Nat Baldwin

Dirty Projectors’ Nat Baldwin on Anthony Braxton and Heading Back Home

Stacey Anderson

By Stacey Anderson

on 06.16.14 in Features

A galvanizing energy courses through Nat Baldwin’s new solo album, In the Hollows, from the tremors in his high, reedy vocals to the agitated rhythms of his upright bass. To hear him speak of its Walden-esque origins, it all makes sense. “I was living a super-solitary lifestyle at the time. I was training for a marathon, and I wasn’t drinking or going out,” recalled the musician, 34, of his recent winter in his tiny coastal hometown of Kittery, Maine. “I started doing everything based around training for this race. Being in that mindset of total dedication sort of put me in the right headspace to make music, too.”

An injury derailed his athletic ambitions, but In the Hollows is its own intriguing achievement. The sixth solo album by Baldwin, the longtime bassist of the Dirty Projectors, it augments the musician’s normally minimalist bass-and-vocals arrangements with deeper orchestral strings (most courtesy of yMusic, the prolific avant-classical ensemble) and couples them with sweeping, folksy fables of loss and wanderlust. Baldwin’s vocals recall Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth, and his bass parts are broad and mercurial, reflecting both free jazz and chamber pop; as it turns out, when Baldwin narrowed his focus, he found a broader musical world.

The good-natured Baldwin took a break from his hectic promotional schedule to sit in a sunny New York park, fuel up on black coffee and chat about his classical education, his languid life in Maine and his best dance party with the Projectors.

What keeps bringing you back to Kittery?

I had just sorta had enough of New York at the time that I moved out. I love New York, but I was touring so much, mostly with Projectors at that time. It just started to not make a whole lot of sense to be in New York and paying New York rent but not really being here.

I have been missing, like, a little bit more activity, ’cause it was a pretty quiet winter.
It was a long one, this winter, and I was there the whole time. I didn’t really do much touring or anything. So I actually did get a ton of work done. It was productive. It was sort of exactly what it should be, I guess, if you’re living in kind of a sleepy town in the winter in Maine.

There’s a romanticism to that.

Yeah, it was great. I do have a bunch of touring coming up, so whatever’s making me feel that [I want more activity], I’ll get that fix of stimulation coming up on these tours. That’s why I like Kittery, too, ’cause it’s a great place to come home to after tour. Living in New York, where there’s shit to do every night, going out and all this energy and activity… touring is just like that every night, except in a different place. But it’s exhausting.

Is your family still there?

Yeah, they are. It’s great. I’m close with my family.

‘I had trouble getting work done in New York. I think some people feed off the energy and get motivated by it and I guess I do, in a sense, but I just seem to work a lot better with space and some quiet and solitude.’

Is there something you find creatively stimulating about the place? Obviously you can be productive there.

Yeah! I had trouble getting work done in New York. I think some people feed off the energy and get motivated by it and I guess I do, in a sense, but I just seem to work a lot better with space and some quiet and solitude. I think a lot of people probably do. But yeah, I just couldn’t quite find the balance when I was here.

When I work, I like knowing that I’m the only one there. I don’t even want my roommates to be home. I like being totally secluded. ‘Cause it usually takes me a while. I have to kind of, like, parse through shit. I’ll go hours where I’m doing stuff but it’s not coming together and all of a sudden, it’ll come together, but it only reaches that point because of the hours of fumbling through stuff and failing and stuff.

Tell me a bit about your classical and jazz training. I know you studied with Anthony Braxton, which is amazing.

I started music really late, the end of my junior year of high school. I started out pretty far behind everyone else I was playing with — which was a challenge, but in a way, I feel like that really accelerated my learning. I grew a lot in the first year or two, maybe more quickly than somebody starting out playing something when they’re a little kid or something. I was playing with really good, talented people that’d been playing for awhile. I went to a music school after high school.

Did you have to audition?

Yeah, that, too. I’d only been playing for a few months when I had to audition. There weren’t a lot of bass players and I think they just took me based on potential. I think if I had done the audition and said I’d been playing for 10 years, then I would’ve [seemed like I] sucked. But I was like, “I’ve been playing for four months,” and they were like, “Oh, wow. That’s crazy.”

