Bluesman Buffalo Nichols has some regrets about his debut album.
And as we're talking, it hasn't even been released yet.
"To me, ["Back on Top" is] an example of cliché at its worst," he laughs. "I mean, others might disagree. I haven't really asked anybody else what they thought about the song, but to me that song, it reeks of cliché, and it's been done before."
Regret might even be too weak a word to describe Nichols' feelings about the track. "Yes, full disclosure, I don't like that song," he says. "I don't play it anymore. It was something that I tried out. It was like trying on a jacket and I took a picture of myself in the jacket, I realized it didn't fit, so I put it back in the closet. But now everybody has that picture of me with a too-small coat on [laughs]."
Nichols says the song wound up on his self-titled debut because he needed material for the album and the track addressed blues record expectations. "Yeah, and I kind of am reluctant to say that, because it makes me sound like I don't care about any of this stuff," he says. "But yeah, ultimately, I had a lot of songs and I suppose I felt a certain pressure to fit within a parameter."
Of course, the interesting part of his statement is that it's a good song, featuring a solid groove and an intriguing slide guitar line. The song stands out because it's one of the mellow album's peppier moments, but it doesn't feel like an aberration so much as a brief mood shift. However, as Nichols points out, songwriters are always growing and evolving, where the songs themselves remain stuck in specific moments.
Nichols was born in Houston but grew up in Milwaukee. He haunted record stores precociously from age six, using new-found reading skills to learn the musical genres. At around 11 years old, someone gave him the box set from Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues and he spent the next year digging into the artists he loved, with an emphasis on the ones who delved into darker themes and sounds.
That includes Skip James, whom Nichols acknowledges with his cover of James' "Sick Bed Blues." "I just remember the first time I heard that song, it just felt different," Nichols says. "Different from any old blues song that I'd heard, or new blues song, and it just felt darker and really heavy, so I wanted to bring that element out of it, with my version of it. That's one of the reasons I really connected with Skip James is that he's just...haunting is the word that people would use, but he has this real heaviness and this depth to everything he does. Everything he does feels very serious, and that's something that I aspire to. "
Which brings us back to Buffalo Nichols' "Back On Top," a quality blues song, but not a Nichols' blues song. "I've dabbled in and listened to just about any kind of blues that I've come across, but the stuff that I really connect with is the heavier stuff, because the whole juke joint/party/dance blues, is all good and fine, but it's just not what I love about the blues, so when I hear certain songs by Skip James, and Son House, and Charlie Patton, I just feel this, to me, what is the essence of the blues, its origins, which is a lot of grief and frustration," he says. "And it's not all about that, but to me that's where it begins."
In this interview, Nichols discusses his songwriting process, and his reaction to his own songs. Where the archetype of a blues artist might be someone cold and immune to the whims of others, Nichols is thoughtful, wanting his listeners to receive his songs a certain way, not out of a desire for control, but seemingly because his intention is to communicate clearly and effectively to his audience. It's an ambitious, some might say impossible goal. But one worth pursuing.
Working Mojo: How did you write the songs for your debut?
Buffalo Nichols: Some of them I sat down and just said, 'I'm gonna write a song,' [and] played some guitar until some words fell out. Others I wrote the words first. It just depends on the song and [it] seems like every one comes about in a different way.
WM: Do you sometimes sit down and just want to write a song?
Nichols: Yeah, that's what I did for some songs, like "Lost and Lonesome," when I was just starting to get more comfortable with the open tunings, like the open D-type tunings. And I sat down with the intention of writing a song and kind of forced it out. And that's one that was like that. And the other song, "Another Man," is one that I was thinking the words while I was walking, and then came home and put the music to it, for example
WM: How much do the open open tunings dictate what the song sounds like?
Nichols: It's a pretty strong driver of the direction of the song. Because I play in open D, open D minor, and open G. And I've tried some others as well. The way that I look at the guitar is not really based on theory. So, I'm obviously more comfortable in standard tuning, because that's how I learned, but when I'm in open tunings, I have to just follow my ear a lot more because I can't rely on the same shapes and patterns I'm used to.
And I don't know what key I'm playing in half the time, or what chords I'm playing, I just kind of follow the music. So that's how a lot of this album came about, was letting the guitar speak for itself.
