October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
I’ve gotten the impression that Michael Nau doesn’t care what people think his music means. Throughout his years as lead singer and songwriter of Page France, Nau’s evolving musical style has contained surreal images and religious allegory that range from angels to chariots and from dancing circus animals to men with ruby rings. The inevitable, and fairly inaccurate, comparisons to Sufjan Stevens helped gain the band attention in the indie world, but they’ve always been true originals, exploring the art form as they saw fit. Unfortunately for fans, Nau recently decided that he’d taken Page France as far as it could go and dissolved the band to focus on his new project, the Cotton Jones Basket Ride. With a busy tour schedule, the release of several EPs, and a full length album ahead of him, Nau took some time out to talk to me about his music, past and future, avoiding the “Christian band” label, and his songwriting process.
The Other Journal (TOJ): So your new project is Cotton Jones. How did that come about?
Michael Nau (MN): Well, I’ve had the idea for Cotton Jones in my head for a few years but never had the time to act on it until recently. So I’ve been spending a lot of time writing and recording tunes. Things have come together, and we’ve got a pretty lengthy string of shows this summer.
TOJ: It seems like a change of direction from Page France. Do you consider this a totally new band, a side project, a break from Page France?
MN: It’s all of the above, I think. The contrast with Page France does make it feel like a new band, but Whitney and Chris are both involved with Cotton Jones as well, so it also feels familiar. I don’t like to think of it as a side project, because I think that can imply a lack of effort. I’ve spent a lot of time with these tunes over the past several months, and finding the time to work on this project came as a result of a break from Page France. I think that all of us needed it, to be honest. Things began to feel unnatural to me. I had to sit back and reevaluate what was happening for a while. Having some distance from it has made me appreciate it more than I realized that I could. However, Cotton Jones and Page France represent two completely different things to me.
TOJ: It seems like all of your projects dance around different genres. What made you first get into music, and how did that influence the way that you write and the different styles you’re into?
MN: Music wallpapered the house that I grew up in. I knew what music was, and I knew what baseball was. I just began to study records, and I was drawn to recording music, without really thinking about it. If I am working on a new project, I try to make it a step forward in some way. I don’t think it would make sense to release a Page France record under the Cotton Jones name or the other way around. Each project has a different meaning and a different sense of freedom.
TOJ: Does the music come first or do the lyrics come first?
MN: I used to write the lyrics and music together. A lyrical idea would come to me, and then I would try to work out music to sit behind it. But with the most recent record I worked on, I had most of the music recorded before I’d finished the lyrics. So I spent more time with both—the music as a ground to build the words upon, and the songs came out very differently than I’m used to.
TOJ: Did that breathe new life into the writing process?
MN: Oh, it most definitely did. It was nice to see things coming together from the ground up this time around. Some of the tunes came out based around a groove or a bass line rather than what I was used to. It’s been nice. I tried not to shape things, and I did my best to stay out of the way, letting the idea shape itself through a couple of willing hands.
TOJ: Some lyrics are clearly poetry set to music (Dylan for example), while others seem more dependent on the medium. Do you think there’s a big difference between lyrics and poetry?
MN: Yes. There are certainly lyrics that I don’t view as “poetry,” but I don’t think it’s necessary that I do anyway.
TOJ: I’ve read lyrics to some of my favorite songs, and they don’t have the same impact as when they’re coupled with the music.
MN: Yeah, it’s the same way with tunes in a movie. If you put visuals behind a song, it can be more powerful. Not always the case, I know.
TOJ: There are a lot of religious images in your songs—Jesus, chariots, burning bushes, angels. Sufjan Stevens said, “I don’t think music media is the real forum for theological discussions. I think I’ve said things and sung about things that probably weren’t appropriate for this kind of forum. And I just feel like it’s not my work or my place to be making claims and statements, because I often think it’s misunderstood.” Do you think theology is an appropriate topic for music?
MN: I always tried to write without an agenda. Looking back on some of the things that I wrote, it began to feel inappropriate. That had a lot to do with where my mind had drifted over the course of the two years that we were touring rather heavily with Page France. The songs became part of that time and place, and I started to feel uncomfortable singing them. The big picture grew distorted, and I had to distance myself from those songs and words. Since then, it has all grown a bit more clear, and I understand what was going on, and I’ve found a fresh meaning in all of it.
TOJ: It also seems like any artist that covers religion in a positive light (like Sufjan) can suddenly become a project for religious folks to try to claim as their own. Do you think classification is a burden that comes from using those kinds of images?
MN: I can only speak for myself. I wasn’t prepared for any sort of classification, and there was always some sort of filter that my thoughts had to go through, for a while, before any thought could be finished. It was heavy on me. I just wanted to make music the way I knew how.
TOJ: There’s almost a fervor behind it that’s unsettling. David Bazan talks about it a lot.
MN: In the past, I just wrote what felt right to me. I didn’t think twice about it. I want to find my way back to that place.
TOJ: To a place where you aren’t hindered by fears of what your listeners might infer from the words?
MN: Yeah. I think Bazan does a great job of that. I’ve always respected him greatly for such reasons. I want to let all of that fear go—it’s the only way to feel satisfied.
TOJ: It seems to me like a lot more music these days is written with some kind of agenda in mind, and that the art can suffer because of it—like when an artist releases an album of protest songs, for example. Do you feel like that’s true?
MN: Well, there’s just music everywhere. So many sounds being made, so many words being sung, all kinds. The lovely thing about it is, if you don’t like listening to it, you don’t have to, for the most part. I’ve just never felt comfortable or felt that I was in a ready position to put something out there and say, this is what it is, so clearly. I don’t feel comfortable trying to realize my own piece of art, let alone leaving no room for others to interpret it. That’s just not for me. However, there are many who do it well and in a powerful way. Each person has a gift, and to my knowledge, that is not mine.
TOJ: One more question for music nerds like me. What have you been listening to lately?
MN: Hmm. I have been listening to “Befriended” by the Innocence Mission, “Arthur” by the Kinks, Lee Hazelwood, and Nancy Sinatra. And I’m really loving the Fleet Foxes record.
Michael Nau is the musical mastermind behind the former indie folk-pop band Page France and an ongoing collaboration with Whitney McGraw known as the Cotton Jones Basket Ride. His new record with the Cotton Jones Basket Ride "Paranoid Cocoon" will be available in January 2009.