Israel Nash is feeling lifted these days. At home outside Austin, Texas, he and his family are perched way up on an expansive property. One look at the view of the rolling Texas Hill Country stretching out in all directions and it’s easy to see how Nash can find inspiration for the style of desert folklore music he created since moving there. With plenty of land to explore, he has spent the last few years building and perfecting his own recording studio, which he calls Plum Creek Sound.
Having a studio that you own is the dream for many artists, and Nash took full advantage of the space with his new album Lifted (REVIEW). Compared to 2015’s Silver Season, which explored darker territory in the Neil Young-meets-Pink Floyd-in-a-western sound that Nash has honed over the years, Lifted is strikingly positive and brimming with a smorgasbord of sounds that could only be possible if the artist has plenty of time and an array of instruments to experiment with. In a time when it’s easy to get caught up on the negative and channel that into your art, Nash took another route, one inspired by living in a peaceful and beautiful place. The album feels like a psychedelic awakening, like each song was written and recorded at the peak of the best acid trip. Nash and his band achieved the album’s rich, kaleidoscopic sound by recording noises from around his property and weaving them into sprawling and twangy guitar and trippy solos, a steady, driving beat, and soaring, euphoric vocals. Both intellectually stimulating and catchy as all hell, each song on Lifted feels like an epiphany as Nash offers the listener a chance to bask in the bucolic serenity of his Texas Hill Country home. At times the album is downright orchestral, and it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer volume of ear-pleasing sounds at play.
Lifted is already a contender for one of 2018’s best albums, and recently Israel Nash took the time to chat about finding peace in the country, building his studio, drawing inspiration from Phil Spector, and more.
Has having your own studio changed your approach to recording?
Yeah, greatly. I have had a passing awareness of recording in studios and I’ve been making records in makeshift studios almost my whole career. I was always familiar with some levels of production, but getting all this stuff makes you learn it a different way. It’s one thing to set up your computer interface and it’s another to route lines. It’s not hard necessarily but it’s stuff that you don’t do with regularity at the studio. Early on I was like, ‘do I want to be the guy who has a boat but doesn’t know how to fucking drive it out on the ocean? No, I wanna know how this thing works!’ I feel like Lifted was a record I got to write and simultaneously demo ideas. I felt like I had a better understanding of my room and how to achieve sounds that were in my head and get them out a little faster through just the technical understanding. You don’t want to learn things because they suck the creativity out of it, but if you learn them then the other things move fast. [The studio] has definitely changed my outlook. Not only for this record, but I’ve already started another record since this one. My whole concept of making a record has changed.
Is it easier to experiment when you’re not paying for studio time?
Yeah, you can hook up a bunch of pedals and play with them, or a bunch of banjos through Leslies. I was playing around with putting guitar picks on the ends of fidget spinners and spinning them on guitars. You know, madness! I had recorded like twenty different pitches of water in glass to be in different keys. I recorded a bunch of sounds all over the ranch, or we brought tons of stuff in the studio, like rocks, really just to paint a sonic picture of where [this album] was made. It’s kind of a music in the here and now, a transparent idea. So I made all these sounds on the land that I could unleash on the [band]. I also wanted to give the guys some surprises and excitement and then have it spread around the room.
Can you talk specifically about some of the weirder sounds on the album?
[They] are in a few songs. But for example, we tracked a kick drum through the water tanks so it had this big reverb, Phil Spector wall of sound. There’s like layers of stuff, like rubbing leaves together and stuff. It was really just an experiment, like banging rocks together, recording a thunderstorm, or crickets. Then incorporating them into rhythm or sonic parts.
You’ve said the album is a modern day hippie spiritual. Does all of the experimentation play into that concept? Where did that idea come from?
I think the last few years have been a time of a lot of reflection for me. Seeing things come together, like that there has to be something bigger than a stage or a cool social media post. It’s kind of like the raw connection of music that continues to allow me to express myself, but even more so now with a greater platform to connect with other people all over. I guess it’s just like being more mindful, more present and more grateful. Trying to spend less time in my head and being more in the moment. Music is interesting because I think that when I am writing it’s a meditative state for me, very much this flow in the moment. Then when you work on a record it comes away from that moment but it’s about finding it in each stage of it. Then you record the song and that becomes a different stage because I share it with the guys. Then we share it with the world and go play shows.
I think for this record I really wanted to paint that picture. It’s kind of a psychedelic thing. I guess I wanted to – not in a cheesy way like let’s put the rain sound here – but like making the ranch the bed of the songs. I felt like there was a transparency and a realness. Music can sometimes be shrouded in all these other things and I wanted this record to be transparent from a lyrical standpoint and I wanted the music to be a lifting experience too. I was tired of being sad, and it was compounded by the election of Donald Trump and everyone around me being really depressed for months. But it was like, music connects me to something and there are these bigger things, so maybe we can push the darkness out. I just wanted to make music that let me celebrate some things and maybe other people can share that.
