photo by Hannah Altman | courtesy of the artist
How Philly’s Nonfiction made their haunting, intimate new album ‘I Painted This One Blue’
For a handful of weeks between May 2019 and June 2020, a remote cabin in Narrowsburg, New York became a creative oasis. Located between the Catskill and Pocono Mountains along the eastern shore of the Delaware River, Narrowsburg is a town of less than five hundred residents, but for a few weeks that number rose ever so slightly to include Evan King, Joey Ginaldi, Alex LaVallee, Sean McCall, Conor Rothstein, and Ryn Hearing, members of the Philly indie rock band Nonfiction.
Narrowsburg may be a small, sleepy hamlet for most of the year but for Nonfiction it represented something invaluable: an escape, a place where the restraints of city life — menial service jobs, landlords, the Philadelphia Parking Authority — loosened their grip and creativity was allowed to thrive. In a fortuitous bit of luck, the band seemed to stumble upon a house almost perfectly suited to their needs. Stuffed with books, records, and art supplies and located far away from anyone who may be perturbed by a rock band playing long into the night, this AirBNB rental offered everything a burgeoning rock band might need to spurn the largest creative output of their careers.
“The space gave us the opportunity to full-time focus on writing, playing and experimenting which was invaluable,” says Alex LaVallee. The result was I Painted This One Blue, the band’s second full-length record, and one as expansive, thoughtful, and bursting with energy as its core creators.
For the band’s lead songwriter, Evan King, Nonfiction began as a songwriter exercise back in 2018, but it wasn’t long till Nonfiction was established as a proper band — though then only a four piece. Same Pain, the band’s debut EP, was written soon after and released in 2019. Though it certainly shares a similar throughline of raw creative gusto as its successor, Same Pain is very much a sketch of what would become a fully-shaded portrait presented with I Painted This One Blue, the addition of both LaVallee and Hearing essential pieces in the group’s final form. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that changed between 2019 and 2021 for Nonfiction — both internally and externally — every moment a brush stroke on the quickly bursting canvas that is this young band’s career.
For every thousand negative moments of the last two years, there peaks through a handful of those which prove connection, despite any odds, is inevitable. It was March of 2020 and Conor Murphy, songwriter and musician behind Foxing and Smidley, was in a similar spot to thousands of musicians around the United States. That is, a helpless one. Tours were being canceled, unemployment and assistance still months away, no end in sight. So Murphy sent out a tweet. A long time songwriter, he’d always wanted to try his hand at teaching, and so decided to embrace this forced downtime as an opportunity. As it turns out, Evan King was one of those other musicians. Having just been let go from his job and with nothing but time, King wanted to harness this time to grow as a songwriter. Then he saw Murphy’s tweet. And thus began a particularly symbiotic creative relationship, one at the heart of I Painted This One Blue.
Murphy was a bit surprised when King first reached out. Most of the other clients he was giving lessons to were very much in their beginning stages as musicians, having never written a song or in some cases having barely picked up a guitar. King, on the other hand, had full demos already done, not to mention a full EP. This shifted Murphy’s job from one of teacher to mentor, helping King grow from a good songwriter to a great one. Musicians, like any other profession, are not without a certain amount of pride, so it cannot be undersold how essential King’s level of unguarded receptiveness was to the entire endeavor.
Murphy sensed early on that the best way to help was not to try to drastically rewrite any of King’s work but to urge him further in the direction he was already heading. “Sometimes the biggest help is for someone to just ask you questions about your lyrics,” says Murphy. “Within the answers that you are giving, you are kind of writing better lyrics.” Any time King got stuck, Murphy would share the exercises he used for Foxing and Smidley records in the past, breaking things down to their most basic form, verse by verse, even syllable by syllable. King responded well to any challenge Murphy presented, allowing the songs Nonfiction were already working on to grow exponentially. “We got into a groove that was very creatively conducive for us,” says Murphy.
It’s hard to imagine I Painted This One Blue becoming what it became without Murphy’s insight and even harder to imagine without King’s willingness to continuously go deeper as a songwriter. Religion is no easy theme for any artist to tackle but for King these feelings of morality, devotion, and influence are too close to the surface to ignore. King grew up on a community church campus in Newtown, Pennsylvania and was raised Evangelical Christian, even leading the worship band in his teenage years. That is, until he left at eighteen years old, leaving him feeling rudderless and alone.
