If I had to choose one word to describe singer-songwriter Abby Nissenbaum, it would be unexpected. Finding an artist like Nissenbaum is rare – a consummate songwriter, and her solo debut puts her musical and lyrical prowess front and center.
Nissenbaum, born in Brooklyn and raised in New Milford, Connecticut, has lived all over the country, most recently relocating to Nashville. Although she is a graduate student at the University of Memphis, Nissenbaum was inspired to return to her musical roots and repurpose her prior training to better suit her desired style.
Putting her musical knowledge back to work, Nissenbaum has creatively fused classical training with indie-rock to create a sound uniquely suited to her voice. With the help of musician and producer Riley Geare [Unknown Mortal Orchestra], her debut single, “Winston” just released today, June 18th.
“Winston” is not just musically compelling; the heart-wrenching lyrics illustrate a story so well, it feels like you’re watching it unfold right in front of you. Regardless of meaning, the song can be interpreted in many ways – the melancholy feeling it conveys is universal. Lyrics like “Oh, this is always how it ends…But I thought I’d play pretend” make the song an immersive experience, which is just one of the many accomplishments this project achieves.
Throughout the song, Nissenbaum applies her mastery to create mesmerizing harmonies, undercutting a crystal clear lead vocal. The emotion of her performance drives the feeling further, creating a heavy, moody atmosphere. Swirling guitar and layered vocals give the song a vibe somewhere between 70s psychedelic rock and modern indie; articulate and elegant, “Winston” is a stunning debut from this budding artist.
We got the chance to chat with Nissenbaum about her debut single, what’s next, and much more.
So who or what got you into writing and performing music?
I’ve been a singer all my life and am a classically-trained soprano. From the time I was 7 or 8, I was also very involved in local and regional musical theater (and actually originally went into undergrad intending on earning my BFA in Musical Theater). My dad is also somewhat of a guitar collector, so we always had dozens of guitars, random pedalboards and amps, and a few other instruments and things laying around the house that I would play around with. It wasn’t until my mid-20s, though, that I picked up the guitar in earnest and started writing music just for myself as a coping mechanism for some difficult personal situations that were happening at the time. I was friendly with my current producer, Riley Geare [Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Caroline Rose], and he encouraged me to put my songs out into the world!
Growing up so close to New York, did the music scene there have any influence on you as an artist?
Growing up close to the city absolutely influenced my access to musical theater resources, which defined my childhood and high school years. I grew up in a place where we luckily had a vibrant musical theater scene and generally a high caliber of talent, with many of my teachers and mentors having trained and performed in NYC (both on and off Broadway and in various opera houses). There wasn’t much of an indie music scene that I was aware of as a high school student in Connecticut, but I was very fortunate to have had strong vocal training from such a young age.
Your debut single, “Winston,” was just released. How does it feel to have your music out in the world?
Candidly, it feels a bit scary to expose myself in this way, as the lyrics are very sorrow-driven and not necessarily things I’ve shared with people in my personal life. With that said, I’m really proud of what Riley and I (along with lead guitarist Jacob Adam Davis and bassist Erica Shafer) created, and am excited for folks to hear it!
What’s the influence and inspiration behind the track?
I wrote “Winston” as sort of personal debriefing many years after the ending of my first real relationship. I was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at the time, where there was a palpable Christian religious presence and symbolism coursing through the city. As a queer Jewish woman who certainly did not fit into that demographic and did not really have an LGBTQ+ community, I felt very isolated in that setting. I ended up making a home and community solely out of my partner, who felt like my only queer connection and lifeline to the LGBTQ+ world. When that relationship became unhealthy and ultimately ended, I went through a period of turmoil where I truly believed, as some sort of punishment for being queer, I was somehow destined to a life full of toxic relationships, failure, isolation, and loneliness (which obviously is not true, but it felt that way at the time).
Ultimately, I wanted to avoid writing a straightforward torch song when this particular life situation encompassed more than just a breakup. There were lots of different themes I wanted to pull from and condense into one four- or five-minute piece, and I hope that they translate to the listener. Lyrically, I’m eternally inspired by Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, as well as Sufjan Stevens and Ani DiFranco, so all of those influences were woven into the track.
The lyrics are such a contrast to the upbeat, guitar driven instrumental. What was the writing process like, and how did it all come together?
I wrote “Winston” in 2019, and it was only the second or third song I’d ever completed. From start to finish the process was, unsurprisingly for anyone who has ever dabbled in songwriting, very iterative. I had lyrics and had written a very basic guitar part, and then my close friend Chris Earnhardt and his bandmate Scott Thorn (the lead guitarist and bassist, respectively, of Memphis rock band Skinny Powers) helped guide me toward a more sophisticated guitar line. Ellie Brigida, who is an immensely talented Boston-based music director, lent a hand to the song’s vocal arrangements.
Eventually, due to shifting band commitments, my friend Jacob took over lead guitar and came up with this kind of pop-punk lead guitar line, which I was delighted with as a lifelong fan of pop punk bands (e.g., Paramore and Simple Plan). Erica and Riley’s parts ended up leaning more into the 60s rock sound, and from there, the song took on a life of its own. “Winston” was clearly a massive team effort but definitely has Riley’s psychedelic rock signature all over it, which I love. I was also definitely conscious of the lyrical content and probably annoyed everyone by asking multiple times if it was too much, but at the end of the day, I think this is just a cool-sounding song with an emotional message that some may resonate with.
What do you hope listeners will take away from this song?
I’ve always taken solace in music and am very touched by lyrics or messages that relate to things that I’m going through. I’ve also used music as a proxy for community support when I’ve had none, and I hope that others— especially those in the LGBTQ+ community— who feel like they don’t belong will perhaps hear this and feel validated in knowing that others have had similar experiences.
Can we expect an album or EP featuring “Winston”?
I have a bunch of songs on deck and am hoping to record an EP this year! Stay tuned.
Do you have any performances lined up this summer, and if so where?
I just did a cross-country move to Nashville last week (actually for my work as a data analyst, totally unrelated to music), and am focusing on getting settled here, but have been talking with some people about house shows and other potential performances. Saying “stay tuned” again sounds trite, but… stay tuned.
What do you hope to achieve as an artist in the next five years?
I’m looking forward to gaining more formalized facility with instruments (particularly the guitar) and songwriting. I also hope to record an LP within a five-year timeframe. This is really just the very beginning of my music endeavors, and I’m excited for what’s to come!
Photo by Trish Haldin