Alex Nicol interview Been a Long Year Vol. 1

Alex Nicol spun major life changes into some truly captivating new songs

We spoke with the Montreal singer-songwriter about his latest EP, Been a Long Year Vol. 1, dealing with tragedy, a fresh take on protest songs and more.

Great personal strife often leads to great art. Across five songs on his newest EP, Alex Nicol turns grief and major life changes into a small but truly captivating body of work.

The EP, Been a Long Year Vol. 1, dropped on June 30. Prior to the release, the Montreal-based singer-songwriter was “really calm and really excited at the same time” to unleash these songs onto listeners, especially as they took quite some time to marinate — almost nine months — with much of it being recorded during the pandemic.

A follow-up to his 2020 debut album, All for Nada (his first solo record after being in the band Hoan), Nicol feels like this EP is a big leap toward fully expressing himself artistically, compared with his album’s more “heady” and “intellectual” nature, where he didn’t feel like those depths were being reached.

“My universe is far larger,” he says, speaking to Cult MTL while staying at his mother’s house in Ottawa (and having just returned from doing a press run in Europe). “It’s grander, it’s deeper, it’s naughtier. It’s a lot more emotional. I think that comes out of what I’ve lived through.”

Born in Hamilton and raised in Toronto and Ottawa, he moved to Montreal at the age of 18 to pursue his ambitions as a singer-songwriter. “I wanted to be involved in an artistic community, and I found one in Montreal, so I stayed,” he says. “The music community in Montreal is vast — there’s just fantastic people everywhere.”

While it may have been a long time in the works, Been a Long Year Vol. 1 doesn’t feel stale or played-out to Nicol. “They’re so ‘of the now’ for me,” he says. “As much as they’ve been around for a while, they’re still fresh to me. I hear them and I think, ‘Oh yeah, this is my new identity. This is my new sound.’”

“Been a Long Year” by Alex Nicol

One song in particular, the opener “Eye for an Eye,” is quite the tone-setter. Much like the rest of the EP, the track feels like a soft, feathery acoustic indie folk tune (think Beck’s Sea Change, Andy Shauf, Elliott Smith and/or Weyes Blood), but its lyrics and themes are flush with political overtones and meditations on social injustices.

It’s an intriguing contrast for a protest song, one that wrestles brazenly with the idea of “playing one’s part in society” when that society is systemically broken, corrupt, unequal, and full of lies — and how long until an uprising follows. (Sample lyrics: “You give a little, and what do you get?/It’s the dance we learn on the ballroom floor”, “Chewing the stones with broken teeth/We want the truth, they feed us hard deceit”).

Such structural shortcomings and broken promises make it easy for one to feel like there’s neither any hope nor point in fighting the good fight. When there’s so much wrong with the world, it can feel like an exercise in futility trying to get the powers that be to fix those problems. 

For Nicol, now is an especially important time to use music as a tool for speaking out against these injustices, largely because they just keep getting worse. (It also happens that this interview took place as wildfires were raging across the country, and mere weeks before Montreal owned the dubious title of having the world’s worst air quality on June 25.)

“We’re a part of these grand social changes that dip and swerve through time,” he says. “There’s no way that these issues — like climate change, like social inequality, like disenfranchisement — won’t get dealt with one way or another. They have to be dealt with — whether or not that happens today, or in 100 years, it doesn’t matter. And it’s frustrating.

“As a citizen of Canada, I pay fucking taxes. I went to fucking public school. I danced the fucking dance. Now where’s the payout? Where’s the respect I can have for my government, for the general social changes that I, as a millennial, want to see? I don’t see them enough. If society has ripped my eye out, I want to say ‘Okay, well, I’m going to take your other eye out soon if you don’t fucking get your shit together.’ I’m swearing a lot, but it’s frustrating. It’s not just about climate change or economic things, it’s about human rights and Aboriginal issues as well.”

So what are the most productive things the average person can do to try making things better, as much as it can feel like all is lost? For Nicol (who takes partial inspiration for political themes in his music from CSNY’s “Ohio”), there’s a difference between being informed and putting that information to good use, and the baseline course of action for anyone to take is to get involved in the political process. If the candidate you vote for in elections isn’t securing the bag and following through on their promises, don’t vote for them again. “Don’t lose hope in the political system — just refine your approach to it,” he adds. 

“There are all kinds of things (you can do) day to day. I’m not a vegan. I don’t compost every day. I have a fucking car. I’m not perfect by any means. I am very much a part of the problem, and I have to be okay with that. My wife is a huge inspiration for me in this regard. She’s constantly involved in communication with the borough council about issues. That attitude is the right attitude. There are so many other things that can be said, but I don’t proselytize. I don’t have the answers. I just know that being involved in the conversation helps.”

Produced in part at the Gamma Recording Studio at LaTraque in Rosemont/Petite-Patrie, Nicol recorded these five songs alongside several musicians, including Chocolat’s Guillaume Éthier (who played drums on the EP) as well as bassist Maxime Castellon and guitarist Simon Trottier (who plays electric and lap steel).

