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Vol 2 | Issue #7 | Fall 2015

Michael Nau

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Photo by Julia Robbs
FEATURE 1 – WORDS BY Jason P. Woodbury

Only My Love Survive

The music of Michael Nau sounds effortless.

Its soulful, amble strut is easygoing, and the entwined melodies of Cumberland, Maryland’s Michael Nau and his wife Whitney McGraw sound breezy, gentle, and warm, like they’re nursing mid-morning ice tea as the clouds roll by or a taking the first pull off a sweat-beaded Corona on a humid, late summer evening. “This is my conquering song,” Nau sings over the R&B hip-shaking of his backing band, confident, charming, and in control. “This is my thankful song…for the spirit of the eternal drum…where only my love survive.”

Michael & his son

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.

Whitney & Michael performing in San Francisco, CA 10/20/15. (Photo by Julia Robbs)

“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.

FEATURE 2 – WORDS BY jeffrey silverstein

from the editor

Years ago in Baltimore, an old friend and I recounted the musicians whom we admired for being able to do a lot with seemingly very little. Songwriters who could do more with two-chords than even the most technically adept players. Names like Jeff Tweedy, Andy Cabic and David Bazan were mentioned, both eventually landing on our top contender, Michael Nau. Songs like ‘Chariot’, ‘Blood Red Sentimental Blues’ and ‘Somehow to Keep It Going’ were the focal points of the conversation. It was a ‘holy shit,’ moment for me as I was finally able to pin-point what drew me not only to what I enjoy about all of Michael’s projects, but what I sought to accomplish in my own songwriting. There is no gimmick, nothing forged with Michael. He sings about what he knows and does it with such poise. Nothing compares to seeing Michael perform live. His soulful voice commands a room, oftentimes leaving newcomers with mouths agape. Look around the room and it’s all smiles.

Alongside his partner in crime Whitney McGraw, it has been a privilege to watch his songwriting continue to grow and take shape. Getting the green light to work with Michael on this issue marked an important milestone in this project for both Chris and myself. His music has soundtracked countless tours, road-trips and work-sessions for us, never ceasing to put our busy minds at ease. Having turned to Page France and Cotton Jones LPs for for inspiration for over a decade, we’re honored to be able to continue to spread the Nau gospel far and wide. Much like his music, Michael carries a warm, lighthearted spirit with him. Spending time with him gives you that ‘hey, everything is going be alright’ feeling. One we could all use a little bit more of these days.

Huge thanks to Michael, Whitney, Julie, Jason, Julia and everyone else who had a hand in making this issue happen.

FEATURE 3 – WORDS BY Michael Nau

Five Before You Die

Five records I've been listening to recently - some are new to me, while others are ones that I keep coming back to, time after time. I was asked to say something specific about each.. what I like about them.. but I found that to be difficult. Perhaps that's what I like about these.

Astrud Gilberto – "I Haven't Got Anything Better To Do"

Damien Jurado – "Maraqopa"

Little Wings – "Black Grass"

Ted Lucas – "Ted Lucas"

Horace Andy, Winston Jarret & The Wailers – "Earth Must Be Hell"

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