An interview with Nathaniel Carroll

How does it feel to be compared to musicians like Ben Folds and Billy Joel?

All at once, it can feel flattering, challenging, and limiting. I am often told I sound like Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, Billy Joel, and Elton John. Most of the time, I appreciate such comments, but I always want to reply by saying “Thanks, my other songs are completely different” or something like that. I think sometimes people equate a boy and his piano with said artists because that’s all they’ve seen in rock/pop music for years. I don’t claim to be doing anything remarkably ground-breaking or conceptual, but I am trying my best to avoid writing songs that sound like that. I have a broader collection of songs, many on guitar as well, that individually might sound like Ben Folds, Elliott Smith, Paul McCartney (but not Wings!), or Rufus Wainwright. But collectively, I wouldn’t consider myself completely like any of those artists, but perhaps an amalgamation of all them. People find such comparisons helpful in deciding what music to buy, what concerts to attend, and what music to promote, so I can’t say that it’s compeltely moot or innaccurate. If anything, I’m challenged to write even more diverse music in light of these comparisons.

Have you ever considered writing a concept album?

I have considered a concept album many times, and am constantly considering it. I like the idea of thematic works, where the art, the music, the lyrics, and the feelings drawn from the record work together to convey a very intense idea. I heavily considered making the current album I recorded a concept album about the dismantling of relationships, and it very well may turn out to be so. One thing that many conceptual works possess is a musical theme that re-occurs in various forms throughout the entire body of work, which helps tie it all together. At this point, I don’t have such a thing. Much of the music on this album, though, is similar to a concept album in that many of the songs I’ve written since my first album, “A House by the Highway,” serve as sequels to the previous songs, or rather resolution to conflicts previously unresolved.

Additionally, having a boundary of a theme can be helpful in the writing process, in that you dwell on the idea so much that you almost imagine every angle and every truth in the experiences you have. For me, it often takes an encroaching deadline or accountability to something before I can complete a project, so if you hold yourself accountable to a theme, it might be inspiring.

I have been scheming about going out to Alaska upon graduating college and becoming a sailor on a large fishing boat and writing/recording an album or EP onboard about the intensity of their lives. I’ve been fascinated for some time with the life of a fisherman (they make all of their money in 3 months out of the year, due to the limited presence of fish in the waters), and want to live the experience. The money is also slightly enticing – one can make nearly $30,000 in three months working on such a boat. That would be enough money to move from Springfield to New York or Chicago, or possibly to fund a trip/tour in Europe or something. I don’t know if “Songs to Fish to” will work out, but I’m going to give it a try!

What do you find to be the most beneficial part of touring?

The most beneficial part of touring is meeting people. In most cases, people will not take interest in your music if they can’t come in contact with it in some way (i.e. buying a cd, seeing a show). Some musicians explode through connecting to the right blog-rings or zines online, but I seem to be somewhat detached or inept when it comes to finding the newest, hippest blog (hey, it could be someday!). Most labels aren’t going to “notice” you while doing your first few DIY tours, but it helps build a great network of bands, booking people, and friends with couches along the way, so that each time you return to a particular area, the people you previously met can introduce you to even more friends. It’s very comforting to know that I have friends across the country on which I can depend whenever in need.

Does playing the piano change the way your music is written, as compared to how you write when playing the guitar?

When I first started writing music, I bought a guitar so I could write in my dorm room during the late night – we didn’t have 24-hour access to the pianos at our school, so I needed some sort of outlet. At that time, the songs were very immature and very jam-band/Jason Mraz-y. Once I got a nice keyboard, I began to write music that was more challenging, or at the very least on an instrument with which I was comfortable. Because the instruments are naturally different, my writing on each is unique to the instrument. Some of the more simple rock songs can be translated fairly well from guitar to piano, but certain chord progressions sound cheesy or too predictable on piano, but when played on guitar, have a more endearing, more specific quality that I seek. Every once in a while, I will write a bunch of songs on guitar and then think to myself “I should probably write some on piano.” I try to keep it pretty evenly-dispersed, perhaps only to keep myself interested. I’m still learning new things on both instruments, but guitar is more foreign and mysterious to me still, so I enjoy experimenting with it. The new split record I’m doing with Daniel G. Harmann is all on guitar, but not purposefully. The new full length has much more piano, some acoustic guitar, and even a more electric guitar-driven song. A few songs I’ve even written on trombone and transferred to piano or guitar. Anything goes, I guess!

What approach do you take when writing your music?

I’ve heard many songwriters use beautifully thematical and extremely metaphorical imagery when writing songs, and I think that’s amazing (when done well). I cannot seem to create that sort of lyric on purpose. Most times, it just comes out of me, usually at inopportune times to be frank. I seem to have great musical ideas while driving, sitting in class, or in the shower/bathroom. However, I often forget to write something down, and the song idea is often lost. But I kinda see that as a form of Divine Intervention, if you will, as if to say that a truly worthwhile song will stick around until I can get to an instrument, pad of paper, or four track. I don’t ever want to force anything beyond reason – I’m done trying to write filler songs, and I’ve weeded such songs out of my live sets (I hope!). Lately I’ve been spending less time doing homework and more time analyzing and critiquing the songs I write. Without forcing lyrics or song ideas, I try to be more careful when selecting a melody line or lyric, so that it doesn’t seem too Ben Folds, etc. I look for a unique pattern that will make the song memorable. Then, I test the songs out on friends, family, or at shows, and if people tell me that a particular song is stuck in their head, then I know I did something right. At times, my friends quote my lyrics to me as a joke, but I know that they’re paying attention, and I love them for caring that much.

Has anybody ever told you that you look like a young Bob Dylan?

Haha! It’s coincidental that you mentioned Bob Dylan. I was talking to a wonderful friend of mine in New York (she’s often a muse for the music I write), who mentioned having only heard maybe one Bob Dylan song in her life. I admitted that I could not name one song by Bob Dylan (gasp!). There, I said it. There’s so much amazing music from the past generations that I am almost completely overwhelmed and turned off by it. Strange, I know. There are about 500 Beatles songs I have never heard, and even more music from the 80’s that I should one day explore. I spend so much time drawing influence from classical music, ragtime/jazz, and lately, bluegrass and western, that I miss out on a lot of the stuff that everybody is supposed to know.

I cannot mentally picture a particular young Bob Dylan face, but I’ve seen some more recent pictures, and that guy is pretty wrinkly. Thus, in response, I can only say I’m confused by any likeness we might share. Maybe I should get Botox or something?

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