If there’s one thing I know about Ohioans, it’s that they’re honest.
So when the Columbus Dispatch says, “A smoky voice guides a gorgeous album of low-key- but definitely not low-wattage- jazz, blues and pop,” you know they’re leading you on the right path.
Asian-American songstress Elisa Nicolas blends the vocal and sonic likes of Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple on Year of the Locust, her first solo release after a 12-year hiatus. Each lush and masterfully produced track puts Nicolas’s brilliant lyricism and storytelling on display.
Teaming up with Columbus producer Jeff Ciampa and Nashville guitarist Thomas Bryan Eaton, Nicolas took a multidisciplinary approach to this record, being a producer, instrumentalist, and engineer herself. She carefully crafted this record over several years, etching different lyrical and musical ideas until she found the ones worth pursuing. Although the pandemic put a bit of a damper on Year of the Locust’s creation, the record still managed to come together the way that Nicolas intended: a meditation on the challenges of love.
From “Cardinal Line” and its story of a failed relationship, to the breezy, key-laden “Go On”, to the longing of reciprocities mentioned in “No Answers,” there is something on this record for everyone to enjoy. After all, Nicolas most values intention and honesty when it comes to her music.
We had the lovely opportunity to chat with Nicolas about the record’s creation and inspirations, along with her upcoming plans for 2022.
Surprisingly, 2021 is almost in the books. How would you sum up your 2021 in one word?
Pluck. Webster’s definition of the word pluck is “spirited and determined courage.” This year tested me in ways I haven’t been tested. My father got sick early in the year, and I was working on getting my record out at the same time. That was really tough, because all I really cared about at the time was getting my father well. Of course, there was also the pandemic to deal with. I think in early 2021, I just had to have faith that putting out the record was going to be the right decision.
Where do you typically get inspiration for your songs, and do you prefer writing solo or with a partner?
I get song ideas from everywhere. Personal experience, the news, popular culture, reading. For me, it’s important to keep my eyes and my ears open because ideas for songs are everywhere all the time. I mostly write on my own, although for the first time ever, I co-wrote songs with Andrew David Sotomayor for Bravehearts For Broadway during the pandemic. I plan on doing that more because that was crazy fun.
So I was hoping you could talk about your album, Year of the Locust. What’s the inspiration and influence behind it? Any common themes or motifs?
I’ve written a lot of music since my last record, and I’ve had a lot of different experiences that ended up influencing the songs on this record. Some good. Some, not so good. And honestly, I tend to find writing about the not so good far more interesting. I did most of the recording in my own studio. I took most of the songs out with a band and stress-tested them. The title of the album is from the song “Cardinal Line”. There’s a line, “find the year the locust comes back.” The album is really a meditation on love, especially for the misfits and sinners that you would in a lot of cases find hard to love.
What was the hardest song on the album to write whether it be emotionally or otherwise?
The hardest song to write was definitely the single, “No Answers.” The subject matter was of course hard to write about, but musically it was incredibly challenging to write. I had been playing the chord changes to the song for several weeks before I decided to just go ahead and record what I had. Once I had the lyrics written, I just started adding color. Guitar here, keys there and finally orchestral strings and woodwinds. I struggled for a little bit with the bridge. I wanted the song to have a great bridge. I love the bridge on Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” The bridge in “No Answers” is definitely influenced by that song.
Other than obvious pandemic reasons, what challenges did you face in writing/recording this album, and how did you overcome them?
I’m really fortunate that I know a lot of great musicians that have great recording gear. With all the technology at our disposal, we were able to hand off files whenever we wanted. I’m so thankful that we live in a time where all of this is possible. There was only one time where I couldn’t be in the studio when we were cutting basic tracks. I called the studio and told them to just go ahead and record. They came up with something so beautiful and different. Honestly, I would’ve fucked it up if I’d been there.
Where was it recorded and who helped produce it?
It was mostly recorded in my home studio, producer Jeff Ciampa’s studio in Columbus, and guitarist Thomas Bryan Eaton’s studio in Nashville.
How do you know when a song is finished? Do you find yourself wanting to keep tinkering and re-recording tracks etc.?
That is easily one of the dangers of having a studio in your house. I’m definitely a tinkerer. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at not being so critical of myself while I’m creating. I think I’ve gotten better at doing less when I’m recording. That helps me not tinker so much.
Do you find determining the order of songs on the album to be a challenge, and how important is that to you?
I remember getting into an argument with the mastering engineer on my last record about the order of the songs. I remember thinking it was a big deal then. This time, I sent a note to Jeff and basically said “I honestly don’t care about the order.” Jeff fortunately had the wisdom to tell me to do a first pass and then helped me get the final order.
What does success as a musician and songwriter mean to you?
Success mostly means being intentional and true to myself when I’m creating music. Of course, I love that the album is getting a lot of attention. That is a very welcome bonus.
What might fans expect from Elisa Nicolas moving forward?
The plan is to continue to support the new record, Year of the Locust. I’m working on touring for 2022. I’m also hoping to dedicate more time to writing for Brave Hearts. I just finished mixing a record for a very talented Toledo artist, Luddite. Their record should be coming in 2022. And I’m starting working on new music. Hopefully, I’ll get it done faster than I did this last one.