Nicole Andrews: From Portland To Wellington, From Piano To Synth (Interview)

Wellington based musician Nicole Andrews has just released her second album, A Stranger.

The album finds Andrews shifting her sound, moving away from the piano and into the world of electronica, thanks to the purchase of a synth she made when visiting her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Nicole about her new sound and invited her to compare the Portland music scene with Wellington’s.

Click here to listen to the interview with Nicole Andrews:


Or, read a transcription of the interview here:


MD: So you’re heading out on the road in a little while to promote your album, is that right?

NA: Yes, that’s right.

MD: So, I’ve had a chance to listen to the album a bit. I was hoping maybe we can talk about it in advance, and all that kind of thing. So this is your second record, and from what I’ve read, it’s a change from what you’ve done before, because it’s less piano-based and more electronica-based, or whatever. Maybe you can elaborate on that for me, please, to begin with.

I’ve always been really into like Nine Inch Nails and Bjork and Goldfrapp and all sorts of electronic music.

NA: Yeah. So the first album was piano-driven, alternative, like vocals, that kind of thing. This one is full electronic, like multiple synth layers, beats. There’s some acoustic instruments in there, like guitar and bass and strings, but – quite heavily electronic.

MD: And was there something that drove you to move in that direction? Was it a natural process? Did suddenly inspiration hit you one day? You woke up and had to have synthesizers?

I ended up writing quite a bit differently. I never would’ve done that with piano.

NA: I knew I wanted to do something different, and I tried writing differently on the piano and I – it was, my style was really changing, once I got that first album out. But then… I’ve always been really into like Nine Inch Nails and Bjork and Goldfrapp and all sorts of electronic music, and I was just kinda – I went back to the States, and I went to go play with some synths, and I decided which one I wanted. And then I got it! And yeah, that was it.

MD: And you got a Prophet 6, is that right?

NA: Yeah, that was the one I decided I wanted.

MD: And what was it about that one that drew you?

NA: It just sounded so good, and it felt good playing it. I was playing it against, um… well, I went to quite a few different shops in Portland, where I’m from. But there’s a synths shop in Portland, and they had a whole bunch of them there, the three different Prophets lined up. I had a friend kinda give me some recommendations on what to check out. So I checked them all out, and this one just had a kinda warmer… and yet dirtier sound. So it really stuck with me a bit more.

MD: Is that dirty sound what we hear on the Lovely Thing track?

NA: Yeah! That’s actually…yeah, that’s right.

MD: That’s what I thought. So, were the songs kind of written… were they affected by the fact that you were playing them and approaching them with a synthesizer rather than the piano? Did the technology affect the music and the actual songs?

NA: Yeah. Because when you play piano, you can… Well, this is what it felt like when I was writing the songs. It felt like… Piano, I can write a complete song on piano. But with synthesizer I had one sound, and then I needed to add another sound on top of that. I had to layer things a bit more. So I ended up writing quite a bit differently. I never would’ve done that with piano. And I’d record something, and then I’d add another layer. And I’d tweak it, and… it changed everything.

It’s all pretty dark and I’d say that the main themes are about love and loss. Grief themes in there. It’s about relationships falling apart.

MD: The feeling I got overall from listening to the whole thing is kind of feeling that it’s kind of solitary music. I don’t know if that’s right or not, but it feels – it just felt like something that possibly was made or created alone, and possibly meant to be listened to alone. Would you agree with that?

NA: Yeah, that’s pretty true. I mean, I wrote all the songs alone in my little music room. The base of them, the main part of the songs before it was produced. But it’s, you know, emotive music, so I guess it lends itself to that.

MD: And you worked with Thomas Voyce, from Rhombus. What did he contribute to the process?

NA: He produced the album, so he plays quite a lot of instruments. Like the guitar, the bass. He wrote the strings for it.

MD: So on the tune Bass Player, those are strings that I’m hearing –

NA: Oh, yeah. He wrote those strings. And played the drums, did the beats, and then he mixed it, he engineered it. Yeah, pretty much everything up to mastering besides writing the initial songs.

