Nick Waterhouse is a planner.
The Los Angeles singer, songwriter and guitarist left little to chance on his new album, Holly, out tomorrow on Innovative Leisure. It’s a carefully thought-out collection of 10 songs, seven of them original, that hew to the indie-soul sound Waterhouse established on his 2012 debut LP, Time’s All Gone.
That album didn’t start out as an album at all, but was rather a collection of songs that Waterhouse had recorded when he had the time and money to hit the studio. He took a decidedly more deliberate approach to Holly.
“I kind of wanted to make more of a film out of an album this time, rather than just a series of songs,” Waterhouse, 28, says. “I used to read about Raymond Chandler writing synopses on note cards and having them all over his wall—I did something very similar on my dining room table in my apartment, working out the trajectory of this record both in atmosphere and tone.”
While The Big Sleep writer’s hardboiled noir sensibility was an influence on Holly, Waterhouse cites two works from another Hollywood name as his primary inspirations here: the movies Chinatown and Shampoo, both written by Robert Towne, whose screenplay for Chinatown won an Oscar in 1974.
“Robert Towne has been a big influence on me in my philosophy and how I approach music,” Waterhouse says. “I first saw Chinatown around the same time that I was getting interested in delving deeper into music, and it blew my mind as much as any record did.”
Part of the attraction, Waterhouse says, is the way that Towne evoked a southern California distinct from the seductive allure of Hollywood—something the singer sought to do on his new LP. Though it’s not, strictly speaking, a concept album, Holly does tell a story of sorts, with songs that draw on the atmosphere of what Waterhouse calls the “young L.A.” scene centered east of downtown.
“It’s a very young, artistic culture that’s full of people in their 20s who are going about their lives in one way or another, going from bar to bar and going from show to show,” Waterhouse says. His fictionalized take on their nightlife, he says, is “my version of Mulholland Drive or something. It’s in the vein of not so much who killed the girl, but what did?”
The story wasn’t the only part of Holly that Waterhouse was careful to plan. He showed up to record—at Fairfax Studios, the complex formerly known as Sound City, in Van Nuys—with songs that were essentially ready to go, says Rob Douglas, who played bass on the album.
“It was clear that he had a vision in place,” Douglas says. “You could see that he knew what he wanted in terms of how the band sounded.”
In addition to the originals, Waterhouse chose songs by the jazz singer Mose Allison (“Let It Come Down”), drummer Isaac “Red” Holt (“Ain’t There Something Money Can’t Buy”) and Waterhouse’s longtime friend Ty Segall (“It No. 3”), the garage-rock guitarist. Though the tunes have a lean, taut vintage R&B feel, laced with horns and boxy guitar licks that have drawn comparisons to music by the likes of Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, Waterhouse says he identifies more closely with the scene around Burger Records, the Fullerton, Calif., garage-rock label that has released music by Segall, Mikal Cronin and Thee Oh Sees, among others.
“That is a culture that I know from my life, that I grew up in. I just didn’t do anything that they did aesthetically,” Waterhouse says. “I suppose if we have to draw parallels, I’m like the William S. Burroughs of the California garage-rock scene. I’m the strange buttoned-up man who walks in and out and does his own thing.”
Waterhouse grew up in L.A., raised by a father who was a firefighter and a mother in sales. Racing motorcycles was an early love until a bad crash when he was 15 refocused him on music. Even as a teenager fronting bands, Waterhouse was the meticulous, organized one, says Anthony J. Polizzi, a friend who played with him in a high school group.
“He wrote the songs, he was the singer, he booked the gigs, he did everything. That’s a lot of work for a young kid,” says Polizzi, now a mathematician in Baton Rouge, La., who wrote arrangements for a few of the tunes on Holly and did charts for most of them. (He also recalls Waterhouse watching Chinatown “nonstop” in high school.)
The band broke up as high school ended, and Waterhouse attended college in San Francisco, where he says he thought about becoming a jazz player. All the while, though, he nurtured a love for old-school R&B, jazz and blues that came to the fore when he eventually recorded his first 45. Despite his affinity for those vintage sounds, Waterhouse thinks of himself as someone who’s making contemporary music.
“Like any good military strategist, you need to take from the past and not think of it as the past if it’s still relevant to what you’re creating,” says Waterhouse, who has also produced records for bands including L.A. surf-rockers the Allah-Las. “The point of recording is to take something out of the time it exists in and make it infinitely present. You summon it every time you play it.”
In other words, with proper planning (and maybe a little bit of luck), a musician in, say, Los Angeles can communicate the feeling that a certain sound made at a specific moment to anyone, anywhere, without worrying about whether it’s considered modern.
“It has less to do with time and more to do with place,” Waterhouse says. “That’s kind of how I see a lot of the things that people see as potentially anachronistic. I get rid of the anachronistic things in the stuff that I pull from. My tunes are not, ‘Baby, baby, do the swim.’ It’s not that shit. It’s more about the universal feeling and rhythms that existed 100 years before and I feel will be around 100 years after.”