WM: So if you're less comfortable in open tunings and more comfortable in standard, why do you play in the open tunings?
Nichols: I'm relatively comfortable in open tunings. The standard tuning's a lot easier; it's like second nature. So it's not like I have any great difficulty. It just takes a little more thinking.
First I was trying it out, to see how it felt, but it started to feel more supportive, in the kind of solo, singer-with-a-guitar kind of environment. The open tunings felt like they made a better soundtrack, a better backing band.
WM: The album is demos and sessions. You didn't go into the studio to record it?
Nichols: Yeah, for the most part. Demos and then to round it out, I went in and did a couple more songs in-studio. My intentions didn't start out to make that the album. It came out that way after the fact.
WM: Was there a reason you didn't go into the studio and re-record everything?
Nichols: I'm not sure. I think there was a lot of stuff going on. I had a lot of songs, a lot of ideas for the album and between everybody involved, the label and management and all that, it was just decided that the the demos [were] going to be the route that makes sense.
WM: All things being equal, would you want another crack at recording them?
Nichols: Yeah, definitely. I don't have a problem putting out unrefined sort of things and having things be more based on the concept or the idea or anything, but I think in the future you'll see a lot more intentional studio work from me. I don't think I'll do this again [laughs].
WM: When you say intentional, do you mean more produced?
Nichols: No, I just think if you were to ask me, I would say this album is just a bunch of songs put together. For me, I didn't intend for all these songs to be placed together and listened to one after the other. It's just eight songs. In retrospect, it kind of fits, it's cohesive in its own way, but I think, for me, when I sit down to make an album, I try to make the whole thing have more of a through line.
WM: You've said that you wanted black people to hear more of themselves in this music. How do you do that lyrically?
Nichols: I don't really have to do anything. I think if it's a black person singing it, then that's the reflection and that's the representation.
WM: So do you think it doesn't happen because of an under-representation of musicians of color?
Nichols: Yeah. The under-representation issue is certainly with artists, but I think the industry as a whole is lacking diversity. There's not a whole lot of opportunity for diversity because the industry itself has gotten more and more homogenous over the last 60 years, at this point.
WM: Was "Another Man" an example of getting out an under-represented perspective?
Nichols: In a way it was. That song has gone in out of my set a lot over the last few years. And yeah, I think part of it—the reason why I continued to play it—is because it's a story and a perspective that you won't hear from 95% of contemporary blues artists.
WM: Do you remember how the song came about?
Nichols: Yeah, I was taking a walk in my neighborhood, and I was listening to an Odetta album. And she did her version of the song that that song is based on, which is the Vera Hall song or rendition of the song, "Another Man Done Gone." And as I was hearing that song, I immediately started thinking about the parallels. And [it] became obvious to me that I wanted to write a sort of 21st century version of that song.
WM: You said "Another Man" comes in and out of your set. How come?
Nichols: I've just been sort of unsatisfied, displeased with the reaction, you know? Because the song for me is an expression of anger and disappointment. And when people come up to me and tell me how powerful that song is, or how it makes them feel this or that, it's certainly appreciated that people take it in, but I don't want any pats on the back. Especially the type of environments I've been playing in.
The song is not really like a rallying cry; it's a finger pointing. That's how it's felt. The song feels too raw and too personal for me to to share it with people sometimes. But then I kind of remove myself from it, and just let the song exist on its own, and then it comes back.
WM: Did you have any qualms about including it on the album because it's so personal?
Nichols: Yes, absolutely. I didn't want it to be on the album for a long time. And then basically it became a matter of time and time was running out, and I had to get the album together. And I just figured I would do it, one to get the album done and two, as much as my perspective on the song has changed, I feel it's more likely that I would regret not putting it on then I would regret putting it on, so there it is.
WM: I know it's early, but are you glad that it's on the album?
Nichols: Yeah, I am. Because I think it's an important piece for the full story of Buffalo Nichols, moving forward. In retrospect it will make more sense, I suppose.
WM: I was going to say, you don't sound sure.
Nichols: Yeah, I'm still thinking about that one [laughs]. That's my guess.
WM: And because the blues has such strong structures, how do you find something new to say within them?
