The Nicholas was fed up with his own voice ─ sort of.
After three solo EPs, including 2018’s Sonder, the Amsterdam-raised songwriter and producer needed new creative thrills. Well known in the indie-pop circuit, he’d pocketed an impressively robust list of cuts, including work with San Holo, GOLF, Sofie Winterson, and Golden Daze. As his own solo innovations became stagnant, he found collaboration to be exactly the jolt he needed.
So he called up a few artist friends and assembled his fourth EP, Silverside, out today (July 31). The moody six-piece feels like a natural progression yet remains firmly planted in the indie-rock songwriting present on his earlier releases, namely his 2014 bow, Cures for Being Stupid. What his debut, as refreshingly scatterbrained as it is, lacks, the new release makes up for sobering reflections, cloudy effervescence, and honest storytelling.
“I do most things alone. Sometimes, you get fed up with the things you make. I was fed up with my own voice a little bit,” he tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. He laughs off that statement, but it is a new song called “Pop Up” that is among his best to-date.
“A light just went on. I thought, ‘I could just release an EP under my own name but have other people sing on it.’ It’s always really inspiring to hear what other people come up with,” he says. “Melodies are different when others create them. It was a nice way for me to get really excited to make another EP.”
The Nicholas (full name Rutger van Woudenberg) transplants his indie band background into the well-trodden electronic galaxy. Born in Indiana, when his father was on sabbatical teaching philosophy, he recalls very little of stateside life: he was still a baby when his parents moved back to the Netherlands. “People there generally seem pretty happy and healthy,” he says, noting his entire family has roots there. “It’s also not a dangerous city. Compared to the U.S., kids are let off the leash way before people in the states. When I was four or five years old, I was allowed to walk to school.”
“I think you grow up a little fast when you grow up there,” he adds.
As with most musicians these days, he was surrounded by music, predominantly classical and the occasional Bob Dylan or Beatles record. His father was a guitar player, and his older brother played in various local bands. It was only fitting he would follow so closely in their footsteps. Woudenberg eventually picked up the guitar, too, drawing up such influential artists as Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and Sparkle Horse.
“I felt more inspired to hear people play guitar or instruments who weren’t necessarily instrumentalists,” he recalls. “They came up with more unique parts or treated the instrument in a way without much knowledge.”
When he did start recording music on his own growing up, he did so in secret. “I did that on my dad’s work computer. He was not allowed to know I had downloaded this program called Nuendo. It’s very bulky and not good at all, but it was fun to layer parts.”
What is most evident across Silverside is Woudenberg’s proficiency in building incredibly tangible sonic worlds. His imprint is ever-present, even when he enlists outside creators to blend in their own flavor.
His collaborators include Maxwell Byrne of Golden Vessel, an Australian producer with whom he’d previously worked on 2019’s SLOWSHINE. “We met through a random session to make something and became really good friends. We’re in touch almost every day, sending each other ideas,” he says. “We were always planning on doing a song for my project with him singing.”
Bryne lends a chilly vocal to the closing track, “Grocery Store.” He lingers in place, delivering an unfussy, but still propulsive, performance. “This moment is moving slow / I just want make things go,” he considers, “Or maybe we could make it stop / Could we still come out on top.”
Originally, Woudenberg conceptualized his own vocal in the song but soon found it to be lacking a particular punch. “I had manipulated my own voice so much that it didn’t sound like me anymore. I wanted to hear it as a listener. rather than as a songwriter and producer. I needed some sort of distance,” he explains. “I had the first verse and hook written. Max just nailed it. Sometimes, you hit the target, and sometimes, you have to dig in more and try to shape your way through the song and see what feels good.”
Odessa’s turn on “Rockshow,” perhaps the set’s most evocative, hits on all cylinders ─ from the celestial vocal to a lyric entirely drenched in human longing. “My head looks red / I’m feeling down / You won’t receive me when I smile,” she sings, allowing emotions to fester into blisters. “I look around and drown in doubt / You only see me when I smile / And I’m going to the rockshow.”
“Rockshow” is a prime example of the stars aligning. During rehearsal for a live show, during which Woudenberg was enlisted to play guitar in the band, he proposed the collaboration. She naturally said yes, of course. “This was one of the only ones I had totally done. There is a version out there that I sang by myself without her,” he says. “We worked on the lyrics, and then she did a take.”
Later, Chicago artist Appleby slips into “Waves” with an affecting conviction. His voice intertwines with the production’s cool, crisp layers. Clocking in at a mere 57 seconds, it’s meant to free the listener from the usual expectation for a calming, plaintive plea. “Oh I wish my brain would take it easy on me,” he mixes his tears with oceanic sounds, crashing around his body. “Just waves and monsoons washing over me…”
A lover of interludes, Woudenberg believed the EP needed and deserved this artistic immersion, one which would sweep the listener further away from the problems of the world. “Interludes have really special places. They put you in a world and abruptly takes you out. If you listen to an EP, from A to Z, it gives you some sort of new energy to keep going,” he says. “I wanted it to be something you’d finish and immediately want to hear again because it is so short.”
“It has something eerie about it. It’s a way better outcome than ‘damn, this song is really long.’ I chose to make a short song like this because I felt the whole EP would benefit from such a short moment.”
“Waves” initially began with the guitar part, stringy chords running beneath Appleby’s serene vocal take. “It started almost as if that would be a little instrumental. I really wanted to get some vocals on there. I love Appleby’s voice so much,” gushes Woudenberg. “I always thought he was such a genuine and amazing songwriter. This is one of those spark moments. I sent the part of him, and the same day, he sent that topline back. I was very touched by it. I personally really love lyrics that are complex and where you can interpret it on different levels depending on what situation you’re in.”
To say his collaborators, also including Akurei and Sofie Winterson, charmed his senses and taught him lessons is an understatement. “Everyone has a unique way of making music. It’s very inspiring to see someone have a go with an unfinished idea. Even if someone sends something back you don’t like, there might be one note or one little instrument that someone has added that sparks you to keep going with the idea. I’ve learned so much by sending out ideas to other people.”
Woudenberg may not particularly love his own voice, but “Pop Up” truly is an exemplary treasure. While he certainly wanted to showcase his producer and songwriter talents, this is an artist project with an indelible razzle-dazzle. “What I wanted to show people is that I am first and foremost a producer and a songwriter. Having an artist project, I’m not necessarily trying to go on tour or really be a firsthand artist. I love writing, recording, and producing music,” he says. “I’m more interested in the writing and producing of music for other people.”
“I do want to release more music under my own name. I thought by putting something out where other people sing on it would show people that I’m also a songwriter with other people,” he continues. “People might have seen I’ve been involved with other people’s records. I really liked singing this song myself. It was one of those where I thought I could handle my voice.”
The Nicholas’ Silverside EP stirs up deep emotions, from the starlit opener “Blink” to the lo-fi groover “Cardboard Box,” and his adept songwriting style cobbles it together like a puzzle. His work, inside and out of his artist project, has led him to greater understanding about what works and what absolutely does not. “A very important lesson for me is some sounds or chords that are pretty on their own might not necessarily work in a mix. I’m fond of using eerie or ugly stems or guitar parts on a song, but in a mix, it might not hit the right spot,” he offers.
“You see it with people who may never play in a band and only in their bedroom. They have a beautiful window playing alone, but when they play with a band, their whole sound disappears,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to scoop a lot of things out of there in order to be heard in the right way. It’s important to understand the functionality of different instruments within a mix.”