The EP’s title track even boasts a guest appearance from Angel Deradoorian, of Dirty Projectors fame, on backing vocals. As if working with some of his favourite Montreal musicians wasn’t enough (the title track also features Pietro Amato on the French horn), Nicol says he felt like “the luckiest person on Earth” being able to bring Deradoorian into the mix after a brief email exchange between the two.

“It was smooth. It was quite professional,” he continues. “We had a little bit of back and forth about what I heard, and what I thought she could provide. She was working virtually, so that had an effect. We didn’t meet in person until recently — that was a lovely meeting we had in New York. She’s lovely. Very, very talented artist.”

If you ask Nicol, it was producer/mixer Emmanuel “Manu” Éthier — who’s worked previously with Coeur de pirate, Pierre Lapointe, Choses Sauvages and other big-name acts in Quebec — who really brought the songs together after they were demoed in Nicol’s Parc Ex basement. But not before a sudden domestic accident when Manu went over to Nicol’s place to meet him for the first time.

“We sat down, and my cat had just peed on my couch the morning Manu came over,” he says. “I’d never met Manu, so I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible.’ I didn’t know what he was going to think, but it wasn’t a good time to have a cat pee on the couch. But he came in and sat beside it, and we really hit it off. He was very, very chill.” 

Nicol talked about what he wanted to do with the songs, while Éthier recommended where to record them, and who to lay those tracks down with. After meeting with the musicians he played on the EP with, they set some dates and practised before sitting down at Gamma to record for five days. 

This also all happened at a challenging time for Nicol. Two days before recording, he was laid off from his job, as the department he worked in had suddenly been shuttered. He couldn’t get time off work to record prior to his job loss, so he decided to “commit 110%” to his music. Between mixed feelings of relief in the present and uncertainty about the future, there was upheaval elsewhere in Nicol’s life, when a friend of his committed suicide. 

“It was really a strange period,” he continues. “That’s the milieu in which the songs were written and recorded. The only thing keeping me sane was the recording of the music, and the commitment to the art. Looking back on it, it’s clear that I was receiving some signals from the universe that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’ve got to take this really seriously.

“I poured my heart and soul into it. It captures this transformative period in my life where my old self, which was very stuck to social expectations of myself — have a full-time job, be a certain way in the world, tamper your artistic temperament. That was my old self. This all kind of came together, and within a couple of weeks, I was jobless. I had recorded music that I thought was the best, but I didn’t have any money left. I was like, ‘What the fuck is going to happen?’”

Nicol admits he used to feel like he couldn’t tell people he was a musician, instead saying he was a copywriter (his old job) or a cook. Deciding to fully lean into his role as a musician and embrace it was a huge moment for him, one that made him cry and become “very emotional” afterwards. In other words, this personal breakthrough is part of why it’s been such a long year for him.

“These songs are always going to bring me there, to this period of intense interpersonal evolution,” he says. “In part forced, and in part out of my own volition.”

“Hollywood” by Alex Nicol

Learning to accept his feelings as being valid and authentic is documented within the songs on Been a Long Year Vol. 1. The pandemic has also caused a sense of hyper-stability inside Nicol, leading him to avoid tackling certain long-suppressed emotions for a great amount of time. After making the EP’s title track (“Been a Long Year”), the writing process became a “flashpoint” for him. 

“It all happened very quickly,” he continues. “I didn’t change one word. It captured it. From that point onward, I was like, ‘Okay, I can go there.’ And it feels good. It was mostly that song that crystallized it, because it was so simple. The sense of hyper-stability lasted so long. It wasn’t just COVID, but COVID augmented it. All that meant is I just retrenched further and further and further. 

“Then other sad things happened: deaths, job losses. In a way, it’s tough for me, because I’m not a sad person. I just got smacked around by the world for a long time. And I let the world smack me around, in some ways. Now that I’m living with grief, too, and living with the version of myself that I was before, that’s life, baby.”

As far as what he’s learned about himself during the pandemic, whether as a musician or on a human level, he credits a newfound appreciation and respect for Montreal’s music community, and those involved in it. (Having guests like Dirty Projectors’ Angel Deradoorian on vocals and Pietro Amato on French horn on this EP made Nicol feel like “the luckiest person on Earth.”) On a more personal level, he feels like he’s “broken through a lot of walls I set for myself,” and embraces vulnerability, freely expressing his emotions more than ever.

“I have more emotional intelligence now than I did before,” he continues. “I just think I don’t have any fear anymore. I have so much less fear of getting it wrong, whether I’m worthy of things, whether what I’m trying to say is what people want to hear. 

“I have this whole suite of themes about myself now that I never had before. I have a relationship with my anxiety, my body image, my sense of inadequacy and a lot of tangled-up thoughts that I used to have. I’m trying to make public this interpersonal transformation I’ve undergone.” ■

For more on Alex Nicol, please visit his website.

This article was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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