Posted February 18, 2014 by Jeff in CLE

Nate Jones: Not stuck in one sound

Nate Jones
Nate Jones

Singer-songwriter Nate Jones grew up listening to classic singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon and James Taylor. Those musical influences come across on his new album, The Nate Jones Band EP, which provides a nice showcase for his naturally soulful voice. The album’s first single, “Another Night, Another Town,” he sings with a bit of drawl, giving the song an almost alt-country feel. We called Jones from New York, where he was about to play a show at the historic folk venue, The Bitter End, to discuss his new record and his musical roots.

Talk about how you started playing music.
I started playing guitar when I was 13. I just taught myself and used my dad’s old songbooks. I learned pretty much everything from the ‘60s and ’70s—all the Paul Simon, James Taylor and Beatles. I figured out how to fingerpick by trial and error. By the time I was 15, I started playing in public. Four or five years ago, I made it a full-time thing. I did a ten-song simple album then. They were the first ten presentable songs I had written while I was in college. It was good. It was cool. A lot has developed since then.

It sounds like you had a good experience working in New Orleans while you went to school at Tulane.
I lived there for three-and-a-half years from 2007 through 2010. It changed my music a lot. I had been very entrenched in that singer-songwriter-y folky style. It took awhile. It wasn’t an immediate, abrupt change, but it left me with a soulful, bluesy vibe.

And then you moved to Cleveland?
I moved to Cleveland and started figuring out how to make music work as a full-time endeavor. I would fill the time between club dates with bar and restaurant dates. I would just sit with a guitar and sing for hours. It was like a paid rehearsal. I developed a lot and became a much better singer in that year or year-and-a-half. I started an acoustic trio that I expected to turn into an electric trio. It got stuck as an acoustic trio and that was good too. The last couple of years have been good for development.

You recorded with Dave Douglas, former drummer for the Christian rock group Relient K. What did he bring to the table?
It was great. It was as smooth as I could have envisioned. I gave him a general idea and he made it perfect. He has this intuitive quality. He hadn’t done anything in my genre. I would tell him what I wanted it to sound like with very general instructions. Part of it was that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. What he did was incredible. We did all of it together. It’s not like I recorded everything and he sat in a room and then came up with it. It was great to work with him and see him work on the spot because that’s how most of the ideas came about.

The album is hard to categorize.
It is. I get bored with one sound. I wouldn’t go completely crazy and use off-the-wall instruments and crazy time signatures and words that don’t make sense. If I had an album of songs at 80 beats per minute with an acoustic guitar, I would be bored to death. I make a conscious effort to mix up tempos to an appropriate degree and to not play songs in the same key. Vocally, I try to have distinct phrasing so that a listener doesn’t hear the beginning of a song and know how I’m going to land on a chord.

I try not to fall into singer-songwriter traps. I want to avoid clichés. That too is a work in the progress. It seems like it always will be.

It seems like it would be challenging to distinguish yourself when your influences are so dominant.
I have struggled with that over the last couple of years. I feel like the more you listen to different sounds, the more naturally you’re able to reshape them into something original. I think I have done that pretty well. I think I’m getting better. I think every song shows I’m getting a little stronger. You don’t want to do what’s been done before or what’s been done before over and over again.

Do you feel a connection to alt-country?
I love music that touches on different sounds. I get bored with playing blues or country. Anything but jazz in its pure form bores me. A lot of my favorite singers and songwriters are able to draw from a lot of different genres while being firmly in their own voice, which I think is the goal as a songwriter. I don’t want to be stuck in one sound. I want to drop into different styles but in a natural way. Not just like, “Here’s a country song and here’s a blues song.”

What made you cover “Ophelia”?
That’s Robbie Robertson from The Band. I’ve been playing it for so long. Our band just plays it all the time and people like it. I figured some people might be disappointed if we didn’t record it. It turned out really good. We felt like we had to include it. We gave it a little swing and a little funk too.

Can you take the band on the road?
Yeah, at least some incarnation of it.

You have more songs ready to go?
Yeah. I have a second EP that’s done. It’s just in the final mixing process now. We’ll have that coming out not too far from now.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].