We spoke with Michael Nau about his latest solo record, Mowing, and about creating music as Cotton Jones.
For the folks that don't know, you're the main guy behind the excellent group Cotton Jones. Is Cotton Jones a project with an expired completion date? Do you think what inspired and created the albums with Cotton Jones is different than what you've been creating under your own name and on Mowing?
CJ started as a recording project then turned into more of a live thing over time. The new stuff is more of a mix, I think. Touring was always the most collaborative part of playing music for me - recording wasn’t. That's something that has started to change, or I’ve grown more open to it. On a lot of these songs I just play guitar and sing. Cotton Jones songs need Whitney’s voice - a lot of those songs are duets. The few times we tried shows without Whit, it felt silly - me singing her verse, etc. It loses big spirit. So I wanted to find a way that I could continue to do this, and allow it to happen in various forms. Cotton Jones is it’s own thing, and something that only works when we’re all there doing it.
What type of stuff inspired the songs on Mowing?
Those songs really happened over a long span. I’d recorded a lot of music for what was gonna be the next Cotton Jones record. It didn’t ever get pulled together as a whole. A lot of those recordings just became these things on a hard drive. I was living in Nashville for a little while. During that time, I met Benny Yurco through a mutual friend. We got together for a night and recorded a song or two. That led into a few different sessions over the next 2 years. I learned from those trips - mostly how to stay out of the way a bit, and just enjoy what was going on. Just feeling good about the process itself allowed me to go back to some of those older recordings, and hear them a different way.
What was the recording process for Mowing? Are you a big studio guy or is there a do-it-yourself mentality?
It was a bunch of stuff recorded at different times - with different people - different gear. A little over half of it was done in my home studio, a few songs were done at Sound Loom in Burlington, VT, and the last track, "In There," was recorded at Scott McMicken’s place in Connecticut. The stuff from Vermont was recorded live with 6 people in a room. We ripped through 8 or 9 songs in 2 days. I don’t remember stopping to listen back to things. It was just playing songs, then moving on to what was next. I like the idea of it happening in all these different ways. It just took too long to get there. My buddies, Josh and Kenny, listened through a lot of songs for me and really pulled the whole thing together - selection, sequencing, etc. It could have turned out a hundred different ways, really.
You create music with your wife. How is a family band different than a typical band?
It’s always felt the same to me. I mean, there were a few tours, after we had our son, where things got a bit tricky on a logistical level, and we had to tweak some stuff. It’s been a blast, and I’m glad we’ve had the chance. I guess it’s what I’m used to. But, playing music has always been at the root of it, so I’d say it’s all the same.
What inspires your cool, laid back music? Is it a reflection of your own mood?
Ha, I don’t think so. I just prefer to work in slow tempo.
You seem to be well connected with some contemporary songwriters and musicians. How do your musician friends push you and challenge you creatively?
I've learned to trust the input. I've been super lucky to have some really incredible people help me with the evolution of this thing. I spent a while behind the wheel - kept ending up at the same place, with the same old questions every time. The people in the live band, and the people who play on the recordings, and the people who record the recordings can take it to places that I can't. Once you get that, it ain't hard to get over yourself. I've found my lane because of those people. A lot of these realizations came later than I'd prefer, but it's ok - feels like a fine place to start. I try to watch and listen as things get passed back and forth. Everyone has something to share. You won’t run out of tricks if your eyes are wide, and I’ve been pretty lucky to be schooled by good company.
Do you think in terms of creating albums or songs individually? How do you pull together your albums?
It’s been different each time and it depends if there’s deadline. Sometimes it comes together quick, a part of one flow. Sometimes it’s a couple songs picked from a bigger group to make an album. I've been playing catch-up with a lot of recordings. I’m anxious to move on from them, and into new stuff. Going back to old songs is something I hadn’t done until recently and I don’t really want to do that anymore.
We first discovered you through Page France. Looking back on the songs you wrote for that group, how has your process for writing and recording changed? What things still remain constant from the first song you wrote to the last one you've written?
It's hard to say. It’s still a fun ride getting a song from point A to B. Maybe I've learned new ways to get from A to B, but maybe I'm just getting more comfortable riding all the accidents, and questioning it less. Seems to make it easier to get stuff done. In that way, it feels similar to early on.
What things provide the most motivation for you to create and write tunes? What type of things have the opposite effect?
The motivation part is pretty easy, because I enjoy it. The process gets tweaked over and over, but there’s something wild about being in a room with a group of people, making sound - new every time. I feel like a kid. Those moments feel real good. I guess I just wanna keep chasing that.