The Emergence of Nat Baldwin

By: Sarah Moore

Nat Baldwin
Nat Baldwin is the good Baldwin, even if he is not related to the acting Brothers Baldwin. Having contributed his skills on the contrabass to several Dirty Projectors albums, (including their latest, the critically-acclaimed Rise Above), Baldwin has made a name for himself in the psych-folk genre. Baldwin just finished touring in support of his forthcoming solo album, Most Valuable Player, his third release for Broken Sparrow Records. His psychedelic sound comes from the mastering of his upright bass, both bowed and plucked, as well as his haunting falsetto moans and croons. Utilizing a backing band of guitars, trumpet, clarinet and drums, with this new record, Baldwin has elaborated his overall tone with lengthened, legato flow paired with structured yet frenetic layers of sound, where a bit of noise creeps into his trance-like mix.

Having collaborated with many hipster-worshipped acts, Baldwin has decided to focus on his own compositions. Dave Longstreth (the face of the Dirty Projectors) contributes 12-string guitar to Player, where he's joined by Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear) on flute. Members of Baldwin's touring band appear on the album as well. Lyrically, Baldwin waxes poetic, sometimes elaborate, sometimes minimal but always evocative. Like many musicians, Baldwin's sound shines brightest in the live setting, where his compositions take on new ingredients and forge new pathways.

JamBase caught up with Baldwin as he prepared for a solo tour of the Northeast in March and April (dates available here). Proving to be candid and easy to speak with, the athletic, energetic Baldwin expressed what he does in his rare downtime as well as what he sees coming next.

JamBase: I read that you worked with jazz great Anthony Braxton [father of Battles' Tyondai Braxton]. Had you already been into jazz?

Baldwin with Deer Tick on drums
Nat Baldwin: I started playing music at the end of high school. I was mostly into jazz at the time, and then went to the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. I lasted two years there. Though I didn't connect with much of the faculty or students within the jazz program, I was lucky to have a great bass teacher named Rick Rozie. He's a great jazz player as well as the principal bassist in the Hartford Symphony. We mostly worked on classical stuff and bowing techniques. He was also one of the only guys involved in the jazz program that had any respect for free jazz and some of the more experimental sides of the genre. The school basically killed my desire to pursue traditional jazz and pushed me towards experimental music and noise.

When I discovered Anthony Braxton's music I was completely blown away. I had just started playing with some people from Wesleyan University, where he is a professor, while I was still studying at Hartt. After hearing his music I was inspired to move to Middletown, CT [where Wesleyan is] and try to hang around him and take his classes. He was totally cool with my sitting in on his classes and I learned so much just by being around him. Most of my musical connections now all come from that time period, too. I got more out of hanging around Wesleyan for a year for free, than I did paying $30,000 a year at Hartt. I would practice for hours all day, and then would have anywhere from one to three rehearsals a night with different bands or school related ensembles/orchestras. Mr. Braxton's son Tyondai, who is in Battles, actually went to the Hartt School too, but we only overlapped a year. I got to know him more later. Battles is amazing.

JamBase: Having many talents and strengths, can you describe how you were able to choose music as your main focus over other skills such as basketball, etc.?

Nat Baldwin Band
Nat Baldwin: Once I got into music, it basically acted as a replacement for basketball. Growing up, all I did was play basketball. I practiced obsessively. I loved it more than anything else for as long as I can remember. I remember shoveling [snow off] my driveway to practice when I was only seven years old. It was kinda weird how much I loved it. Ultimately, I just got burnt out. It was late in high school, and my hard work was paying off and many of my goals were about to be achieved, and I just realized I was spending so much time on something that I could really only do competitively for another four years. I didn't grow up under the illusion that I would make the NBA, but I always wanted to get a college scholarship. I started to think about it all differently, and the timing paralleled my new interest in music. It wasn't long before I totally immersed myself. I feel like my experiences with basketball definitely helped me as I started getting into music. Most of all, it was the work ethic I had acquired. I knew what it meant to practice and how important it was to practice the right way. Doing dribbling drills every night in my basement was just like practicing scales and learning the fingerboard. I was very meticulous when I went about studying the game of basketball, and I approached music the same way. Before I started writing songs, all I worked on was technique. I also think I learned the difference between working really passionately on something and being an obsessive maniac. The maniac still comes out sometimes, but hopefully just at the necessary moments.

Who are some of your musical influences? What are you listening to now on the road?

I used to be really into a French bassist named Joelle Leandre. I also recently revisited a Peter Kowald record, a German bassist, which is some of the most amazing solo stuff ever. Those are some of my favorites as far as showcasing the textural capabilities of my instrument. Lately I've been blown away by the music of Arthur Russell. His album World of Echo is a masterpiece. I've been listening to all sorts of different things lately, tons of Dylan, Leadbelly, Smog, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cyndi Lauper, Young Marble Giants. One of my favorite bands ever has always been The Band. My favorite band right now is Xiu Xiu. My favorite record last year was Tiny Mirrors by Sandro Perri.

