Features Interviews Islands and Tangents: Reflecting With Nick Thorburn

Islands and Tangents: Reflecting With Nick Thorburn

Nick Thorburn
Reflecting With Nick Thorburn
Article by: Colton Eddy

Three years after ditching the Nick Diamonds cloak with its heavy orchestrations, Nicholas Thorburn's Islands will be dropping a simplistic, honest album of heartbreak on the year’s most holiest day of love.

“It’s commiserating.  I think a lot of people... a lot of lonely people on Valentine's look for company,” says Thorburn on the phone from Los Angeles, where he has been since leaving behind both New York and the significant other that inspired this album.

But which albums does the ethereal-voiced singer of indie-rock acts such as Islands, The Unicorns and Mister Heavenly – the super group that included Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse, The Shins), Honus Honus (Man Man) and touring bassist Michael Cera – use for his own emotional salvation?

“I like Kate and Anna McGarrigle,” the 30-year-old musician gushed as he listed off his preferred melancholic music selections in a list also including Toronto’s Jim Guthrie (former Islands member) and The Smiths' front man Morrissey, noting him as essential.

Thinking back on his musical love affair with the McGarrigle sisters, his voice softened in admiration. “Getting older, I kind of align myself more with that sort of relationship to making music. It’s just a really pure, beautiful expression. And it’s ironic because I used to sing a lot about death, but now as I’m getting older and kind of maturing a little bit, I think that, instead of death - and it might sound cheesy - but it’s life. I think that’s an important distinction.”

That revelation proves true throughout the fourth LP from Islands, A Sleep & A Forgetting, which is undeniably his most confessional work to date. Most of the tracks were recorded in one take over a period of three weeks, with very little overdubbing. Most of the changes in his sound, both musically and lyrically, stem from his self-prescribed “transient vagrant” lifestyle – a Bob Dylan-esque methodology that minimizes those artistic-restraining odds of repetition.

“I’m always turned on. I’ve got that sense of discovery that I think is good for pushing one out of one’s stylistic limitations,” he says of his nomadic lifestyle. “If you’re in a habitual rut, then you’d tend to repeat yourself. I think being kind of lost in the world has enabled me to pick up on new things. Hopefully. That is the dream, to be moving forward and not stagnating. That would be a drag.”

A traveler’s mindset can be immensely transformative. Take the album’s first single "This Is Not A Song", which is almost a therapeutic confession (“Nick, if you ever learn, it never shows”) overlaid on the uncharacteristically simple mourning of a Hammond organ.

“I think the idea was to step outside of myself and it was a sort of talking to. I needed a talking to. You know, it can be hard. You spend your whole life inside of your body; it’s really hard to get that kind of [outside] perspective.”

Thorburn’s fascination with the idea of the dreaming aesthetic drew from a variety of tragic experiences. The album’s title is rooted in a line from the romantic English poet William Wordsworth’s "Ode". In the second movement of the poem, Wordsworth answers his question "Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" with "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting" before explaining how humans start in an ideal purer world but fade into a shadow of a life.

While Islands toured Europe, Thorburn was listening to episodes of "Coast To Coast", a late night radio show that deals with paranormal activity, conspiracy theories and life after death, when a segment on Buddy Holly’s untimely passing caught his attention. And although the album’s second track "No Crying" feels like a modern Buddy Holly jam,  it’s "Oh Maria", one of the album’s most haunting tracks, that is written from the perspective of Holly’s widow, Maria Elena.

"That was kind of the jumping off point. ["Oh Maria"] was inspired by a dream that she had about waking up and finding herself at the crash site, which is in the theme of the record. It’s the idea of realization through dreams and memory and remembering or forgetting things through dreams.”

With the recurring theme of dreaming, it is arguably a concept album. As our conversation continued, we both agreed that it’d work as a soundtrack to a film from Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville) or Mike Leigh (Another Year, Happy-Go-Lucky).

“I might have an actress in the lead role. Maybe have her re-sing all of the songs,” Thorburn mused, eagerly dreaming up his wish list. “Maybe a couple of instrumental refrains throughout. There would be no levity; there’d be no humour there. It would be a depressing movie.”

Nick Thorburn and company will bring their show to Toronto’s Music Gallery on February 28th.