MD: Ah-ha. So, what kind of discussions did you have with him to kind of prepare him for making sure that he was the guy you wanted to work with?

NA: Well, he worked with me on my first album, and I really liked what he d—so he recorded the piano for my first album. And he produced the electronic tracks for my first album. And I really liked what he did, so… I mean, I was quite impressed with the way that particular song turned out. So I knew immediately that I wanted to work with him closer, and I just basically told him when I gave him the CD for the first album. “The next album I want to work with you more.” And that was it. So it was kind of… casual.

It’s totally different than a piano tour, but I’ve been working at it. I’m good… I think.

MD: And is there any kind of theme running through the songs? Lyrically? Anything that you can kind…

NA: It’s all like a … it’s all pretty dark and I’d say that the main themes are about love and loss. Grief themes in there. It’s about relationships falling apart, pretty much.

MD: Ah….that old chestnut…

NA: Or growing and falling apart, yeah.

MD: …Alrighty. And I’m guessing that this music is going to be quite different to recreate live, than what you’ve done before as well. Are you thinking about that when you’re about to … go live?

NA: Yeah. I’ve been practicing a lot. Yes.

MD: In what way? I mean, do you have to think about how you’re going to… Cause is it just you on the road? Or are you playing with anyone else?

NA: Yeah. So it’s just me, performing my set. I’ve got a sampler to trigger all the beats and the strings, so the full album sound will be there, and then I’ll be adjusting it in the sampler. Changing the beats and stuff live, while playing the synthesizer at the same time. So it’s totally different than a piano tour, but I’ve been working at it. I’m good… I think.

MD: So do you expect to attract a different audience with this album, than with the previous one?

There’s just so many bands there. Like, they’ve got … I’ve heard that they’ve got, like, four thousand active bands or something.

NA: Yeah, I do. Um, I think there’s some crossover. Because some people that I know are fans, have told me that they really love it, but. And you know, I was in the… you know, I wrote both these albums, but um… yeah. Definitely more … I don’t want to say more people are interested in electronic music, but I feel like sometimes people can attach themselves easier to the beats than to a solo piano song. If that makes sense… more people appear to be prone to that.

MD: Although I wouldn’t call this a dance album.

NA: No. No, it’s not a dance album. No! No. I just think there’s a lot more going on, in this one. And that kind of … brings out new people, I guess?

MD: Right. Now, I was hoping to talk to you a little bit… cause there are probably going to be quite a few people who actually don’t know much about you, and you’ve made the transition from moving from Portland to Wellington, rather than… a lot of people tend to go in the opposite direction, so! And you moved here in 2006, from what I understand, so. What brought that on? People are always asking me that, so it’s nice for me to be able to ask somebody else.

NA: Oh, yeah. I actually moved here for a boy, and um… we moved to, like, Melbourne and Queenstown, and eventually I decided to move up to Wellington for music…and a few other things. You know, for just the lifestyle, and Wellington was a bit more similar to what I was used to in Portland, rather than Queenstown.

MD: Yeah, I can imagine that would be the case. Although I’ve never been to Portland. So, from what I understand, there’s quite a thriving music scene there. Were you part of that? Is that something that you were concerned about being still involved with, while you were here?

NA: Um… I was quite young when I moved, so… I was involved in it a little bit, but it was kinda like – just so, um – I wouldn’t say it was super professional. I was just kinda like, playing at cafes on occasion, and so I never really dove into it. So coming back and living in Wellington was actually when I started to get real professional with it. But I have gone back and done a gig before and … yeah, there’s just so many bands there. Like, they’ve got … I’ve heard that they’ve got, like, four thousand active bands or something.

MD: In Portland?

NA: Yeah, I heard that. Yeah.

MD: It’s not that big of a place, is it?

NA: No. But it’s like a – it’s just like a music hub. People just are there, making music. Yeah.

MD: So, how did you find fitting in with the Wellington scene?

NA: I, I don’t know. I just had to get over myself. I was really nervous getting started. And then everybody’s really – I know quite a lot of musicians here, and everyone’s really friendly. And I’ve been here for years, so I just slotted in fine, as soon as I got myself out there.

