Cian Nugent: The Best of What's Next

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Cian Nugent is someone who can’t seem to rest. That’s literally true, as the 26-year-old guitarist and singer apparently has an impossible time trying to get to sleep.

“I’m up a lot of the time at night,” he says, speaking via Skype and soundtracked by the ceaseless buzz of midday Dublin traffic. “There’s something I really like about that. It’s torture if you know you have to get up early the next day, but there’s that space where you feel like you’re the only person awake and you feel like you’re on your own.”

It’s in that space where Nugent winds up doing a lot of songwriting. He doesn’t tend to pick up his guitar for fear of bugging his neighbors’ slumber, but he parses out instrumental ideas in his head, and lately, the lyrics for his songs.

The restlessness extends far beyond his nighttime activities. A musical polymath, Nugent is constantly juggling projects and sounds. When he’s not performing solo acoustic folk a la John Fahey or Robbie Basho, he’s working with his folk-rock quartet Cryboys, grinding out short blasts of power pop/punk with his buddies in The Number Ones, or improvising sprawling psychedelic instrumentals with fellow guitarist Steve Gunn and drummer John Truscinski under the name Desert Heat.

Lately, his chief musical concern has been his band Cian Nugent and The Cosmos, a quartet of musicians from his native Ireland—Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh on viola, drummer David Lacey, bassist Conor Lumsden, and keyboardist Brendan Jenkinson—who willingly follow their leader wherever a song needs to go. If that means finding the connective tissue between gently blooming midtempo psych-folk and charged up boogie rock as they did on “Houses Of Parliament,” the 23-minute beauty that closes out the group’s 2013 release Born With The Caul, so be it.

What has been concerning Nugent of late is a transition into full singer-songwriter mode. To date, everything he has released under his own name has been almost entirely instrumental (you can catch a bit of vocalizing in Born With The Caul, but it’s hidden behind a wall of reverb). For his forthcoming album, Night Fiction (out on Jan. 26 via Woodsist), he’s pushing his vocals to the fore, making his gently accented singing the centerpiece around which he and the Cosmos swirl a heady mix of horn-and-organ bolstered space pop.

“It was always something I intended to do,” Nugent says of his move into vocalizing on the new LP. “It was just hard to find the right way to do it. Singing was kind of a problem for me. I didn’t want to do it in a fake way with a fake American accent, but I also needed to find the best way to sing in my own accent and not have it sound weird.”

He found inspiration from a variety of sources: the band Dick Diver and their unabashedly Australian-accented singing and his friend Richard Dawson, a fellow sonic wanderer with a thick Newcastle brogue curling around his lyrics. While Nugent’s Irishness isn’t as apparent as those two examples (hints of it are there in songs like “Shadows” and the guitar/vocals-only “Nightlife”), hearing those groups was enough to ease his harried mind and get him to more fully take center stage on Night Fiction.

Another surprising element to this new album is that it is credited solely to Cian Nugent, even though the majority of the tracks feature his Cosmos bandmates. When looking at the whole record, it makes some sense as one track, the lovely glisten that is “Lucy,” features just Nugent’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and another (“Nightlife”) is held down by his electric guitar and bare vocal. Otherwise, it seems more like hedging his bets. If this experiment in singing turns out to be a complete failure, why drag his band down with the ship?

To his credit, Nugent brushes away that idea. “It could have gone either way,” he says. “The main reason was that, since this was the first time doing a singing record, I wanted to mark it out as being a little different in that respect. I don’t want to denigrate the influence of the band at all, but so much of this stuff I wrote at home and brought into arrange with the guys. I thought it would benefit from having a different name because it felt like a different band.”

Nugent is dead on the mark there. The only track on Night Fiction that feels truly akin to previous Cosmos efforts is the long closing track “Year Of The Snake,” which starts off with a slow, stately electric guitar line before the quartet starts to creep in, driving the last six minutes or so forward with Krautrock-like intensity. The rest of the album’s full band numbers are far more like slow drinks of a glass full of brown liquor, radiating warmth and a heady buzz through the body.

The record feels like something of a culmination of the first part of Nugent’s career as a musician, one that began simply in his late teens when a home-recorded collection of acoustic folk that he gave to friends and posted online was picked up by the blog Grown So Ugly. Thanks to that post, he was invited to play at the 2008 Time Of Rivers festival in Portland, Maine, run by the folks behind Time-Lag Records. He was quickly embraced by the community of fellow fingerpickers (he first met Gunn at that event), and soon started releasing work on labels like VHF and Matador. True to his impatient spirit, though, Nugent also started working with his other two bands The Number Ones and Cryboys, the latter of which is where he first started writing songs with the intention of singing them. Night Vision, then, brings all of those elements together into one near-perfect entity, leaving the door open for him to explore any number of musical directions.

At the moment, Nugent’s biggest concern is securing a visa so he can tour the U.S. in support of this new album, as well as making a new Number Ones LP and finally getting Cryboys into the studio. Creatively, he says, his future is all about “trying to find something that feels true and to do it in a way that feels honest and you can stand behind. Something that works as a song balanced with something that’s true to you.”