Jeremy Nail wasn’t aiming for a complex album when he recorded My Mountain last year.
“When I started working on this group of songs, I wanted to make something simple and poignant,” says the Austin-based singer-songwriter. “There was an intimacy about the songs that required some restraint on everyone’s part. It’s a loud, quiet record. The songs came out of a very challenging and coming-of-age part of my life. Lyrically, it deals a lot with existing through the process of struggle and grief and finding strength from it.”
Nail’s struggle was very different than those of other musicians who have worked their butts off to get their music heard. He played one show in 2013 in Norman, Oklahoma, as a replacement guitarist in Alejandro Escovedo’s band. Escovedo then invited him to join the band on a world tour, but Nail was diagnosed with sarcoma, a cancer that begins in the bones and connective tissues. He instead had to undergo radiation treatment, and his left leg was amputated.
“Going through what I did was a very emotional time, so writing music was a sort of therapy for me,” Nail tells me. “Coming out on the other side gave me a new appreciation for life. Now, music feels like an extension of my life and comes more naturally. It is about discovery and finding new ways to stay above water.”
Nail provides a message for others who have had to battle back from an amputation.
“Be patient with yourself, and try to stay positive. It doesn't happen overnight, but once you get used to the prosthetic, it will feel like a part of you. You will be amazed when you get your independence back, and you will feel like a new person. There will be nothing you can't do.”
Though his touring plans with Escovedo were scuttled, his association with the great singer-songwriter didn’t come to an end. My Mountain was produced by Escovedo at ChurchHouse Studio in Austin, and, in the CD’s booklet, he is saluted by Nail.
“Thank you Alejandro Escovedo for being a mentor and friend,” Nail wrote. “Thank you for helping me shape this record.”
Nail tells me that he and Escovedo “had a great connection” when they first met years ago.
“Getting to know him and work with him has been a blessing for me,” Nail says. “He was very gracious in the way he shared his wisdom and guided me through the process. The circumstances leading up to this record were traumatic, and he was very sensitive to that. When we were recording, he helped us stay true to the vision we had and let everything happen naturally.”
During recording sessions in the studio, Escovedo “has a way of creating a vibe and getting the best out of every player,” Nail says. “When he is there, you know something special is happening. As a performer, he has a deep catalog and is always evolving. To do that for as long as he has is inspiring.”
Nail’s catalog began in 2008 when he released Letter, which, according to the Austin Chronicle, is “a diverse, gripping listen, one that's centered around (Nail’s) ability to capture waking moments with intensity.”
“Letter was more of an alt-rock record,” Nail says. “I was young and hadn’t made a record before. I had just moved to Austin during that time and barely knew anyone in town. Mark Addison produced it, and we layered everything through overdubs. For a first record, it is great, though I feel like a different person made it.
“A lot of life was lived leading up to My Mountain, and the songs were written with much more of an awareness. My confidence as a writer grew over those years, so the essence of the songs became the focus. I had spent a lot of time in between records doing sideman work and collaborating with other writers. I wanted to get back to my songwriting, because I believe that's what I'm best at. We also made this record with a great band, and most everything was played live. There a warmth to this record that I'm really proud of.”
Nail also expresses warmth about Albany, Texas, a small town with a population of about 2,000 that’s about a two-hour-and-40-minute drive west of Dallas.
“I grew up in Albany and lived there until I was 15,” Nail says. “Going back now is refreshing, because there is a lot of space and beautiful country. It's sort of a cosmopolitan town that works to preserve its heritage and keep the town going. I grew up around a lot of visionary, hard-working people. Sometimes, small town politics can be overwhelming, but you can't say they don't care.”
Nail says his musical idols are Neil Young, Nick Drake, and John Martyn. They have “a sublime quality” in their work and “are almost orchestral with just their voice and an acoustic guitar.”
The Rolling Stones at Houston’s Reliant Stadium (now NRG Stadium) in 2003 was one of the best concerts Nail attended.
“Ryan Adams opened and kept joking about how he wasn’t the Rolling Stones,” Nail recalls. “Some friends and I were sitting on the very top row of the stadium. Somehow we scored passes to get on the floor midway through the show. We all made our way down just in time to see the band play on the small catwalk stage. They stayed there for awhile and played a great version of ‘Midnight Rambler.’ Seeing them up close was amazing!”
The concert that most influenced Nail as a musician was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Austin City Limits Festival in 2006.
“To hear so many great songs back-to-back was very inspiring,” Nail says. “I remember it rained in the middle of the set, and then the band came back on. Song for song, there’s no one better than Tom Petty.”
Nail says his future musical aims are “to keep striving for beauty and improving the quality of my songs.”
“I feel like I'm just getting started!” he exclaims. “I want to make records that will outlive me, but I'm hoping people will hear them when I'm alive.”