I first encountered Nathan Gray back in the '90s through his work as vocalist of BoySetsFire. The Delaware-based melodic post-hardcore band found success throughout the world with such albums as The Day the Sun Went Out (1997) and Tomorrow Come Today (2003), and toured accordingly throughout that time. With each BoySetsFire release, vocalist Nathan Gray's vocals grew stronger, especially when it came to the sweeter side of his delivery, something that appealed to me a great deal.
That's why I was excited when Nathan ventured out with his debut solo album a couple of years back in the form of Feral Hymns. Though he still works with BoySetsFire, the singer-songwriter is returning with a new solo effort called Working Title, so I decided to chat with him about the album, his open-book policy about his personal struggles, and juggling family and musical commitments.
It’s interesting, but many other musicians who came up in the hardcore scene would end up going in an Americana route when it came to their solo work. That’s definitely not the case with this new record. When I listen to Working Title, there’s an immediacy and strong melodic current running through the material. For example, the track “I’m a Lot” sounds like it could be on alternative rock radio since it’s so goddam catchy. I guess it feels more like a “band” than a solo kind of thing.
While I certainly respect those who have gone a more Americana route, at the end of the day that just doesn’t feel like “me.” I am very cautious to be genuine to who I am, even if there are many sides to that. I really wanted Working Title to reflect this place of life for me — one where I have grown into myself and come at the experience of living a little braver than ever before. As far as the sound that drives me, I have always been drawn to things that were emotive and catchy. Things that make you feel bigger than yourself. I really wanted to take those elements and make them my own while holding onto those more melodically punk driven influences that have always been near to my heart.
Because I want to keep pushing myself to experiment and take risks, I knew I had to continue graduating my sound from Feral Hymns, through the split EP and into Working Title. I knew I wanted to write with a wall of sound that pulls from all sides, and so I set out to write these songs in my home studio as if I already had a backing band. I knew what I envisioned for my next step, and it was a full musical experience because quite honestly, that is the only suitable way for me to tell these stories and feel satisfied.
It simply wouldn’t be cathartic with me just standing there alone pecking away at a guitar under a single stage light. I needed big sounds to go with big emotions, and I needed them to be something that would draw my audience in so we could share the experience together.
You’ve been very open and honest about your personal struggles leading into these two solo albums. I know it’s not as rare these days to be like that, but since we’re both around the same age, I know we didn’t come up in a time when being frank in a public way about your personal issues was all that welcomed, especially for men. How intimidating was that for you?
Oh, incredibly intimidating. But because of that, I knew that I had to work harder to be vulnerable and public with my struggles — it not only helped me release myself, it allowed others to know someone out there understand them. It gave us a place to feel safe and seen. I genuinely believe that our secrets make us sick. I think for the most part I have always made an effort to share my joys and heartaches with equal abandon, but, as I am sure is obvious to those who have followed along in the last few years, I have really let out some big ghosts, and I cannot explain how healing it has been to be more open. Each time I would talk about tough things, such as the abuse in my past, the power the abuse had over me lessened, little by little.
It is my hope that more people step bravely into that space as well, even if it’s just saying "hey, today was a day where I felt out of control and unsure" instead of posting only the most polished photos on their social media accounts. If I could give one simple gift to humans, it would be to express to them that there is absolutely nothing inside of them too dark for others to hold. Nothing.
The songs “The Markings” and “Hold” both have a great vibe to them, almost like the kind of tracks you would throw on a mixtape to introduce someone to a new band back in the day. It reminds me how strong the melodic side of your vocal approach is, something that I first realized on the BoySetsFire song “White Wedding Dress.” There’s a great balance of power and clarity in your delivery. Have you ever taken voice lessons? How did you develop your instrument?
I have never taken formal voice lessons. I was in choir in school, but outside of that, it’s just been many, many years of practice. I’ve been performing over half of my 47 years on this earth, which is nuts. There were many of those years where I really had no clue how to care for my voice and just thrashed it — screaming incorrectly, feeding myself garbage before sets, drinking too much of everything except water. I’ve learned to take better care of it in the last few years, and I do a lot of steaming before and after shows and try to keep talking to a minimum.
What’s the plan for Working Title in terms of touring? Are you trying to balance music with work and family? I know how brutal that can be to juggle for many people.
I will be hitting the road for a European tour just after the album comes out, and announcing a few US dates just after. I’m really excited for this particular tour, because I will be playing with a full backing band (my friends of Norbert Buchmacher, who will be supporting the Euro tour actually) and I can’t wait to see this vision come to life. Touring is extremely important and is a necessity in all ways — it helps me fulfill my purpose, it helps put food on the table, and it gives me a place to work out my emotions. I can’t imagine not having the opportunity to play the music I have put blood, sweat and tears into for people to experience live.
It does require balance and flexibility, of course. My family is very supportive and through the magic of technology I still have the ability to check in with them daily. My younger two are just now school-aged, and for them, it’s just normal that dad is in Germany a few times a year, and talking about joining the PTA in between [laughs].
How about BoySetsFire? I see that you have some high-profile live dates already planned for 2020.
We do have a few things lined up as far as shows in 2020. We just rolled off the high of putting on our third Family First Festival, and are excited that this years’ tours and events will include a few U.S. dates, which is something we know people have been asking for for many years now.
Working Title will be out on Jan. 31 via End Hits Records and can be pre-ordered here.