So you knew pretty quickly that it was what you wanted to pursue, as soon as you started.

Yeah. I got just totally immersed immediately. It was crazy. I went to the school for just two years and I started hanging out and playing with some people over at Wesleyan University, which is nearby. By the end of my second year, I was spending more time over at Wesleyan than I was at [the University of] Hartford. I didn’t know what else to do at Hartford. It was a good experience in that it sort of made me figure out what I wanted to do, but I realized that it didn’t involve staying there. So I dropped out of school and moved to Middletown. I didn’t go there officially. I met Mr. Braxton [who taught at Wesleyan]. And again, there weren’t a lot of bass players, and he was just excited there was another creative musician around that was into weird music and was eager to learn and play. So he let me sit in on his classes. I was basically a student there without doing all the requirements.

Or the tuition?

Without tuition. It was amazing. So I was kinda, yeah, posing as a student. I used all the facilities there. Used all the computer rooms. Used the practice rooms. I spent most of my days just in the practice rooms. Played in a few different bands and then a few different school-related ensembles.

And no one ever paused and was like, “Hey, you don’t go here”?

Well, people knew. It wasn’t like I was trying to be secretive about it. People were into it. The only teacher I dealt with was Braxton. I played in the orchestra, too, and I’d never done just straight-up classical music before. So that was a cool experience.

‘I could just listen to [Anthony Braxton] talk for hours. He’s brilliant. And just watching the way his mind works, too, you can just tell that there’s so much going on that he can barely get everything out.’

Braxton is known for being very philosophical. He has a MacArthur Genius grant. How did he affect you as a musician?

I mean, he’s amazing. One of his classes was a history class on different composers each semester. The one I went to was on Sun Ra and Stockhausen. It was amazing. I could just listen to him talk for hours. He’s brilliant. And just watching the way his mind works, too, you can just tell that there’s so much going on that he can barely get everything out. ‘Cause he’s known for going on tangents. He’s just such a brilliant dude.

So just being around that energy was really, really inspiring. And the other class, we played his music. A lot of the things he was doing musically were things that I’d never encountered before, too. It really changed and then shaped the way I think about music. He’s just so open to everything. He’s really forged his own path, despite a lot of criticism that he’s got for doing that — for being someone who doesn’t fit nicely into a specific genre. He’s created such an individual, singular, unique body of work. For that reason, he gets mixed reviews from people. But also for that reason, the people that are supporters are very, very strong supporters.

That’s the other thing, too — the support he gave his students and the confidence, too. I was young and impressionable, and I’d only been playing music for a few years. He was an example of, like, if you dedicate your life to this and really believe in something, even if it’s as sort of experimental and out there as a lot of his music is, you can stick with it and create a life with it.

When I moved out of Middletown, it was a crazy experience because there was so much support. The musicians that were there at the time were incredible. I’m still friends with a lot of them. It was such a supportive community. Everyone was playing each other’s music. There were no egos. Everyone was in it together. I moved home after that time, and didn’t have that anymore. There weren’t people I was playing with there. I just stopped playing music for like a year and a half.

Because that social element was absent?

Yeah. It’s only now looking back that I can analyze why. At the time, I don’t know, but I had lost some sort of desire, didn’t know what I wanted to do next. It was just a confusing time. And it probably had plenty of other, non-musical reasons why that was happening, too. Just like [being] a confused, young 20-year-old or whatever. But still, I think losing that support system and that community of musicians played a part in it, too.

So what got me back into music was writing songs. I’d never written songs. I wasn’t even really into, like, melody-based music. I was into more just like experimental, weird music. And then what got me back into music after that year-and-a-half hiatus, was writing songs. And that was like 10 years ago. I’ve been writing songs for about 10 years.

When did you join Dirty Projectors?

Pretty soon after that, actually.

How did that happen?

