Juliana Nash recently released her album Pennies In Time, and though she’s a prolific songwriter ever since her time in the band Talking to Animals, this collection has a very special history since it brings together never-before-recorded songs from the band’s live performance heyday in the 90s with her current mentality and outlook on life. Add to that the presence of her original Talking to Animals bandmates on the album and the support and ideas of a Producer who had known the band since their demo says, Kevin Salem, and you have a very special hybrid of songwriting and performance from the past and the present.
Juliana Nash has had a varied and impactful career, not just performing and recording with Talking to Animals, but also in co-founding the storied Williamsburg, Brooklyn music venue Pete’s Candy Store as well as co-writing the Off-Broadway musical Murder Ballad, which after debuting in the USA is touring in the UK and Asia this year.
In her current life, as well as songwriting and recording, she’s a vocal teacher and performance coach at Rock Academy in Woodstock, New York. I spoke with Juliana Nash about the intertwining of her band history with her current life, how she picked and worked on these era-bridging songs, and what kind of impact the experience had for her as a songwriter.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that a lot of these songs on Pennies in Time have substantial history, but when did the idea of this album start rolling?
Juliana Nash: Everything on this album are old songs of mine that I never recorded. I definitely worked on the lyrics a little to make them more relevant to me now, but the history is that I had a band, Talking to Animals, for over a decade, who only released one album, in the late 80s and 90s. The long and short of it is that I was having severe writer’s block and my bass player, Greg Porter, who is one of my best friends and also my writing partner, sent me three old recordings of songs with me and Talking to Animals. He said, “Why don’t you just cull through these songs and record some?” Because I have hundreds of songs that I haven’t recorded. But I picked songs that felt relevant to how I’m feeling now, as a 58-year-old woman. So that’s how I picked these eight songs.
HMS: Regarding Talking to Animals and all this writing, were you all playing live songs a lot even though you weren’t recording them during that period?
JN: We were a real live band. We were not really a studio band, and none of us had home recording studios. But this was also the 90s, with no internet or digital releasing. We made tapes, actual tapes, and sent them to record labels. By the time we were with Columbia Records, the internet had just started. By 1998 we were done for no other reason than, “How long can you stay together if you aren’t making money?”
I wasn’t great at recording, although I’ve gotten better at it, but we were a pretty magical four-some. I think we were kind of like Pearl Jam, but with a female singer. We were really a great live band, and that was my wheelhouse. These songs were written by me, but arranged and worked on extensively by Talking to Animals. Many of them recorded this album with me, and though I’m now a solo artist, if I ever get to play these songs, I want to play with them. It’s so full-circle for me, because Kevin Salem, who Produced the album, made one of our first demos in 1990.
HMS: Oh wow! I’m heard great things about Kevin from artists who have worked with him.
JN: Isn’t that amazing? He’s a Rock god, a great guitarist, and an amazing Producer. Having someone who has known my band and known me for so long was important because I was in a little bit of a dark place, honestly, and this record is me coming back to myself, basically.
HMS: That’s wonderful to hear. Hearing about positive developments is hard to come by in the past couple years, so that’s even more of a triumph.
JN: I feel the same. For me, I was in a terrible depression, my alcoholism had relapses, I was having empty nest syndrome, some people I knew died, so it was either do or die. But instead I said, “No, I’m going to sing again.” It was a big deal. It wasn’t a small thing for me.
HMS: You really picked some great songs to speak to current times. I knew they were older in origin, but when I heard them, they felt very “now” to me.
JN: I do want to write new material, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with older material. However, I did pick those songs really carefully. “Dead End Running” was originally about my marriage and a situation that I had about a family home. But now it became more about empty nest syndrome and the pain of having my children grow up. My son’s only 18 so it’s all still really fresh for me.
HMS: I really liked the contrast between the woman looking a certain way on the outside, dressed up, but feeling a certain way on the inside, terrible. That’s something I can definitely relate to and I’m sure others can, too.
JN: Exactly, it’s so hard. You can have all this shit going on inside and still be saying to others, “Hi! I’m okay.” As a performer, I’m also very raw, and I’m tied to my feelings, but I’ll often cry on stage. I’m trying to learn how to not do that and compartmentalize a little.
My life has been changing a lot, and I feel like my appearance has even been changing a lot, like letting my hair go grey, and I’m okay with not being young anymore. I’m finally feeling better about things, but it took a while. Though these issues spanned about ten years, some other great stuff happened during that time, like my musical, Murder Ballad.
