Written by: David Haynes
Artwork by Ryan Bruce James
“To understand nothing and know that it’s all understood”
There comes a point where artists seem to tap into a collective unconscious in their songwriting. The Beatles did this with Rubber Soul. Aretha Franklin with Spirit In The Dark. Or Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited. And Nicholas D’Andrea’s new understated single “Nothing At All” speaks to the simultaneous terror and wonder of entering the adult world.
The pulsing, arpeggiating acoustic guitar is the backbone of this song. The artist manages to imbue human frailty into the tone of this guitar. It sounds thin and weary, as if the world’s been wearing it down minute by minute. And then the voices enter.
D’Andrea recalls, “What finally brought [the song] home was when the mixer and co-producer Matt Vinson of CAAMP layed down layers of some really nice harmonies through the entire song. That was the missing piece.”
While the song feels like an intensely personal line of thinking, the harmonies help the listener to understand that what D’Andrea is singing about is universal.
As the reverb swirls and twinkly piano notes peek out from behind the mix, D’andrea speaks of the transition from youth to middle age in a way that is almost heartbreakingly honest. As kids, the struggle is to know ourselves truly.
And pieces of that journey will be with us throughout our life. But, D’Andrea sings, “Teach me how to love / teach me how to be nothing at all.” Mixing religious imagery with tiny details of everyday life, D’Andrea really manages to break the world down into simple truths.
We’ve all lived through the unrest, agony, and loss of the past year. And there’s something comforting in a quiet folk song that talks about learning to love with abandon. Human knowledge is so limited. There’s no way we can know everything. As terrifying as that fact is, I hope we can take a cue from Nicolas D’Andrea and learn to be “nothing at all.”
D’Andrea reveals, “This song is about learning to let go and trust that you will be taken care of. The first half of the song was written very quickly, but the second verse took a long time to come together. I had originally written it to use with my band Doc Robinson, but never got it to feel right. This was the first song I started working on for the album but the last one to finish. I recorded maybe 5 different versions.”
Stereo Embers Magazine: We mentioned it briefly in the article, but it sounds like collaboration was a huge piece of the recording process for “Nothing at All.” Can you talk more about what ended up making this song so special to you?
Nicholas D’Andrea: Sure , yeah, collaboration has always been essential to me, and even though I was going from working in a band to making an album on my own, it was still really important for me to work with other musicians I love and respect on these songs, and let their talents and vision enrich and improve what’s there. This song in particular was tricky because it had already been around for a long time in one form or another, so when I started working on the record it was one of the first ones I recorded. I was trying to do most of the parts myself, but it just wasn’t turning out right. So I put it aside and let it rest while I worked on the rest of the album. After you’ve worked on a song for too long, it can get to a place where you can’t find anything you like about it anymore, and you can’t really hear it for what it is anymore. So I sent it to Matt Vinson who mixed and mastered it along with the rest of the album and asked him for some honest feedback. He sent back a new version with layers of beautiful harmonies through the entire song. It completely surprised me and kind of rejuvenated what I liked about the song in the first place, and gave it the right feeling to really bring the energy that the message of the song was asking for.
SEM: The lyrics feel so universal to the human condition. Did you sort of have a “coming-of-age” theme in mind while writing?
ND: Thank you! I think it was definitely a coming of age song for me. I wrote the first half of the song a few years ago and had just never finished. Then I revisited it when I started working on this album, and I think a lot of things I’d been working on and trying to learn about personally and spiritually ended up in the second verse. Especially the idea that I’m not in control of anything, God is. And the more I can believe that as a core truth of how I operate, and let myself be carried by him, know that everything I need will be provided for me, and stop trying to pretend that I can do anything for myself, or that I know what’s best for me or anyone else, the better.
SEM: From my understanding, this is part of a larger record called Aslan being released later this year. Does the rest of the record sound a lot like this song?
ND: Yeah I think all of the musical elements of this song are pretty consistent with the rest of the album. I kind of had a pallet of different sounds I started with and tried to really limit myself to only using those certain sounds or colors on all of the songs on the record. I wanted it to all feel cohesive and like a family of songs that all belong together, and tell one story.
SEM: Anything else you’d like to say about “Nothing At All?”
ND: I’m also grateful to Seth Bain for the really nice bass parts he played on here and on the rest of the album too.
Find out more about Nicholas D’Andrea