“He went sailing in to deep space, at the zenith of the new age.”
Andrew Nolte is reaching for the stars. It’s the final stanza of “Europa Tide,” the first track on the first album this 38-year-old Austin musician has ever released. A glorious maelstrom of instrumental chaos has coalesced around him: Swirling strings and synths push against complex percussion rhythms, driving Nolte’s voice into the atmosphere. “He went sailing …”
And then it all falls away. “He went sailing,” Nolte sings one more time, but now there’s only a simple piano melody chasing his words, as fading traces of the sonic journey echo into the cosmos for the song’s final 20 seconds. It’s dazzling, brilliant, absolutely breathtaking.
And very few people in Austin even know who this guy is. Yet.
A native of Corpus Christi, Nolte — our Austin360 Artist of the Month for December 2018 — moved to Austin around 15 years ago, seeking to follow in the footsteps of several relatives who were accomplished musicians. “Everybody in the family plays something,” he says, running through a litany of brothers, aunts and uncles who are singers, instrumentalists or composers. Music always breaks out at holiday gatherings: “It’s like ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ in five-part harmony with maracas and classical guitars,” he says with a chuckle.
After moving here, Nolte worked for many years as a waiter and bartender at Chuy’s on North Lamar, picking up side gigs playing piano with various local acts. When he and his wife became parents five years ago, she moved up to a managerial position at her workplace, and Nolte stayed home with their son. That left more time at night to play music; it’s been his only job since then.
If you’ve gone to see local bands in Austin clubs over the past decade, you may well have seen him. He was a fixture in Soul Track Mind for a stretch, has gigged with Money Chicha and Foot Patrol, had early tenures in Sweetmeat and Khali Haat, and plays regularly with Derrick Davis and two tribute bands: the Damn Torpedoes (Tom Petty) and Super Creeps (David Bowie). Another dozen or so acts dot his resume.
But it’s only recently that Nolte has begun to prioritize his own music. “Tied to a String,” self-released this past summer, is an extraordinary debut. A dozen local musicians accompany Nolte, but there’s no guitar at all, a remarkable distinction in a town where guitarists are omnipresent.
Instead, Nolte relies largely upon orchestral instrumentation — strings, horns, winds — to bring his melodies to life. The result is an album that sounds nothing like what anyone in Austin is doing: It’s grandly ambitious and uncommonly sophisticated, yet still somehow very humble and approachable at its core. It’s as good as anything I’ve heard from an Austin artist in the five years I’ve had this job.
“It’s a beautiful day, to go the opposite way.”
That line is the linchpin of “L.A. Can Wait,” an irresistibly buoyant pop song inspired by a chapter in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” about a chance meeting at a bus stop that leads to a spur-of-the-moment, destiny-changing decision. Kerouac's tale was the inspiration, but Nolte found a piece of himself, and all of us, in the lyrics he wrote.
“I think it’s infinitely relatable,” he explains. “If you’ve ever been in love, you remember that moment of risk. For me, it was proposing to my wife and being scared that she’s going to say no. Just that big gamble and all that anxiety and fear — but it COULD be amazing.”
It’s not just the words and the spirit that make it work: The music brings the vision to full bloom. Lively rhythms and floating vocal harmonies accompany Nolte’s voice and piano, pushing the euphoria forward as he and his paramour become “incandescent in the love that we’ve found.” Trumpet and flugelhorn lift the song to a finale that feels like just the beginning of the story.
Going the opposite way is a central part of Nolte’s artistic impulse. In his younger days he played guitar, inspired by his grandfather. “He was a guitarist who played in mariachi trio bands professionally; he did weddings and things like that around Corpus,” Nolte says.
The piano suddenly drew him in at age 24 when a friend had one in her apartment. “I realized that almost nobody plays keyboards in Austin,” he says. “If you can play keyboards decently, you can get the gigs that a virtuoso guitar player can get.”
He ended up with plenty of gigs, indeed. But promising bands always seemed to splinter before anything big happened. When his son was born, “that was when I finally decided, ‘Maybe I should start thinking about writing songs again and start looking at what I want to do.’” He mentions, too, that memories of his grandfather and his mother, who died when Nolte was 14, helped drive him to create something of his own that would last.
Enter Michael Ingber, a drummer Nolte had played with in Soul Track Mind and other bands. Ingber had become co-owner of Studio 601, a small South Austin recording facility. “We’ve been working together in so many bands for so long now, I trust his opinion and he knows what I’m capable of,” Nolte says of Ingber, who produced “Tied to a String.”
Part of Ingber’s role was to help Nolte bring focus to an overflow of ideas. “Left to my own devices, I’ll just write a bunch of stuff,” he says. “Some of it’s pop, some of it’s rock, some of it’s synthesizers, and some of it’s drum-machine or guitar-driven. Mike went through and found what made sense to put out as a cohesive record.”
“You are tied to a string, that’s tied to my heart.”
The album contains a handful of unabashed love songs, including the title track. “I wrote it for my wife just after her father passed,” Nolte says. "I started singing a folk song to her, just making stuff up on the fly, trying to get her to smile.”
