The Challenges of an Independent Musician: An Interview With Jory Nash

Jory Nash

With his latest album “Wilderness Years” (reviewed here recently as part of a “Snappy Snippets” article), Toronto based musician Jory Nash returns with eleven original and deeply personal tracks that offer a narrative of what almost never was.  For Nash, his creative calling and personal resolve was tested unmercifully by a barrage of obstacles presented throughout this journey. Rejected for grants and financial opportunities to help kick-start the project, Nash ultimately put his faith into the hands of his fans and a “GoFundMe” campaign to generate some of the revenue needed to finance the recording process. “Without the kind and generous support of so many people this recording simply would not have been possible,” states Nash in his opening paragraph of the CD liner notes.

For many independent musicians seeking to make a sustainable living through their profession, the demands upon artists are often nowhere as glamorous or idealistic as we are led to believe.  How many working hours does it take for you to earn a fair wage?  Now ask the same of an independent musician, who spends incredibly long and arduous hours envisioning, creating, writing, composing, and if they are lucky, recording their music.  How is it possible to put a price tag on their efforts, or conceptualize their value in the economic context of a working salary?  Oh, and let’s not forget to factor in the time and costs spent by these individuals to promote and market themselves, to book shows, to travel, and to tour, just to bring their music to a town near you.  Again, how can you quantify this in the form of a dollar amount?  The truth is, you cannot!  And what about the many sacrifices being made as a result of their need for creative isolation; their health, family and relationships, and own sense of self-worth?

After publishing our review of “Wilderness Years,” we heard from Jory Nash, who expressed a strong interest in opening a dialogue about his own personal obstacles and demons as a struggling independent musician, and the steps taken to see this project through.  We are incredibly grateful to Jory for some very personal insights and thought-provoking responses, and helping us to understand and consider some of the physical, emotional and financial burdens faced by independent musicians.

Having recently reviewed your latest “Wilderness Years” album on our blog, this whole concept about the album almost never coming to fruition serves as a reminder to the harsh realities being faced today by independent artists such as yourself.  We will delve into such issues shortly, but first, tell me a little about the origins of “Wilderness Years” and what your fans, at least those who may not have heard it yet, can expect to find?

“Wilderness Years” explores 3 ideas, sometimes separate and sometimes all within the same tune: (1) I met an amazing woman and we decided to have a kid together. (2) Having a kid did a number on my ability and confidence to create worthwhile art. (3) The changing landscape of the music business I once found great success in, but increasingly now find myself on the outside looking in.

These themes are personal, at times a bit navel-gazing and definitely not often positive. The challenge then became how to take these themes and create songs and then arrange and record them in ways that both celebrated the songs and were accessible and interesting for those who might choose to listen. I also was cognizant that this may be the last recording I ever do, so I decided to arrange the songs more cinematically than before, and record them to sound more lush than anything I’ve ever done. For a self-avowed folk artist the album is oft times quite non-folk.

So the concept for the new album was born, and you started the journey once again to record and produce this new material.  But the path from concept to finished product was far from a smooth one.  With all of the financial hurdles and stumbling blocks encountered along the way, how did an established artist such as yourself not only face these obstacles, but overcome them?

Well, I applied for numerous grants (8 applications in total from various granting agencies) over a period of 2 years, and was unsuccessful with every application. I’ve received recording grants before but was repeatedly denied with this one. Perhaps my solo demos weren’t strong enough, perhaps juries mistakenly assumed an artist like me who has been doing this for 20 years doesn’t need the financial assistance an artist starting out might.

The truth is that I’m damn near broke and haven’t earned a net positive living from music in 3 years. I’ve been surviving on savings that are mostly gone. And to make the record I wanted/needed /hoped to make I’d need about $30,000 (which includes HST, mailing and some promo costs). So I turned to crowdfunding and my fan-base responded with amazing support. A little over half the money was raised via crowdfunding and the rest came from personal savings. I could not have made this record without the generous support of my fans.

The recording process had to be split in two basically because of my duties as a full time father of a then not quite 1 year old, and the difficult task of artist wrangling and recording studio availability. 16 musicians appear on the record and coordinating their availability was tricky, but ultimately worth it. Part of the record was done in November 2017 and the rest in March 2018. The recording process was unusually stress-free and really enjoyable for me.

You are certainly not alone facing such battles in this modern era of music.  Many self-employed independent artists have been pushed to the brink of calling it a day – Lindi Ortega’s revelations last year were a startling portrayal of a career and lifestyle that is incredibly hard to sustain.  Aside from the support you received via your crowdfunding, and the encouragement from family, friends, peers, fellow musicians, were there any other factors (large or small) that prompted that final push to follow through and not admit defeat?

My partner Brittany Smith believes in me and my music sometimes more than I do. I was close to giving up several times and almost didn’t do the crowdfunding campaign after the 8th and final grant rejection. She wouldn’t let me quit and encouraged me to no end. The record’s existence owes a lot to her.

Jory Nash - Wilderness Years

So the first two tracks on the album are both self-reflective on the experience.  While “Sister Station” is a little tongue-in-cheek in nature, “Dark Matter” is all business.  Did you intend to portray these realities with their personality differences, or did it just fall together this way? 

