“It’s completely my call on everything, for better or worse” — Taking Back Sunday’s John Nolan talks new solo LP

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John Nolan calls just hours before his band, Taking Back Sunday, is slated to play a show in the tropical paradise of Hawaii. TBS is winding up the touring cycle for their latest full-length, Happiness Is, and it couldn’t come at a better time for Nolan. For years, the vocalist/guitarist/pianist has been working on and off on a new solo album to follow up 2009’s Height. With a little time off from his duties in Taking Back Sunday, Nolan is utilizing his time by releasing a second solo album, Sad Strange Beautiful Dream, and taking it on the road.  

What drew you to step away from Taking Back Sunday and create original content? Did you feel like there were more stories you needed to tell through music that didn’t fit with the TBS vibe?
JOHN NOLAN: One of the things about Taking Back Sunday is I’m involved as a songwriter with pretty much every song that the band will write. It’s very much a collective [effort]. Our writing process is very democratic, and everybody contributes something and has a say in it. I think that’s a part of what makes Taking Back Sunday sound the way it does. There’s something nice, to me, about having a chance to do something where it’s just completely my call on everything—for better or worse. It’s a nice change of pace to go in a different direction and do it the way that I want to.

This isn’t your first time teaming with producer Mike Sapone—he’s engineered or produced a number of Taking Back Sunday and Straylight Run releases as well as worked with you on your first solo album, Height. Was it the familiarity with his production method that made you want to record Sad Strange Beautiful Dream with him?
I just really love working with him. He’s got a very unique approach to producing. He somehow manages to be really laid back and kind of free and let me do what I want. At the same time, he’s able to really mold and shape the project. It’s really interesting. For me, his ideas are always in sync with where I’m at. It always feels really natural and enjoyable working with him.

Many musicians are stepping away from their successful bands to release solo albums—Nate Ruess of fun. and Brandon Flowers of the Killers come to mind. Why do you think there’s a draw for that right now?
I’m not necessarily sure. I think it’s something that makes sense to me why any musician in a band would want to do that. I think for probably a lot of the reasons that I was just talking about—the chance to do something separate without a whole group involved in the writing process. I guess that people are just interested to check out something new from somebody and see what they’ll do in a different setting and going in a different direction.

How long has this album been in the works?
Probably three or four years, but that’s not to say that I’ve been actually actively working on it for four years. It’s just ideas here and there, some songs here and there over those years. I kind of had a big burst of songs hitting right toward the time I was about to record and made the decision to make the record. I think I had this point where I had four or five songs that just came together really quickly for me. It wasn’t until that point that I was actively thinking of it as a record.

Lyrically, it seems that this album is based around real-life events and authentic emotion about the current state of the country. It’s as if you tore pages straight from your journal and put them to music. Was there an overall concept you were aiming for?
It kind of just came together the way it did. I didn’t really make any kind of a plan, and it wasn’t really until the album was done that I noticed how many of the songs were pretty directly and literally based on my real-life experiences. That never really happened before, but it just kind of happened with this record for some reason.

What song on the record was the most difficult for you to finish?
There’s one song on the record called “I’ll Be Home Soon.” It’s just some piano, violin and vocals. I had the music laid out for a while, and when I went into the studio, I actually still didn’t have lyrics or melodies for it. I ended up finishing the lyrics and melodies pretty close to when I needed to record the song and get it done. It ended up being about being away from my wife and son, traveling and touring and all that. I was actually away in New York recording the album, and my family is in Charlotte, North Carolina. So it ended up being surprisingly about what was actually happening at that moment, in a certain way, and also the fact that it was being recorded almost immediately after it was done being written. [It was] very fresh, and I guess pretty emotional too.  

You mentioned your wife and son. Has being a part of their lives changed the way you’ve approached music at all?
For the first solo record, I was married. We didn’t have a son yet. After having my son, the time you have to work on music definitely changes, or it did for me. I used to write and record song ideas late at night. My wife would go to bed, and I’d work on music until four in the morning. You can’t really do that with a toddler. I definitely have to find new times and places to work on music.

A version of this piece was published in Substream #47.