Songwriters find inspiration in many things - love, conflict, literature, sometimes the bottom of a bottle. Shane Nicholson, however, must be one of the few Australian artists prompted to write a song about his aversion to dancing no less while lying in a tinny on the Hawkesbury River in NSW, looking up at the sky, a fishing line dangled over the side.
That’s how I Don’t Dance, one of the 12 dazzling songs on Nicholson’s new solo album Love and Blood, came into being, during one of several song-writing missions to the Hawkesbury late last year.
“It’s such a weird place to write that song,” says Nicholson, a confirmed non-dancer. “I don’t know where it came from. I think maybe I’d been listening to Tom Petty that morning.”
The rocking centrepiece to the new album actually has its roots in another boat journey, a country music cruise last year, when the singer offered to pay a friend to dance with his girlfriend Emma rather than have to get up there himself. “When we go out she loves to dance and I don’t dance,” Nicholson says. “She was slightly horrified that I paid someone else to dance with her.”
Nicholson’s sixth solo studio album follows 2015’s ARIA Award-winning masterpiece Hell Breaks Loose. The Central Coast-based singer has kept the winning formula from that album for Love and Blood, opting once again to work with his good mate, producer Matt Fell, at his Sydney studio Love Hz and assembling a familiar cast of musicians, including drummer Josh Schuberth and multi-instrumentalist Glen Hannah, as well as recruiting new faces such as horn-player supreme James Greening. He adds his expertise to several tracks, including the sprightly God’s Own Army, a delicious slab of New Orleans blues with a swagger and a choir made up of singers who just happened to be passing by, such as Josh Pyke, Andrew Swift, Fanny Lumsden and Imogen Clark.
Oh, and let’s not forget the king of Americana music, Nashville legend Buddy Miller, who makes a guest appearance on the simmering ballad, One Trick Pony, adding his voice and deft guitar touches to Nicholson’s aching lead vocal: “It must be kind of lonely/ now they know that you’re only/a one-trick pony.”
“Buddy’s another bucket list item for me,” Nicholson says proudly. “I was lucky enough to have Rodney Crowell on Hell Breaks Loose. Now Buddy. He’s the busiest man on the planet, but he did it in no time. He’s the master of what we’re all trying to do.”
Of course in a recording career spanning 17 years Nicholson has grown to be something of a master too. Since making his debut with Brisbane band Pretty Violet Stain in 2000, Nicholson’s career has gone from strength to strength, with numerous ARIAs and Golden Guitars collected along the way for albums such as Familiar Ghosts (2008), Bad Machines (2011) and Hell Breaks Loose, as well as for Rattlin’ Bones (2008) and Wreck & Ruin (2012) the two much-lauded collaborations with Kasey Chambers.
A few songs on Hell Breaks Loose touched on the postscript to Nicholson and Chambers’ break up in 2013, such as Single Fathers and Secondhand Man. That thread carries on through Love and Blood on Busted Lip, an atmospheric ballad with conflict resolution at its heart “It’s one of the most personal songs on the record,” he says, “but it’s not very indicative of my everyday life. It’s just a snapshot.”
Another snapshot of Nicholson’s life is that decision to decamp to the Hawkesbury for inspiration. Most of the songs on Love and Blood were conceived there, sometimes in one sitting, sometimes worked on over several visits. However long it took, the singer found the isolation of the setting a tonic for his creative juices.
“I’d drive to this caravan park and then take a boat down the river,” he says. “I’d just take the boat out, anchor up and write while I was fishing.”
One of the gems he came up with on the river is the opening track and first single from the album, Safe. By his own admission Nicholson’s extensive back catalogue isn’t awash with love songs, but Safe certainly fits the bill. “I’ll make you safe/even if only for while/I’ll make you safe/even if just to see you smile,” Nicholson sings over jangling guitars and rumbling drums. “I wrote it for Emma,” Nicholson admits. “She’s had her trials in recent times.”
His partner and her trials are also the subject of Song for a Sad Girl, a strident country stroll with humour and love in abundance: “She don’t talk about the weather and hates it when I say she’s with the band/she jokes about her cancer and we laugh at things that she don’t understand.”
There’s a psychedelic, Beatle-esque undertow to another country ballad, Hotel Radio, a song that illustrates Nicholson’s gift for a gracefully unfolding narrative, this one surrounding the lot of a travelling musician. Then there’s the military rumble and jangle of banjo and accordion on Bad Apple, the bombastic Driving Me Mad, one of the first songs he wrote for the album, and the despairing pop song Even if You Were the One, the track that gives the album its title with the line: “Wherever there’s love, there’s always blood/wherever there’s rain there will be mud.”
And then there is the exquisite acoustic closer, All I Know, a beautiful successor to Hell Breaks Loose’s Single Fathers, in which Nicholson pours out his heart once more to his children. The last line of that song and of the album see’s the singer in a hopeful, loving frame of mind. “Don’t waste your time on anything but love,” he sings.
Nicholson says the title Love and Blood “seemed to sum up what the album’s about when I put all the songs together.”
Now he’s looking forward to taking those songs and the many others from his distinguished back catalogue on the road later this year. The singer found renewed enthusiasm for the touring life on the back of Hell Breaks Loose, so he’s keen to do more of it with the new one.
“It’s been a thorn in my side in the past,” he admits. “I love playing, but I’ve never really loved touring. That last tour was so enjoyable. The audiences were incredible and it renewed my vigour for it. I’m excited to go on the road this time.”
He can do so knowing that he has a wealth of new material in the 12 songs from one of Australia’s finest exponents of Americana music.
“Every time I make a record I think less about it than the one before,” Nicholson says. “That’s not to say it’s getting easier exactly. It’s not that I care less. Maybe I’m getting better at it. At some point, I hoped I would.”
Love and Blood is released through Lost Highway/Universal Music Australia on July 28.
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