Franz Nicolay

Well, here it is: the moment you’ve been waiting for…a banjo song!

Meet Franz Nicolay.  He can do everything: piano, accordion, banjo, guitar, saw, produces, writes books, I mean…the list goes on.  Franz has played with a whole bunch of people, too.  (He even has a page on Wikipedia.)  He’s played with me, too!   He is the mastermind behind the accordion on my EP, The Crux and The Bluestocking and Pearl and the Beard’s record, God Bless Your Weary Soul, Amanda Richardson.  (both available on iTunes)  Needless to say, I love Franz.  His music-making mind is magical…(alliteration no.2)

I met Franz at his house today at 11:15 (parking problems), and after some tea, a biscuit, some buckwheat, and awesome Ukrainian music, I was out the door at 5:30.  What a fantastic way to spend my day: writing and recording with Franz Nicolay.

The first question of the day was, “Do you have something you’ve been working on?”  This past Christmas I went home and played around all my dad’s instruments.  He has a baritone uke that I had written a one little stanza on, but without the uke, I didn’t really want to finish it, so it’s just been a fragment up until today.  The lyrics were, sung in the style of a straight waltz: You are mine tonight/Despite the world and all its ills tonight/You’re mine tonight. I’m not sure what my original intention was with these lyrics and melody, and I knew they would just sit around untouched otherwise.  Franz then pulled out his banjo and played a progression he had been playing with since he started playing banjo that didn’t have a home either. So, we put these two homeless ideas together.

I told Franz I had a hard time writing love songs because the line between good and total cheesy is frustrating for me, so I normally try to avoid writing them (at least sitting down to write them intentionally).  However, after some tossing around of ideas, I had this total random idea, “What about a plague?,” to which Franz replied, “…a Love Song From a Plague to its Victim!”  We broke it up into sections to help organize it: Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today.  My favorite moment of our collaboration was when we got to the verses after the first chorus, Franz asked, “Well, should we go biblical?”  I love it.  The reference to Z for Zacharia is a nod to the book of the same name.

Franz is a real genius at a style of writing to which I’m not gifted naturally, which is really cool for me.  I like how he phrases lines and, more importantly for me, he can write very well very clearly and linear, but still fantastic and symbolic.  I think Franz really made this song come to life (i.e. he came up with the line Like a salesman giving of myself but taking much more. I would never have thought to use the image of a salesman, but it’s so clear and such a strong image.) not only with lyrics, but with his voice as well.  I liked so much how he phrased the verses, I really wanted him to sing them all and have me on choruses.  The effect is chilling, I think.

If I was going to tell you how I really felt as I approached Franz’ house to meet with him, it would be somewhat like describing me attending a meeting to write with my jazz improv teacher from college, whom I completely revere; I’m just saying I arrived intimidated and a little nervous.  When I scheduled a day to write with him, I thought- Brain, be sharp!  Don’t come across as a total moron! But when we got working, I found such ease with him, and he had great ideas for the direction of this song.  I found the longer I actively engaged myself in working and focused on learning from him and his style of lyric writing, any insecurity was pushed away.  It was such a fulfilling experience.

I really like this song, and not only was Franz an awesome collaborator, he was also a fantastic producer.  There are several different instruments you can hear on this track: banjo, baritone uke, wooden xylophone, glock, and two tracks of mandolin.  (Love the mandolin on this recording.)  I played the bassy cello part and the baritone uke.  I must tell you, I’m pretty handicapped when it comes to hearing instrumental additions to songs if I’m not already very familiar with it.   (Hearing different instruments and voices to add to a song is a skill I’m trying to acquire, too), so to have Franz take the initiative on thinking about instrumentation was a real relief.  And he was really good at it.

I think the best part of collaborating is feeling like the other person really likes what has come out, too… At the moment, this is a demo, but there was talk of recording this song in a studio one day, which would be really great.  The other really fantastic thing about collaboration is how fruitful ideas are, how they come out so unexpectedly sometimes.  Each tiny idea or thought by one person can be taken a totally new direction by the other.  It’s so unexpected and a really nice time as well.  Franz!  Thank you!

Z for Zacharia

instrumentation: banjo, cello, mandolin, xylophone, glock, uke and Franz Nicolay

You are mine tonight
Despite the world and all its ills tonight
You’re mine tonight.
I touched her skin
Hot oil burned
She breathed me in
Stroked her face
Rearranged her hair
Put every strand in place
Yesterday it was your sister
Tomorrow, your mother
Tonight, you’re mine
Tonight you’re mine/You are mine tonight
Despite the world and all its ills tonight
I go door to door
Like a salesman giving of myself but taking much more
I bless the first-born and the next
Take them wholly and give them rest
I’ll pass by, I’ll find you Z for Zacharia
I’ll pluck out your eyes
You are mine tonight
Despite the world and all its ills tonight
You’re mine tonight.
Tonight you’re mine.