In the past I sometimes have couched my messages in song lyrics under layers of ambiguity. With “Wilderness Years” I consciously chose to write directly and express what was happening in my life. It is the most personal collection of songs I’ve ever recorded. Every line in every song was 100% intentional.

Continuing with these two tracks, their placement as tracks one and two on the album allow you to deal with such issues, and then move on (to some lighter content as we progress through, although still incredibly personal to you in terms of recent life experiences and changes in the Nash household).  Was it important for you to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room with these opening tracks; moreover, was this placement on the album intentional?

I get a bit obsessive when putting together the song order on a recording. The first song of a record is VERY important. It needs to be one of the stronger tracks, something that immediately gets the listener’s attention, but isn’t perhaps THE strongest track. You want to reel people in and then hit them with something even stronger. I knew “Sister Station” would be the opening track the moment I wrote it, but what would come next was constantly changing as tunes were finished and then recorded. I’m a believer that sequencing is key, and that means you need to take into account differences in tempo, instrumentation, musical key, etc. “Dark Matter” was always intended to be sonically different from “Sister Station” … it’s warmer, darker and a little more 70s soulful. The two tunes really flow well into each other tempo-wise and are in different keys. I don’t think I was thinking lyrically when sequencing them one after the other.

The supporting cast of artists and musicians on this album are staggering.  So many great names, and so many friends of Great Dark Wonder made contributions.  There is a wonderful close knit camaraderie amongst your peers within this genre, and the talents that each artist brings adds so much depth to the album.  Although you have a stellar cast here, if you could have recruited any musician or artist to have collaborated with on any track here, who would that be, and why?

GREAT question. I wanted to work with the guitarist Joey Landreth for this record but although he was willing he was unfortunately not available for the recording dates. I also wish I knew Aimee Mann because I would have loved for her to sing harmony on a few tracks. Her most recent album “Mental Illness” was an early sonic template for some of the more acoustic tunes on “Wilderness Years.” I’ve been trying to get a copy of the album to her through her management but have thus far been rebuffed. I thanked her in the liner notes though.  🙂

I know that you found difficulties earlier this year trying to elicit invitations to summer festivals across Canada, and while you have a string of live dates on the horizon now, once again, I’m amazed at the constant challenges thrown at you.  Having overcome all of these barriers along the way, how do you adapt to the next step of promoting and touring to support and spread awareness of your new music?

I don’t know…I don’t think I’m doing that good a job at this anymore. My tour schedule remains pretty bare…the barest I’ve ever had for a new CD release tour. Part of the problem is that parenting a baby and now toddler is so damned exhausting that there’s not as much time/energy to dedicate to the constant hustle of trying to rustle up gigs. The other, scarier side I am increasingly having to admit to myself is that while I like what I do, and have some fans who are HUGE fans (which is gratifying in the extreme), there just aren’t enough presenters/programmers who are interested in hiring me to play anymore. Maybe it’s an assumption that they know what I do from past work and have judged me in advance. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not in my 20s or even 30s anymore (there is always a premium on new and young in most aspects of entertainment), maybe I’ve pissed too many people off with my opinions over the years. Maybe they simply aren’t connecting to my art. I don’t know. But I can’t find enough gigs to make this all work anymore and it’s frightening and sometimes quite depressing. I am indeed in my “Wilderness Years.”

I’m doing some things I’ve never done before…like hire a publicist for the album. Like add t-shirts to my for-sale merchandise in addition to CDs. Service college radio in Canada intensely. I hope these efforts help build me a bigger audience and lead to more work.

I certainly admire your dedication and bravado in seeing this project through to the end.  “Wilderness Years” is, in my opinion, some of your finest work to date, and deserves to be heard.  That this one almost never made it to the studio is, in hindsight, truly disturbing.  You have publicly stated that you would never ask for money again to help fund a new album.  If this is indeed your last hurrah for recording, what should Jory Nash fans expect from you going forward?

I’ve previously pledged to give the cycle of this album my all, which means trying to promote and perform across the country as much as I can through to the end of 2019, and I continue to try to secure bookings, get radio play, promote, promote, promote. People who hear “Wilderness Years” seem to really like it, and I’m truly proud of it. But truthfully, early results from all my efforts are less than promising. I’m just not finding much work. More emails than ever go unanswered. Outright rejection abounds. If I’m still beating my head against the wall, not able to make any semblance of a living doing music by end of 2019 I will retire from music and pursue a totally new career that will allow me to provide for my young family. I will know I gave it everything I had and created music that I can forever be proud of. I don’t foresee a situation where I do music only part-time. I think that would break my heart, and I’d rather just disappear completely than be reminded of what I consider to be failures and failings. Maudlin and probably self-flagellating, I know, but I’ve given this a lot of thought and am increasingly at peace with what is slowly turning into the inevitable

I will never do another crowdfunding campaign to help with a recording. I did indeed make that pledge publicly and I intend to keep it. I will continue to apply for grants this year and next and if I am  successful I will use that money to make a more stripped down acoustic recording as a follow-up to “Wilderness Years.”  I don’t foresee a situation where I will have enough money to ever do the kind of sonic bigness I did with “Wilderness Years” ever again.

Visit Jory Nash’s website.

Preview and buy “Wilderness Years” on iTunes.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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