2016’s Borealis Music Prize went to DIY dark horse Jake Nicoll for his double album Two Things/Half of Nothing. Released in March of 2016, Two Things/Half of Nothing is a quietly ambitious collection of 23 songs; ambitious not only in its scope and sonic landscape, but in Nicoll having singularly, performed, recorded, and mastered the album almost exclusively on his own.
Although it’s marked with fleeting, (almost ephemeral) appearances from Nicoll’s equally multi-talented siblings Ilia and Billy, they serve to remind listeners that this deeply personal album, is by the same design, also deeply remote. The album’s tone is similar in nature, oscillating between the warm and familiar and difficult to pin down. The lush, and even opulent, balanced against the sparse and restrained.
It’s difficult to sidestep the grandiose vision/tired execution of the digital double-album (George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, notwithstanding), yet for Nicoll it seems the perfect format for housing his talents, interests, and restlessness.
Nicoll’s boundaries are whatever he wants them to be. All of this is to say: it’s the rare musician who, in their heart of hearts, makes music for themselves, and rarer still when they do it as well and (seemingly) effortlessly as Nicoll does on Two Things/Half of Nothing.
At the same time Nicoll hasn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. His lyrics are intelligent and introspective, but accessible, and even sappy at times. His melodies and vocals float like 1960s folk pop artists Donovan and Harry Nilsson, and in their quieter moments, Nick Drake.
Sonically, the album moves between atmospheric synthesizers, reverb rock, psychedelic folk, and even post punk. The production is reminiscent of Beck’s later work on albums like Sea Change and Morning Phase. Ultimately though, Nicoll’s influences are difficult to pin down. There’s nothing on the album that beats you over the head, and really, who can say how he feels about Beck.
Nicoll grew up in small-town Southern Ontario until the age of 6, and in and around Kitchener-Waterloo, thereafter. Listening to Two Things/Half of Nothing I get the sense that its these childhood memories, his siblings, maybe his parents’ eclectic record collection, or even an obscure rural radio station, that have influenced Nicoll more than anything.
Indeed, in his answer to the most uninspiring question: “Where did you grow up?” Nicoll paints a landscape of this childhood.
“I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario called New Hamburg … My grandparents had a farm not far out of town and me and my siblings (and many cousins) spent a lot of time there growing up. There was an old 80cc dirt bike that our aunt used to drive us around on as kids. I remember it didn’t have a muffler so to my sensitive kid ears it was almost terrifying just how loud it was. Hanging off the gas tank there were two wire foot rests made out of a coat hanger for our little legs. When I was in high school, keeping that dirt bike alive became an obsession of mine and I remember pulling the whole thing apart and putting it back together in my dad’s basement. Pretty much every time I tried to start it I’d have to mess with the spark plug or carburetor for half an hour before it would even start firing properly. Back then my parents were always telling me I’d become an engineer, and I guess they were sort of right.”
Nicoll landed in St. John’s 8 years ago. He’s since become a guiding force in the St. John’s music community, particularly as a recording engineer and producer in the indie/ DIY scene. His name comes up immediately when I ask BBQT drummer Allison Graves about her influences for a recent article on female drummers.
“Jake is someone who has undeniably influenced and encouraged the music scene. Through his interest in recording a vast array of musicians I think he has made sure that everyone is heard.”
It’s this earnestness, or genuineness that Borealis jury members consistently pointed to. Two Things/Half of Nothing is a beautifully honest and personal album. What truly stands out most to many however, is the space Nicoll leaves open for listeners. He’s created every corner of this album, yet managed to leave enough of himself off of it for listeners to find themselves.
On Two Things’ opening track, “Story of Your Life”, Nicoll sings: “I am a name within your script, but I am just a part of it. We all believe we are the center of the world. We all believe that we’ve been cast the leading role.”
In this way, Two Things/Half of Nothing is an album crafted by an observer. Nicoll has spent the last 6 years crisscrossing the globe drumming with The Burning Hell. Perhaps it’s the expansive travels, the spatiality of sitting behind the drums, or the recording and producing of other artists, that most informs this overreaching theme.
Whatever it is, there’s a tension on Two Things/Half of Nothing between someone who wants to observe the world and someone who wants to embrace it that Nicoll seems content to leave unresolved. Maybe prolific music making, in all its incarnations, is his way of doing both.
Given that Nicoll seems to make music for himself foremost, I wonder what winning a prize such as the Borealis means to him. Will he hire a hot publicist to amp up critical exposure (doubtful), or use the money to track down obscure analogue tape samplers and forgotten about synthesizers? (highly plausible).
“It means a heck of a lot to me to receive this award. I probably got more weird and paranoid and protective and secretive in the making of this album than any other I’ve made. After a year of working on it I had only shown any of it to my sister, my brother, and one very good friend. Otherwise I had absolutely no perspective at all about what it was I was making, which meant there was a lot of space for the ‘Don Music’ in me to run wild.
“Tearing off the privacy band-aid was especially hard this time around. I wrote a lot of sappy stuff into those songs. Sappy stuff that I actually believe = mega vulnerability. So it feels pretty great that people like it. It’s still a little surreal to think about people listening to it all, but I’m trying to get over my persistent desire to fade into the safe, fuzzy background. I’m thankful for the recognition, but even more thankful for feeling like I’m a part of this local music scene. When I moved here eight years ago I was amazed with how inviting and encouraging it was and I still feel that way now. No place is perfect, but as someone who grew up in the liability-obsessed suburban sprawl of Southern Ontario, St. John’s is pretty magical.”
Indeed. As a fellow CFA, Nicoll’s homage to the city on “I Gave Up Keeping Along,” stands as one of my favourite moments on Two Things/Half of Nothing.
“Such interesting people, so many in one small city / a pile of memories all here in this town by the sea / it isn’t all good but it isn’t all bad I should say / despite my complaints I’m grateful I landed this way.”
Congratulations, Jake. It’s a beauty.