

The album is named after the song, which I struggled with quite a lot. At first, I felt it was cliché and actually completely rewrote the song and retracked it but ended up throwing out the new version because it lacked the fundamental emotion that the first had. The lyrics never saw paper -- it was a cut-and-paste loop from the 16th note guitar line you hear mixed in later in the song, and from there, I played the organ back and forth 1 to 4, 1 to 4, then turned on the mic and just started singing. I did the drums later. I really thought the words were just going to get scratched and rewritten, but I wanted to get the "feeling down." The part where the vocals and drums start in on the "can you feel it" line seemed to really work, and it was a bit of an anthem, so I left it. My friend Facebook-chatted me as he was mixing the tracks at the end of February and said, "'Golden Now' used to be my favorite, but I like 'Can You Feel It' the most now. I think that needs to be the record name." He's a pretty smart guy, and it seemed fitting, so I ran with it.

Getting it out on your own -- this is a real accomplishment. Is there other material you've been working on that didn't make it to the album or anything you're working on now, postrelease?

Yeah, there were about four songs in the works that didn't quite fit. The ten-song record I submitted to NPR is actually the nine-song release of Can You Feel It, so I axed one of the songs. It was really quickly written, and I just needed to have one more song, so it's what came out, but I wasn't real fond of the recording. I ended up cutting it off the release. I think I may redo it for an EP I'm working on now. I'm kind of still in overdrive as far as writing goes. As soon as the record was done, I sat down and wrote seven gospel songs for that project back at Clark's with a few other friends. And I've decided to release another three- to five-song EP, in a month or so, of slightly happier songs. I think I have the framework for three of them written already.

Unlike a lot of the musicians I've interviewed, you didn't grow up here. As someone who isn't South Florida-raised, what's your take on the local music scene, especially compared to Fargo and Seattle?

Despite the fact that I've been playing in the Palm Beach area for about five years, I really don't know much about the "local scene" per se. I spent a decent chunk of that time in a stinky van with the illusion of success in the shape of a carrot dangling in front of me. I think there is an incredible amount of talent in this area that keeps putting South Florida on the map, Young Circles being one example. Those dudes are tearing down musical boundaries with every EP they release. It's really fun to watch them evolve, and what I love about them as musicians and people, and what I really appreciate in my personal musician friends down here (Keith Michaud being another), is that they are true disciples of music. They come to your shows, they absorb what you do, they praise what's good, and they evolve. Without those trusted musical insights, we'd all just be clanking around on pots and pans and calling it Mozart. Fargo was a pretty supportive town. Lots of great jazz and blues players but very similar to here. The ones that are the most successful are less judgmental but great listeners. Seattle wasn't really a local scene for me, but I always had a blast playing there.

So, the moral of the answer to this question is: 1.) Don't be a dickhead, because it's transparent. 2.) If we don't help each other, we're just stranded on an island. 3.) Eat your vegetables.

That's pretty good advice. What's next for you -- when can we expect that EP? Any more live shows?

The EP will be out by the end of next month. Noisebynick.com will post the whole process of whatever I'm up to. As far as live shows, I've got a little formula I'm sticking to right now. I'm working out the details with my musicians and the Young Circles dudes to put together an epic rock orchestra to perform/film in HD performance of the Can You Feel It recordings. It's kind of a focus right now.

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