Sitting in the BMI offices for an industry junket trip to Nashville a few months ago, Ponderosa’s singer and main songwriter Kalen Nash levels with you. “I can’t write a lie,” he says, as the band’s keyboardist John Dance nods approvingly. But you also get the feeling that the reasons behind Nash’s songwriting ethics come from some place slightly different than Honest Abe’s. Maybe that’s because where Nash grew up – rural Georgia, just outside college town and music mecca, Athens – there was enough imagery around him to draw on for songwriting inspiration that he didn’t have to make any of it up. Album opener “Old Gin Road” is actually the road that Nash grew up next too. And the art-follows-life similarities don’t end there – Nash’s world permeates Midnight Revival cover to cover. We talked to Nash and Dance about working with Joe Ciccarelli in Nashville, the Atlanta music scene, and the influence of hip-hop on the band’s sound.
You recorded Midnight Revival with Joe Ciccarelli in Nashville at Blackbird Studios. What was it like working with such a legendary producer?
John Dance: Working with Joe Ciccarelli was definitely a boot camp in the way of – you’re just the band. “I’m the producer, here’s my engineer, what do you want to sound like, I’ll make it happen. Don’t touch the gear.”
Kalen Nash: It wasn’t a boot camp in the sense of a negative thing. It was a boot camp in the sense of… we would not be the band we are today if it wasn’t for Joe Ciccarelli.
Dance: He would individually sit with each one of us to record bits and pieces of things for the songs here and there, overdubbing things and just kind of champion us until he got the part out of us. I learned a lot about my own playing on organ and piano.
Nash: Just sitting in there, doing twenty or thirty takes of a song, and each time changing out cymbals, or changing out amps, changing guitars, or changing a bass rig, or changing a bass guitar, or changing a kick – all of these minute things. We would do a take and everybody would be like, “That’s good,” and then we would go in and listen to the [playback] and he would be like, “Alright, this is what I want to do.” He is like a scientist, like a sonic genius, to the utmost. Joe is a sonic genius.
Did working so scientifically take away from any of the group’s rawness?
Nash: Well, I think there’s definitely a give and take with all that. There’s a certain time, like they say, there’s a time for everything, and there’s a time to put things to bed. There’s a time to finally stop the painting, and be like, “I’m putting my soul out there for the last time on this one.” And that was kind of what it was with Joe. It was like, we’ve got one more shot to give these songs our all, like that’s really what we did, that’s really how we approached it. And I think the reason [was] Joe. I feel like we’ve always been free-range. We’ve always done everything completely ourselves. We set up the mics, and we’re doing all the stuff. [Working with Ciccarelli] was almost a hard role for some of us – especially [lead guitarist] Kris [Sampson] because he’s so hands-on. Those kinds of things were taken out of our hands.
How would you describe the songs and writing process for Midnight Revival?
Nash: I’m very much an impulsive writer. I’m very much a person where I’m like, if I write a song, I want to record it right then and capture that emotion because that’s the way that I write music, I can’t write a lie. That’s the way that I love recording. There’s something about capturing that moment in that moment that will always be special to me.
What effect has the Atlanta music scene had on Ponderosa?
Nash: There’s actually some really great bands. I haven’t been in Atlanta as long as [the rest of the band]. I’ve lived in Atlanta for maybe four years now. We’ve just made so many great friends. These guys are a little more jaded than I am on the Atlanta music scene, just because I came from Athens.The studio that we met at was in Decatur. Nickel and Dime. Actually it shut down, like two years ago. The song on our record, “Penniless,” was the last song recorded. There was a huge hole in the wall and people were carrying the SSL out while we were recording the song. The first line of the song is “goodbye Nickel and Dime.” Seriously, all of our hearts were being ripped out at that point.
What type of music were you influenced by growing up?
Nash: I grew up in the church, the Baptist church, so you weren’t allowed to listen to Top 40 radio because all of that stuff wasn’t really socially acceptable. I could listen to Oldies, because that was stuff was safe even though it was about the same [subjects as Top 40]. It was still about women. That’s the stuff I cut my teeth on. That and Hank Williams and Marty Robbins – those are my biggest influences for sure. And Ray Charles, I mean, I was listening to some Ray Charles the other day and I was like, “This is so undeniably amazing. I can’t even imagine trying to be a fly on the wall in a session like that.” It was just a totally different approach at that time.
Did any hip-hop – especially Atlanta hip-hop – have an effect on you?
Nash: We’re all just giant Outkast fans. Those are just records that molded my life. Everything is the rhythm section, that’s the key, and [bass player Jonathan Hall’s] first job was at Stankonia Studios, so he worked with those guys every single day. So, hip-hop, Wu Tang, all of those cats. I think all of that stuff really pours through just because those guys are in touch with Otis [Redding]. Those rhythm sections molded their childhoods, so that’s the same samples. I totally feel, especially being in Atlanta, hip-hop – there’s no way for it not to infiltrate. For so many years, so many genres of performers have stayed so secluded, like “I don’t want to be influenced by hip-hop.” But if you go back to Jerry Lee Lewis, when he was a kid, he would sneak into rock and roll clubs and blues clubs, and be influenced by the culture of the music and blend it, and the fact that it gets blended sometimes around us, is always a benefit.