Catch up with folk-punk singer Nathan Leigh and watch the video for his latest single "Never Be Normal" off his upcoming album, Ordinary Eternal Machinery, to be released January 2017.
What got you interested in music and songwriting?
Nathan Leigh: I grew up in a very musical household and in a household where folk music and protest music was kind of part of daily life. I didn't have kids' records growing up, I had Utah Phillips and Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, so it was never a question for me, growing up, whether or not I was going to grow up and be a singer-songwriter, I think the question was whether I'm going to do something else and do that on the side. But, being a musician has always been the goal and the thing that I knew that I was going to do.
Do you remember the first album you had?
Okay, so this is embarrassing. The first CD that I ever owned was New Kids On The Block; the first tape I owned was the single for Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do, I Do It For You"'; the second was Prince's "Most Beautiful Girl In The World", so I feel like that kind of balances it out a little bit [laughs]. And the first CD that I ever bought with my own money was Nirvana's Nevermind - I at least feel good about that one [laughs]. It takes a minute to develop taste, I guess [laughs].
Which musicians would you say that you've been influenced by?
I've already kind of mentioned my folky people... Definitely David Bowie was a pretty seminal influence for me. Growing up as a kid who definitely did not conform to gender norms, and bi, it took a long time to articulate who I was; because I knew that I was into girls but also, sometimes I wasn't and most of my friends were girls and so David Bowie just existing was, like, when people would ask me to define myself, I would be like, "oh, David Bowie," and people would get it. The fact that he also happened to be a brilliant musician certainly made that easier, but he was definitely, for most of my life, one of the guiding light inspirations. And then, as I got older, I got more and more into punk rock and got really into Fugazi and the whole mid-80s DC scene became a big deal for me. Now I'm trying to put all those pieces together. I like the energy and the thought and the intelligence behind a lot of the Dischord scene and that kind of punk rock as well as the stripped-down immediacy of folk music, and those are the two push and pulls for me as a musician. I like to tell people that I either play loud music very quietly or quiet music very loudly.
Which words would you use to describe your own sound?
I guess folk punk is as good a description as any. I think I definitely have songs - and certainly when I play live - it's more folk punk than it is anything else, but I think, weirdly, we've gotten to this place right now where we're super specific about the genre labels and I don't really know that that's helpful. I'm not one of those people that's like, "alright, you called me this but I'm actually this," but it's loud music with acoustic guitars. If you feel like defining that more specifically then cool, I won't contest any label that people put on me, but I'm like folk music, I guess.
What were your inspirations behind your music video for "Never Be Normal"?
I made it with my friend, John Regan, who I've known since college and the two of us sort of bonded in college over just a love for stop motion and animation in general. We'd been talking about making a video for years and we would get together and we'd plot stuff out and I think our ambition escaped our abilities and then we'd feel overwhelmed and just sort of stop and not do it. When I recorded that song, I called him up and I was like, "I think I've got an idea, I think it's simple, I think we can do it in a couple days". This idea of basically being two kids playing war and sort of showing how ludicrous and overblown conflicts become through this medium of being two kids playing war. So, my parents had just sold their house that I grew up in and I had boxed up all of my childhood toys, so I brought that box over to John's, we dumped it out on the floor of his apartment, and just kind of went to town. It was actually a really fun process because we were just, at that point, two kids playing war. We learned a lot about stop motion, about animation, about direction, and lighting and all these things that we'd both been like, "yeah, we'll just wing it," and then we started doing it and realized that it was a lot harder [laughs] and that there are reasons that there are specific jobs of lighting stop motion, that there are people who that's their whole job is lighting stop motion, because we definitely learned that that was more complicated [laughs] than either of us thought it would be going into it. We wanted to make sure that there was a sense of exuberance and joy to the video to contrast the bleak message of it.
Is that single indicative of what we can expect to hear on your upcoming album, Ordinary Eternal Machinery?
The single is one of the more stripped-down songs on the album, actually. A lot of the album, I played with a collective of 30 musicians that come in and out of live shows and record with me in various capacities and, when I started working on this record, my previous full-length had a lot of synthy sounds in it and I thought it would be really interesting to try and record an album that had some of the same textures and tones and possibilities that electronica gives you, but using only organic instruments. So, some of the songs are actually pretty heavily orchestrated on the record: there's a full brass section on a couple songs, there's big sweeping strings on a bunch of songs, 3 of the songs have multiple drummers - actually, "Never Be Normal" has 2 drum tracks. So there's a lot of big, orchestral stuff contrasting against stripped-down acoustic stuff and a couple loudish moments.
Is there a song off this album that you'd call your favorite?
Oh, that varies day to day. There's 18 tracks on the album and I spent 2 years working on it, so there are days when [laughs] there's days when I will love a song and then there's days when I'll listen back to the record and be like, "Oh, this line's terrible! I'm so embarrassed, I can't believe I'm going to show this to the world!". I think, right now, there's a song that I wrote that I've been thinking about all morning that's called "The Slumlord's Kids". It's the second track on the album that actually segues out of "Never Be Normal" and I wrote it about a conversation that I had about Donald Trump and the way that real estate is handled in New York and the cycles of gentrification and that we put wealthy people in positions of power in order to make life better for those of us on the lower end of the economic spectrum and they kind of never do.
In one sentence, how would you sum up Ordinary Eternal Machinery?
It's a big album about trying to find the joy and hope in the everyday and looking at the big issues that feel really oppressive and unfixable to a lot of people and saying, "we're going to get through this".
Could you tell our readers more about The People's Puppets of Occupy Wall Street?
My friend Joe Therrien and I, five years ago he called me up and said, "hey, I got $200 from the General Assembly about to buy Wall Street to build this puppet, what are you doing tonight?" and I had never really done anything on that scale before and came over and we built this 12 foot Statue of Liberty puppet and brought it out to a bunch of demonstrations and, gradually, we'd take it out on the street and people would come up to us and say, "hey, that's really cool, are you a group, do you have meetings?" and we were like, "I guess we should be, I guess we should". And so that group formed over the Fall of 2011 and continues to meet twice a week every week and has made art for large-scale demonstrations; everything from a bunch of art for Black Lives Matter, a lot of the art for the Fight for $15 campaign, we're currently in the middle of a big build for NoDAPL and Standing Rock - presumably, we're going to have some art to make this week, although we haven't totally clarified what that's going to be. But, it's a revolving group that has an open door policy, open membership, and all decisions are made through consensus and collective decision making processes; anything that we make is something that all members of the group have approved of or vetted in some way. If people want to get involved, our doors are open and we meet every Monday and Thursday and any scale is welcome.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
I hope what people take away from my music is a sense of catharsis. A lot of my songs, I will start out with telling a story from my life of something that's sort of fucked up [laughs] and use that to build and illustrate a larger point or draw a connection, and I hope that people will listen to my music and have the feeling of, "oh, I have experienced that, too," and realize that they're not alone and that there is a way forward through stuff. I would love to give people the same feeling that I had as a kid, listening to David Bowie and being like, "oh, that guy's like me, I'm not alone". There's hope.
Is there anything you want to say to your fans after these election results?
The important thing is that we all stick together and take care of each other. I think there's definitely a question about how hard the next four years are going to be, I think it's a scary time for a lot of people, and I think we're all about to realize how important our communities and networks are and that the most important thing that we can do is stick together and support each other and listen to each other.