Did you find it was a challenge to keep politics and negativity out of your musical process?
I think it became the focus. I didn’t really want to talk about that. I’ve written political songs in the past, but I feel like I got down this path for this record – not to make light of social injustice and stuff that’s happening daily with travel bans and children being separated – but the music really gave me a nice peaceful place for the first time a couple months in after the election season. That’s kind of where “Rolling On” came from, like I got to keep going and everyone around me has to exact change in their own ways. It became more about like what I have learned living out here [on the ranch], or what I’ve learned through love and music, lifelong friendships with people who can just celebrate what they do. I think it became just a cathartic time in the studio, happiness and sadness and just letting a lot of stuff out. There were some albums I kind of liked that had some themes like that, like All Things Must Pass, Astral Weeks – these sort of spiritually uplifting albums.
Yeah, I feel like your last album Silver Season was much darker and had political undertones. It also seems like there is more of a need for the spiritual and uplifting in darker times.
That’s what I needed. I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t like oh, Israel’s getting out the oils and the magic crystals or something. That’s why I was like, file it under hippie spiritual to add some levity to it. It’s like, slow down, chill out, be here now, love more.
Does living out in the country allow you a little more detachment and does that affect your mindset?
Yeah, without a doubt, it’s changed my whole life. I feel like that started with Rain Plans, Silver Season, and it just continues to shape my life, which shapes the art. I’ve been really into Alan Watts quotes. He has a quote: “But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” You start to see beauty in a lot of things, like the birds and the deer coming out each night. You know, you see how much you are a part of nature. But at the same time, I spend a lot of time in cities, so I feel like I have that duality. Yeah, it’s taught me to slow down and appreciate things. I spend a lot of time just sitting on the deck looking at the view and thinking with a guitar, pad and paper.
Compared to previous albums, you definitely are working with a wider array of sounds on Lifted, most notably with a synthesizer. What was your approach building the songs, especially one like “Looking Glass” where it has all these orchestral sounds?
Another inspiration for this stuff was the Phil Spector wall of sound, so I was really digging into pulling off these wall of sound techniques, reading things, watching old school videos. I knew I wanted to create the space for that stuff and create songs that had those dynamics. I was inspired by records like Sgt. Peppers and Pet Sounds. It seems like some of the commonalities with records like those was just access to resources and sounds, like your ideas could become realities. I think with modern recording we can have some of those resources that previously took a fortune to get. It’s like Pet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers, they weren’t even performed live. I feel like synths and stuff can carry a lot of sounds and inspiration. The idea for this record was just to have a lot to play with. I was talking with the band about how we’re all such capable musicians, like multi-instrumental, but we spend so much more time playing shows than being in the studio together and we kind of become role-oriented. So I encouraged the guys on this one to go hey, you’re going to play some primary instruments, but we’re musicians so let’s just fucking play shit, pick up something. There were four keyboards out, a piano miked, 20 guitars, Leslie cabinets swirling, contact mikes, big loop stations, and just endless machines around just to kind of make people think they could do anything they want.
Israel Nash’s Lifted is out now. Visit israelnash.com for more music and info and check out tour dates below.
1 – South On Main – Little Rock, AR
2 – Off Broadway – St. Louis, MO^
3 – Crossroads – Kansas City, MO*
4 – Raccoon Motel – Davenport, IA
5 – Palace Theatre – Minneapolis, MN*
7 – Bluestem Amphiteater – Moorhead, MN*
10 – The Earl – Atlanta, GA
11 – Americana Fest – Nashville, TN
13 – Americana Fest – Nashville, TN
14 – Zanzabar – Louisville, KY
15 – Rumba Cafe – Columbus, OH
16 – Pike Room at the Crofoot – Detroit, MI
18 – Schubas – Chicago, IL
19 – The Back Room at Colectivo – Milwaukee, WI
20 – Turf Club – Minneapolis, MN
22 – Holler On the Hill – Indianapolis, IN
23 – Mountain Stage – Charleston, WV
25 – Rough Trade – Brooklyn, NY
26 – Johnny Brenda’s – Philadelphia, PA
27 – Jammin Java – Vienna, VA
28 – Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA
30 – Roots N Blues BBQ Festival – Columbia, MO
10 – Moroccan Lounge – Los Angeles, CA
11 – Siren – San Louis Obispo, CA
12 – Café Du Nord – San Francisco, CA
14 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
16 – Tractor Tavern – Seattle, WA
18 – State Room – Salt Lake City, UT
19 – Magic Rat – Fort Collins, CO
20 – Globe Hall – Denver, CO
+ with Feverbones & Curtis Roush
^ with Old 97’s
*with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
Photo: Kris Wixom