[26 March 2013]
PopMatters Music Editor
Sometimes, you do get a second chance to make a first impression: Even though Port St. Willow’s compelling 2012 debut Holiday made its mark the first time around, the under-the-radar gem is getting the reissue treatment via Downtown Records on 2 April, in case you missed it the first time. PopMatters Associate Music Editor Zach Schonfeld sure didn’t, tipping Port St. Willow as one of the break-out candidates of 2013. Schonfeld described Holiday this way: “Marrying [Nicholas] Principe’s silky, almost effortlessly operatic falsetto with an able vocabulary of post-rock arrangements, these songs are not only moving, but impressively full-fledged and rich with dramatic flairs.” PopMatters tracked down Port St. Willow mastermind Nicholas Principe to find out about how the reissue came about, what he has planned for the future, and what it’s like to have Brian Eno describe your work as “amazing” and “fabulous”.
PopMatters: How did the reissue of Holiday happen? Does it feel any different putting the record out again to a broader audience, in contrast to its initial release last year?
Nicholas Principe: Yeah, it definitely feels different this time around. I wasn’t working with anyone when I first put it out, and basically had no idea what I was doing. I still don’t really know, but fortunately I now work with some other people who do, ha.
Last year, the record was passed around in a pretty random pattern. I put it out on Bandcamp shortly after moving to New York and played a bunch of local shows through the spring and summer, a small run in September with friends the Antlers, and then CMJ. It was definitely a chaotic, swirly sort of year, but it was great. I talked to a few different labels, but somewhere in the fall I began speaking with Downtown and they were just really supportive of all the right things.
PopMatters: There is new music on the reissue, which comes in the form of the 25-minute closing piece “Soft Light Rush”. How does adding “Soft Light Rush” change the album in your mind or does it? Was it difficult creating a new piece of music to go with the complete work that Holiday already was?
Nicholas Principe: I hope “Soft Light Rush” changes the overall experience of Holiday, but it was always intended to work as a companion to the original album, not change its boundaries. To me, the album is still those 55 minutes of music. “Soft Light Rush” is a revisiting from a different time, still connected, but outside looking in.
It was definitely difficult to make, but the starting point for the project was not tied to the reissue. The original idea was to write new compositions from different pieces of the record. Not really like a remix, but to take a few things…a beat or a drone from a certain song, and re-approach them. Let them form new things. I’m really proud of how it turned out. It breathes in a way that I wasn’t always able to accomplish on Holiday.
PopMatters: There are so many different elements that go into your music, yet everything feels like it fits together really well. For instance, your music comes across as personal and immediate, but the production feels very spacious at the same time. You also seem to combine an artsy, experimental approach with the warm, organic quality of the instrumentation and the vocals. How do you balance and pull together all these aspects of your sound?
Nicholas Principe: I think at a certain point I stopped putting all of the importance of the music into a track or a song. They are such arbitrary lines which we draw to divide things up. For a lot of music, it works perfectly and couldn’t really work another way. For what I have been more interested in recently, I started to visualize the song as an anchor in this sort of a sea of noise that had its own movement. Its own internal “track length”. The song lives inside this space, but doesn’t necessarily get to define the boundaries. I love working in this way because it makes the connections between the pieces just as important. Songs that understand where they came from and where they are going. The hope is to create a believable space that isn’t necessarily escapist, but rather stretches out time, slows things down, and forces both myself and anyone listening to it to stop watching the clock.
PopMatters: To me, one defining characteristic of Holiday is the meditative mood to the music. What kind of tone were you trying to set?
Nicholas Principe: I don’t know if there was an intentional tone. Anytime that I’ve tried to manipulate music to do subtle things, it feels dishonest and usually sounds horrible to me. None of it really seems to be worth the effort unless you know it starts from somewhere honest. I think with Holiday, I tried to find that starting point and then followed where it led. Let things evolve and change, knowing for myself that it was a really organic process. Trusting in that process and not being so concerned with trying to understand all of it.
From a production side, I was listening to a lot of electronic and ambient/drone music while working on it and became pretty obsessed with the idea of repetitive rhythms inside this cloudy, texture driven world. The more I followed this, the longer the songs became. The mood seemed to settle in as the tracks started to connect to one another, and at some point it started to feel like a place I was visiting. It doesn’t feel the same way now when I listen to it, but I think that’s the point. The record is the thing that’s left behind after you’ve gone through it. It’s the bit that helps you communicate whatever it is you were digging to get at the whole time, and hopefully my own personal stuff doesn’t obscure that experience for someone else to relate to it or find something in there that’s theirs. The shared story, the connection, is so much more interesting and important to me. It helps me to not feel like art is a solely self-indulgent process.
PopMatters: The press release cites some flattering praise for you from Brian Eno, who said, “I just thought how amazing that somebody could take the same few chords, pretty much the same sorts of sounds—it’s quite hard to tell what is original about it, but I just know I’ve never heard it before. It’s such a fabulous record.” What’s it like for your work to be acknowledged by a pioneer like him?
Nicholas Principe: It’s pretty insane. He’s been someone I’ve admired for a long time as both a musician and an artist, so it’s really nice to hear he connects with something I made. The Internet, right?
PopMatters: What’s on the horizon for Port St. Willow?
Nicholas Principe: Right now I’m trying to make a point to enjoy what’s happening. It’s easy to feel like you’re continuously moving forward in anything, but it feels really important to step back and appreciate some of that process. I’m excited right now about the new live show and planning to do a more substantial U.S. run later this year. We’ll be doing a few dates in the northeast in early April and some fun shows in the New York area this spring.