Nicholas David embarked on his musical career over two decades ago, and in that time he’s been a singer, writer, pianist, band member and band leader. Whether on the St. Paul, Minnesota circuit, touring in Europe, or on national television in homes across America, he’s always adorned with his hallmarks: a full-bodied, lived-in voice, a joy for music, and some truly unique outfits. Blues Rock Review was able to catch up with him just before his upcoming tour, and the release of his newest album, Yesterday’s Gone.
As a young kid, how did you start in music? Was there a seminal moment, a strong memory, an artist, a band, or a person that made you realize that music was going to be a big part of your life?
It kind of coincided that it was both of my grandfathers, to be honest. On one side, my grandfather played the accordion and the piano. On the other side, my grandfather drew and painted, and so those are both pieces of my youth. And then I found out I could do both of those—kind of a wild moment. So, it was such a part of my life. Then when I was at a young age, my grandfather passed away. You know, my name is Nick, and he had told my grandmother, “Tell Nicky never to stop playing.” That was one of the last things he said on this earth. So, I feel that that was big. I remember being eight or nine. Having my grandma pull me aside and tell me that(…)when I have these wild moments, you know, because I’ve been playing music ever since, I have these moments where I kind of hear her words. She’s still with us too, but I’ll still hear the words of her saying, he said never to stop.
That’s pretty awesome.
Oh, yeah, it’s pretty powerful. So I definitely feel that is like the family thing. You know? Totally my grandfathers. It’s my earliest influence, musically—my grandfathers. Both of them.
What I know about you is that you seem to be mostly self taught, but it sounds like you have a little bit of music education. How do you feel about the balance of self-taught versus training? At one point, you were offered a scholarship to study jazz singing at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and you opted not to take that.
I feel like self taught versus teaching(…)I feel that I’m a mixture of both, like my grandfather. You know, he couldn’t really read music, but it was in him and he could hear it and play it. So it’s like on one hand, that’s amazing. Over then on the other hand, it’s like he didn’t apply himself to learn the tools that could have allowed him to maybe branch out, or learn more. That’s not to say that he was a bad player at all, because he was awesome.
But you know, as with anything in life, there’s a balance. Like there’s some people that, you know, can only read music. They could read (Sergei) Rachmaninoff to a tee. They’d be like, “well, I still want to play piano like Janis does,” because she feels it. Janis can take a lyric and music and feel it, but she’s like, “I want to play like Susan. Susan can read it.” So I think sometimes we want maybe what we can’t do. Though that drive creates the action forward. But I feel the answer to your question, I think it’s a balance of both.
About the Roosevelt (University) thing, that was kind of crazy because I remember doing that as a senior in high school and meeting these jazz players at the university, They’re like, “we’re going to accompany this today.” Upright bass and drums and the piano player(…)the guy says, “Okay, which music? I’m going to play on one song.” The guy is like, “I can take a break for a couple of songs.” I remember thinking, “Wow, look at these guys! They can just come and pick up a piece of music and play it and sound like a record!” I remember thinking, that shows me. I remember going outside and taking a minute and looking up at the streets, looking up at the buildings in Chicago and thinking, it’s not my time, for here, you know, it’s not(…)not the time. So I think, learning to listen to that inner voice is something too. Maybe a third part of that (self taught versus education), it’s like you can hear it. You can use it, but then you have to filter that, you know? That discernment, if you will.
That makes a lot of sense. I know you went from doing some opening work by yourself for the Devon Allman Project a couple years ago and then fast forward a year, you’re playing in the band as their keyboardist. You’ve spoken of the brotherhood and the camaraderie of being in a band, but that comes at the expense of someone’s autonomy. Do you have a preference between being solo or playing in a band and how do you feel about the core difference between the two?
That’s awesome. Solo versus playing with the band(…)There’s a freedom when you’re by yourself to go into uncharted territory and there’s very little risk because it’s just you, you know? If you’re in band and you start going off without communicating anything, trying to follow you will be colorful adventure, I think (laughs). So I think the freedom and solo, but I feel that when you play with a band you have this beauty where the many become one. They become almost a solo instrument. That is a really strong difference of solo versus band. We need to be able to communicate with other people, this one voice. I think that there’s a strength and a decipherability, I don’t even know if that’s a word, but it’s different from only one sound, one person.
I appreciate both. I really like when we would do the Devon Allman Project with Duane Betts. We were rolling with 12 guys on the bus, I don’t even know how many, I can’t remember how many on stage, nine or something just off the top of my head. You know, so many sounds, you’re assigned your part. Then every once in a while I’d have some solo gigs that I slide away to, so that was a really nice break—going from communicating with many different vibrations to one solo vibration, and you being that sole sound. I think they’re both cool. I learned to appreciate it all, man. I guess each one I’m hip to, and I think maybe that’s part of the thing that’s kind of fun is like, having the versatility to be able to do both. You know, feeling equally as confident out by yourself with you and an instrument, as opposed to with other people. There’s a strength in numbers I’d assume.
