Nicole Schneit discusses her new record as Air Waves, the origin of Warrior’s powerful album art, and today’s changing environment for queer musicians and artists.
The album cover image is a painting of a photo of your dad at the first Earth Day. What made this image connect with Warrior? Has your dad shared what it was like being at the celebration?
My dad’s photography has always focused on street parades and public protests where he tries to capture the candid and emotional moments of the participants. In some ways, he has said this makes him an outsider. Rather than engaging in the event, he is a voyeur, focused on getting the perfect shot, with just the right composition. He said what struck him most about the first Earth Day was how genuinely people seemed to care and how boldly and publicly they expressed their emotions.
I chose this particular image for the album because of the current political climate and the massive setbacks we have experienced under the Trump Administration. This person – this warrior – was protesting nearly half a century ago for environmental protections that should be fundamental by now. Instead, we are seeing an undoing of so much progress, and we still need warriors. The original image was black and white. I had an artist by the name of Em Rooney add color to it to create a sense of hopefulness in this contemporary warrior.
How has being a member of the LGBT community, and specifically an artist within the community, changed over the past 10 years? Do you find that your creativity and motivation is impacted by being subjected to the trials imposed by changes in societal norms, political ideologies, or available resources for LGBT people?
There are so many more young musicians who identify as queer now then there were when I first started performing. In my early twenties, I could count openly queer musicians – particularly women – on one hand. This morning, I listened to the pop song 1950, by King Princess. She is a young, queer musician and the song is about her girlfriend and hiding their love like it was 1950. It's amazing to me that a song like this is on the radio now.
Being queer is a part of who I am and that makes it an inextricable part of my music. As the political climates changes – sometimes for better and then back to worse – that impacts my experiences in the world and that’s what I write songs about: my experiences in the world. “Gay Bets” on the record is about my partner at the time. She was terrified when Trump won, and I was trying to console her. It's about gay love and not being afraid. I also did a music video with the actor Freckles for the song "Warrior." We played with gender roles. I wore a tux, and they wore a flow-y, floral dress, and we were surrounded by horses.
Have your writing styles or inspirations changed over the three-album career you've build as Air Waves?
The simplicity of my songs is still there. I utilize basic chord structures, and I want my songs to be catchy. My songs have always been subtly arranged, but with Warrior, I added horns and made the guitars less jangle-y and more dreamy. Lyrically, this album is more about love and survival, whereas previous albums were more about pain. Some songs are about lovers that help make your days feel worth living. Others are about my mom’s struggle with cancer and her strength and optimism. I like little things, like road trips and smiles from someone I’m crushing on, and that’s what some of these songs are about.
You've lived in NYC long enough to see the city change and develop and have probably been affected by those changes firsthand in some way. How have the places you used to live, work, and play changed in the city since the time of making your first Air Waves record? From an artists' perspective, have the changes been supportive or inhibiting for creativity?
I am not sure if it is NY that has changed or just the reality of getting older, but I have fewer musician friends and a smaller community than I did when I was younger. Of course NY has changed, but I think Patti Smith said that our ideas and creativity change as we get older. I remember listening to music for the first time when I was 14 or 15, and it would shake me to my core. Now, I'm like, "Oh this is cool." It's just different.
There still seems to be a thriving scene here though. I always hear about cool new bands. We have a ton of great venues, but I miss venues like Death by Audio and Glasslands. I felt a connection to the people that ran those places and to the venues themselves. Other than that, I still go to the same practice space and write songs after breakups!
For Warrior, did you put more resources (time or financial) into the recording and production than on previous records? What was the recording environment like for this one?
Financially, Warrior was a bit more than Parting Glances because we hired horn players, and Jarvis Taveniere spent more time on the mixing. I love working with Jarvis because he offers ideas without ever being pompous or condescending, and his ideas make sense for my songs. For the song "Home," he was like, “Nicole I think you may be saying the word ‘home’ too much.” And I was like, “Shit, you’re right!”
We recorded Warrior at Thump Studios which was a beautiful studio to work in. Plus, there was a cool dog there! I felt really comfortable and ready to work there. My band mates are super pro and did most of the songs in a couple of takes. For “Blue Fire” and “Gay Bets,” I asked Blake Luley to come up with the arrangement and then I came up with the words. He moved to Seattle while we were finishing up the record, but I wanted him to be a part of all the songs on the record. I recorded “Thanks” on my phone, with string arrangements and then went to my friend Pat Curry’s house to record it. That one is the rawest on there and turned out to be one of my favorites on the record.
Each record has featured collaborations with artists (Sharon Van Ettan, Jana Hunter, Kevin Morby, the list goes on). How do you pull these players into your projects? What ways did you "tap in" to different music circles in the beginning?
When I started out with Dungeon Dots in 2009/2010, I met Sharon Van Etten. We were both playing all over NY – her especially. I worked at Cake Shop, a NYC music venue at the time. I thought she had a special vibe, and I loved her songs. When I was recording, I asked her to sing on a couple songs. She came in and did it so fast! She's so kind and talented. Jana Hunter is another person whose work I have admired for a long time. We played together at Purchase College and became friendly. I love her records so much, especially her solo ones, and reached out for her to sing. She recorded her vocals from Baltimore and then Jarvis mixed them in. I have known Kevin Morby for a long time, and Jarvis suggested him for Warrior. His vocals are strong and warm and seemed perfect for that song. Jennifer Moore, who was in Yellow Fever, also sings on some songs, which was special because she is an ex-partner and close pal. She sings on “Blue Fire,” which is based off an Adrienne Rich poem. Katie Von Schleicher was another Jarvis recommendation. Coincidentally, we now share a practice space. I couldn't have asked for more talented and awesome people to sing, and feel so fortunate to have them on these songs.
Warrior is your strongest work to date and is built upon motivation watching loved ones persevere through sickness and a variety of obstacles that stand in the way that seem impossible to defeat. What gives you motivation and strength as a songwriter?
I get my motivation from love; from the people around me who I love and who love me. I am also motivated by my desire to be a better person and to try to hold less anger. Songwriting has been the best therapy in my life, and playing music is when I am happiest. My mom, who is battling cancer once again told all the nurses at the hospital a few weeks ago, that Warrior is about her. She was so proud – of herself and of me – and it made me so happy, and that’s the best review I could ask for.