Nick Waterhouse isn’t the kind of artist who goes into great detail about the personal ups and downs that inspire his music. But he could talk all day about the generations of innovative jazz, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll stylists who occupy favored spots in his record collection, the players and producers who made those records sound precisely the way they do and the musical scenes they helped define.
The California-based singer, songwriter and producer dedicates himself less to self-expression than exercises in style. He’s elevated the latter to high art on his second album, the sophisticated, surrealistic, swinging ‘50s R&B-reviving Holly.
CMT Edge: I have an easy time picturing you getting into your parents’ record collection growing up, then starting your own. But I’m curious about how you got into the U.K. mod subculture that obsessed over American R&B and dressed a particular way.
Waterhouse: I got into that through my parents’ record collection. That, to me, was something that was hiding in plain sight. … They had basically 10 albums, [including] John Lee Hooker and Them and the Animals and Aretha Franklin.
Learning about British beat bands and all that stuff, it was like, “OK, why did they sound that way?” … In a weird way, I think I identified more with British teenagers who were obsessed with that music than I did with other subcultures when I was a kid.
I think it was just curiosity. I remember reading books on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and there was one section. It was like, “The people who were really into this were mods.” What the hell is that? I want to find out more. … You start to see that it’s only two steps between somebody like John Lee Hooker and Them backing him when he came to the U.K.
I know you started a band in your teens. What other ways did your obsession manifest itself?
That’s when I got interested in clothes. I really like the concept of fashioning an entire world outside of where you live. Identifying with an English kid who lives in East Hampstead is not like [identifying with] a black [musician] from Chicago. If you can will this whole life into existence, it’s like your imagination is unbridled.
As a teenager, being in a band was very important because literally that was all I wanted to do. I wasn’t as passionate about anything else.
For decades now, successful singles have earned artists the opportunity to make full-length albums. You were kind of reluctant to record albums, preferring to cut a single and press it as a 45 record instead. Why was that?
That was how I consumed music, so it’s like, “Write what you know.” … I didn’t buy albums, especially for most of my early 20s.
You’ve been really dedicated to music in its tangible, collectible, recorded form. For you, how do live performance and recorded music relate?
I come from a background of listening to rock ‘n’ roll, American music, its progeny, all those British groups, and eventually, by the time I was 16 or 17, jazz. [Jazz], to me, was about every performance being different than the recording. And once I got into country, Ray Price, Willie Nelson and stuff, I found that live ends up feeling different than the records do, and I think it’s for good reason.
I saw a photo of another country performer on your music-centric Tumblr blog — Charlie Rich. Which of his records are in your collection? What do you like about his music?
People make a big deal about [one of my earliest purchases being] “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs, which is obviously a massive influence on me. But the other 45 I bought was Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam” on Smash — Nashville soulful pop. I think those two really represent where my life ended up.
Charlie Rich, the stuff I love the most is his stuff on RCA from the early ‘60s. I think that was produced by Chet Atkins. In my opinion, it’s like the twin of Ray Charles at that time — where Charlie was going further towards jazz and soul from Nashville, and Ray was coming to Nashville from jazz and soul. That stuff was just immensely inspiring.
You’ve talked about being less interested in big-name performers than more obscure music-makers and about how gratifying it is when DJs spin your records alongside lesser known acts you like. And you’ve been interviewed by GQ magazine and Brooks Brothers about your personal style and self-presentation. What’s appealing to you about being recognized for your knowledge, expertise and taste?
To me, those are the best compliments. … Just [seizing on] a detail shows that people care the way that I care. I like that kind of thing. I guess it means that I’m doing something right. Of course, I never thought about having to be a scrutinized or public person. That can be very difficult for me to process. Sometimes people don’t get it.
Besides being studious about the music you like, you treat R&B songwriting as a sophisticated exercise. You avoid jive-talking clichés in favor of literary references.
It’s as serious for me as anybody else’s art is. It’s hard for me to say that because I know that a lot of the attitude is …
That ‘50s R&B is party music.
Exactly. I come from kind of a complicated background, too. … [Music journalist] Lester Bangs’ essay on Them, which is like this deep, profound, existential writing, was accepted already when I was born. … That [way of thinking about music] resonated with me. I apply the same sort of effort that I do to everything else in life. I give everything possible that I can to it. Whether that’s absurd to someone else is their opinion.