Hello friends and welcome to Rusted 38. My name is Heather Tinker. I am a thirty-nine, (or Rusted 38′), year old freelance writer living in upstate New York. I’d like to begin by telling you an extraordinary story about my introduction to the Guy in the Jacket.
Around mid August my husband and I found ourselves outback of our neighbors house, hovered over an outdoor fire and an outdoor bar, just as the majority of our Wednesday evenings had placed us for the past six years or more. As a ritual during these meetings we have a few mid-week cocktails and unwind with our friends, which, by our definition, involves our close compadre’ Sean and his endless search for unique and neglected music. Now, when I say neglected I mean by the mainstream media and the cache’ of all that someone on the fucking planet, who has never asked the four us mind you, deemed popular and search engine worthy. Now, as you’re reading this you may disagree with my last sentence and hell what do I know, maybe Miley Cyrus and Adam Levine are the musical Gods of our lifetime, but once you follow the links I paste to the end of this article I’m quite certain you’ll feel otherwise. Because the Guy in the Jacket, well he’s the best fucking thing Sean has had his I-pad finger on since that story he played for us about a crazy and murderous Iceman killer, (that’s another article for another day).
After hearing Nathan Bell’s music that Wednesday night I was so internally moved by his artistry and his lyrics especially, that I took a shot and reached out to see if he could tell me more about the entity that is him. He was generous enough to reply with interest. What follows is our conversation about life and all that we thought was fucking important in the world. So, instead of my endless drivel about Sean’s latest contribution to our Wednesday night meeting club and its shared musical pallet, and why I think the entire WORLD should know who the Guy in the Jacket is, I’ll instead allow your eyes and ears to see things my way.
Interview with Nathan Bell November 2014 –
HT: You stated that your mentor John Bowie passed away when you were fifteen. Has his loss fallen into the lyrics of any of your music?
NB: I wrote a song, “1966 Telecaster” specifically about the loss, although not until I was 48. It appears on my first, very rough, CD, “In Tune, On Time, Not Dead,” which I recorded in 2008 after I started playing again.
After he died suddenly, John’s girlfriend and family gave me his Fender Telecaster, Fender Amplifier and a National guitar.
As far as I know, I was his only student and he had agreed to teach me as a favor to my father. I am a kinesthetic learner and John picked that up right away, so most of our lessons consisted of us jamming or working out patterns and scales for improvisation. John was also a fan of classic movies and television and had borrowed (permanently, it seemed) a film projector. Sometimes, after lessons, we would watch old films. I think my sense of the visual in my songwriting was influenced by those sessions. There is only one song about losing John, but he influenced all of my songwriting.
HT: You refer to yourself as a gypsy laborer by age twenty-five. Is that because you were restless internally with the social acceptance of a job vs. pursuing your music?
NB: My working life has been entirely a product of my internal compass that points toward personal responsibility, and job, and family. I’ve been told that I’ve always acted based on that internal compass. I’m sure my father’s example also plays a large part in where that compass points. Although he is a poet and always was terrifically artistic, having played trumpet, tried his hand at pottery, and been a damn fine photographer, he was also a hard-working guy, a teacher, and unimpressed with the idea of the writer as Bukowski, if that makes sense? Maybe just as significantly, I never did well in formal academic environments. Songwriting is hard work and I don’t think society sees it that way. However, each decision was influenced only by what I needed to do, practically, and to a lesser extent, how I saw myself.
HT: In the early 90’s you admit to abandoning your music, your writing, your reading etc. How did that thirteen year absence change you as a person and as an artist? Did the hiatus allow your passions a place to grow? Or do you think it sat dormant? Like an empty chair?
NB: Everything I am as a writer now, for better or worse, is because I stopped for 13 years. It wasn’t so much that I needed the time away, although I had reached a point of frustration that was connected more to my feeling that the work I was doing at the time was merely transitional, and not fully developed, than to a lack of commercial success.
In the early 90’s I was living in Nashville, where there are really two music scenes: An extraordinary musician’s collective of sorts, one where people who regularly get paid a lot of money to play with famous people will also play with just about anybody they like to play with for a pittance, and that’s a big, amazing deal, because as a writer and player (and I’ve always been a serious guitar player) you can have more fun playing live and recording in Nashville than anywhere else on earth. For example, during my final year as an active performer, while still a Nashville resident, I played shows where my band included the legendary (sorry, Richard, but you are) guitar player Richard Bennett, electric guitar wizard Gary Burnette and one of the best steel guitar players in the country, Bruce Bouton. My bass player and drummer, Scot Merry and Paul Scholten were very busy, very well-respected session players. We played everything from shows at the Bluebird to record company showcase shows.
On the other side of the equation, there is the business of music that is always fighting for survival. And that business requires certain compromises from a writer to support that business model. I went into the business side of songwriting with my eyes wide open but found that it was impossible for me to work and write effectively in that environment.
When I look back, and I don’t look back all that much, I see that I had stopped progressing as a writer and, if anything, my writing became more self-conscious and wordy. I did write a few songs during that period that I felt were moving me forward. But that was after I stopped being employed by a publisher. A few of those will show up on my next album. But generally speaking, I hadn’t completely found my voice yet.
When I put the guitars away, I never expected to play again.
