The 11 Questions with… column returns with guitarist, songwriter Nick Kizrinis! He graciously answered these questions about his latest music projects. We want to publicly thank him for taking the time to answer these questions!
Nick has been involved in numerous music projects. He first picked up a guitar at the age of 12 and one could say that he never really put it down. Some of his earliest music followed the creative playfulness of the surf rock guitar sound. The overlooked band The Mulchmen played an updated surf rock that captured the energy of that style while simultaneously exploring new musical terrain.
Nick has released some tremendous solo work including the incredible ‘Into the Loud’ that expanded on the guitar driven rock genre with a touch of pastiche and a heart full of passion. More recently, Nick has explored the textures of guitar driven melody with elements of jazz and swing in The Nicky Kay Orchestra. Work with several notable Dayton musicians like Paige Beller led Nick to an enthusiasm for adventurous lyrical expression. This led to the expansive latest record, The Distance. A musical work that stretches across rock, folk, Americana, jazz and more. That record includes the contributions of veteran songwriters and performers Kate Wakefield (Lung), Mark Patterson (Son Volt), Tod Weidner (Shrug), “Crazy” Joe Tritschler and Patrick Himes (Bribing Senators, Black Jacket Symphony, Reel Love Recording).
The Distance demonstrates Kizirnis’ remarkable skill as a guitarist and a songwriter. Bridging musical spaces that make for an emotional listening experience, the record reveals lessons to be learned about the affairs of the heart. The collaborative process that Nick undertook allowed him to move past any limitations of his own perspective and voice and give flight to songs that drew stories about life, love, loss and the discontinuity of connection that is universal to all of us.
The album begins with the emotional devastation of ‘The Beginning’ in which Wakefield sings powerfully about loss with lilt that has the impact of a million sledge hammers, especially when she sings ‘used to hold me as I slept at night, now I sleep alone’. ‘Way To Me’ counters with an almost hopeful quality that the path back to one another may be difficult and treacherous but is not and should not be impossible. And then ‘The Distance’ patiently takes the listener into the social dislocation of impending separation where the music and the lyrics wrap and twist around one another implying and delivering that sense of falling apart. And that is only the first three songs on this record! Listening deeply to ‘The Distance’ and not experiencing an emotion is simply not possible. The inclusion of a few covers on this collection of songs only adds depth to the ideas explored.
Built by many gifted players over several years, Kizirnis has created an album that bridges different tones, textures and colors that explore the dilemma of love, concern and connection without unnecessary drama.
Dr. J: What can you share with us about when and how you started writing your latest album The Distance?
Nick Kizirnis (NK): I started writing the songs for the album back in 2016 as a challenge to myself to see if I actually could do it. I’d written a lot of songs before, but most of them were actually instrumentals.
I started waking up at 5am every day to write, which turns out to work well for me (I still do it today). Once I had a good routine (coffee, write, more coffee) I found that the work of writing became easier, and then I found other times that I could take advantage of because I was ready. And it became really enjoyable.
At some point I realized that writing for my own singing voice was really limiting what I thought I could do with these new songs. I decided that my songs could be in anybody’s voice, it didn’t have to be mine. Suddenly that limitation disappeared, and everything started coming together.
Around the same time my friend Mark Patterson was in town and we decided to give the songs a try between his tours with Son Volt. Patrick Himes challenged me to just come in and record a song. At that point everything started to move forward very naturally.
Dr. J: You worked closely with several local musicians, especially Kate Wakefield, what led to your collaborations? Can you discuss your partnership with Kate?
NK: After deciding that I didn’t have to sing the songs, I started thinking about where else I could take the idea of removing limits I usually put on myself (that is do it mostly myself). I started asking other friends to come in and play guitars and other parts that I would usually do. I invited Patrick, Tod Weidner, Kate Wakefield and Joe Tritschler see what would happen when they interpreted the songs. While I was still playing a lot on the record, I intentionally took my hands of the steering wheel and listened to what everyone else came up with and let that guide the recording process.
I would work out the arrangements with Mark, then we would record demos of each song, get everything mapped out, and send them to everyone so that they would know what we were going for. And then everyone would come into the studio and recorded what they felt the song should be. It was a great experience to watch these songs evolve as we all worked together.
The band (or part of the band) would record a few songs, scheduled around Mark’s tours with Son Volt. Kate was also on tour with Lung during this time so she would record vocals and cellos separately. Between Lung and Son Volt, Mark and Kate have never met. Kate worked off my demos or the band’s rough tracks, using them as a reference to build out the melodies and harmonies. Regarding the cello, those parts were always thought of as mood/texture – same as the keyboards Patrick would play later. We ended up with a couple of songs, especially “The Distance,” where the cello and keys created a very heavy mood, which I loved – and which I had never planned for on the original demos. That was one of the many great things about the process. We would build these songs up and then opportunities would present themselves.
