As the world thankfully moves into a realm where the recent pandemic begins to seem as though it’s in the rearview mirror, that uncertain time of worry and isolation still casts an overwhelming shadow on every corner of society. For so many songwriters and musicians, especially those who have made their way as independent artists, the pandemic-induced shutdowns of 2020 unexpectedly led to fruitful months where both time and inspiration were readily abundant.
In the early months of the pandemic, with touring out of the question and Nashville’s music industry shutdown, singer-songwriter Nick Nace decided to return to his native Canada to be close to family and familiarity during that unprecedented period. He discovered quickly that the months ahead would likely prove to be a creatively fertile time. This is when the songs for The Harder Stuff, his latest full-length album, began to take shape.
“I had to quarantine to even get into Canada,” Nace says. “So, I had nothing but free time alone, which also meant I had the freedom to work on music every day in a way that I’d never had before.”
It’s probably not too difficult for most to easily recall how empty the streets were or just how upsetting the news was as the summer of 2020 rolled on into a contentious Fall election season. Topics that had always been polarizing became even more hotly debated as the search for any sort of proverbial light often felt futile. Cable news capitalized on its captive audience, sewing additional fear into a population feeling it more than it ever had collectively. When faced with all this, Nace knew what to do.
“I imagine I felt like everyone else did,” he says. “I was confused, terrified and depressed. It was all so surreal, but luckily, I had a place I could channel all that anxiety. That time was one of the most creative periods of my life. A common refrain at the time was ‘I just don’t have anything to write about,’ but I found the opposite to be true and before I knew it I had almost enough material for a new record.”
To be sure, things were dark, but as is the case throughout history, artists and creators so often seize those most troubling moments in a way that brings forth light. As he found his bearings in Canada, Nace had just turned 40, and he couldn’t help but assess his past and present. His path in life had led from Canada to New York City to pursue acting and to Nashville where he began to more fully form his musical identity.
In 2019, Nace released Wrestling With Mystery, an open-hearted, addictively melodic country folk effort that Glide Magazine states is full of stories that are “relatable and intriguing in a distinctly deep, resonant voice.”
But that was then, in the Before Times. Not only had no one heard of the Coronavirus in 2019, but Nace had yet to hit the 4-0. It only makes sense that The Harder Stuff would present a new set of stories with a perspective unlike any Nace had worked from before. “I basically became a middle-aged man while we all dealt with the pandemic,” he explains. “For most of my adult life I’d identified myself as a singer-songwriter and performer, and when all that was gone, I did have a mini midlife crisis. I had to figure out who I was without any of those things. I found out I was a half-decent photographer, and I ended up taking all of the photos for this new record. But going through all of that during that particular time led me to take a hard look at the past and the future, and what I wanted out of my relationships and out of this life.”
So, sure, The Harder Stuff, is Nace’s “pandemic record.” But only one song in the new collection directly tackles those dramatic, traumatic early days. “There’s No Music in Music City” is about exactly what it seems like it would be. It’s a hazy, dreamlike look into what it was like when a once-bustling town, brimming with songs wafting through the air that fell so stunningly silent.
But to be certain, this record isn’t about the pandemic. Recorded at Smoakstack Studios in Nashville in March of 2021, a full year after he began writing in Canada, Nace surrounded himself with an all-star cast of players who were more than ready to get back to work. Produced by Steven Cooper, who also played guitar and mixed by Nace’s brother Justin, the talent for the recordings was rounded out by Jon Latham (guitar), Todd Bolden (bass), Erin Nelson (drums), Megan palmer (fiddle), John Henry Trinko (keyboard and accordion), Owen Beverly (organ) and John Calvin Abney (accordion and bell).
Similar to the way the best sports movies aren’t about the actual games and scores, but the lives of those who play, The Harder Stuff is about all of us.
“The record is really about relationships,” Nace says. “It’s about how tricky and absurd and beautiful it is to just be a human on a day-to-day basis and how the past couple of years have really brought us, and me especially, face to face with what I call ‘the harder stuff.’”
Speaking of the title track, kissed with a lilting pedal steel that leads along a gently strummed acoustic guitar, it’s an unconventional take on a rather conventional sort of country tune – the drinking song. “it’s about how everything around you can go wrong, and things can go bad, but whiskey never seems to go bad and is there through thick and thin, but also looks into what the harder stuff in life really is.”
Another tune ripped from the ledger pages of Nace’s own personal memory bank is “Little Kid,” a wistful peek into the past where Nace’s elementary school memories get smaller and more distant as he lunges into middle age. Some memories may have been erased by time, but Nace singing about how he would “velcro my shoes,” is a triumph to just how certain sounds and experiences not only shape us but impress themselves in our hearts and minds for so long.
The Harder Stuff also gives the listener more proof into how insightful of a storyteller Nace truly is. Taking feelings and thoughts from his own life and arranging them into the views and perspectives of other characters is a skill he’s only honed more sharply since his last album.
“The Rio Grande on Christmas Eve” was inspired by a New York Times article Nace read about a man who left Honduras for the United States and ended up on the border river on a night when so many millions are comfortably celebrating with those closest to them. As an immigrant himself, Nace gives the song’s main character humanity and dignity that should inject some empathy into hearts that might otherwise be calloused.
In the organ-enriched “Figure 8’s” Nace provides a soulful, colorful glimpse into the saga of a single mother simply aiming to make ends meet. Writing from the female perspective is a first for Nace, but the thought of wanting a pair of roller skates for a brief flash of playful freedom away from the dreary obligations of life is something that’s universal.
What is an album for a songwriter if it’s not an artistic expression of the artist’s view of himself? The Harder Stuff is Nick Nace. It gives us who he was before and during the tough times we’ve all endured, and hopefully, what he’ll be down the road.
“I really hope that I’ve learned a thing or two and that I’ve come out on the other side of all this a better person than what I was before.”