I just wanna learn Japanese. And actually I’m getting really into it.

MD: Right. And were you familiar at all with the history of New Zealand music, or … anything about… that had gone on, before you moved here?

NA: Uh… before I moved here I didn’t know much, but you know, like, as soon as I moved here, I was getting into old New Zealand music … like, Fat Freddy’s Drop was like, one of the first bands I started listening to. And… um, yeah, eventually Anika Moa and all the ones that you just kinda get exposed to, and now I, I’m just way deeper into it.

So I knew about it, but I… I was … it was… I was getting in there and learning about it, but it kind of just came with time.

MD: And comparing the two… the Portland scene and the Wellington scene, and just the American music scene in general, compared to here, how would you say – is it easier, more difficult, to kinda break in here, or get involved in doing what you’re doing?

NA: Because I’ve heard about the four thousand bands in Portland, probably here? But I don’t think easy is the right word. Cause you still have to be good. But um, but you know, I don’t think I’ve played enough in Portland to really know. But I did actually have a… I had a real hard time trying to get a gig, and find local acts and stuff from internationally, just doing it by myself. Cause I don’t have a manager or anything. Yeah. I think things are pretty friendly here, and it’s easier to write to people and … get involved, so.

MD: And have you spent much time in Auckland?

NA: Um, I have a little bit. I’ve had one of my first proper holidays there. Actually, I was in Auckland during the big earthquake that we had in Welling—well, not in Wellington, the Kaikoura earthquake? Um, which they felt really badly in Wellington, and I was actually in Auckland on holiday. And I actually felt it – I mean, you probably have a story about it too. I actually felt it while I was in Auckland. But yeah, I mean, I’ve spent a little bit of time in Auckland. Where did I go? I went to North Shore….? Or some… there was like this really cool park, and it had little musical instruments on the park, and… I don’t remember what it’s called. But yeah. I’ve spent a bit of time in Auckland, but not much.

MD: Okay. And, from what I understand, are you studying as well? Or you have studied? I read that you were learning Japanese, but I don’t know if that’s just something that you’re doing to pass the time.

NA: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’m just doing that right now. I just wanna learn Japanese. And actually I’m getting really into it. Like, I used to – I went to uni, and I have a degree in English Literature. And maybe one day I’ll go back. We’ll see.

It’s got beats. It’s not a dance song, but you can move to it.

MD: And does that … background seep into the songs that you’re writing?

NA: I think so, because I was super into poetry growing up. I’m not so much anymore, I’m more just lyrics or novels kind of a person. But yeah, I think that – because I was studying it, I kind of … kinda know… tricks? I don’t really use them consciously, but I think I know them, still.

MD: Ah… Tricks in lyric-writing, eh?

NA: Yeah.

MD: Interesting. And so just in general, what can people expect when they see you? When you’re going to be hitting the road? I assume that you’re going on the 10th, so it’ll be just a week or so after the record is released, right?

NA: Yeah, that’s right. So… the album’s out on the 4th of May. And then… 10th of May, I’m playing in Wellington, and then each weekend I have more gigs. And then of course, on the 25th of May, at The Wine Cellar in Auckland. And you can pretty much expect … so I’ll have opening acts. In Auckland, I’ve got Lilo Peaks, and Emily Riordan. And they’re both solo acts. Emily’s an acoustic guitarist and singer, and then Lilo Peaks is an electronic artist. And then my set will just be the synthesizer and sampler. And it’ll be like a pretty full… sound. So expect the full sound, I’d say.

MD: A full sound. And what kind of reaction do you get from the audience when you’re doing this? I don’t imagine that it’s kind of a party atmosphere.

NA: No. I think that… well, it’s got beats. It’s not a dance song, but you can move to it. But um… I don’t know, it’s pretty sad, melancholy music. But… I think it’s pretty introspective, but it’s got a little bit of a beat. People were dancing to my piano songs anyway!  You never know.

A Stranger New Zealand Album Release Tour 2018 – with special guests
10th May: Wellington: Meow
18th May: Lyttelton/Chch, Wunderbar
19th May: Queenstown, Sherwood
25th May: Auckland, The Wine Cellar