Nick Cianci | photo by Aleiagh Hynds | courtesy of the artist
Checking in with Philly prodigal son Nick Cianci
It’s not unusual to feel the most at home in the city that you grew up with instead of the one you currently live in. Nick Cianci, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter by way of Malvern and Philly, still finds himself coming back to his roots, even though New York City has claimed a huge part of his artistic identity over the past five years.
After a year and a half of burn-out and dissatisfaction with his creative process, Cianci is set to release the most honest collection of songs he’s ever written, thanks to a new willingness to stay open and collaborate with some of his most trusted friends. With the recent release of his single and accompanying cinematic video, “Hero’s Entrance,” Cianci is reintroducing himself to the scenes that made him.
Featuring instrumentation and production from The Districts’ Pat Cassidy, this next break in Cianci’s discography has all the honesty and grit that makes a Philly musician, perfectly paired with the drive that keeps him in New York.
The Key: Easiest question first. What have you been up to?
Nick Cianci: That’s a great question. The last year, I’ve just been working on music. I’ve been working on a record and recording from my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s great to be able to really spend time getting things right, musically. In the past, I’ve sort of just come into studios and kind of just paid for time, but with quarantine, I’ve been able to invest in home-recording gear and do things DIY. It’s been fun.
TK: Who have you been playing with lately?
NC: Lately I’ve been playing guitar in Del Water Gap with my buddy Holden. We just did a four-week east coast headlining tour, and then we went out west to open for Jeremy Zucker, which was great. In a couple more weeks we go back out west for some more headliner shows. I also sometimes play with my friend Samia and I did some stuff with her over the summer. We’ve toured in the past, but lately I’ve just been with Del Water Gap.
TK: How do you find time to work on your own music in between all of that?
NC: We only really just started playing shows again, so I’ve had a lot of time. When I was on the road a lot more, it was a bummer, but in between touring, this is all I do. I also teach guitar during the day, so I spend some time doing that, and that’s fun. So guitar is just all I do — everything’s right here at this desk.
TK: Remind me where you went to college? Philly or New York?
NC: I went to NYU. I moved there in 2014, and that’s where I met Holden.
TK: Was college the push to leave Philly?
NC: Yeah, it was. Big time. There was really only one school I wanted to go to. I really wanted to be in New York. After that, I kind of just stuck around and hung out with friends and bandmates and picked up projects, so it just made sense.
TK: Since you’re so loyal to New York — how do you compare New York to Philly’s music scenes?
NC: I wish I was more a part of the Philly music scene when I was younger. I played outside of Philly with my bands a lot and I missed out on the DIY scene that Philly’s kind of known for. But when I started listening to more local Philly music while I was in college, my taste started to shift in that direction and I had no idea there were so many incredible artists just right here. WXPN and World Cafe were my primary experiences with Philly music up until then, but New York is also great. It can feel really small. There are a handful of places where all the local bands play, and it can feel closer than you’d expect.
TK: That’s really interesting that you say that, because that’s not usually what people say when I ask that question. I feel like you’ve also lucked into a really close-knit group of musicians and everyone seems very collaborative — Samia and Del Water Gap and adjacent artists especially — and that’s how I think Philly is. Different crews of local musicians here all play together all the time and they work on each other’s music all the time. When I ask them about New York, they say it’s so competitive, it’s so cutthroat. It’s nice to hear you say the opposite, because I feel like that’s why some Philly musicians who might consider leaving for New York ultimately end up staying here. There’s a level of comfort that they don’t want to give up just yet.
NC: It’s obviously just my perspective, but I think a big part of that is just that, in New York, you have to play at real bar venues if you want to play. There’s no space to do DIY house shows. I guess it feels like more of a formality here, just playing shows in the scene. I did get really lucky to meet a bunch of great musicians and it’s how you described Philly — we all play on each other’s records and we’re all in like seven different bands.
TK: You’re from the Philly area, you play with guys like The Districts’ Pat Cassiday — do you feel a sense of “in-between” when you think of New York and Philly? Do you feel connected to both cities?
NC: I still feel like Philly is home. Even though I live in Brooklyn, Philly is home, and I wish I was more a part of the Philly scene. There’s definitely a sort of “Philly pride” that exists, and that doesn’t leave you. Even growing up around WXPN, I knew that other cities had their own equivalent, but like, WXPN was the one. That’s how built-up it felt and how excited people would get to talk about local music. But right now I’m a Philly scene wannabe while I’m in Brooklyn.
TK: From my experience, just being on the other side of the scene as a writer, Philly is extremely welcoming. I very quickly made some of my closest friends by showing up, being supportive, working with and for people, and maintaining a genuine interest in the music that resonated with me the most. It’s such a nice space to be a part of when you’re here.
NC: That’s really nice to hear. I’m going to have to spend some more time to get the full effect.
