Name: Charlie Nieland
Occupation: Producer, songwriter, vocalist
Current Release: Charlie Nieland's Divisions LP is out now on Athame.
Recommendations: Lontano (1967) by composer György Ligeti
This music sounds like nature, shifting from breath to sheets of sound, sometimes gossamer, other times like swarms of bees. It’s amazing to me that this is orchestral music. His works, Requiem and Atmospheres are most familiar as part the score of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey. Lontano itself appears in The Shining. He changed the way I hear music.
The Ten Largest No 8 Adulthood (1907) by Hilma af Klint
Klint was a mystic (part a group of spiritualists called The Five) and a very ahead-of-her-time abstract painter, whose work has been touring the world recently after being hidden for decades at her request. The exhibition at Guggenheim in 2019, Paintings For The Future, revealed the breadth of her vision. Adulthood, with its asymmetric whorls and vivid pastels is part of an enveloping series, The Ten Largest, that are colorful, huge and bursting with floral and natural shapes that gently disintegrate over the course from childhood to old age. I could just as easily pick the neo-pagan Altarpiece No 1 (1915), with its hard graphic shapes and sense of mystical order. Her work is so varied and has such a gentle searching force, it really must be experienced in person.
If you enjoyed this interview with Charlie Nieland, visit his bandcamp page for more music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing and producing music around the end of high school.
My earliest music were my parents' Beatles records. I was obsessed with their collection and spent many sunny days inside the house listening to things like Abbey Road, the orchestral version of Tommy and Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night. Music became an incredible refuge: an internal world I could disappear into. I could hear it playing in my head, every instrument. I ended up loving David Bowie, Yes, Genesis and King Crimson as my own taste developed and I started playing the bass.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
By the time I was writing and recording my own music, I discovered artists like Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cure, Siouxsie, XTC and Cocteau Twins. I went through phases of singing like Costello and Partridge and writing songs about animals like Robert Smith.
It’s hard to explain how alien the Cocteau Twins sounded then and I recorded Beatles covers in the style of the Twins to decode what they were doing. I formed the band Her Vanished Grace with my then-wife Nancy after college and started finding my own voice, consisting of layers of texture and atmosphere at the service of dark propulsive songs with singable melodies and harmonic twists. The band ended almost 10 years ago, but I continue to mine the vein that could be described this way.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My sense of identity, the individual way this little expression of undifferentiated energy manifests itself, imprints on the things I create. There’s a unique signature. That said, the best things come from my focusing on the feeling of the music coming through me, the sound of the universe, not so much any personal agendas or really trying to “say” anything.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
No matter how much technique or experience you have, you’re still staring at the blank page and creating something from nothing. My challenge occurs when I step into the fire of that moment.
The idea usually exists in some kind of vague shape, a feeling or a texture. If I blur my vision, I can see the outline. If I get distracted, I can get off on the wrong foot and make something completely different, which isn’t necessarily bad. But I’ve learned, especially from writing songs for Bushwick Book Club each month, that if I keep gently bringing my awareness back to the blurry outline, I can trust that the first thing I play (and each step of the process) will become the vehicle to bring that song out. The challenge is how to access that flow thinking. I often get there by doing something else between bouts of playing, like running or cooking. Then when the thing is playing in my head, the new parts come pouring out. I’ve learned to trust this process. All the songs from the new Divisions album came this way.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Shortly after I started playing guitar and bass, I discovered that with a little Radio Shack DJ mixer, a microphone, and two cassette recorders, you could record yourself playing multiple tracks, bouncing the recording back and forth between the decks as you played something new into the mic with each take. This profoundly changed me, as I learned to pick up any instrument to get a sound I heard in my head that I could add to the picture, even if I didn’t really know how to play it.
The multi track cassette portastudios came next and then when midi sequencers, synths, samplers and drum machines came along, I jumped in and never looked back. And then on to using computers. It all allows a way to expand the space that music can fill, whatever you can dream up. It’s good for those who hear it all in their heads.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Besides the cassette bouncing, using samplers really opened things up. Sounds became taffy, stretching and chopping and creating previously unheard textures and rhythms. And the Digitech Whammy pedal, a sweep-able pitch shifter, turbo charged the electric guitar journey I was on. I was already using echoes and reverb and flangers to make lush noisy backdrops. When the whammy arrived, it allowed the guitar to really start sounding like electronic music. It’s very prominent on the title track of Divisions, on the lap steel guitar.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’ve been through all sorts of collaborative musical situations. From co-writing songs head to head, incorporating the jamming and chemistry of a band into the songwriting process, purely improvised music, the sharing of files, I love all the different ways.
