Israel Nash Gripka appeared on the music scene back in 2009 and caused quite a stir with his first 2 releases; New York Town and Barn Doors & Concrete Floors. His latest releases have seen the music evolve into new directions and explore the sonic possibilities of what some are calling Psychedelia-Americana. He is an innovative artist who deserves all the plaudits that are coming his way.
On tour with the Band of Horses and now using a shortened name of Israel Nash, he is joined by trusty band member Eric Swanson on pedal steel and vocals. Both musicians grant Lonesome Highway an interview at short notice just before they are due to take the stage and share some insights into the life of a developing artist.
You grew up in the Ozark mountains. What were your earliest musical influences?
My earliest musical influences were with my Dad and we would listen to a lot of classic rock n’ roll. Just great Credence Clearwater Revival stuff, rockin’ down the highway kind of stuff, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. All that got me wanting to play and do that stuff at a young age. I started playing guitar from age 11 after doing piano lessons before that, but once I found the guitar - that really felt natural. I started writing songs by the time I was 12 or 13 also. It was that process of starting and the idea of knowing I could just write a song.
Can you tell us about your name and the origins of the family background?
The Grypka part is Polish, and my Dad was a southern Baptist minister, so it was their spiritually - led aim to call me Israel.
Moving to NYC was the catalyst for career momentum. What do you remember about your debut release (New York Town) in 2009?
It was the first time I had gone away from Missouri where there is not really an industry or a bunch of studios. I played in bands all over but I knew I wanted to be in New York; in a city for the first time that had some action. It changed my life and started growing things; it was the first time I went to a real classic studio, The Magic Shop, which has since closed down.
Did you have a lot of the songs in place already or did you write more after this move?
About half and half. There were songs already written as there was a lot of excitement about the move to New York and it was about that time that I met Eric and the rest of the band and Ted Young, our engineer on all the records. Just to be around people like that, at that level, New York was a big catalyst.
The second release (Barn Doors & Concrete Floors) followed in 2011 - was this very different in construct from the debut?
Yes, that was the first one with the band and we rented this barn in upstate New York, brought a bunch of gear and everyone stayed. That started the process of how we track; find a place where we can stay and make music and be in the moment. That is where we are at now as I have a studio and it’s kinda the same.
The release of Rain Plains (2013), sees you now located in Dripping Springs, Texas. What brought about this move in location and how did it influence the new songs?
I wanted to get out of New York at some point and my wife and I wanted to buy a house and have a kid. It just felt like a really good time to go. I had been in Austin and loved the vibe and the weather and I loved the idea that we could get some place that is a lot more affordable than New York. We bought some space and it is the old country and just a beautiful place to live and it was a big change in my life to be out in the middle of nowhere and a lot of growth for me, which continues to affect the songs.
In 2015 your last release, Silver Season, is critically well received but was also seen as a move away from the traditional country and folk influences of the earlier records. Do you agree with this and if so, has the shift been a natural progression for you?
Yea, it was definitely natural and I guess that, for me, I like the idea of always progressing and moving forward and seeing where it goes. I think that in the Americana genre there are a lot of artists who do very similar things on each record and that’s fine completely but I wanted to be able to progress and try different things. The thought of making the same record every time would be kinda boring for me. It’s nice to see what happens in the studio and to see where we can go. That’s what is cool about being an artist and making music; who knows what in 10 years might happen? It’s not like saying you know exactly what’s going to happen or how it’s going to sound; it just kind of evolves and there are always new ideas or some other reference, feels and vibes from other albums and other productions that swirl in peoples’ heads.
Your live band also perform as your studio band. Is there a danger of burn-out in having the same musicians playing the same songs repeatedly?
ERIC: There is that risk. We always talk about working in the studio and the difference in playing live on tour, how they are totally different things. Some bands try to capture the studio onstage but we don’t necessarily do that – not that we throw it out the window, but we look at it like it is a living breathing thing that develops and parts change every time, so that is one way to keep it fresh. We have a great time on stage.
Do you enjoy the touring process?
I do. There are these dualities like a have a wife and a child and a home but touring has changed my life too and it has made the World small and opened my eyes. I was always a liberal kind of progressive guy. There is something about Europe that over time has solidified things for me in a different way. Seeing people having lives so far away really helps those ideals that people are the same and there is a spiritual journey on tour that I enjoy. But I enjoy being home too.
Has technology helped bring your music to new audiences?
I think it is still necessary to tour and to give something to your fans. That is great but I think It’s all those things that allow me to be sitting by myself and writing a song. My true love will always be that process of writing a song and I like to have my space at home and be locked away and working. Melodies and ideas will come and you try to jot ‘em down.
Is it still possible to get paid with the streaming royalties from the likes of Spotify being so small these days?
It’s definitely easier today than it was five years ago. But you realise that being a musician is really just continuous work and that’s why people are now 75 years old and still onstage. There is just something about it that you just have to keep making things happen. We have a studio now and we have been producing some artists there which is part of the growth of the whole thing.
What informs your song-writing process? Is it melody first before the lyrical content or vice versa?
Somewhere in-between, generally a melody or a lyric will hit and it will be like a chorus or something. Then I’ll start playing it and work the music and get a verse structure. Now with the studio I can play it back 100 times and start feeling it, so really the studio has brought about new opportunities and resources to make music.
What are the biggest constraints with touring these days?
I think it’s a bit strange to be always moving around. I don’t know in anyone’s life if we are designed to be daily nomads, but at the same time, there is something to look forward to every day and we humans need that too. At the end of the day we have a great time on tour playing shows and tomorrow we have another show to look forward to…
Do you like to take much time off when it comes to refuelling the creative muse?
Usually I spend time with my family and if I can circuit into my zone and if I’m there for two months, I will probably have 3 or 4 songs a month to show. That is the most enriching time for me to write.
So, is the glass half full or half empty?
I think that it is half full – it’s overflowing…!!
I was very impressed with the calm and generous nature of Israel when we met. Both he and Eric, his band mate, were very welcoming and at very short notice. The conversation was relaxed and the answers given were spoken with honesty and an easy openness. Lonesome Highway thank both Israel and Eric for their excellent insights and reflections into life as musicians on the road to greater things.
Live review of the gig – 15th February 2017
Israel Nash takes the stage with his band mate Eric Swanson, who plays pedal steel and sings harmony vocals. The duo play 6 numbers and by the end of their 30-minute set they have won over many of the arriving crowd for the main act. The pedal steel is a very atmospheric sounding instrument and fills the space with a plaintive tone that perfectly suits the guitar progressions of Israel. He can take a song into new areas when playing in this stripped-down format ad it is a credit to both musicians that they carry it off with some room to spare. Parlour Song, a reflective lyric about gun violence, is particularly good and is followed by superb versions of Rexanimarum, LA Lately, Rain Plains and a cover of I Shall Be Released by Bob Dylan. Stirring stuff and a real statement of the talent on show here.
I wish that I could say the same for the main act as Band of Horses come across as overly loud and the songs get drowned out by booming Bass guitar and a muddy sound. The vocals are hard to hear from my place on the balcony (perhaps it was better downstairs?). I have most of their records but tonight the band just fail to inspire and the long set list of 20+ songs seems to drag along from one to the next with little colour in-between. Most of the back catalogue is featured, with the notable exception of Mirage Rock, and in fairness and the capacity crowd seem well into the show. I was left feeling that ‘less is more’ and by the end of the night I was more taken by the honest performance of Israel Nash and Eric Swanson.
Interview, review and photographs of Israel Nash and Eric Swanson (above) by Paul McGee