Nichols: Well at least for me, it's a matter of trial and error. Because as an artist and as a person, I have a natural aversion to clichés. Not that I am able to completely avoid them, but they just make me uncomfortable. When you write a song, and you feel it, you can tell, whether or not you want to accept it, [you] know, right away, if it's an old thing that's been done a hundred times, and better than you can do it. But I think the more you do it, the more of yourself kind of seeps into it.
You don't really have to try. I mean, I tried really hard, I've made a lot of effort to to be different, I guess. Again, I'm not saying I've succeeded, but I've put a lot of thought into it. But most of the things about myself that I've found to be unique, they weren't really forced. It just kind of came about after a lot of...I guess you could call it study, but just a lot of creating within those sort of defined boundaries of what the blues is, or [is] supposed to be.
WM: And what would you say is unique about your blues sound?
Nichols: There's a few things that I'm discovering more recently, but I think maybe it's not as apparent on the album. But I've tried to make a more creative use of sonics and different sonic palettes. And I think one thing that maybe doesn't make me completely unique but is a sort of dividing line is my disregard for the sort of rules of this genre.
And again, this album is a lot of me intentionally trying to stick to those rules, but I think there's a little bit of me going outside of that and just [using] a more contemporary type of songwriting as the starting point, and then letting the blues as a genre have a supporting role in it.
WM: Has anything changed for you since you put together the album? Because it sounds like you're in a different headspace now versus when it was being assembled.
Nichols: A lot has changed since I wrote the songs because most of the songs that are on the album are two and three years old now. And the pandemic has made it a little bit difficult, because I spent most of that time not performing.
But yeah, a lot of the songs were not just demos, [in] the fact that they were recorded at home. They were demos in the fact that it was just me trying out different ideas. And I feel like some of those ideas have matured a lot since those songs were recorded.
So I think I was like, 27, 28, when those songs are being written, and now I'm 30, so three years is a long time, but I feel like those three years in particular, I grew and learned a lot as a person. So it's a little bit painful for me to go back to those days, but on the bright side, I feel like I've matured a lot since I wrote those songs.
WM: Is that something that you're thinking about, that you've chosen this career path where so much of your creative work becomes locked in amber, like the jacket photo simile you were talking about before? Does that make this a challenging career for you?
Nichols: Yeah. That's something that I've gotten a little bit more comfortable with. Because this is my first real solo album, but I've been recording music with different bands, or just at home, for 15, 16 years now. And there's always this pattern where in the moment it feels right, and maybe a year or two after you kind of are embarrassed by it.
But then as time goes on, you look at it, five, six years on, you kind of appreciate it for what it was, which was you doing your best at that time. So that's kind of how it is. Part of the process is being uncomfortable with it. I think it's just a sign of growth. If you feel like you're making the same work that you did 10 years ago, then that's probably not a good thing either.
WM: And you brought up the pandemic before, and I wanted to ask you what it's like releasing a debut album during one, whatever part of the pandemic we're in.
Nichols: I think now, the biggest thing I've realized is the importance of audiences, because you know if a song works or not, based off of live performance, generally, or at least people like me.
So not being able to get an audience reaction during the whole time I was working on these songs was really difficult. I think that's part of the reason why I'm struggling with this so much now, is that it's the least feedback I've ever been able to get before a project is released.
But at the same time, it's really exciting, because to be putting out a debut album in a pandemic means you're going to spend the next two or three years playing to people who have never seen you before. So there's a lot of takeaways from it.
WM: Is there anything easier about doing it without an audience because you don't have their reaction in your head, like you were talking about with "Another Man" and how the audience reaction sometimes frustrates you.
Nichols: I think the creation is a lot easier when you're not worried about what other people are thinking or how other people are going to receive it. I think it allows you to be free, but that freedom doesn't necessarily result in good songs [laughs]. But it opens you up to try different things, and I think that's what a lot of this album is, just me trying things, and I'm happy that I was able to do that. And people get to see me in that phase.
WM: Do you you think you'll play "Back On Top" live, or is that permanently retired?
Nichols: Yeah, that one is done. That's the way I feel today. Like I say, I always change my mind on these things, but I was on a tour just before the pandemic, and I played that song most nights, and as soon as I finished that tour, and I was able to write more, I just feel like I went to a totally different place in terms of songwriting, and I was like, 'Wow, that was a good placeholder.'
But I learned that I have so much more to say as a songwriter, that's kind of just a waste of my time to be singing these tired old blues tropes.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.