“God Wanted Yellow” is a slow build, opening with the gentle brush of pastoral wind chimes, patiently flowering into a purging swirl of guitars. There’s catharsis there to be sure, but this isn’t a simple story of escape. Guilt is at the heart of “God Wanted Yellow.” Not regret necessarily, but a shame that seems ingrained deep in King’s psyche. “If I gave it all away, I could lie and say I’ve changed,” King sings on the chorus. “But still carry all the weight, stray a little farther every day.” By nature, this kind of religious experience does not prepare you for life without its strict structure, in fact, the opposite may be true. And so thinking for yourself, and excising this inherent guilt, can be a lonely prospect to be sure. “A lot of it is overdue feelings that I wanted to process once and for all so I could move on with my life,” says King of the writing process.
Despite this obvious lyrical skill, I Painted This One Blue’s most cathartic moments are often orchestrated instrumentally, during one of the countless tempestuous musical breakdowns, where all of Nonfiction’s most full-band skills are best harnessed. To hear the band tell it, their time at Headroom Studios working with both Murphy and engineer Joe Reinhart was essential in forming this crisp, full sound. From the first moments the record started to come together in Narrowsburg, the guys had their eye on Reinhart, a Philly legend of sorts who’s worked on countless records on his Headroom Studio and serves as guitarist for Philly’s Hop Along. “We just love the way their records sound and we knew we wanted ours to have that scope and size,” says King. “Reinhart was always on the top of the list.”
I was curious if this reverence — not to mention the band’s tight-knit, DIY ethos — was a cause for any trepidation as the band entered the studio. While King admits it can always be a little nerve-wracking to open yourself and your music to someone else, the experience couldn’t have been more productive. “Rather than push his own agenda on our music, he helped us figure out how to see it through to what we dreamed of doing,” says King. “It was more guidance than anything else,” adds LaValle of both Reinhart and Murphy’s light touch. “All of us grew exponentially during that time.”
Part of this growth was the continued work King was doing with Murphy, but much of it can be attributed to the band working not as individuals but a cohesive unit of artists and musicians. Songs that started as demos when Murphy first heard them were now approaching their final form, and yet Murphy describes watching King continue to change lyrics and melody even as the band was recording. What shocked him was how receptive the rest of the group was to sweeping changes to the song’s form.
“The willingness to do that and chase that down was really cool,” says Murphy, who admits even his best experiences haven’t been nearly as harmonious. “They are a really healthy band as far as their dynamic with each other.” For LaValle, their collaboration works best in large part because each member is given their own space to grow as artists both in and outside of the band. King may write the songs but each member is responsible in their own way for the whole. With nearly every aspect of the band — photography, videography, graphic design, management, booking — handled in house, Nonfiction are truly collaborative in every sense of the word.
With open collaboration comes trust and with trust comes an openness to vulnerability. Much of I Painted This One Blue is personal for King, but “What Gnaws At Me” is something a little different. Late in 2020, King found out his grandfather, whom he never met, committed suicide. Grief is complicated enough under more normal circumstances, but how to process the death of one you never really knew in the first place can make things even more complex. It was during a night at his mother’s apartment in which she shared her feelings on their loss that King was inspired to write “What Gnaws At Me”. Written from the perspective of his mother, “What Gnaws At Me” is percussive and graceful, a song that very nearly busts at the seams, where vocal tracks climb over one another, the refrain of “You Don’t Forget” as much a prayer as a reminder. Not long after its release, King’s mother shared just how much it helped her own grieving process, something King is understandably proud of. “What I wrote was able to put someone else’s feelings into words,” says King. “That meant so much to me”.
In many ways I Painted This One Blue is a simple proposition; six friends and collaborators coming together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. It’s the execution and care put into that proposition that impresses. I don’t need to remind you of the challenges facing any artist over the last two years, but the wherewithal to claw through months of writing and rewriting, recording and re-recording, all while relying on unemployment and mind-numbing service jobs, is a feat within itself. But more than that, it’s the simple pleasures that are celebrated, not the toil. “The album is about making music with your friends,” says King. Things need not be complicated to be profound, and Nonfiction seem to know this innately. The urge to create is not something any member of this band could stifle, even if they wanted to, making the confluence of these forces all the more special.
Named for their creative haven up north, “Narrowsburg, NY” was, in a way, both the first and last song the band wrote for I Painted This One Blue. Deliberate and panoramic, it’s a song that lived for a long time as a wordless instrumental, more a feeling than the melodic encapsulation that its name and position as the album’s final statement would suggest. So there it sat, unfinished but still very much alive, through the many months of writing, through each trip to upstate New York. It wasn’t till the band was in the studio that things truly coalesced. King may have been the primary songwriter for much of the record, but “Narrowsburg, NY” is a fully collaborative effort, written on the spot, together. “I saw you in myself today, just like I always do,” go the song’s opening lines, an ode not only to creative partnership but honesty, vulnerability, and friendship.
Nonfiction plays Friday, March 11th at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, NJ with Peachface, Idle Wave, Olivia Bec, and Babie; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.