TK: Well, you work with Pat Cassidy — what’s that relationship like?
NC: I’ve known Pat since like 2007 — we were playing music together at School of Rock in Downingtown. We started playing in different bands as we got older, but we kept in touch. I went to New York and he was playing in The Districts, and any time either of us was in town we’d all hang. But it wasn’t until after college that I started to look for collaborators, because I kind of always felt like I was just doing my thing and had to do it on my own, but then I just got this craving to get other minds on board. So I just hit Pat up. I had a lot of the last song I put out, “Hero’s Entrance,” ready to go, but I sent it to Pat and he did a lot of beautiful guitar work on it to round it out. We’ve done a couple of other songs together since — the next song I’m releasing in December is one that he helped co-produce. I’d love to keep working with him.
TK: Where do you think these new songs sit in comparison to your previous work?
NC: I definitely feel like I can stand behind these new songs. I know that’s a very vague response, but I’ve actually been thinking about doing a sort of overhaul of the old stuff and just starting over. I think “Hero’s Entrance,” is a good place to start fresh. I didn’t feel like I’d ever said what I was trying to say so clearly, but this was a totally different experience so I’m trying to write more in that voice and enjoy songwriting again. It feels more personal and honest.
TK: It’s not vague at all. Your other songs have always listened very personally to me, but I understand that my perspective and yours are totally different. There is a new sense of what version of yourself you’re sharing with this track, and it does feel very open. There’s also a lot of weird and different context behind “Hero’s Entrance” when you think about how last summer everyone was just sitting alone with their thoughts. It lends itself to a whole new writing experience.
NC: I think the other thing was that it took me a while to define my musical tastes. Some of my favorite bands ever are bands that I discovered within the last couple of years. I kind of always had this slow evolution of what I liked. I was just a guitar player for years and was very into blues and rock, and then when I moved to New York I figured out that I wanted to lean more into the singer-songwriter thing, which introduced me to so much new music. My tastes, I think, have caught up to my abilities as a creator.
TK: Do you feel like you can comfortably categorize yourself as a solo artist now, or do you feel like you’re more at home as a session guitarist in a band?
NC: I definitely want to continue to play guitar for other people because I love their music and I love those experiences, but I do feel more inspired than ever to create my own stuff. For so long, even before the pandemic, I was kind of losing steam on it for a while. This release has definitely been a silver lining. Finally having that moment where I found some semblance of creative direction was so comforting.
TK: Coming out of burnout is one of the main themes of most of the interviews I’ve done over the last year and a half. It’s such a frustrating thing when you’re sitting in that feeling — the “why is the one thing I love to do not bringing me any joy?” I went through that so hard last year. So many other people that I work with did. Everyone was so thrilled with the first couple of months of “true” pandemic but then I remember that vivid, extremely negative switch. So to be able to come out from that and regain a sense of excitement is hugely important.
NC: I think you just phrased that so beautifully. You described the burnout so well, and that’s exactly how I felt. Sitting with that “why” question, especially when it’s the thing that you define yourself with. When it starts to not feel right, you lose a sense of self.
TK: Do you think themes like that have defined the next chapter of music that you’re going to release next year?
NC: I think so. There’s definitely a lot of self-reflection. The songs have been about getting to the bottom of why I am the way I am, how I see myself in the eyes of other people. But I’m trying not to make it too self-indulgent. I still just want to make rock and roll and have fun.
TK: Does collaboration pull that out of you and make you look at your own process from someone else’s perspective?
NC: There is one song that will come out next year that I wrote with my friend Samia that feels like the one true co-write as far as lyrics go, and I feel super lucky to know so many great songwriters. It’s so cool to be able to bounce ideas off people so nonchalantly. That one was special and I can’t wait to share that one.
TK: She’s one of my favorite songwriters, too. I saw her in Philly a couple of weeks ago and it had been a show I was dying for since before the pandemic.
NC: She’s great.
TK: She’s great. We both said that at the same time. It’s true. I could talk about her forever — but back to Philly. What do you love the most about being home?
NC: Honestly, getting out of the city is so nice. Even going into Philly feels like “getting out of the city” for me. New York is so intense. I love it, but I love slowing down, too. I love going to Philly shows.
TK: What are some of your favorites?
NC: Before the pandemic, I saw Strand of Oaks. That was a really special show. I saw Lucy Dacus at Johnny Brenda’s on New Year’s. It was so good. She’s incredible. There are a bunch of bands I want to see. Webbed Wing is one, they’re so cool.
TK: Oh, yeah. They’re former members of Superheaven. That’s a great project.
NC: I heard them and I thought, “this is going to be my new favorite band.”
TK: See? Everything good is happening in Philly. Final thoughts? How much do you love this city?
NC: I’d love to play a solo show in Philly soon. Maybe we can even play with Webbed Wing.