Cool. I learned that in 2012 you made a surprising choice to take part in The Voice and you did quite well! Why did you make that decision and how do you feel about it now, looking back?
It’s kind of connected to Chicago, which is pretty funny. So January 2012, I have two kids at the time, and I was booking myself. I had January through March booked. I had one weekend open, and had gotten a call from someone about some voiceover work. And she’s like, “you want to try out for The Voice?” and I was like, “absolutely not (laughs).” She said, “Well, I submitted your video. And out of out of 50 submissions. They wanted the bearded guy in the snow playing guitar.” That was me. I was like, oh my gosh. And so I said, “well, when is it?” She said, “the first weekend in March.” That was the one weekend that I had open that I tried to fill. I kept trying to fill it and for some reason couldn’t fill it. So when she says the first weekend in March, I thought that’s crazy. The one weekend that was open, it was almost like it wouldn’t fill because I was supposed to go there. Then I ask where it is. It’s in Chicago. It was almost like, here’s a chance to squash your regret. You know, college gives you the potential to elevate your life, gives you tools to do what you will with it, and potentially elevate your life. So I’m thinking this is crazy. The one weekend open, it’s in the land of regret.
I love Chicago, always pulled to Chicago, similar to New Orleans. So anyways, I go there and one thing led to another and before I knew it, I was on the TV show. Each week, I would continue to advance. In one week, you know, I meet Bill Withers and I’m thinking this is unbelievable. The next week we meet a horn player from Earth Wind and Fire. Romeo Johnson was a vocal coach who played sick bass with Jody Watley and sang with Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson! We became soul brothers from day one. All these things, like media training with Jim Henson’s best friend. Our building was home to those these grand staircases, Boris Karloff’s laboratory in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, even Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks, they used the same thing. It’s like, Jurassic Park, Back to The Future all this history that I grew up watching and dreaming about. Being inside of it was unbelievable. Then you get to meet Smokey Robinson, then all of a sudden, you got third place on the show. It was unreal. Because I wore a lot of my own clothes, they even gave me a pair of snakeskin boots!
Back into the snow of Minnesota(…)when I was on the show, we were renting in a duplex. And right in the middle of a show they’re like, “Nicholas David, what’s your address? Well, we heard that you have to move out of the duplex.” So in between the show, I go back home and move my family out, and then go play a gig in Lacrosse, come back with enough time to blah, blah, blah(…)and hop back on a plane out to California. I find out that we got a new house. Then we do the “home video” the first time I’m in my new house, on the TV show. Later I come home and I’m running into boxes because I’ve never even been in this place, you know? So 2012 is when the dreams started to mix with reality and I’ve been trying to strike the balance ever since.
That’s a wild story. When you write, do you sit down and do you push yourself a bit to compose or are you ok with some lengthy spaces between songs and creative bursts. Are you more of the kind to let it come to you, or do you sort of go search it out?
Every once in a while I feel like I kind of listened more for it and let it come to me. Like I’ve said before, to kind of listen for the notes that are already there, the rhythms that are already there, and almost just kind of tap into them. But then I feel sometimes I’ll try to be like, “Oh, well, I play music. I’m supposed to write music. You know?” I think people get together and do it in writing groups sort of like, “I should write sometimes.” This inner voice to push it. But then that same inner voice will ask, “why are you forcing this?” Because I’m used to it coming. Then sometimes when it’ll come to me, it’ll come in multiple melodies, multiple songs even. Sometimes the songs will come fully done, and then I’ll maybe add a little bit to it. But sometimes, yeah, they’ll come almost like, fully born, you know?
I’m almost 40 years old, I’m in the middle of my story, hopefully. You kind of learn a little bit about yourself and I feel like I, I try not to force it, you know, because it’s come to me all these years and that’s kind of my method. I feel like other people sometimes coax, like we should write or co-write, but it feels…I don’t know if contrived is a strong word. But yeah, that force. I almost kind of wait for it to come out, as it feels like that’s kind of the way that I vibrate. Does that make sense, or is it a little confusing?
No, no. I think that that makes a lot of sense and I think that what you said resonates in your sound. I think it’s organic, it’s natural, it’s occurring, you’re part of it, not forcing it. Or at least that’s what I gathered from your answer.
Yeah. I feel like life is honestly noisy enough. So it’s like, if I’m going to say something and try to fill the space with more sound, I want it to be real. I want it to say something that’s(…)I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but that has a depth, you know, a few layers to it as opposed to just surface stuff. There’s a depth available that I don’t know if we really tap into as much as we should or could.
Earlier this year you decided to head down to New Orleans to record Yesterday’s Gone. Samantha Fish is producing. What were some of the things that drew you to her to feel comfortable enough to want her to have a big influence on your album?
