Nau’s sound is one of “always feeling good,” as McGraw sang on the 2009’s Rio Ranger EP, with their group, Cotton Jones. But music doesn’t come easy, and for Nau, it’s increasingly become a balancing act — Nau and McGraw juggle marriage and parenthood, the thrill of live performance with dedicated studio time, musical inspiration with the necessities of maintaining a home, and the odd jobs that entails. Nau’s always picked up work while focusing on music, and it started young for him and McGraw, who were only in their early twenties when they first struck out with the indie pop group Page France.
“I started pretty young, recording on a four-track cassette,” Nau says. “Page France was the first experience I had writing songs, having pieces of songs, and putting them together with other people, making a record with the intention of putting songs together.” Bolstered by their naturalistic and freaky indie hit “Jesus,” from the 2006 album Hello, Dear Wind, the band took to the road.
“I’ve never held down a steady job or anything like that,” he added. “As long as we stayed on the road and made a couple hundred bucks a night to get to the next place and something to eat we were okay. I just got so used to being on the move, and it just became my reality. Being on tour, meeting people, being in a different situation every day.”
By 2008, Nau and McGraw had turned their attention to a new project, the Cotton Jones Basket Ride, eventually shortened to the more direct Cotton Jones moniker, and released a full length, The River Strumming, a heady which invoked ‘60s psychedelia with fuzzy guitars, reverb-dripping vocals, and church organ. It was something new from the couple; more nuanced, less precious, owing to the Harry Nilsson, Kinks, Van Morrison, and Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra records in their record collection. And if Page France evoked spiritual themes via the direct language of indie folk, Cotton Jones did so by channeling American gospel and soul.“I grew up with gospel music, which I still really love,” Nau says. “Soul music and gospel — a lot of that has the same spirit.”
Nau and McGraw have continued to chisel at and refine their sound. Each LP that followed, 2009’s Paranoid Cocoon and 2010’s Tall Hours in the Glowstream, found the couple’s songs more evocative and more timeless, with ancient doo-wop cozied up against gentle country soul, folk songs with joyful touches of hand percussion. Sometimes the duo didn’t even need words: “Photo Summerlude” curled like a faded picture tacked to the wall; “Soft Mountain Shake” played like a grainy home video of your earliest memories.
In 2010, the couple married, and soon had a son. He’s four now, and they have another child on the way, so the band’s learned to adapt and accommodate the family. Nau likes working with his hands, so in between recording and playing shows, he works construction jobs, finding himself on roofs and in backyards. “I feel tired at the end of the day,” Nau says. “I like that.” In 2016, Nau will continue to release music under his own name. The decision to shift to his given name is a complicated one. Nau had a backlog of songs, recorded in Burlington, Vermont, in Connecticut, in Nashville, and in Maryland, songs recorded without much consideration given to where they’d ultimately end up. Some sound like Cotton Jones songs, he admits, because they could have become them. But recording under his own name is less a matter of artistic license and more of utility, Nau explains. Having the solo outlet ultimately helps Cotton Jones to continue along when the couple is able to make it work.
“Our kid’s in school now,” Nau says. “So it’s kind of something where I can have both projects working alongside each other…and get to play music more, it’s kind of a way to do that. Whitney sings on the record, too. A lot of these songs were probably originally intended to be Cotton Jones songs, but it got to a point where I felt like if I intended to more forward, it’s got to be this.” Nau’s solo sound isn’t far removed from his work with Cotton Jones, but there’s a certain kind of growth evident in new songs like “Love Survive.” It’s nimble and funky, but as steeped in nostalgia as Nau and McGraw’s best work. “I’ve been trying to write more music that can vibe like that, or that moves in that way,” Nau says. Propelled by a rolling piano line and McGraw’s cooing background vocals, it was mostly recorded live, a format Nau is increasingly drawn to. “I like recording, and I like making records, but I’ve realized that the most collaborative and most connected I feel is whenever we’re playing shows,” Nau says. “I like being able to transform songs and find new ways to keep old things fresh.”
On stage, that connection might seem like magic, effortless, but like everything else — family, good art, fixing someone’s roof — it’s work. Michael Nau is still figuring out how to make it work.
Singles Club is a subscription record club and digital music journal published quarterly. This single contains an exclusive A-Side recording from the artist along with an interview on the B-Side featuring the artist's description of the project and track.
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