One of my favorite parts about getting to interview local musicians face-to-face is getting to see how passionate they are about their craft. It’s one thing to watch someone perform, but to learn how they got to that point in their life isn’t only exciting to watch – it’s a story that I love getting to hear and share.
A couple of weeks ago, I met with Joshua Novak over margaritas. I’ve ran into him a few times, and I always knew there was something special about him. He’s charming and stylish, yes, with a smile that isn’t only contagious, but enticing. What I didn’t know until we became official Facebook friends last year, is that he’s an incredible musician. His voice is sweet and gentle, but oh, so wise. His songs provide an atmosphere that you can’t ignore, and his indie rhythms are far from familiar.
Novak recently released Ephemeron, a collection of songs that hide some of the most interesting stories about love, break-ups, and even zombies. Excited for his upcoming show at The Walnut Room this Thursday, I had to explore the mind of one of Denver’s most genial artists.
303 Magazine: How was your release show last month?
Joshua Novak: I’m the first one to be my own worst critic. Even when something is good. I was so stressed leading up to it. For it to get to that point and to have not been something I was happy with, I would have been devastated. But I can honestly say, objectively, that it was a successful show. The people turned out – which was a huge thing I was worried about – it sounded great, and the atmosphere was wonderful. It just kind of worked out.
303: I can’t stop listening to “Don’t Make Me Come to L.A.” Let’s talk about that song.
JN: I wrote that a long time ago. I wrote a song called “New York Took My Baby Away” and I kind of felt like I’ve always been dating someone right before they’re getting ready to move away. I was dating someone a few years back – who was moving to L.A. – and I liked the whole idea of writing a song of saying all of the negative things like, ‘I don’t want to come out there and hang out and stand by you when you’re getting married…but ultimately, I don’t want to come out because I might fall back in love with you.’ Or something. But it’s happened twice that I’ve lost people to L.A. that I’ve dated, so I’ve got a beef to pick with LA.
303: Were all of the songs written a few years ago, or are the rest newly written?
JN: Most of songs are new, but when I wrote that song a few years ago in 2009, I didn’t have a place for it back then.
303: This might be like asking if you have a favorite child, but do you have a favorite song on this album?
JN: I think I really the song “Runner.” I don’t really know why. But I feel like as a writer or a musician, I don’t want to repeat myself. So, I think I also want to mix up how I write songs too. I think I wrote that one in a different way than I had before. It started out with some ideas and elements first, and then I started writing the song around that. It kind of just flowed. To me, it’s not a centerpiece for the album, but I kind of feel like it’s maybe the essence or objective of it in a way. It embodies all of that things in that song.
303: What’s your writing process like?
JN: It’s always had to be a marriage. I want the song to write itself. I’ve been trying a lot more lately to really focus on the words and kind of let that inspire the song in some way. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it just kind of takes the song in a different way. It helps to make yourself do something differently and see how it goes.
303: What do you write about?
JN: I really try to get away from the whole stigma of singer-songwriter of that while trying to write about things that are outside of myself. It’s kind of fun to write songs about other things or characters. On the album, there’s a song about zombies, there’s a song about an old couple dying… I like to write about things from another perspective. When you have the ability to write a story and then put that to music, it’s kind of fun. Or it’s a different kind of process. For me, right now, it’s important to look at the story in the song.
303: Which song is the one about zombies?
JN: It’s number four called “The Spiller.”
303: I had no idea that was about zombies.
JN: You’ll have to listen to it in a different way now…
303: What inspired you to write about that?
JN: …the whole album’s concept. I am just so nostalgic to where I feel like especially as I’ve gotten older – I’m 32 now – I’ve started to worry about things I shouldn’t worry about anymore. I get really emotional thinking about things from childhood, or I remember a song to the point where it’s kind of silly. I feel like I had to deal with the past with my nostalgia by kind of having the music be a little more futuristic or a little less organic in that sense. The subject matter was all things that will fade away like youth or jobs or the places we live. In that respect, zombies. It’s fun to write about things like that.
303: I love when you find out a song is about something you never thought it would be about.
JN: Totally. Part of the fun of listening to songs, apart from what they’re about, is putting your own meaning to it. You wouldn’t be able to sit down and realize it, necessarily, ‘til you knew that this is clearly about that.
303: Will you be touring this album?
JN: I’ll be doing a spring/summer tour in May and June. I had a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the album, and part of that goes to that West Coast tour. It’ll be a four to five city tour around Seattle, Portland, L.A., and possibly San Francisco.
303: What was your Kickstarter goal?
JN: I launched a goal of $7,000, and raised around $7,150. The whole process was great. I mean, seriously, I had the idea for this concept almost a year ago, then I launched a Kickstarter in June, was in studio by July, finished everything up, and now it’s nice to have everything from that concept to actualization in less than a year. That’s how it should be.
303: The album’s artwork is so cool. Who’s the artist?