HT: In 2008 you were laid off from your job with a wife and two children. Did you feel defeated? Or did you feel as if the universe was providing you the opportunity to pursue your dreams?
NB: It was eventually a disaster for my heart. I wasn’t particularly happy with the direction that the company I worked for (a very, very large company) was headed in, and the economy hadn’t completely driven off a cliff yet so I saw the lay off as an opportunity. I am an unabashed optimist and have never had any trouble finding work. I also was seeing a renewed interest in my songwriting and was working with somebody whose own work was incredible and I saw a way forward in the business part of music that I hadn’t seen the first time around. But as the months went along and the usual issues with the music business cropped up, capped off by the publisher who appeared interested in funding my efforts not having the means to contribute, I increased my efforts to find another straight job. Things had changed, I was older, the economy was worse than anybody would admit, so that job search stretched on until we were facing real financial stress. During that time I was sleepless and worn out. I don’t think the universe has plans for anybody and I just saw the whole situation as something to be dealt with. I would rather have made money as a musician but in 2008 our children were still relatively young so the road wasn’t an option for me. I took a job I knew I’d hate and kept that job for the last six years.
HT: How much do you think your love of words, your vocal intimacy, was influenced by your fathers work?
NB: All of it, if not more.
HT: You make a bold statement in your bio – “I am afraid of losing people, so I forget about them completely.” This strikes me internally because I identified with it immediately. Can you elaborate at all on this statement?
NB: I’ve been a pretty poor friend to the people I love who aren’t immediately accessible. I make a lot more effort now than I did when I was younger to keep in touch with the people I love, but I still could do a lot better. I’ve lost a fair number of important people over the years, the majority of whom died relatively young. But I was afraid of losing people from before I was old enough to know what that fear was. I have a terrible, palpable need to protect the people I love from everything. And that is impossible, right? Lately I make a conscious effort to remind myself every day of that impossibility, which means that my family can, hopefully, live with me, and I don’t have to limit the number of people I call friends. I think that beats my other solution to handling the internal pressure, which is to allow almost nobody any access. I can’t fail them if I don’t talk to them, right? And I can’t miss them if they aren’t ever here? How’s that for fucked up? It only took me until the age of 50 or so to realize that I was better at writing about other people’s emotional lives than honestly addressing my own.
HT: What is it about soccer that tames your spirit and is it similar to the peace you find in your music?
NB: It is a brutally hard sport that is also elegant and creative. I was a striker, which is a position that adds a level of in-the-moment pressure that isn’t quite as prevalent in the other positions. I played my best years as a teenager on a college soccer club, which meant that my teammates were much older. We played a fairly classic formation, which meant that the striker’s job was clear-cut. I either scored goals or lost my position in the team. That makes the position an individualist’s dream job. The pressure centered me and I loved it for the same reason I love playing solo, just me and a guitar, because I’d rather have that weight on my shoulders than anywhere else. It is odd that you would use the word “peace” in reference to my music. I never found much peace in playing or writing music until just recently. That argues in favor of my theory that I am more capable as a writer, player and performer now than I was during my first go-round.
HT: You said that when you write songs that you do it all in one day. From the writing to the recording to the mixing. I identified with this also because when I write my poetry I do it all in one sitting, sometimes I write a piece in minutes. I do this because I feel as if there is a story inside of me, and if I don’t let it all out at once, it won’t ever be told. Do you think that way about your writing?
NB: My most recent album “Blood Like a River” was written in that way, all at once. I don’t always write that way. But it is true that once the song has rattled around in my subconscious for a while it usually resolves fairly quickly when I get to the point of doing the actual writing. I’ve been writing for so many years that I’m beginning to think that my subconscious is writing all of the time in direct contradiction to the straight job work. So that when I need a song, I can dip into something that I didn’t even know was there all along, if that makes sense?
HT: RUST has to be one of my favorite pieces of writing and or music that I’ve ever experienced. Can you tell me the influence(s) in your life that helped you create it? Or what you were feeling at the time?
NB: My friend, the filmmaker Anthony Sims, has a theory that I write a lot of my songs from a universal male position. I don’t do that consciously, but “Rust” does seem to provide some evidence that even while being specific to one individual, I must feel a certain sense of general “maleness,” for want of a better word.
The story of how “Rust” came to be might be interesting in that it is a song inspired by a short film that included my music. Another filmmaker friend of mine, Sami Kahn, who lives in Brooklyn but comes from an industrial town in Canada, made a terrific short film, “75 El Camino,” and he used music that I had written for the soundtrack. There is a scene in the movie where the car of the title is idling at an intersection in his hometown in front of an industrial winterscape. I was screening the movie and something about that scene reminded me of a feeling that I seem to have regularly, a feeling that we spend so much of our lives holding on, for ourselves or others. And I wrote it during the period of time I was laid off, so there is probably a logical conclusion to be made from that. There is also one thing I know to be true, that as long as you’re alive you’re in the game. Nobody said it would be easy.
HT: If you could use one word to describe your life, what would it be?
I’d like to thank Nathan for taking the time to speak with me and share more of himself and his artistry. I’d also like to thank my friend Sean for the discovery of the Guy in the Jacket and his insertion into our little world. Follow the link(s), take a read and a listen, you’ll be the fortunate one.