Port St. Willow: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features

With an expanded reissue on a thriving Manhattan label, Port St. Willow’s debut LP, Holiday, recently earned the kind of second chance that typifies long-shot success stories. Originally self-released in 2012, the intimate concept album now stands at the brink of a much broader audience, with Holiday’s listeners being offered their own timely opportunity: After the album, Nick Principe—the solo multi-instrumentalist behind Port St. Willow—may never tap this same vein.

“It’s a record I probably wouldn’t make again now,” Principe says. “Because it was a record where I needed to work through something to find the voice of what I wanted to be doing musically as well as narratively.”

Anchored by a bedrock of circular drum patterns and Principe’s alluvial falsetto, Holiday, comes tied to a Westward narrative: needing the time and space to record an album coursing with the need for time and space, the Putnam County native left his home in New York and bounced from boho Santa Cruz to the considered pace and low-cost roominess of Portland, Ore. Principe internalizes and reacts against the same cyclical forces—where he’s been and where he’s going—right down to the decision of what to call his one-man band. The name Port St. Willow is both an amalgamation of places the 26-year-old musician has lived and a reference to a folk-based album he scrapped in order to pursue Holiday’s broader sonic potential.

“This age of backstory and romanticized notions…all of that bothers me. Starting from an honest place was the only way I could make peace with it,” Principe says, deflecting the biographical guesswork that might be inspired by his lyrics. “I can’t really control outside perceptions. I also don’t want to self-edit myself into a mode of paralysis—you have to say what you want to say and realize at a certain point it’s no longer yours.”

Oppositional forces push and pull throughout Holiday: the individual testing the outskirts of family, the personal ensnared with the universal, existential pain coming into contact with natural wonder. Navigating these channels and snags serves both as a theme of Principe’s music and a fundamental concern following the musician’s move back to Brooklyn. In this era of rapid information and rampant self-exposure, how does an artist find the freedom to make sense of the world through song without becoming trapped as the story of those songs?

“There’s that line of self-indulgence where you feel that you’re excluding people and I really am against the idea of anyone taking on a special importance. Everyone has a family and for me it’s less family and more relationships…” he says, adding that “It’s conscious living— recognizing what’s important to you and what you want to spend your time doing. And the most difficult to negotiate can be the fallout from that…whenever you move away from your home, one: you’re changing your perception of it, and two: everything’s continuing without you there. We’re a pretty small family, and to be the one who left…there were no particular pieces that were stressful other than life. Feeling like things are separating, but this is how it happens, this is how you become an estranged person from your friends and family.”

The complexity of those feelings finds expression in the lyrical immediacy of Holiday, where Principe’s roots in singer-songwriter styles still come to the surface even as he gravitates toward more ambient soundscapes. Principe enthuses about Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden as well as artists like Grouper and Eluvium, musicians who layer atmospheric landscapes into a connected whole and use their tonal palates to evoke emotion rather than dictate it.

“After growing up playing a lot of folk music, I started collecting pedals,” he says. “Somewhere in Santa Cruz I had a symbolic trading of my one acoustic guitar for three guitar pedals. [Laughs]. It was very poetic.”

Also inspired by the circular nature and loose player-feel of jazz, Principe says a guiding mantra for Holiday was “Busy/Quiet,” returning again to that tension between counter-weighted forces. For texture, Principe sought to “turn his guitar into a synthesizer,” and thanks to hooking up with local Portland instrumental duo 1939 Ensemble (comprised of David Coniglio and Jose’ Medeles of The Breeders), Principe managed to assemble “My first kit had that had some character to it.”

“Then I just got a pair of brushes,” he says. “And when I’d get home from work I’d play drums for an hour and it wouldn’t be about anything other than creating…almost as a meditative thing. Creating these loops—not necessarily so that I could get the loop and copy/paste it a thousand times onto a project, but it would be about playing for seven or eight minutes and getting a good take of playing for seven or eight minutes. So you could get that true feel in there of an actual person playing.”

That human feel comes through as one of Holiday’s most salient elements, where the complex polyrhythms never sound machine-born. And though Principe prefers to think of Holiday as non-narrative, the album avoids becoming ethereal or diffuse because Principe grounds the whole in both rhythmic and narrative structures.

“There’s usually a starting point, something that makes you believe it matters,” he says of his songwriting process, wherein his end-goal is to craft “songs that understand where they come from and where they go to… they’re pieces or anchors. You develop motifs and place them in different spots, and sometimes they’re really obvious and sometimes they’re not. And you do them for you. You develop a logic, and you connect them.”

The word “anchor” couldn’t be more appropriate in this description, as the noun/verb crops up in both the lyrics of Holiday and in its companion piece, the 25-minute song-suite “Soft Light Rush.” It’s one of those recurring motifs that carries different meanings in different states of motion: the anchor as either a crucial steadying force or a really fucking heavy weight.

Holiday itself already seems to have elements of both for Principe, and rather than revisit the headspace of that recording, the musician seems more eager to move forward and talk about “Soft Light Rush,” a lovely four-part movement that reiterates many of Holiday’s themes and depends far less on lyrical content.

“I’m really, really happy we got to include “Soft Light Rush.” That was something I did this past fall and I’m really proud of it,” he says. “The premise for that was to re-approach a few pieces from Holiday and make compositions out of them, using the same sense of circulation. It’s very cool that people are getting to hear [Holiday], but I’m also hungry to make some new work too.”

In addition to the excitement of releasing “Soft Light Rush” as a part of the Holiday reissue, Principe is also looking forward to the challenge of developing Port St. Willow’s live incarnation. A potential domestic tour looms on the horizon this summer, with Principe planning to round out Port St. Willow’s lineup with players on drums, synths and trombone to complement his voice and guitar. In keeping with his artistic vision, he talks about wanting the stage show to be a cohesive experience in its own right rather than a forced recreation that’s beholden to his recorded work.

Also characteristically, as a stage performer he says he looks to do “whatever I can to create a vibe that that’s not all about me.”

In retreating from that frontman’s spotlight, Principe’s also seeking out a side-project where the focus isn’t all on him and he can enjoy playing drums and making music with friends. Nor is it mere idle talk when he says he might record an entirely ambient album. An endorsement by Brian Eno helped facilitate Holiday’s reissue on Downtown Records, and Principe references the Eno documentary Imaginary Landscapes and being struck by the notion of vocals as an attachment point that prevents an audience from connecting to the rest of what’s taking place in the song.

“As soon as you inject your vocals, suddenly your personality dominates what is someone else’s experience,” Principe says. “So then how do you negotiate that without manipulating them or dictating to them what they’re supposed to feel or how they’re supposed to react?”

As for his next record as Port St. Willow, Principe says he’s in the “fun phase” of sorting through musical and conceptual ideas, figuring out directions and likely moving toward a space that “removes some of the vocal personality from it.”

The ability to create outside one’s own skin and history may be the greatest creative freedom there is, but even if the immediate future finds Principe moving away from Holiday, patterns of exploration tend to include an inevitable return. One way or another, as he seeks to create something greater than himself, Principe already seems to have found a balanced and grounded mode of approach.

“Honestly,” he says, “when is it ever the right answer not to be yourself?”

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