by Daniel Emberg
Joe Nolan seemed to almost pop out of nowhere a few years ago in Edmonton, but it took little time for the music world to embrace the young talent. In addition to being a disarming, if slightly enigmatic, songwriter, Nolan’s got a distinctive voice that is equally at home teasing a pretty melody for all it’s worth as it is flirting with a lupine growl. His most recent album, Tornado, came out on Six Shooter Records earlier this year and has garnered much love across the land. It also scored Nolan two nominations at this weekend’s Western Canadian Music Awards: Roots Solo Recording of the Year, and Songwriter of the Year for “Tightrope Dancer,” the opening track on the album. That also means he’ll be playing as part of the BreakOut West festival in town this weekend, so Stylus sniffed him out by phone for a little chat. Here’s our first conversation with Joe Nolan.
Stylus: Many of our readers are probably unfamiliar with your work, do you care to offer a little of your musical history?
Joe Nolan: Sure. I guess I’ve been doing this professionally ever since I graduated high school. I grew up in Fort Saskatchewan, so when I turned 16 and got my driver’s license I would drive out every night to Edmonton. I played open mics for about a year and things started growing from there. Most of the time I do all original stuff. I love lyrics, and love lyricists.
Stylus: So….had you spent your youth working on songs, then getting the driver’s license gave you a way to go share them with people?
JN: Not really, I was pretty new. I hadn’t really performed until about 16 years old because I always kind of hid in school and nobody ever knew I had these songs. I played a couple times at school celebrations, but 16 was the first time I ever really played. I didn’t really have a ton of songs at that point, but when I got my license I found out that I had to go to Edmonton to find more songwriters who were into the same kinda thing.
Stylus: Were there any you bumped into that were particularly inspiring, like songwriters who made you feel like, “Yes, this is what I want to do with myself”?
JN: When I was 15 I would go to this guy named Bill Bourne’s house. He’s an Edmonton guy, really great guitar player, songwriter, and singer. He taught me some styles of playing guitar and was a big influence on me. Lots of people, guys like Scott Cook… I don’t want to start naming too many names because I’ll draw blanks. There’s a really great community of people here, I got to meet a lot of them around that age and we’re all still hanging together.
Stylus: You’ve got two records out now. The new one is Tornado, can I ask you to say a little about it?
JN: I’m really proud of how it turned out, I think it’s a lot stronger than the previous one. Part of that is having another two years under my belt of playing shows and experiencing life, so the writing is stronger.
Stylus: Lots of your songs sound just like stories out of someone’s life. Do most of them come from your own experience, or do you like to inhabit characters?
JN: Some of them are really quite personal, but some are not autobiographical. I like to kinda keep it mysterious. I don’t know if people wonder if these songs are all about me or not, but I don’t give that away all the time. With some of the songs on the new record, I’d just sit down and not even think about what I’m gonna write then a song just comes out on its own. Then I have to go back and figure out what it’s about, or if it makes any sense! I guess in the end a lot of what I write comes back to being about me somehow, whether I tried for that or not.
Stylus: How do you feel Tornado has been received? I mean, you got a pretty strong bump coming out of the first record…
JN: So far people who have heard this record have had a really positive response. That being said, I feel like it’s kind of on its last legs, which is kind of sad. It’s really easy to put out a record but it’s really difficult to keep up the momentum. No matter how good a person thinks it is, it’s a lot of work. I’ve been playing lots of shows, touring, trying to sell these things and it’s been going great…but I’d still like to get it in a lot more peoples’ hands, that’s for sure.
Stylus: When you say touring a lot, how far have you been able to go this year?
JN: I did a nine-week residency at Cameron House in Toronto, which I guess isn’t really touring. But before that I went out on the road with Whitehorse, opening for them, and before that I was in Scandinavia touring the new album for a month. I feel like I’m only ever in Edmonton for two weeks at a time before heading out somewhere else.
Stylus: You’ve been through Winnipeg before, right?
JN: Yeah, I played the Winnipeg Folk Festival this summer which was amazing. I felt really blessed to be part of that, because it was just a great festival. I opened for Amelia Curran at the Park Theatre once. I’ve never played at the Times yet, but…
Stylus: What? You sound for all the world like a Times kinda guy.
JN: Yeah, all my friends talk about it.
Stylus: Well, you’re playing the Times next week. Speaking of BreakOut West, have you been to a lot of these industry conferences, like to the point that it’s old hat now?
JN: Well, I haven’t been to tons of them. I just got back from the Americana Conference in Nashville, I’ve been going to that for three years. It’s kinda like Folk Alliance but way, way smaller and it’s all in the music clubs instead of a hotel, which is cool. I went to BreakOut West last year for the first time, and a few others now so I kinda know what they’re like.
Stylus: Are you touring with a band, or are you out on your own right now?
JN: I’m flying solo right now. That’s pretty typical, I’m playing solo about 90% of the time.
Stylus: One last question: as a touring artist, can you share some hidden gem out on the highway that you want more people to know about? A breakfast place or weird little town or festival that people should know about?
JN: There is this little spring festival called East Coulee SpringFest. It’s just outside Drumheller, and I’ve been going there for four years because it’s just sooo cool. It’s a really great, small, friendly festival inside this old museum. That’s something I think a lot people don’t know about, but it’s great.
Joe Nolan plays three times during BreakOut West this weekend: Friday at the Times Change(d) (8pm), Saturday at the Windsor (9pm), and Sunday night during the WCMA awards show