I was doing some touring for my own music. I had just started writing songs and met some people from New England that were doing a lot of house-show touring and had a lot of contacts within the sort of small, DIY scene at that time. I just started booking my own tours. I’d go out for a week or two weeks, play bass with someone else for a couple weeks. It’d all be super stripped-down and simple, house shows or small galleries or something. And I met Dave Longstreth at one of the shows. He set up a show for me. He was going to school at Yale. We had been corresponding before that show. I played at Wesleyan, actually, at a house show. He came to the show.

So then we met and I was gonna play at Yale the next week or something. And then we hung there and then we kept in touch and a few months later, he was playing with a bass player at the time and they had a radio show — a WNYC thing, the David Garland show — and his bass player couldn’t go. He called me and that was the first time I played, on that radio show, and that was in 2005. Then about a month or two later, he asked me to go on tour with him.

Obviously, the Projectors are a very successful band with a lot of acclaim. What compels you to make solo albums? What do you want to achieve separately from the band that you’re in?

Well, I like having the two different projects. They definitely balance each other out — the shows and the touring lifestyle and the business aspects of things. Obviously I’m much more removed in every aspect with Projectors, and it’s really fun and fulfilling to be a part of someone else’s vision that I really believe in.

‘Dirty Projectors are a rock band — a weird rock band, but a rock band. There’s a lot going on and it’s powerful. And then my music, on the other hand, there’s not as much in sheer volume and density, but I try to create a different kind of power in its sincerity and its intimacy.’

Dave writes all the music?

Yeah, yeah. So that’s one aspect of my musical self that I can satisfy in that way. But then I do love writing my own music and have been doing that longer than I’ve been playing in Dirty Projectors. Aesthetically, the way I write music and the nature of the classical instrument and stuff, it fits in more intimate environments.

So, I like having that divide. Projectors are a rock band — a weird rock band [laughs], but a rock band. There’s a lot going on and it’s powerful. And then my music, on the other hand, there’s not as much in sheer volume and density, but I try to create a different kind of power in its sincerity and its intimacy.

I love so many different kinds of music. And I’m probably influenced without realizing. I think I had just been introduced to Judee Sill, sort of an under-the-radar folk singer. She made a couple albums in the ’70s that were just recently reissued, but she still feels sorta cultish. Her songs are beautiful and the arrangements are really kinda baroque and beautiful. Nick Drake, too; I love how those arrangements work on that album, Five Leaves Left. The songs still feel so fragile and intimate; the strings don’t take away from that, they kinda punctuate in all the right spots and make it feel a little bit more alive.

I saw something interesting when you wrote on The Talkhouse last month that, in your pursuit of truth, you find less of it in music — with the exception of this Spencer Kingman album that you were raving about. Can you expand a bit on the concept of the search for truth in music, and why isn’t it as fruitful now for you?

I didn’t mean to say that I can only find it in Spencer’s music. I wanted to talk about it in that way because, with his music, you can’t just put it on at any time. It’s something that you have to be fully immersed in. Or you can, but the details and subtleties will sort of slip by. If I’m being totally honest, that is my favorite kind of music: the kind that you have to be fully engaged in. And it’s something that really, somehow, moves you in a way that’s hard to describe.

You’re going on tour soon through the Midwest, the East Coast and the South. Anywhere you’re especially looking forward to playing?

I love New Orleans and Lafayette. I think New Orleans is my favorite city in America. It’s a special place.

What’s the most trouble you’ve gotten into in New Orleans? ‘Cause you must have gotten into some.

The last time I was there, went to this bar called St. Roch. They were playing crazy bounce music until 5 in the morning. It was on tour with the Projectors and it was just me, Mike [Johnson, the drummer] and Dave. None of the girls came. It was just a crazy scene in there. It was amazing how, just in this one bar — and it was a filthy bar, a total dive — there were just all kinds of people. Old people, young people, a super diverse crowd in every way. And everyone’s just dancing together, just this awesome, awesome energy. I didn’t get into any scandalous trouble but just had a massive hangover the next day. But that happens in many places.

You and Dave dancing to bounce is a great mental image.

It would probably be pretty embarrassing, but I’d watch a video of that, too. Just once. Then maybe erase it. It was probably pretty funny. I can say, from my perspective, it was very entertaining watching Dave and Mike, especially, getting into it.