When Julia Jordan asked me to write that with her, I had a lot of material. She was a Talking to Animals fan and specifically wanted me to work with old songs. This was around 2012. I thought that experience would kick-start my writing career, but then that didn’t really happen. Even though I had an Off-Broadway hit that was big in Asia, I couldn’t get another job doing that. I started getting angry about the music business again, so I just stopped. Then I had really bad writer’s block after that for a long while.
HMS: These stories about the music business are really helpful to share with readers, I feel, because the overly glossy narrative about how things work in music is so unrealistic.
JN: Totally. It’s really a struggle. My daughter is a songwriter and a singer, and she moved out to LA and said, “This sucks!” She had to find out for herself.
HMS: Do you find songwriting therapeutic, and if so, did working on these songs help you through that block?
JN: Yes, songwriting is extremely therapeutic for me, and I think that’s one reason I was so depressed, because I wasn’t working. Even though I’m in therapy, and in AA, and have a lot of support, I really, really need to write. It’s incredibly cathartic to me. If I’m not doing what releases my authentic self, then I suffer. Nothing can replace that experience, not children or lovers. Nothing replaces performing for people and writing songs, for me. It’s not that I don’t adore my children, but this is who I am.
HMS: Does keeping a creative relationship with your longtime bandmates help with that too?
JN: I need them. Collaborating with people really is a serious relationship and it’s magical. You can’t replicate that connection. It doesn’t come along all the time. That’s why if anyone’s been in a band, they understand what I’m talking about here.
HMS: I’ve heard a lot about the improvisational experience with bandmates you know well being a transcendent thing.
JN: Exactly, it is transcendent. So to be in a room with them and Kevin again was a big deal. We had a new drummer with us, Tony Mason, but I’ve known him for years with solo work. When we got into the room and started recording, Kevin looked at us and said, “You’re a real band. You need to keep making music together.” I really appreciated that he said that and identified it. The whole thing was so cathartic for me. In fact, after making this record, I had a real lifting of the depression that I was in.
HMS: I saw that you are also a teacher and work with young musicians. Are you concerned with making sure people find music as an outlet?
JN: Oh, yes. Getting them to find their own voice is revelatory. I just love it. It’s also to ward off the toxicity of the internet, bullying and shaming, and that’s always been around, but now it’s just awful. I encourage them to write songs, also, and I share my songwriting process. I’ll identify when someone might want to write, and I suggest it to them. I say, “You can write, too. It’s a process. It’s not a mystery.” I break down singing to the physical, so it’s not a mystery, either. It’s an instrument. I try to do that with songwriting, too.
HMS: People get discouraged because of these myths sometimes. They think that a song should emerge fully-formed, beautiful and perfect from the first moment. They don’t understand that this is something you can work on.
JN: It’s the same with singing. Singing is hard. For me, I had to work hard at it.
HMS: I feel like you have a ton of different vocal approaches on this album and the songs themselves have a wide range of musical accents, too. Were you thinking toward the mood of the songs to come up with the vocal approaches?
JN: The lyrics, to me, dictate the vibe. For a song like “Suffering Bitch”, there’s a little bit of anger and angst in it, so I’m going to sing it that way. Then again, sometimes it’s nice to sing a really angry song really softly, like on the song “Leverage”, which used to be super rocked out and really fast. It was really loud, but in the rehearsal with the band, Kevin said, “I have this idea. Can we play this one really soft?” We thought he was crazy, but then we did it, and it made this song that was very angry just painful instead. Kevin just flipped that and it really worked. On “Pennies in Time”, it’s rocked out, but it’s also sad. “Sad-Angry”, that’s my MO.
HMS: [Laughs] I like it. I would say, “edgy”, too. When you’re “sad-angry”, you’re also edgy, which keeps the attention really well in a song. Punk songs are often shorter because they have that high energy, but if you can carry that edginess for a longer period, that’s a real achievement, I think.
JN: With Talking to Animals, that was our big thing. We’d go from really soft and low to explosive. Personally, if I hear a whole set of the same driving shit, I stop listening. That’s just me. I tell that to my students, too: Vocal freedom means being able to sing soft and to sing loud, with a whole range of emotions. You can’t just be one way when you sing, or at least I can’t.
HMS: Did you know that would allow yourself to make changes to this set of songs, not lyrically, but musically, or were you trying to stay close to the original way in which they had been played?
JN: No, I was completely open to what Kevin had to say about that.
HMS: That makes sense because you and the band must have all developed, as people and as musicians, in the intervening period, and made new discoveries, too, that you could bring to it.
JN: That’s exactly the point. That was the point of recording them. I was asking myself, “Now, at this point in your life, how do you feel?” I could say that through a new song or I could say that through an old song. It did kickstart my creativity to allow that, and I’m now I’m writing again, too.