Nigel Powell is a pretty sincere man. Although I only got to interview him via email, his answers ring with a clarity and honesty that’s pretty damn impressive. His portfolio is pretty impressive, also. He’s been a part of Frank Turner’s touring band The Sleeping Souls for ever now and working on several projects on when he’s not on the road. The Sad Song Co. is the one project where he’s most himself and doesn’t depend on the vision of others. Powell’s new record Worth is due February 9, 2018. It’s a collection of songs that flow seamlessly into one another, in spite of the impressive eclectic songwriting style he displays. While a solemn prog rock vibe is the thread holding them together, Powell plays with whimsical pop arrangements, minimal synthesizer rhythms and sweeping guitar solos to craft his intricate music.
Q: You use a lot of spiritual imagery in your lyrics. How does religion influence your songwriting?
A: That’s an interesting point, that I hadn’t really thought about before. I was brought up in a Christian household, but became a convinced atheist around age 13. On the new album “Lifestyles" deals with amorality in modern life by framing it as abandonment by god, but it would be easy to read it as a person’s loss of faith as well. I think having been exposed to large amounts of that imagery early in life had a powerful effect on me, and I find the metaphors potent.
Q: Your instrumental arrangements vary a lot, from hard rock in “What You Make Of It” over soulful harmonies in “Worth My Bones” to whimsical pop music in “I Don’t See It”. Yet you always display a air of solemnity. Where does that come from?
A: The solemnity is me as a person. In a way I’m glad it comes across, because it means there’s honesty in the music, and it is representing me as a person. I can’t really write any other way, I suppose, but I do really enjoy pushing my song arrangements out of the ordinary wherever I can. So always me, but a varied me.
Q: Since I’m German, the song “Einmal Ist Keinmal” immediately stuck out when I first looked at the track listing. Yet you sing in English - why did you choose this title? What’s the story behind the song?
A: The way I understood the phrase when I was introduced to it was as “once doesn’t count”, which immediately struck me as a mindset its easy to fool yourself into when tempted with infidelity. So the song is about that temptation, the mixed feelings of guilt and elation, the underlying sadness of letting yourself down. Like "Wounded Lion," it’s me trying to put myself into a exaggerated mindset to try and fully understand it.
Q: I have my own theories about your influences, but please could you name what music inspires you in your songwriting?
A: Historically my songwriting influences have been REM and Elvis Costello, with my love for early Genesis (and later Peter Gabriel) adding the progressive rock edge. But I take inspiration from so many places, some of which you can hear and some of which you can’t. On this album I was listening a lot to Rival Consoles’ album Odyssey, which comes across very clearly in places. But I also love the energy of Norwegian band Honningbarna and the gorgeous alt-country of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, which are influences I don’t think you can hear at all.
Q: In your opinion, how does the Sad Song Co. differ from your other projects?
A: The obvious difference with my work alongside Frank Turner is there I am serving his vision and his music to the best of my ability, while The Sad Song Co. is my own creation, with all of the decisions being mine. It’s closest in feel to Unbelievable Truth, because I was 1/3 of the creative team that made that, but I still have a tendency to push things in a more grand and prog direction than was appropriate with that band. Similarly, my other other band Dive Dive is a collaboration but mines a very different part of my musical urges, much more obviously the Honningbarna / Fugazi side of things that I love.
Q: Let’s talk about your the first cut from the album, “What You Make Of It”. The piano dominates this song in the first half, yet the second half of the song has a progressive rock feel to it. Why did you decide to arrange the song the way you did?
A: The whole song was written on piano, but I always challenge myself to move away from the instrument a song was written on. In this case it fit well in the first half, but the middle 8 especially lent itself to taking that piano part and moving it onto huge electric guitars. It sounded a bit like Muse to me, who aren’t a band I’m a particular fan of. For me the driving ideal in most arrangements is dynamics, and making the middle 8 until the end of the song bigger by introducing other instruments at that point was a good way to do that.
Q: The message of the song is very clear. Has there been a point in your life where you’ve had to sit yourself down and tell yourself: “Stop whining, life is what you make of it”?
A: So. Very. Often. That song and "I Don’t See It" have almost taken on an ironic edge for me recently when I was going through some bad times and friends were essentially having to say those things to me. Going back and listening to those songs again it struck me how I could completely lose touch with things I believe in such a way, and I’m glad I had good people around me to reflect it back.
Q: Frank Turner basically never stops touring. Does it ever get old?
A: It doesn’t for the most part. I love playing music live to people, and it always brings me great joy to do it, even when I’m down. The mechanics of touring can be wearing, especially being away from home and loved ones for such large periods of the year, which is a great deal of what my song Worth My Bones is about. But the actual playing to people is an honour, and I think always will be.
Q: You’ve submitted this song to my playlist “Music to Conquer Mountains.” What’s your Mount Everest?
A: The things I want to conquer are all internal. I don’t really measure myself by external things. I’m happy with what I’ve done, the things I’ve created or helped create, the places we’ve played with Frank and other bands, but my ultimate goals are purity and goodness of the soul, love, and happiness.
Q: What’s your greatest accomplishment so far?
A: My children, who are incredible and surpass me in wonderful ways.
Q: If you had to climb a mountain, what three items would you bring?
A: My two children, so I can show them the amazingness of the world from above. And a helicopter, because I’m quite lazy.
Q: What great unknown band out there should our readers should definitely hear about?
A: I’ve already mentioned Honningbarna who are magnificent. Arkells from Canada are just wonderful. And at the moment I’m listening the hell out of I Thought I Was An Alien by Soko, which is a wonderful album.
You can learn more about The Sad Song Co. here:
About the curator - Julia Maehner
Julia knows two main passions: Music and writing. From an early age she has been making music after a fashion. When she was 13, she sat herself down and decided: “I will be a music journalist. Because I love music and writing.” After a brief intermezzo in New York City working for the music boutique agency Girlie Action as a digital marketer, she moved back to Germany. This experience helped her build her know-how for her content marketing client, the business intelligence software CoffeeCup. She still writes for several German music and tech magazines and is working on launching her own blog, amps on ears.
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