From creating music, to producing documentaries, and being a successful businessman to boot, Nick Binkley isn’t shy of pursuing interdisciplinary interests.
Debuting his album from his San Diego-based label in 1995, Pin Stripe Brain is the start of him finding his sound within Americana, folk, and soft rock. Using his soft Americana sound and resonating lyricism, he strives to use his music as a vehicle for change. He has worked with Russian rock artists like Valery Saifudinov to illuminate the extraordinary story of how rock and roll contributed to the end of the Cold War as well as the collapse of Soviet Communism itself.
While he contributed much to matters overseas, he also immersed himself in the issues of his home country. Binkley has shown no fear of pursuing charitable work combined with songwriting in support of causes and movements that matter the most to him. In his album 100 Parts of Heart, it features songs he crafted during the aftermath of 9/11, all while founding and heading the Diana Padelford Binkley Foundation (“The Diana Foundation”); a charitable institution focusing on women’s health issues named after his late wife.
Binkley’s newest album, Stardust Angels Ghost, officially dropped May 19th, and his first since 2014. The singer-songwriter brings about the vision of the world he hopes to see. His earnest voice paired with the slow melody of his guitar is only a glimpse of his sincerity and power as an artist.
We got the chance to chat with him in-depth to learn more about the album, his past endeavors, and much more.
You’ve been in the industry and making music for a number of years. What’s your biggest motivator for creating music today?
Most meaningful to me are my socio-political songs like “Novi Mir” which I co-wrote with Ukrainian-Russian pop star, Vyacheslav Malezhik. “We Are Stardust,” “Far from Home,” and “Freedom Bells” on the new “Stardust Angels Ghosts” album are examples. Love songs, like “Cherry” on the new album and “Brown Eyed Angel” (inspired by my wife) and country tune, “Out of My Mind” (from a dream about my late, deceased wife) seem to hatch full blown and guitar ready.
How do you feel about the present state of music regarding how it’s made, distributed, and heard compared to save even twenty years ago?
Music production and distribution today couldn’t be more different than 20 years ago. I remember doing an in-store concert at Tower Records in San Diego in 1999, and then witnessing the rise and fall of Napster. Music is also made differently – beats’ houses, lyricists, music composers all collaborating with a producer and artist. Still, I write and produce every song myself – drawing on the talents of my long-time musician collaborators Mark Hart (Crowded House and Supertramp) and Steve Dudas (Ringo Starr and Ozzy) whom I have worked with since the early 1980s. Social media – Instagram, YouTube, reels and Tik-Tok – all 21st century.
I see where you held or hold prestigious positions within Bank of America and are involved in a venture capital firm. How does this tie in and perhaps influence your artistry?
I left BofA 30 years ago. My venture capital activities ended 20 years ago when my late wife died. Before Bank America it was Security Pacific and before Security Pacific it was Chase Bank in New York, London and Beirut Lebanon. My debut album, Pin Stripe Brain, in 1995, featured songs written from my experiences and perspective in the corporate suites “high above the streets.” Jeff and Jer, radio jocks in San Diego in on air interview at the time, referred to me as the “Man with pea-sized brain” for leaving a well-paid banking job for singer-songswriter.
Songwriting and venture investing both are creative endeavors. Banking not so much. When Bank of America offered me a senior banking position after I had been out of banking for 10 years, I chose songwriting instead. Barry Kornfeld produced my first demos in mid-70s. He played guitar with Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” and first referred to me as “singing banker.”
So you’ve got your new record, Stardust Angels Ghosts, that dropped May 19th. What inspired the concept and the flow of the album?
Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself,” written in 1855 inspired the title track, “We Are Stardust.” A line in the poem,“…from every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you…” reminds us that no matter all the challenges in the world today – climate change, Black Lives Matter, Israeli-Palestine strife, water, and GMOs, Russian (Iranian, North Korean)-American relations – “We’re all in this together.”
“Far From Home” – the first line of the song is: “We Got trumped…” is a kind of tongue in cheek lament and was written during the Trump years and the impeachment. Given the polarization today, we are all “far from home.” Seems like a skipping stone, “things just keep slipping out of sight” like Al Gore and Hillary Clinton losing to Bush and Trump. And all we want is “to get back home.”
“Freedom Bells” was written following the election of Obama and a feeling of euphoria that just maybe, things were going to be alright. Not to be, but for a moment there was hope. My Jamaican wife of 12 years inspired the love songs “Brown Eyed Angel” and “J’cain Girl” and “Black On White,” the latter two reggae tunes were arranged and produced by Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals.
Toots was a good friend of my wife’s and of mine. The songs were recorded in his Reggae Center studio in Kingston. The classic country tune, “Out of My Mind,” was inspired by a dream of my late wife who died in 2003. The “ghosts” in the tile of the album, derive from walking among memories on my property on Orcas Island, WA. My late wife’s ashes were distributed there and so much of my life is connected to that island and the people that have “come and gone.”
When I walk among the pines by the pond I am like “a ghost in my own lost and found.” The flow of the album goes from socio-political to love songs and finishes with the upbeat “Broad Day Night,” a tune that reflects and symbolizes the artwork of the album – a troubadour walking out of a desolated, desert landscape into the glaring lights of midtown Manhattan, Times Square and Broadway at midnight.