I’ve come to co-produce a 10 year-old performance series called Bushwick Book Club, where a rotating group songwriters write a song in reaction to a different book each month and then we perform them at a show. This allowing a book to be the foil for the writing process each month has created years of songs for me. I always write a song that stands on its own, using some part of the book as a foil; allowing a passage, an idea, a phrase to intersect with whatever is going on for me in the moment.
All the songs on the Divisions album are inspired by books, as well as the winding conversations that flow from them. Always On Fire is my response to Walt Whitman's Leaves Of Grass (seeing present-day Brooklyn through a Whitman-esque lens), The Falling Man inspired by a desolate character in Mira Jacob's A Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, the title track, Divisions, my reaction to Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life Of Trees in this age of dehumanization. etc. Thirteen songs in all.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’m a shift-sleeper, often sleeping for a few hours at midnight, then waking up and working on music, making a 9 AM audiobook deadline and then napping for another 90 min or so. Other nights, when I’m producing, I’m in the studio for 10 hours at a time til 4 AM or later. Then I’ll bring myself and my cat over to my girlfriend’s for a few days. I seem to work best shifting from one thing to another each day, each week.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Co-writing and producing 12 songs with Debbie Harry for her 2007 album Necessary Evil was a breakthrough. I was part of the production team Super Buddha with Barb Morrison and we’d met Debbie through Guy Furrow when she guested on the Miss Guy solo album we were working on. It was a little intimidating for, like, a second, but then she immediately put us all at ease.
We started writing songs with Debbie. Blondie wasn’t writing or recording and she was looking to explore. Giving her permission to try every idea and create settings for them, was so exciting. Debbie’s very sharp and, while we put a track together, she would often write a melody and lyric based on something we were just talking about. I got to do string arrangements, blend in dream pop noise, create a chorus of throat-singing monks. It was really a confidence-builder, to be a peer with such an accomplished artist. And then to be tasked with the challenge of mixing a record that was going to get Debbie-sized attention. I learned a lot.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think that it’s about taking all you’ve been developing and meeting the moment. There’s no particular formula, but allowing what you’re experiencing right now to inform the ongoing process of refining a style or doing the job you’ve been tasked with. Let that spontaneous feeling in. Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure will open up a path for the idea you like. There’s no right or wrong. Trust your process. Give yourself the space for flow thinking. Wash the dishes. Go for a walk.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
It’s such a kaleidoscope. The things that hurt open us up for healing and healing is an ongoing process.
Music has been a balm for me when I’ve been heart-broken. It’s been a provocateur when I needed my assumptions shattered. I think whatever music that can bring you into the present moment is the music you should be listening to.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Anyone making actual art will reach for whatever conveys that urgency and freely mixing cultural streams is where all the best art comes from. I think there are no rules as long as you’re being true to what the art is asking for. It’s in the intent. There is art that is made to open our hearts and sometimes that hurts. There’s a lot of art that’s made to anesthetize and that is not very interesting to me. If any of it provokes discussion of appropriation and imperialism that’s good too.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Hearing is connected deeply to many parts of our brain. The cochlea is wired to our higher brain functions and also directly into our brain stem. So we perceive the slightest changes in feel and rhythm before we actually hear it. Music tricks our evolutionary imperatives. We perceive patterns in time and when our expectations are frustrated, it fascinates us. It’s playful. All our senses flow through the small but very important weigh station called the hippocampus. It locates us in space and also tells us stories to help us remember who and where we are.
I think music has a huge role in placing emotional markers along the paths so we can find our way back, remembering our childhood’s pictures, scents and sounds. I have a song on Divisions about this called Meta Incognita. “The world moves backwards past you and your boat”. Read the book Wayfinding by M. R. O’Connor.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I think the social and political aspects of art are an outward manifestation of internal archetypes. The same way the social and pedagogical aspects of myth flow from its perennial forms, just clothed in different local garb. Art is about accessing the unconscious. That is the real engagement. When it’s happening, it brings the gravity of the present moment to all kinds of social movements. It makes the experience of choosing to engage with politics or protest have the emotional power that we seek to make it real. To keep going.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I think our voices lifted in song have always been our way to reach through the divide. We are born into this world of opposites, even as we are a wave of energy looking back at itself. The beauty of music arises out of those vibrations, the way that what we think of as "spirit" arises from what we think of as "world".
We are the eyes and ears of the earth. Music lets us dance with eternity.