A string quartet draws out the song’s sentimentality. Its melodic structure is more basic than what Nolte often writes. But its simplicity resonated with friends, who consistently asked him to play it at parties and social gatherings.
“I think the magic of that song is that it’s not really a song as much as a conversation,” Nolte says. “I wasn’t trying to write a song; I didn’t ever intend for it to see the light of day for anybody other than her.”
Contrast that with “How Can I,” probably the most musically complex tune on the record. On his Bandcamp page, he describes the song as “my tribute to 1970s Stevie Wonder ballads,” and its unusual chord changes and key shifts live up to that billing.
“I was so self-conscious about the things that make it beautiful,” he confesses. “It changes key in the middle of a verse, and harmonically it’s like a weird Jenga situation where it seems like it should fall apart — but it’s got the right thread going up the middle of it that holds everything together.”
Let’s go back to that self-consciousness about what makes the song beautiful. “Every time I do something that turns out to be really cool, I’m scared that it’s awful,” Nolte says. “I always know that I’m teetering one way or the other. Either it’s just godawful bad or it’s really, really interesting.” In my experience, that tightrope-walk is almost essential to the creation of great art.
We mentioned, earlier, that Nolte used to work at Chuy’s. Something he noted in passing about his time at the restaurant sheds light on his approach to music.
“I was one of those waiters who would do everything off-menu,” he said. “I had a ton of regulars, and so I would say, ‘Ignore the menu, what do you feel like? All right, we can make that up. We’ll get creative.’ I’ve never been comfortable with things just as-is. I tend to want to do it my way.”
“This world could be ours, if we want it to be.”
That line comes from “Synecdoche,” the final song on the album. Inspired by director/screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 masterwork “Synecdoche, New York,” it’s a minimalist attempt to boil down the film’s epic scale to the fundamental concept wherein a part of something and its whole are interchangeable. In Nolte’s hands, it’s romantic — “you were part of me, synecdoche” — and deeply personal, even if its essence is elusive.
“There’s no chorus; there’s not a really straightforward form to it,” he says. “It’s moody jazz chords and string arrangements; it’s balladesque, but confusing and abstract. But at the same time, it’s the most honest and truthful that I really get on the record.”
If the parts and the whole are to be one, it’s worth acknowledging others without whom “Tied to a String” would not shine like it does. Beyond producer/drummer Ingber, foremost is Leila Henley, an exceptional musician who plays flute and saxophone on the album and also contributes backing vocals. “She’s my secret weapon,” Nolte says. “You tell her where you want something, and then she does exactly what you need to do without any direction at all. She just gets it.”
Also in Nolte’s corner is renowned composer and arranger Peter Stopschinski, whose boundless credits include work on Grupo Fantasma’s Grammy-winning “El Existential” album. Stopschinski did the string arrangements for “Tied to a String”; he's also contributing both string and horn arrangements to a follow-up EP Nolte hopes to have out this spring.
I dropped by 601 Studio on a mid-November afternoon when a string quartet added parts to four songs from the upcoming EP. At least two of them I’d heard before, when Nolte played a record-release show for “Tied to a String” at the Saxon Pub in September. The studio session confirmed what I’d thought that night: As impressive as the album is, Nolte’s newer material could exceed it.
“Our goal this time around is to try and make it even bigger,” Nolte says of the songs he and Ingber have been tracking. It’s the approach they took on “Europa Tide,” the attention-grabbing first track on “Tied to a String.” So, they figured: “What if we just made everything as big as ‘Europa Tide’? What if we get really intense here, and blow out things way beyond our means?’”
“Is the cost worth the prize, under the Europa Tide?”
The subject-matter of “Europa Tide” is way out there, literally. One of several moons that orbit Jupiter, Europa has been identified through space probe observations and Hubble telescope images as a target for extraterrestrial life research. Astronomers believe an ocean exists beneath its ice-shell surface.
“I’m thinking, 'We’re actually going to go to Europa,'” says Nolte, an avowed space nerd. “So I need to write the Europa song! Nobody’s written this song — I could be that guy.”
Like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Nolte’s tune considers the personal gravitas of space travel, the psychological effects of knowing you have “300 million miles and 600 days to go.” That, in turn, pushes the music toward a more epic scale.
“The content of the song allows you to go out further,” he acknowledges, underscoring that the presentation is all about “serving the song. If you’re not doing that, then what are you doing?” Later, he adds, importantly: “I believe in this concept of parts with a purpose. If there’s something on the record, there’s a reason it’s there, or you shouldn’t put it there.”
Such careful consideration is part of what makes Nolte’s art so magnificent in the end. “I always kind of look at it as this big intertwined thing, where I’m trying to paint a bigger visual story or scene with the music,” he says. He likens the motivation to Don Quixote’s “Impossible Dream.”
“It’s the romance of doing something for its own reward,” he concludes. “If you keep true to why you’re doing something, then hopefully things will work out. And if nothing else, you can be proud of it at the end of the day. Even if you’re the only person who sees it, it’ll still be beautiful.”