In the span of an hour, Nick Waterhouse mentions Tolstoy, George Orwell, T.S. Elliot, modernism, film noir, Robert Mitchum, metaphysical poet John Donne, Madame Bovary and a manifesto he's writing on the nature of critical listening in the 21st century.
The 27-year-old soul singer-songwriter has been in the studio for the last nine days, producing the new Allah-Las record. Now he's here at the Ace Hotel Downtown drinking Herradura and soda at noon on a Tuesday, which is when the weekend begins for rock stars.
He's also doing promotion for his new album, Holly, out March 4 on Innovative Leisure. Doing these interviews isn't too comfortable for him. He takes long pauses between his responses, thinking before he speaks, and seems hyper self aware. He emits a sort of Prufrock-style malaise, meaning that the modern world and his place in it are sometimes too much to bear. He seems better suited to a former era, and not just because his music sounds retro.
Waterhouse actually scoffs at the throwback label his music is often slapped with. “We are all aware of what we're referencing,” he says of artists like himself, the Allah-Las and Ty Segall, all musicians who make music incorporating sounds popularized in the past. “It's so naïve and fucking stupid and lazy to immediately go to like, 'Oh yeah. You're trying to pass this off as your own.'”
Growing up in Huntington Beach, Waterhouse immersed himself in the soul sounds of the '50s and '60s. “It's just a [time period] that I really never was from, but I felt so strongly about as a child that I knew it better than where I was living.” Waterhouse's music addresses timeless issues: emptiness, isolation, lust, the effects of technology on ourselves and our interpersonal relationships.
The album is a fictional narrative about a woman named Holly, who Waterhouse says is a composite of many people, especially twenty-somethings living on the east side of L.A. He calls Holly a sort of “Emma Bovary in Echo Park” casually referencing the protagonist in the 1865 French novel Madame Bovary who lives decadently and beyond her means because she is bored as hell. Waterhouse says that Holly is someone who has a ton of Instagram followers and spends a lot of time in bars. He stresses that the album is sympathetic to this character – even though she ultimately ends up dead.
Seeing that Holly gets caught up in circumstances bigger than herself and subsequently spirals out of control, Waterhouse is Holly too. He moved back home from San Francisco to make his 2012 debut LP Time's All Gone, and partly funded the album by borrowing money from his sister and his friends.
His friends in San Francisco hated on him for decamping to L.A. to “make it,” but in fact he was just returning home after a a bad breakup. He did, however, make it. The album was a sensation (he paid everyone back) and earned Waterhouse critical praise for a throwback sound that lumped him with other neo-soul singers like Amy Winehouse.
Waterhouse can currently be seen performing in a flashy Lexus commercial, which also serves as an advertisement for Holly. Of such endeavors, he says, “There are all of these things that I'm told are good for me, and I'm doing them and I wonder, 'Is this good for me?'”
“Having some form of success with my own career,” he says, “all it seemed to do was mess things up even worse for me in the places where it really mattered, like interpersonal relationships and working relationships. It made everyone think I had a lot more money than I have. People playing with me, thinking I'm holding out on them. That kind of stuff just breeds paranoia and contempt and ill will, when really all I'm doing is hanging on by my fingernails trying to keep a tour together.”
While touring behind Time's All Gone included moments of onstage transcendence, it took its toll. “It was a good idea business wise,” he says ” but it was a bad idea spiritually and physically and emotionally for me. To put me on 43 straight tour dates, I wanted to kill myself. It was just dark.”
It was insult to injury when the tour ended and he came home to find that The Distillery, the beloved Costa Mesa studio where he recorded Time's All Gone, had closed after the owner fell upon hard times. Waterhouse felt guilty, thinking he could have helped in some way had he been around. It was a rough time for him, and he admits he didn't do much to take care of himself in the tour's aftermath except take a week long trip to San Francisco. Then he came back to L.A. and wrote Holly.
Respite came when Waterhouse pressed playback on a track and was satisfied with what he heard. He ranks such moments among his best. He won't call himself a perfectionist, saying that the word is too subjective, but he had the sax player on “Dead Room” play the solo 40 times until it sounded exactly like what Waterhouse was hearing in his head.
Altogether, Holly delivers more of the Waterhouse sound: ten tracks of tight horns and percussion with surf rock inspired guitar, whipped up into dance music that swings. Waterhouse sings lines like, “I seen her walking home alone looking at her phone” in his older-than-his-years baritone.
Waterhouse recognizes that his work quotes classic styles, but maintains that his music is still modern, and authentic. He bristles at the Winehouse comparisons, saying that while he respects the late singer, “she was groomed to be a pop singer by a pop label, and they would have tried another outfit on her if that one didn't work.”
We finish our drinks and leave the hotel. Waterhouse heads back towards his downtown apartment building, saying, as we part ways, that he's going to try and avoid reading this article. He's wearing his trademark horn rimmed glasses, pressed slacks, a white button down shirt, dress shoes and a dark wool blazer. Altogether, he looks like an English teacher in 1962. While he presumably has a lot of other clothes, this is his only outfit.
Nick Waterhouse performs at The American Legion Hall on Friday, March 7
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