I want to mention here how amazing and generous everyone was, and how grateful I am for the help and support and their friendship. Patrick is an amazing multi-instrumentalist and studio magician and really know how to work with me through the process of making album. Mark taught me all about touring and running a band when I was a teenager, and through his years in Austin is this brilliant “song-writers drummer” … he helped coach me through the song arrangements and that alone was an amazing experience. Tod has been a friend and I’ve long admired his singing, playing and writing. Kate is my favorite singer in the world, and I think she’s an amazing cellist with a really unique voice and also a great songwriter. Then of course there is Joe who has been my friend and musical partner for years. Joe. The brilliance and “effortlessness” in his playing is so inspiring, and I feel very lucky to have played, recorded and travelled with him over the years.
And while I’m at it, I really appreciate Rachel Botting’s beautiful album artwork, Sean Haney’s precise mastering, and Scott Kinnison at ATOM Records who has been releasing my albums since 2000. To have that kind of support is truly amazing and I am very grateful.
Dr. J: ‘Tell Me Tomorrow‘ is a personal favorite, so I am curious about it. The song is catchy and very different than some of your previous music. What were you trying to capture with that song?
NK: Thank you! That song is different, maybe even from the rest of the album. I’m really happy with it. By the time I started that song I was knee-deep into songs about heartaches and heartbreaks, and of course this one was going to the same, but it’s actually about trying to on after a relationship falls apart. So it’s bit stronger – it rocks a bit harder (for me), and as you said, and for some reason it’s catchier. All of the other songs have people who are caught or left behind in their relationships, but this is the first one who is actually breaking free (actually it’s the second, I’ll let you guess who was the first). It was always intended to be the last song on the album, and it actually is IF you think of the last three as more of a coda to the album (which I do).
I did not know that Kate would add a mini-choir to the end of the song. That’s one of my favorite moments of the album, I love the way it works with Tod’s guitar solo. There are a few moments like that on the album where vocals, cellos, keys, and guitars work together and add textures that I’ve always wanted to hear (but didn’t know it).
Dr. J: ‘The Distance‘ also seems to addresses not simply physical separation but social distance. If that is correct, did you intend to address that theme? Is there a theme to the songs on the record as a whole?
NK: ‘The Distance‘ is a collection of songs about the loss of love, separation and emotional distance … but I never thought of the album as having a theme or concept. In my mind I was thinking about how albums by Roy Orbison, Gram Parsons, George Jones and similar artists collected these sad love songs and stories and presented them not as a theme but maybe as a soundtrack for the sad and lonely, maybe as they drive around late at night all alone. I’ve had people tell me as much, which feels nice – oh, not nice, I guess but validating.
Social distance is an interesting observation … all the songs on ‘The Distance‘ deal with relationships ending and people leaving, but also the emotional and social separation of partners and their interactions as they go through these ordeals. Not sure if that’s what you are getting at it, but it seems like everyone on the album goes through it in quite a bit of detail.
Dr. J: How did The Distance come together musically for you? What was it like to collaborate on a video for the song?
NK: I was looking for the chance to collaborate on a music video during the pandemic – obviously all plans were halted, we were all trying to figure out what to do. (Artist/Animator) Katie Marks reached out to me with a treatment for “The Distance” and I loved it. Katie went all out, creating 2,000 images, elaborate puppets and backgrounds, and an amazing storyline that really communicated the song in a new way. It was such a great experience for me and I hope folks will check out the video and Katie’s other work (www.katieannmarks.com) … and hopefully it’s a good example of what can happen when two people get together and trust in each other to make something really exciting.
Dr. J: Where do you often derive inspiration to make music?
NK: I’ve been listening to music since I was kid – at first it was Elvis, Johnny Cash, Duane Eddy, and then a crash course in jazz, blues and classic rock before I discovered punk. By then I started playing guitar, I was in a band, and I wanted to write my own songs based on all this music that inspired me.
At first it was the sounds that artists made – with their instruments, but later in the recording process. To this day it’s a huge influence. But as time passed, the stories that artist told and how they told them (through lyrics, voice, instruments, recordings, arrangements) really motivated me. I’ve always wanted to figure out “how did they do that,” and that’s led me to listen to many styles of music to better understand and to take away as inspiration.
Sometimes that can result in a very weird mix of inputs – imagine a mix tape with GBV’s “My Son Cool” and the first Trio Bulgarka album and Sleepwalk (Danny Gatton’s version). But I love it all. I love discovering new music and realizing that there’s so much I have yet to hear (and so much amazing music still to be made).
