Jeb Loy Nichols Just What Time It Is

Web Feature: CD of the Week

 
Jeb Loy Nichols



Despite it startling mix of musical genres — Reggae, Country, Pop, and vintage Soul — Jeb Loy Nichols' new CD, Just What Time It Is, is one of the smoothest albums of the year. Fortunately, Nichols, an American singer/songwriter now living in London, never lets the album devolve into lackluster middle-of-the-road fare. That means even though the album is mellow and romantic, you'll never hear it on WARM 98 or one of the many "No Punk. No Funk. No Junk" soft-Rock stations. Why? Because even though Just What Time It Is might be easy on the ears, it's too smart and sophisticated to play in Lionel Richieland. On Just What Time It Is, Nichols has created the perfect album for anyone who has ever wanted to listen to their James Taylor and Bob Marley records at the same time.

Recently, Nichols took a few minutes during his US and European tour to discuss his new CD with CityBeat.

CityBeat: Just What Time It Is is an album of overtly romantic music, perhaps one of the most difficult genres of pop music to get right.

In making a record like this, you might end up with something on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David, Elvis Costello, Marvin Gaye end of the spectrum. On the other end, as many artists have done, you could end up with something nauseatingly trite? Did you ever find when making this record — which belongs with the first camp — any anxieties about working in the genre?

Jeb Loy Nichols: I think Just What Time It Is is very much about what it is to be in love — whatever that means — to be in that strange state of flux where everything is different. I think it's an underrated and undervalued genre. I've always thought that Marvin Gaye's album Here My Dear was a much more radical record than What's Going On. I think if you can sing about relationships in a way that reminds people that they are the most revolutionary of situations — the replacement of the old regime with the new, the embracing of the new order, the commitment to new ideas, etceteras — and still keep it beautiful and sensual, you're on to something special.

CityBeat: "Heaven Right Here" sounds like an instant classic. When you first heard the playback of that big chorus in the studio, did you think, "This should be a hit?"

Jeb Loy Nichols: I finished "Heaven Right Here" after we'd recorded everything else. I wanted to write a letter of intention, wanted to tell people how to listen to the record — that they needed to take time, that this was a record that needed to be lived with, that you had take some time out and slow down. So when I wrote it, it felt real good, real necessary, and when we recorded it, we did it in one or two takes, just came in and sang it to everyone and we put it down. So when we played it back it sounded natural, like it belonged in the world.

CityBeat: The lyrical imagery in "Midnight (All Night Long)" is very vivid — the woman who sleeps with a black dog, the crash on the frozen road and so on. Can you talk a little about the lyrics and the inspiration for that song?

Jeb Loy Nichols: "Midnight (All Night Long)" was written about one of those very rare nights when everything goes perfectly. We'd done a show in Chicago and we went out for a drink afterward. I rarely write from a completely confessional place — usually I write fiction that draws from personal experience — but that night, I wrote exactly what happened: We were sitting in a corner bar, there'd been a wreck on the road, we'd seen geese by the highway. We left that night for New York and I wrote it quickly on the bus, finished when we hit the city in the morning.

CityBeat: For Just What Time It Is you worked with Ewan Pearson and Wayne Nunes. Can you tell us a little about your production and sometime songwriting partners?

Jeb Loy Nichols: Ewan Pearson and Wayne Nunes came to the record from different angles. Wayne was someone who'd played with lots of On-U Sound bands in London, and I'd know Adrian Sherwood for years, so he came from a more Dance/Reggae/Dub thing and he toured with me for two years after Lovers Knot. The whole time we were touring we were working on ideas, so when it came to do the album it was real natural. We did a lot of demos around his house with him playing keyboards and bass and me singing and pounding the guitar. Ewan came from the House/Garage world. He's a great player and makes great records under his own name and a host of others. He's a real star in the making. A Techno-kid with soul. He was a big help on the technological side, with opening up possibilities.

CityBeat: Your vocal style seems to occupy a space somewhere between Sam Cooke and NRBQ's Big Al Anderson? Where does that curious blend of Country and Soul come from?

Jeb Loy Nichols: I guess my vocals come from listening to Bluegrass and Country when I was growing up in Missouri, and then discovering Al Green when I was 12 and getting into Southern Soul. I love all that Bobby Womack stuff, Merle Haggard, Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson, Otis Redding. It's all slow groove stuff, take your time and sit back, let it happen.

CityBeat: Were you listening to anyone in particular when you were making Just What Time It Is?

Jeb Loy Nichols: While we were in the studio I was listening to Voodoo by D'Angelo — a great record. And lots of new Reggae stuff: Sizzla, Anthony B, President Brown, Buju Banton, Ward 21. Also old stuff by Geater Davis, Eddie Hinton, Bobby Bland, Dusty Springfield, Dan Penn. Anything with a slow burn...

CityBeat: You do a lot of your own art work? How do you think the woodcuts on the cover speak to the music inside?

Jeb Loy Nichols: I do the artwork when I'm not writing or touring. I see a lot of stuff I want to get into but there's not a song there so I get into the art thing. It's just another way of saying the same things — small little shadow stuff, moments, the things you forget about the next day.

Jeb Loy Nichols Just What time It Is is available on Rykodisc/Rough Trade. For More information on Jeb Loy Nichols visit www.jebloynichols.com

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