Interview with Jeremy Nail

Texas born Jeremy Nail is a survivor in the true sense. His latest and most impressive album Live Oak was released earlier this year. In many ways it follows a similar theme to his 2016 recording My Mountain, both albums having been written following his recovery from sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer, which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. Written in the aftermath of such trauma, both albums are powerful, soul searching, reflective and yet laced with positivity and resilience. Lonesome Highway tracked down Nail to discuss the albums and his chosen musical career path.

How did the writing process for your recently released album Live Oak, compare to your 2016 recording My Mountain?

It was a very similar process, actually. By the time I had finished My Mountain I had developed a style of writing that felt very natural. I like to work each line until the song can stand on its own as a written work. I like to experiment with melodies as well.  On Rolling Dice there was a version I had that was done on a keyboard, and had a few lyrical changes here and there. Live Oak had a sort of upbeat, Grateful Dead feel before I changed the melody completely. Once we get in the studio, we quickly realize what is working and what is not.   

Alejandro Escovedo is a man much admired and loved by Lonesome Highway and an artist that recovered from his own health issues to return stronger than ever. He appears to be like a father figure or even possibly a tutor, in your artistic journey. How did your relationship develop with him?

We hit it off when I filled in playing guitar in his band a few years ago. It was a great experience cut short by health problems that I had to stay home and take care of. When we reconnected, our relationship grew as friends and artists. I was going through this period, of learning how to walk again and dealing with some pain (after battling a rare form of cancer - Sarcoma - which resulted in the loss of one of my legs). He really took me under his wing, and shared a lot about what helped him get through his own health struggles. Alejandro guided me to make an artistic statement on My Mountain in the wake of suffering, which is something he is a master of. I am forever grateful to him for that.

What did you particularly learn from his production input on My Mountain?

I learned a lot about what it means to give songs space. When you add more layers, you still want to do it in a way that serves the song and story being told. 

The Zone Recording Studios in Dripping Springs would appear to be the most perfect setting for recording Live Oak, given how much landscape you use in your song writing. You co-produced at The Zone with Pat Manske, who has worked with the cream of Texan artists. What influenced your decision to work with him?

The last phase of recording for My Mountain was done at The Zone. Working with Pat, we got into a great flow so it felt natural to keep working there. This time around, we collaborated more and really locked in musically. He has a great attention to detail and knows what makes a song special. He also mixed the record onto 2” tape, brilliantly. There is a great vibe with him and the band. I’m anxious to keep going!

The album’s title is inspired by the 600-year survival of an oak tree in Texas and is a classic theme for the album. Was this always going to be the title track of the album or did it surface during the recording process?

For most of the recording process, I thought it was going to be called Abiquiu, but I was afraid people might have a hard time pronouncing it. Then it dawned on me where I was, in terms of place and phase of life. Live Oak was the perfect fit.

The opening track Abiquiu, a small town in New Mexico, articulates the presence of both beauty and decay residing side by side. The sentiment in the song could speak for so many small towns throughout The United States. Presumably it was written based on a live experience passing through the town?

Yes. I was driving through there last summer. What I saw and experienced felt spiritual to me. Both the beauty and decay I saw were very heightened, in such a way that I had to write about it. I grew up going to visit my uncle in Taos who was an artist there, Bill Bomar. There is something about the landscape and air there that is so inspiring to me.

Till’ Kingdom Come, which bookends the album, speaks of your recovery ‘to this new life that I live and breathe’. On reflection, had you not encountered your health issues, do you consider that your musical career might have headed in a somewhat different direction?

I think about where I was before I got sick, if I would have continued that way I don’t know if I would be playing my own music or doing this at all. Though I was playing in several bands at the time, I had sort of a creative block with my own songwriting. Having this experience changed all of that. I love what I do. 

There is a noticeable calmness throughout the album. Is this a reflection of your state of mind during the recording process?

Maybe so. There is a certain intensity in record making because you are listening so closely, seeing what works and what doesn't. I’m lucky to work with people who share the same instincts.

On the subject of your use of landscapes in your song writing.  Is this motivated by your upbringing in rural Albany, Texas surrounded by lots of open spaces?

Definitely. Going back now, I realize what an influence being raised there was. As I go further along in writing and music, as a listener as well, landscapes are like colours on a painter’s palette.

Your family appear to be either farmers or art purveyors. I understand that you studied agriculture. What encouraged you to the artistic career in favour of agronomics?

I was studying at Texas Tech and I wasn’t doing very well in school. I came home one summer and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My stepdad, who was also a rancher, was listening to me play guitar one day and said, “You ought to do something with that”. I enrolled in the Commercial Music program at South Plains College, and just took it from there.

Ironically, there are unfortunate similarities between farming and musicianship, given how both careers have dramatically changed from the opportunities they offered a few decades back. How difficult is it to survive in such a crowded musical environment at present?

Everyone is on different paths. At a certain point, you have to define what success is for yourself. Like ranching, if music is a part of you, hard times will come and go. You do it because that’s what you do and it’s who you are. If I stay creative and inspired, I know things will work out.

Two studio albums in two years is quite an output, particularly when the material reflects personal moments in time, reading in many ways like intimate diaries. Is this a theme you intend to pursue in further recordings and how precious is song writing for you in dealing with everyday challenges? I’m practically anticipating a third similarly slanted album to complete a trilogy!   

I can’t explain it, other than it’s just the way I write songs. As life goes on, so does art and the things you have to draw from. I imagine I will stay the course.

Like so many of your Texan contemporaries you cut your teeth playing in indie/rock bands. Is this a direction you intend returning to at any stage in the future?

I don’t think so. At this point, I am more satisfied making quieter music.

Any plans to tour Europe in the near future?

No plans yet, but I would love to play there.

Interview by Declan Culliton   Photograph by Todd V Wolfson