pop music. intelligently.
There are some artists that I see fairly frequently but have not gotten around to writing about. I start, but tend to abandon the post before I get very far. This is not, to be clear, because these artists aren’t worthy of writing about. Quite the opposite. I think I hesitate to write about them because I want to do them and their music justice, and I’m worried that I won’t be able to. But, courage, or whatever. Here goes.
Last Friday night I went to a short set performed by Nate Campany, at (where else) Rockwood Music Hall. I hadn’t seen him perform in a while so I was muy excited. Suffice to say he didn’t let me down.
What strikes me about Nate Campany as an artist is that he very much seems to be in tune with songwriting as an entity that understands both its creator and its audience.
His lyrics are intelligent and wry, his melodies well-constructed and accessible without being formulaic. Each of his songs is like a perfectly constructed piece of Shaker furniture. It’s straightforward and unostentatious, serves its purpose and is completely satisfying. His songs remind me of rocking chairs. Yeah, I said it. Unpack that one.
Like so many other artists I have written about, what draws me to Nate Campany’s music is primarily his lyrics. His songs often circle around traditional themes of relationships, both romantic and otherwise, but the vantage point from which he views them is unique. Drawing from a canon of metaphors that reflects his Midwestern upbringing and love of history, his lyrics are at times as tradition-bound and straightforwardly ‘lyrical’ as a Romantic poet. However, the lyrics ultimately always return to the present, ground themselves in the immediacy of emotion. And this, of course, is the payoff, for the listener.
For example. I walked in to the show a few minutes late, just in time for the final verse of “I Could Sing”. He waxes poetic about (among other things) ships, but ultimately returns to the real object of the song, in a way that is disarmingly concrete and corporeal.
I could sing about the sea
Of hidden treasures in the deep
I could sing of sunken ships
But they don’t haunt me like your hips
So I’ll sing a song about your hips
It’s as if he’s shrugging his shoulders saying, “Here’s what I can do, but I’d rather just tell you simply.”
Another song he often performs is “Audrey”, where he laments the fact that the world he knows is not worldly enough to win a French girl’s affection. It’s not easy to romanticize a buckeye, especially in a room full of New Yorkers, but Nate succeeds in this.
What can I give you that you’ve never held
The brown of a buckeye removed from its shell
Cause one tiny seed by itself all alone
Would look lost in your hands after all that they’ve known.
Here’s that song (I think I was at this show).
What is hard to know from the videos is that his delivery is achingly sincere, to the point where it is almost a surprise to me that he’s an accomplished songwriter for other artists, like the Click Five and Tyler Hilton. Not that I doubt his versatility; his songs, though thematically similar, range from straightforward love songs to tableaux, like one song where he retells and reframes the story of the prodigal son. It’s just that every time I hear him sing he seems to be pulling the words straight out of himself. His demeanor is, though in no way shy, unassuming and casual. He often asks several times during his set if the audience has questions, which usually solicits some random obscure piece of historical fact about Ohio or the Civil War. The contrast between his stage banter and the tone of his performance is such that the air in the room changes when he starts to sing. His voice, like his songs, aches, and even his physical presence changes, turns inward slightly. You can’t doubt his sincerity when he sings. There’s a part of me that doesn’t trust someone who can sing a whole song with their eyes open.
The interviews that I’ve read, like this one, all seem to emphasize that Nate Campany is essentially a pop songwriter, a person who genuinely loves pop music and wants to make good pop music. The above article provides the quote from Campany, “‘I’m trying to make pop music smart again’”. I think that’s a noble and valid goal, and I think that in the way he approaches songwriting, he’s definitely achieving it. To that end, I’ll share with you what was my favorite part of the set. Toward the end, Nate announced that he was going to do a cover. He started picking a chord progression on his guitar and eventually started to sing. To my absolute joy, he was singing a cover of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend.” omg. As we know, I love Robyn, and i love love love the song “Call Your Girlfriend”, so much that I recorded it myself. Nate’s version of the song was slow and plaintive, bringing out the sadness and desperation in the lyrics that is not as apparent in Robyn’s dancey version (not to insult Robyn, because, as I said, love.). I wish I had a flip phone so I could have recorded it and made this post all Clare-multimedia-y, but alas. You’ll just have to imagine how cool it was, and imagine me freaking out in the corner with my Malbec and notebook.
UPDATE: Thanks very much to youtube user Robyniwitz (whose name is also Robyn), who saw the post and provided this video that she took of the Robyn cover from the show. The “Audrey” video is also from her channel. Thanks Robyn!
So yeah. Nate Campany. He’s awesome. I’m wondering when his next album is coming out. I’ll leave you with the music video for the song “Stockholm, Paris, New York”. Enjoy.