Kyle Nicolai had achieved a modicum of critical and commercial success with his swaggy garage rock band Beware of Darkness — touring with the Smashing Pumpkins, late-night TV show performances, and a hit radio song (“Howl”). But when the hoopla of all that died down, he found himself back in his hometown of Santa Barbara, investing most of the money he’d earned into professional recording gear, and, by choice, starting again.
“Somewhere along the end of the last touring cycle, I realized I stopped knowing how to tell the Beware of Darkness story, so I saw it as an wonderful opportunity to let go and musically explore something new, without limits or boundaries. I decided to move where I’d have a space I’d be able to write and record 24/7, not partake in real life for a minute, and finally have the freedom to experiment.”
For Nicolai, being back in Santa Barbara was a rather wild juxtaposition — on the one hand, “it felt like my life had become very small,” he says. “Yet, on the other hand, it’s been the most vital time in my life, because I can focus on myself and grow.”
The move certainly reshaped his music. The recording influences Nicolai has embraced since returning home are both classic and decidedly do-it-yourself — think Prince, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, great musicians who could write, record, produce and perform albums entirely on their own. (Notes the singer: “I have the same type of tape machine that McCartney cut his first record on.”)
“It’s the first time I’ve fully taken production and performance into my hands, deciding to do everything myself. And the learning curve was rough,” he admits. “But the growth and small day-to-day victories have become the most meaningful and proud moments I’ve ever had. In one day, I’ll have a breakthrough, like I’ll finally figure out how to make programmed drums sound and feel great, or I just got the best vocal take of my life. Then a few minutes later my mom comes in asking if I’m cold and want the heater on.”
He add, wryly, “I’m either a failed millennial musician living at my parents house, or a completely devoted artist who is sacrificing everything for art. I know which one I chose.”
Nicolai’s hometown also serves as an inspiration behind Nicolai’s moody yet anthemic new song “American Hymns.” Says the singer: “I wanted to find a sincere way to write about this place. When I was young I left because I couldn’t find fulfillment here. That’s the line ‘Hungover and dreamy eyed, we stare into the ocean, supposed to be the best time of our lives, but we’re broken, where boredom is the passion of our lives.’”
He adds: “But after traveling the world, this is the first time I’ve appreciated where I’m from, I learned the hard way: Wherever you go, there you are. I’ve found community here.”
Just don’t expect to hear these new, honest sounds on any set schedule. Nicolai plans to release songs as they’re ready, while learning and embracing the DIY recording process. Along the way, he’ll also be practicing some yoga (he’s now a certified yoga teacher). “I think my biggest strength is learning how to adapt, change and improve. I’m a strong advocate of being willing to suck at something, show up every day, give it my best and slowly get better. That’s yoga. And writing songs and producing music is the same thing,” he says.
“I’m not on a level of creating a gorgeous Radiohead record yet, but if I can run circles around where I am now in three months, that’ll be success to me. It’s building confidence in a way no one can take from me, and it took me returning to my hometown, writing, recording, and producing music to realize that growth, and real success is in the process, not the outcome.”
A good omen for the singer? An engineer he’s worked with for over eight years recently told Nicolai, “I’ve never heard you listen to your own music as much.” Says the singer: “I think that was the most telling sign that I’m on the right path.”
He adds: “I know this sounds wildly cliché, but I just wanted to write music from a pure place and let my inner voice speak. Before, I used relationships, clothes, bands, band members, producers, or whatever as an excuse not to reveal my true self. I was too afraid of being seen, or fearful of what others would think if they actually saw me. Now, my goal is to just be authentically me as much as I possibly can.”