Dr. J: How would you describe the music that you typically create? How has that process evolved or changed over time (especially as you think about your journey across your various projects such as your earlier music – I am a big fan of ‘Into the Loud’, the Nicky Kay Orchestra, The Distance)?
NK: I have always been interested in playing different styles and exploring different sounds, and so I’ve never stayed in one place too long – I started in Ramones/Replacements punk rock, then Devo/CVB/Robyn Hitchcock/XTC – influenced indie/alternative, and it just kept changing from there, including alot surf instrumental, some rockabilly, and finally what I think I do now, which in my mind is a combination of all these things – but not directly.
I used to write with a band, within a style of a band. Now my main focus is on writing songs that I could perform on my own but could also play in record in other styles with different sounds. It’s a great feeling to not worry if a song doesn’t fit a style or genre for a specific band. I love having a band, I love having friends to work with, but for whatever reason when I get outside of a given group I am more creative and productive. Maybe that will change as I learn to be a better songwriter, which would be fine with me! I’m enjoying the journey, it makes me feel happy.
Dr. J: What is next for you musically? How would you describe your thoughts at this point for your next project after ‘The Distance’?
NK: I am very happy with how ‘The Distance’ turned out and how it was received, so now I am also asking myself “what’s next”? I thought I would just keep writing, maybe in the same style, and then the pandemic put an end to any expectations. I didn’t write for a few months, and when I did the songs were very different. That’s fine of course, who knows what songs will become, but it did make me start to wonder where I would go from here. Now I have enough songs to start work on another album, and while I don’t feel it will sound like The Distance, I do think there are sounds and ideas that will be a continuation, or a next step.
I’m challenging myself again – how can I continue to improve? What do I need to learn? Who could I work with to help me progress? It’s all really interesting to me, just to find out what I can explore as a songwriter. Last time I worked alone, then brought in a friend to help with arrangements, and then had more friends really take over the recording, although I was still there to direct. Where could I go from there? What else can I do to experiment?
Dr. J: What is your favorite song to perform? What makes it a current favorite in your performances?
NK: “Cone Back to Me” from The Distance is definitely my favorite. I’ve played it with the band, as well as solo (for the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, as well as live), and we are working on a video for it. It was the second song we recorded together (the first was “The Beginning”) and it turned out so well that I was really encouraged to continue working on the album. I’m very happy with how the song turned out, but really the experience of recording it was a great one. “Slipping Away” is another one, because I get a lot of positive feedback about it (always nice!), I made a fun video for it with Sam Manavis, Mark and I had a great time arranging it, and it just turned out right (I think).
Dr. J: What is one message you would hope that listeners find in the unique nature of your latest music?
NK: Well, this may sound strange considering most of the songs on the album are about the loss of love and the failure of relationships, but through the songs and the way we recorded them I hope the listener will hear that love and every happiness that brings is possible – even when we have some seemingly bad experiences and/or learn some hard lessons. Maybe some of these songs remind people of their own experiences and help them see that here they are, they’ve been able to learn and move on.
(I actually wish those experiences on no one ever, but hopefully whatever people do go through will help them get to a better place in their lives).
Dr. J: As a musician, how did you adapt to the challenges of the Coronavirus? Is that changing for your now as music events are opening up again?
NK: The big thing for me was recording at home and collaborating with other friends and musicians virtually. I had recorded songs but never anything I would think about releasing. I had the opportunity to record music for an animated short titled “Darryl” produced by Lydia Kladtis at the University of Dayton. I recorded guitars and sent the tracks to Kate Wakefield who added cello and vocals. We produced three short songs for the film.
That motivated me to record an (unreleased as of yet) acoustic instrumental EP following the same process. Once the record is finished we are going to create a second version with a friend that will be a percussion-based, completely remixed treatment of the same songs. All remote.
That went so well that I started reaching out to other musicians to contribute tracks to some new songs I have been writing. Soon we’ll take my tracks and theirs to the studio and merge them with new in-studio tracks.
I also recorded a song for The Breeders where we were in their home studio, but everything was being edited and mixed at another studio in New Orleans at the same time. It was a really fun experience.
So, I guess being quarantined led me to an opportunity that was always there but I never took advantage of. I’m excited about what else I may be able to do once I’m better at recording and collaborating with other people.
You can follow Nick Kizirnis on various social media including:
We want to extend our sincere gratitude to Nick Kizirnis for answering our questions and continuing to make some really excellent music! Click on the links throughout the article to visit Nick’s social media or to listen to various songs that were discussed! If any musicians or artists would like to participate in future ’11 Questions’ columns, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos and images courtesy of Nick Kizirnis, Andy Valeri, Chris Cosenza and Jennifer Taylor Photography.