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Chasing creative detours, Portland's Nick Jaina heads north

  • Author: Katie Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 15, 2015

Beginning in 2005, Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter Nick Jaina released the first of a handful of albums that would help inform the Pacific Northwest's welling indie music.

It started with "The Bluff of All Time," released that year, and was followed by 2006's "The 7 Stations," 2008's "Wool," "A Narrow Way" in 2009 and "A Bird in the Opera House" in 2010. Jaina attracted a modest number of Pacific Northwest-centered fans during the five-year stretch.

Jaina's traditional acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter driven approach was refreshed with a sentimental pop edge, driven by cavalier strings, marching piano riffs, wafting vocals and the occasional large-scale rock breakdown. On "Wool," Jaina employed a clarinet player, and the presence of an unexpected wood instrument thickened the moody elements of his project, lending a heavier element to his sound. But at the center of it all, lyrics hold the most weight. The words are king and the instruments do their best to support them.

So, it was a surprise when Jaina seemed to disappear -- slipping from the scene and relocating to New York, where he'd take a completely different approach to constructing music.

He explained the switch in a recent email. "After many years of failing to build much of an audience with performing music, I was asked to compose a ballet, pretty much out of the blue," he wrote. "I took the challenge seriously and have tried to learn more about the form, and about New Music composition in general."

Working with choreographer Kevin Draper and members of the New York City Ballet and Juilliard, in 2010 Jaina helped assemble the Satellite Ballet and Collective. Although he had no prior practical knowledge of arranging dance music, Jaina successfully provided scores for three ballets and three contemporary dances as the collective's musical director.

"It is scary to step out of your comfort area," he wrote of the experience, "especially walking into the Lincoln Center to work with New York City Ballet dancers, but generally, if you pretend like you know what you're doing and keep quiet, you'll be left alone."

Following his hiatus from life as a Portland singer-songwriter, Jaina eventually returned to his indie roots and released yet another full-length album, "Primary Perception," in the spring of 2013.

"Primary Perception" arguably got more attention than all of Jaina's previous works combined. NPR called the track "Don't Come to Me" an "earworm," listing it as one of the "5 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing," in its Heavy Rotation series. Spin Magazine agreed, calling the track "unshakeable." But following the new release, Jaina, again, looked in a different direction.

"I've always considered myself a writer first," he says, "and a musician second, and my whole foray into music has been about putting my passion for words into the songwriting form, and trying to get good enough at the mechanics and singing and playing instruments. Meanwhile I had been writing essays about my experiences in touring, including unusual ones like playing at Folsom Prison. I was just waiting for an opportunity to pull them all my writings together into something bigger, and after Perfect Day Publishing offered to put a book of mine out, I cleared my calendar and spent three months in Colombia, South America, so I could have some space."

What resulted was titled "Get It While You Can," a memoir (or a love note) to a life in music. After its completion, Jaina and his publishers, launched a national book tour to promote the new work, but this tour would be a two-in-one.

According to Jaina's website, his "live performance is like an audio scrapbook." He reads from his book over looped guitar melodies and "found sounds," and preferably in overlooked settings.

"I've been trying to bring my performance to unusual places," Jaina remarked, "because I've been searching for intimacy and a focused crowd of people who really want to be there, as opposed to a big hall of somewhat disinterested people."

In the interest of branching out, Jaina posted a note to his website a while back expressing interest in performing at "house shows" and asking followers for leads. An Anchorage musician and photographer, Charlie Earnshaw, replied to the post, asking if Jaina would consider coming up to Alaska. While Earnshaw helped set up a show at Tap Root, he said "(Jaina) made (the trip) happen."

Jaina is no stranger to playing in Alaska either. In 2008, he traveled alone and toured solo in the state. The trip resulted in some amusing stories, he said, and he didn't hold back from sharing this one:

"I borrowed a pickup truck (from a friend in Homer) so I could get around. It ended up getting about six miles to the gallon, and even less because I learned later that I had it in the wrong gear. On the way up from Homer to Anchorage, I took the turnoff to the town of Hope, enchanted by the name. On the way there, I ran out of gas and had to flag someone down to drive me to the nearest gas station to get gas. I tried to not make it into too much of a metaphor that I got stranded on the way to hope."

Nick Jaina

with Jack Dalton

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, July 18

Where: Tap Root Public House

Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door

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