You know, I think when I initially started to play with Devon (Allman) and Duane (Betts). It was coming off of The Voice. It was interesting because, you are all of a sudden thrust from what was a smaller circle around the Midwest, that became national, even global, as to the knowledge of me and who I was. So it came with some bumps and bruises. Joining Devon, Duane and those guys brought the ability and opportunity to trust again, after things at times became interesting if you will.
So in the middle of all that, we met, I met Samantha Fish. We had to learn a few of her songs. There was a song that we had to learn that she wrote called, “Need You More.” When I heard it upon first listen, I found myself crying. It really shook my spirit, and spoke to my spirit in the language that it understood, and I understood. The next thing was Samantha asking, “Hey man, do you want to come down to New Orleans to record a record?” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, absolutely!” Her music spoke to my spirit. The city, like I said earlier, has been calling me my whole life. I guess it was like one and one, you know, equals two, and there we go. Again, just the opportunity…I released a bunch of records on my own, but then to do it with Sam and to trust again, to share the music, recover your soul, if you will. The songs that we write, and these stories we tell, these pictures we paint, and the creative process, to share that and to trust someone, to produce it and do what they will was…I looked at it like it was an opportunity to grow. I feel so blessed it happened. So cool, so fun.
Getting into the album, Yesterday’s Gone. There’s a song on it called “Times Turning.” It has a lot of reflection. There’s a lot of feeling. There’s a line in there, “You remind me of the good times. Sometimes it feels just like I’m waking up.” Is that directed at a specific person?
I think, yeah. I think it’s directed honestly, to life. I think there’s many people. You know, I feel it’s like when you meet somebody for the first time and it’s familiar. Sure, I feel like maybe the reason that it’s familiar is because we’re one and the same and we just keep meeting each other over and over again. And if that’s what it is, the word they call God or Goddess, or science or spirit or universe, or whatever word, or whatever thing you put on it, if what it is, is here and we’re in it, and we’re made of that, and it’s in each of us, then we’re in a constant dialogue with it. Sometimes I feel just like I’m waking up, and sometimes I’m scared. It’s not black and white, it’s all of it. I feel like the song is like, coming close, and love me with your heart, almost even to yourself, to love yourself, so that you can give love, to forgive yourself, so you can be forgiving. If you’re not whole, how can you give? I feel like that’s kind of the trip on that song. It’s like it’s unanimous. It’s all of us, even ourselves, you know?
Yeah, that’s an awesome answer. Yesterday’s Gone is the title of the album. There’s no song on the album called “Yesterday’s Gone.” What was your reason for choosing and settling on that name for the work?
I feel the reason for titling it Yesterday’s Gone was that it captured the overall message of the record if there is one, because there’s a bunch of different flavors. Like you said, in that “gumbo,” if you will. So it’s a similar thread and that is the message. Trying to maybe let go of the past so you can be present in the now, so you can move forward. I like the album title not having to be a song. I feel part of it is that I’m also like a librarian, man. I got tapes and records and CDs, in their genre, alphabetized. One of the things I love is when a record’s name is nowhere in any of the song titles. It kind of separates that a little bit. Not to say one’s better than the other, it’s just a personal preference.
If we lived in an alternate universe, and a listener could only listen to one song off Yesterday’s Gone. Which one would you have them listen to and why? I know it’s it’s an unfair question, but I’m throwing it out there.
If I had to have somebody listen to one song of the record, which one would it be? I think maybe if I’m feeling a little spicy and a little sassy I would say, “I’m Interested.” I’d say if I’m feeling a little more, you know, more optimistic, or looking into the future, I’d say maybe “Hole In The Bottom” or “Times Turning,” or perhaps “Stars.” I think “Stars” is kinda like a movie. I think if you’re in the mood for a movie, I’d rock and roll with “Stars.” I think if you want to get a little sassy maybe “I’m Interested,” or “With or Without.” I think that’s like driving through California in the ‘70s. I wasn’t even born yet (laughs).
I will get you out with this one last question. What is next for Nicholas David? Obviously, you’ve got the tour starting soon in support of the album, but looking a little further down the road, is it more solo work, maybe back in a band setting, or none of the above?
Man, I continue to watch my children grow and be with my wife, and I can’t wait to continue to make records. I’m a huge fan of Disney. I love all the Disney movies and all the soundtracks and all the theme park music. I collect all that stuff too, but if I could be in a Disney movie someday, or make some music that would be in a Disney movie someday, that would be the top, the top of the top. You know, as Zig Ziglar would say, “I’ll see you at the top.” That would be my top. The cherry on top. But, I’ll keep making music, man. I’ll keep being with my family and sharing the gifts that we’ve been given. I’m going to make music regardless, you know what I mean? If we keep taking it to the streets, or if we pull it back and make it more local, my plan is to keep sharing the music with the world. We were in Europe for 31 days last summer and that was a crazy, awesome energy. So cool to be over there. I’d love to get back over there. You know, I love to just keep bringing it to the people. Bringing music from the heart for the heart.
Interview by Willie Witten