How did this record come to fruition? What was your plan and who helped you develop your vision?
I wrote the songs mostly during the Trump years and recorded the album during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. The title expresses my vision of where we are as a society and civilization, but also where I am personally in this moment of time. We are surrounded by angels and ghosts, and in the end, we are stardust, all in this together.
It seems we have gone full circle from the early 70s to the early 2020s. Russian American relations – back to the future. World stumbling from one crisis to another – back to the future. Trump v Nixon and Watergate and impeachments – back to the future. Sounds of the 70s and 80s – Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Peter Gabriel inspired the droning soundscape of “We Are Stardust.” My two longtime musical collaborators, Mark Hart and Steve Dudas, worked with me on the arrangements of the tunes and Valery Saifudinov, my longtime Russian musician friend engineered the sessions.
Having Toots Hibbert’s collaboration to break up the flow of the album – reggae in the middle of folk-rock record is not common. Nor is it common to have two songs with same lyrics but completely different musical compositions – like “Brown Eyed Angels” tracks 5 and 12 (bonus). Rion Schmid (aka Rion Lion Zion) created the artwork. We envisioned a troubadour emerging from a desert landscape into a brightly lit cityscape.
Rion also created the artwork for my 100 Parts of Heart album released in 2014. This album, coming 8 years after that, was coming to fruition along with my film, Free To Rock, which was released in 2017. Free To Rock is the story of how American rock music and pop culture contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It premiered at the Grammy Museum in LA and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Is there anything fans can expect from this album that we might have not seen in your previous work?
Collaborating with Toots Hibbert, two-time Grammy Award winning reggae artist, on two of my songs, “J’cain Girl” and “Black On White” definitely separates Stardust Angles Ghosts from any of the other three albums and music I have recorded previously. Toots and the Maytals was managed by my wife’s ex – Mike Cacia – for 25 years.
He and Sam, my Jamaican wife, were good friends and Toots and I began a friendship around our music. He once told me that he listened to country music stations beaming into the Caribbean in the 1950’s and that the song structure formed the basis of his reggae roots and writing. When I shared the two songs, which I had originally written as country, but with Jamaican subject matter and street slang, he loved it and suggested arranging them as straight-ahead reggae tunes.
So, my fans have never heard a reggae song from me, nor have they ever heard a song – probably ever – recorded twice on the same album. Same lyrics but different music. “Brown Eyed Angel” appears with flutes and cellos on track 5 but then again as a “bonus” track 12, just vocal and a kind of Jimi Hendrix guitar arrangement played by Steve Dudas. The two musical arrangements and productions are from different universes; one written in key of C# and the other in key of D.
What has been your favorite/most memorable part of the process in the making of the new album?
There were a number of firsts and memorable moments in the process of producing the album. Probably most memorable from a production standpoint was recording the album during the pandemic, which required recording the guitars, keys, and violin tracks remotely. I delivered the relevant charts plus scratch vocal and guitar and final, bass and drums tracks along with click tracks to each musician electronically.
They then recorded their parts and returned electronically. My lead vocals plus cellos and sax/flute were recorded in studio. We then aligned the tracks and edited to a rough mix. Bruce Sugar then took our rough mixes and mixed the final-final. Then, of course, working with Toots on the reggae tunes will always mark this album as special. In addition to writing the songs, the most favorite part of the process was arranging the winds and strings for several of the tunes.
You’ve always been a big voice and advocate for change. How do you use your music to continue these conversations today?
Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, I dusted off the song I co-wrote with Vyacheslav Malezhik, “Nov Mir,” re-edited the music video to include rehearsal footage from 25 years ago and re-released the tune through the Orchard for distribution on streaming platforms. I am also looking at re-releasing Free To Rock, the film I produced which includes a number of Russian musicians who are now in exile for speaking out against the war.
I continue to stay in touch with Malezhik and Yuri Valov (played bass in my early, all Russian musician band, The Street Dogs) in Moscow. The lead off tunes on the album are all three socio-political statements. Thematically, the songs are tied together inasmuch as they state the obvious challenges of polarization, natural and man-made crises, and then offer hope and reconciliation, if only we can “find our way back home.”
What has been one or two pinnacle moments in your career?
Performing “Novi Mir” at the Kremlin Palace, the premier concert venue in Moscow, with Malezhik in 2007. The concert was nationally televised. And, playing a sold-out concert at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood with my band when I was a vice president at Security Pacific Bank. And possibly third would be premiering Free To Rock at the Grammy Museum in LA and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2017.
What else might you have in store for the summer, or frankly, the rest of the year? (Musically or otherwise).
We just filmed a live performance of songs from Stardust Angels Ghosts at the Belly Up in Solana Beach for streaming during the summer. Twelve musicians including a backup chorus from a Pentecostal church were on stage. Bill Wence in Nashville is promoting the record through the summer on radio, and publicity for the album is being handled by Jensen Communications in Pasadena, CA. Ukrainian relief is on our minds and how Free To Rock, “Novi Mir” and the new album can add to the conversation, perhaps later in September. Finally, I am settling into writing and selecting songs for a follow-on album in 2023/2024.