Do you have a favorite type of venue? Coffee shops or house shows? Basements or bars?

Nat Baldwin
I like to mix things up a lot when I book tours. Having variety makes things more exciting. One of our best shows on this current tour was in a garage [called the Rancho Relaxo] in Austin, TX. People packed in there and it was a blast. We also played a house in Charlotte, NC, which was amazing. My favorite venue ever is an all ages place called The Firehouse in North Manchester, IN run by the most amazing dude named Jabin Burnworth. Unfortunately, their roof just collapsed, so they are repairing it and are desperately in need of donations to get it back up and running. Whenever my big payday comes I'm going to make a sizable donation.

How do you avoid exhaustion from a rigorous tour schedule?

I jump rope and do push-ups at every rest stop. It gets the blood flowing after a full day sitting in a van. I do vocal warm-ups and stretch my body a little before each show; just a few little things to take care of myself. It does get tiring sleeping on different floors every night and eating dumb food all the time. It's a fun challenge though. I love everything about touring, even the difficult aspects of it.

How did you get involved with Dave Longstreth and Chris Taylor?

Dave and I had a bunch of mutual friends and finally met and played a couple shows together when I was just starting out with my songs. He immediately asked me to play bass in his band and we were on tour only a few months after meeting. That was 2005. He's an awesome friend and a freakish talent. I'm excited he's finally getting the props he deserves. The band sounds better than ever these days. I met Chris at a few Grizzly Bear shows the Dirty Projectors did with them, and got to know him while recording Rise Above, the latest DP release. We recorded Most Valuable Player right after that, in the same place, Dave's apartment. Chris also engineered and produced the album. He was so amazing to work with and I learned so much during the recording. I'm definitely excited to work with him in the future. They are two of the most talented people I know, and also two of the best guys.

How did you get signed to Broken Sparrow Records?

Nat Baldwin
My friend Sid Lindner [Hotel Alexis started that label back around 2005 with Nate Groth. We played some shows together and I've always been a huge fan of his music. I was just starting to record and the songwriting was in a very raw stage, but Sid saw whatever potential there was and decided to put out my first thing, Lights Out. We've been working together since then. Sid has since moved out West, but the label is still going strong. I'm excited to be releasing Most Valuable Player with them. I think it finally achieves what the previous efforts were striving for.

Are there any particular musicians you've never worked with that you'd like to collaborate with in the future?

I recently was introduced to the music of Julianna Barwick, and I'm a huge fan [now]. She seems to have things together on her own, but if anything, I'd just love to play some shows together. Kurt Weisman is someone else I recently heard and was blown away by. He used to do the band Feathers. His solo music is ridiculously great. I'm very busy now though, and don't see any extensive collaborations happening in the near future, other than some recordings here and there. I just recorded a bunch of bass stuff for a new Department of Eagles record. It's the solo project of Daniel Rossen from Grizzly Bear. Chris Taylor is also engineering it and it sounds amazing.

What about the Portsmouth, New Hampshire music scene did you like? What drew you to move to Maine?

Baldwin by John-Henry A. Weare
Right now I live only a couple towns over from Portsmouth, right over the border in Maine. For most of 2007 I lived four hours up the coast of Maine in a small island town called Bar Harbor. I went up there to take a little break from the touring life and just clear my head for a while. I also planned on getting a bunch of music together, but that proved to be a little more difficult than I thought. The area was really beautiful, but it had a way of sucking the motivation from me, probably because I was just so far removed from everything I'd been doing the past few years. Now, most of my band lives in my hometown of Portsmouth, so it's been great to be back around there and feeling productive. I'm living alone in a big house and getting lots done. It's good to be back closer to NYC, too.

What is your composition process like?

Lately, I've been writing lyrics first and then piecing the music together. I used to always do it the other way around but I've been enjoying this approach. Once I get the subject matter together, it's been interesting to see how it affects the sounds. I imagine I'll always vary my approach and not stick to a particular formula. This is what's working right now.

What subject matter do you feel most drawn to when writing a song?

I used to only write about girls, but luckily I have gotten away from that. Now I mostly write songs not about girls.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan on doing a lot of solo shows throughout the spring and summer, hopefully mixing in some full band shows. I think due to people's availability, the next full band tour won't be until the fall, but I'm hoping it will be huge, full country style. The band I have on the road now is my favorite, and hopefully best yet. Will Glass plays drums, Alex Mead guitar, Jeremy Leclair alto sax and Brett Deschenes trumpet. I'd love to keep this lineup intact. I've known all of them for a while, and we're having a blast on the road. I feel very lucky to be playing with them. I also plan to record again soon. I have enough material together for another full album. The songs are longer and maybe a little weirder than on MVP. I just want to keep making different and better things than I've made before.

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[Published on: 3/20/08]

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