Where: WYEP Festival ~ Pittsburgh, PA
When: June 29
Time: 3pm (Devotchka @ 9pm)
Following the band’s 2012 tour DeVotchKa frontman Nick Urata was left feeling conflicted. On one hand, his band was as popular as ever, playing their critically-acclaimed songs from over seven albums to fans at sold- out shows around the globe, and Urata was enjoying a burgeoning career as a film score composer, with a GRAMMY nomination already under his belt. But on the night of DeVotchKa’s final show of the tour, onstage in an enormous arena in Mexico, Urata belted out the first few lines only to discover his microphone powered off—a simple mistake, but one that would later cause him to reflect deeply on his stake in life.
“You try not to make a big deal out of it, but you don’t recover from that for the rest of the show,” Urata says, now smiling at the memory. “It happened more than once on that tour, I went into a bit of a tailspin after that. I wondered if the universe was trying to tell me something I didn’t want to hear. I was realizing how nearly anyone can sing, almost everybody has the ability, but if you want to perform for people, then you have to fight for it.”
Following the tour, the band—Urata (vocals, guitars, Theremin, trumpet, piano), Jeanie Schroder (acoustic bass, sousaphone), Shawn King (drums, percussion, trumpet), and Tom Hagerman (violin, viola, accordion, piano)—enjoyed a series of gigs at smaller venues. Urata spent those shows both reconnecting with his audience on a more intimate level and rediscovering his love for his craft. It was a necessary moment that inspired him to begin work on a new DeVotchKa album—a process that would take a lot longer than anyone anticipated, but that would prove essential.
“I realized the motivation is simply how much I love singing,” Urata says, “and I just want to keep this conversation going with people who have connected with our band. Those shows after the big tour were when things started to fall back into place, I could see that people were moved by the lyrics and singing them back to me. It is a rare and powerful thing to connect with people like this. It is the thing that keeps us going.”
Urata began work on a new album, using that intimate dynamic with his fans as motivation. Despite a strong work ethic that compels him to work each and every day, the writing process proved to be a slow yet cathartic burn. (Naturally, his film work was also keeping his hands full — since the GRAMMY-nominated score to Little Miss Sunshine, Urata has composed the scores for myriad films including Crazy Stupid Love, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Paddington. Most recently, he composed the original theme song and score for the Netflix Original A Series of Unfortunate Events.)
Through persistence, concerted effort, and patience, Urata found his path. A musical perfectionist, the longer-than-typical window provided more opportunities to tinker, a blessing that can often be accelerated or outright ignored in these modern times. As Urata says, if you are going to hand him the luxury of time, he is going to put it to good use—and time is often what he requires.
“I get a creative spark and then have to chase it down, sometimes, for years,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned from great writers is to force yourself to show up to work every day, even if you feel you don’t have anything—apply yourself and it will come. It really does work. Writing music has always been the one thing in my life that’s subconsciously gnawed at me. I have to do it.”
Urata pulled from old notebooks and half-formed ideas as much as he conjured fresh material from the present. But in writing lyrics he has found that nearly every idea came from the past— despite the tense in which he sings. “I have a file in the back of my head with things that have happened to me, and that’s where I get my songs. I’m probably not alone in that. A lot of people think the song is happening now—‘you must be going through a horrible breakup right now.’ Really, I’m just getting in touch with the past. When you add music, it can take you right back there. Music is the great coaxer of those feelings, and that’s why people connect to songs. Music opens you up.”
In writing for what he would eventually title This Night Falls Forever, Urata tapped directly into his past, connecting the dots between that audience-and-artist relationship and a period of intense self-discovery. “One common thread in these songs is their sentimentality,” Urata says. “When you first discover rock and roll, that’s usually the same time you’re discovering girls or boys, when everything is so romantic and huge—that era of your life is where these songs are coming from. The songs are usually the same, thematically: why don’t you love me, why did you leave me, I don’t love you anymore, I miss you, I want to die…there’s only a couple themes when you break it down. I’ve always dealt in romance. I don’t know what else to write about.”
And from the album’s first lines (“I can draw a straight line through my mind right back to the good times/ back when all the stars were aligned”) it’s clear that This Night Falls Forever, set for release on August 24, 2018, via Concord Records, is a heartrending look backwards and forwards at once—the sound of a man searching within to face his future. From the rhythmic riff and urgent crooning of the opener, “Straight Shot,” with its cohesive lyrical story and speedy acoustic strumming, to the exotic waltz of “Let Me Sleep” and its spiraling strings and dramatic vocals, the flight is immediate.
“Done with Those Days” is a lush, slow-burning whistler, while the driving, playful “My Little Despot” is a cautionary tale about the travails of lover-as-dictator, which Urata recognizes could easily be viewed as a political moment despite his best intentions. “It was a cute idea two years ago but now it has a whole different connotation,” he says. “Today’s political climate has changed the availability of our lexicon. There is a temptation to bring politics and protest into our songs, but we have to have some respite from it or we’re all gonna go crazy. Music is a force of nature that makes people fall in love, that’s where the change will come from”
Elsewhere, the lush and tightly packaged “Love Letters” covers the entire arc of a relationship. The song represents yet another incident where time and distance proved a completion charm, “It would never tell me where to go,” he says. “When I came back to it, the second half wrote itself. It was one of those rare occasions when it all happened in one day. It asks a pretty raw question—‘Are you still in love with me?’ You can think of that as a metaphor for being in the band, too: ‘Am I still supposed to be doing this? Please give me a sign, because I’m still in love with it!’ And I’m just now realizing that following the thing you love is all you can do, and watch the chips fall where they fall.”
Urata cites the scope of the album as even more ambitious than DeVotchKa’s past work, with more detailed arrangements, more people involved including full orchestras, and an overall bigger sound. He praises the work of his bandmates, whose ability to build upon his demos lends the finished songs a sense of flesh and bone. “They enhanced it, rounded it out, and made it cool,” Urata says. “They added that live feeling that takes the songs to the next level. A big part of making a record is capturing the humanity”
As for the album’s title, Urata was inspired by yet another period of transition, albeit one that occurs each and every day: the passing of day into night. It’s a fitting motif for his process, a constant reminder that toil eventually makes way for transport.
“I wanted to capture that moment of twilight falling, where there’s electricity in the air and you get that sense that everything is going to be OK,” Urata says. “The harsh sunlight is gone, you start to get messages from your spiritual side, and it’s not all about the day’s work and politics and struggles. Theres’s a sense of something bigger at twilight; that’s where it came together for me. When I was going through a really tough time, a bad breakup years ago, the days were terrifying and lonely and I was broke—but once the night fell, there was music. If I could just get to sunset, things will look good. I guess that feeling’s stuck. You want the night to last forever. It’s the aesthetic of the album, the thing I picture when I close my eyes.”