The Upshot: “I enjoy the craft part. I just try to get better at it”: the Canadian singer-songwriter’s 9th album should be the one to put him on the international radar.
BY RAYMOND LEE
With nine albums already under his belt, Winnipeg, Manitoba, songwriter Scott Nolan has long been simmering just below the surface of popular consciousness. However, one does not reach veteran status without making some friends along the way, and his associations with the likes of Canadian powerhouse Mary Gauthier, the bottle rocket Wonder of Woodlands Hayes Carll, or the rising husband and wife duo Willie Sugarcapps, means that Scott Nolan might be at the very crest of the rising wave that is Americana.
And although Nolan has flown largely under the radar, his act favored more by genre aficionados than the weekend dancehall crowd, his steady rate of composition and ever increasing execution of craft means the time is right for his most recent work, Silverhill, to find a larger audience. Released January 29 on Transistor 66, it was recorded in a brief three days at the Admiral Bean Studio a few miles from the album’s namesake in Loxley, Alabama, and incorporating a revolving door of musicians, Silverhill displays all the hallmarks that have kept young Nolan on the road despite a career choice that for even top tier acts seems to be showing diminishing returns.
Silverhill’s tracks alternate between joy and pathos. The songs are immediately intimate, somewhat sad, but hopeful. Like a poor man’s family reunion, the characters that populate the album struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, finding salvation finally in each other. There is a great amount of love on Silverhill, both for people and the small passions that decorate our lives. Opening track, “When You Leave this World” is one of the best examples. A forlorn cadence recounts the exploits of a character whom let one look and a single conversation determine the course of his life. Outwardly the material seems dismal, but a closer inspection reveals an abundant stir of pride.
Not to be outdone, “Forever is a Long Time” echoes such sentiments but through a more worldly experience. If Silverhill as a whole is a love song to a small town, then this second track recounts the highway lines stretching beneath humming tires in the search to find it. It is a collage of interstate day-dreaming on past loves, a dog’s eye view of the American interior from Texas to Tennessee, the pattern of stars in foreign latitudes, and that old equation of distance times time.
Scott Nolan has always been a songwriter’s songwriter. His voice seems almost frail for the scope contained within his lyrics. It was never meant to take lead vocal duties, but its thinness, the hollow eyed delivery it contains, meets his subject matter perfectly on tracks like “Easter Down at the Waffle House,” or the song Mary Gauthier chose as her last album’s titular track, “Trouble in Love.”
In speaking with Nolan over the phone, that same voice contains a wealth of humor that stands in almost glaring contrast to his lyrical output. “I’ve been afforded a lot of time to think,” says Nolan. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t say [I’m] sad, but nostalgia is a powerful emotion. I feel a connection a lot of fifties music. There wasn’t a lot of music in my house growing up, but there was a lot of drinking. And the only time the music would come out was when there was drinking. Not so much Elvis, which is fairly obvious, but more like Franky Valli, all this really sentimental stuff.”
His childhood plays a small part on an album that he admits contains a lot of autobiographical influence. Third track, “Fire Up,” tells the story of how Nolan came into music. Explains the songwriter, “I grew up playing heavy metal in a fairly heavy drinking environment. I listened to heavy metal and rebelled. The aspect of that song goes back to my childhood where I was raised by my grandparents. An aunty left a guitar behind in this space at my grandparent’s house that nobody really used. It was an idyllic atmosphere. The feeling of the song is the feeling of my grandparent’s house as a kid. Very free. Very comfortable.”
Nolan can’t really be blamed for his emphasis on personal relationships, both on his records and in his life. Much of his career has been made in the same way relationships were formed before social media influence, and he notes that his best known work, “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” came to fruition from face to face interactions.
“Early on in my career I was playing Fort Smith at the Black Widow, an old Viet vet motorcycle bar, a new chapter in my life in terms of travelling, and I always write a lot when I travel. [“Bad Liver”] came together in real time around a lot of people. I wrote a verse of that song at an after-party in Oklahoma, but it ultimately came together in several places, particularly Arkansas. I was really trying to write firsthand from my experiences, and it was an example of where I focused on a feeling specifically.”
Nolan continues, saying, “‘Arkansas My Head Hurts,’ was just a late night poker playing lyric. One of the guys I was playing with over did it the night before and muttered it and the song went from there. Hayes Carll really made it known. He heard it from a guy in Beaumont named, Donny Corville, who played it at an open mic night and Hayes asked about it. We didn’t become friends until after the recording and it led to us travelling together through Canada and the states.”
Previous success aside, Nolan has a lot to proud of with Silverhill. The record is both accessible and enjoyable. Part entertainment but part life story, it’s as honest an album that can be hoped for in an increasingly opaque market. It’s doubtful whether Nolan will ever sell as many records as his peers Gauthier or Carll, but it isn’t entirely lost to the musician: “I enjoy the craft part. I just try to get better at it. I enjoy the travel; the strategizing and all that stuff is really not my favorite. Speaking of Hayes, that’s a really good example of generosity, not just that he cut the song, but that he shone a little light my way. And I gotta be honest with you. If it was like the old days and I had the option to be a more anonymous song writer, I’d be into that.”