JN: Once I sat down and thought about what I wanted to do and what I wanted the album to be, it was so clear. The artist is Gemma Bayly. She had an art show at City O’ City and it was awesome. I went to her website and that piece was on there. It’s a piece called “Portal 101” or something like that, and I thought it was perfect because it’s kind of going back through your mind to your past or nostalgia. It was kind of like a portal. It just looked like a memory. It was kind of a weave of things and how thoughts can be bleeding into the other. There’s a center of it and it spreads from there. This is exactly what, to me, the album looks like. All the pieces were very clear once I decided what it was going to be. It just fell into place.
303: You released your first full-length, Dead Letters, in 2010. Tell me about that album.
JN: It was my first venture into actual production and all that stuff. So that was the one that I wasn’t most proud of, but to me, the one where I most realized the kind of sparkly album. But it took five years to do, and by the end of it I was so worn out of the whole band thing.
303: So how is Ephemeron different than Dead Letters?
JN: With this one, I wanted to do something kind of opposite and work with kind of less organic elements and kind of experiment more with sound and things that weren’t as straight forward as the last one. It was a very conscious departure and I just wanted to push myself into an area that I wasn’t fully comfortable with like working with horn arrangements and a little bit of electronics and synth stuff. It was kind of fun to do something a little bit different than I had done. It happened a lot more quickly than the last one and it felt really good too.
303: How do you think you’ve grown as an artist over the years?
JN: Well, it’s a great thing when you know what you want to do. I take that for granted because I have a lot of friends and I think it’s very normal to not know what you want to do. Or you might have a degree in something you don’t have any use for. I feel guilty a lot of times because I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do since I was like 6-years-old. I just have always known that. It’s great but at the same time, because it’s an intransient part of who I am, I don’t think of it like anything else. It’s almost like a sixth sense for me. In the past, it’s not like I didn’t take it seriously, It was just kind of something I did. But I’ve realized over the last couple of years that this is why I’m here. This is what I’m good at, this is what I care about, and if I’m going to do something with it, because it’s the only choice I have, I have to be more serious about it in a lot of ways. I’ve been giving it the attention I feel like it’s deserved all this time. Five years ago, I don’t know if I would have been ready to make this album. So I think I’ve just gotten to the place where I’m ready for this stuff.
I wasn’t trying to be anybody on this album, it’s just me. It’s mature – it’s realized. If I don’t make a really serious effort with why I’m here, then that’s just wrong by the code of humanity
303: You recorded at Mighty Fine Productions, where many other great Denver artists have recorded. What was that experience like?
JN: Yes. Xandy [Whitesel], one of the guys that worked on this, he does sound for Bon Iver. Colin [Bricker] did Devotchka. Really cool people work there. They’ve done great things with bands, and just tons of local people that I respect recorded there. I knew that I wanted to record with them. It’s a great studio and it’s really professional.
303: Are there any collaborations with local artists on the album?
JN: Tyler Rima [Churchill] plays bass on some of the songs. For Dead letters, he played with me for the CD release of that show, so ever since then, he’s been kind of a fill in. He was going to play one or two songs here and there, and there was another guy who was going to play bass, but he flaked out at the last minute. I freaked out and I called Tyler and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I know that you’re only supposed to pay one song, but if there’s any chance you could learn these songs…’ Like a pro, he learned them all and played them all. He’s unassuming and up for playing and being a good guy,
303: What about the other instruments?
JN: I did the majority of the rest of the stuff. I played everything from drums to the piano to the guitars. Those guys were all in there and did those things, but I filled all the holes. I love paying with people and I love all that, but the traditional bass drum, guitar thing, I was worn out on. I was excited to explore what I could do on my own and with the elements. It was fresh, so it was kind of fun.
303: What does that crowd get out of one of your performances?
JN: I feel like it changes. It’s kind of funny… People say to me all the time, especially people that know me really well, that it’s very clear that the stage is where I’m most comfortable. I believe that when you go to see a show, it should be a performance, so I think performing for people is important to me, not just getting up there and playing a song. I know what I like to see when I go to a show, so when I see a show and have an experience, there’s a difference. But clearly that’s not always up to me. But I hope that people feel like they’ve had an experience or that they can come with their preconceived notions of what it is they think I do, and by the end of it they’re like, ‘I didn’t know that’s what it would be like,’ or ‘I didn’t know what to expect.’ So that is always fun too, to subvert people’s expectations.
Joshua Novak’s second full-length album, Ephemeron, is available online and will also be available this Thursday at The Walnut Room, when he performs with Elin Palmer and Starcar Sunday. Tickets can be purchased here.
Lindsay is 303 Magazine’s Lifestyle Editor. She’s a California native who loves leather bags, killer heels and a bright shade of long-lasting lipstick. She’s always on the lookout for a great guy in skinny jeans, but puts her independence and writing first, traveling to some of the best hotspots in Denver and all over the world looking for a good lede.
Know of a cool local band I should feature in Neighborhood Noise? Email me: [email protected]