In a clever move on the “about” section of his website, Nick Waterhouse essentially shuts down skeptics who might question his intentions. The 28-year-old soul musician, who happens to be a white guy from California with dandy tastes in spectacles and high-waisted trousers, explains where he is coming from.
“Nick Waterhouse’s art springs from a simple idea: everybody wants to be somebody else,” it reads. “One of his heroes, Van Morrison, got his start covering Bobby Bland, whose own musical idol was Nat ‘King’ Cole. In Waterhouse’s view, emulation is a journey; you never truly succeed, but as the singer, guitarist, and songwriter puts it, ‘You become something on the way there.’”
Boom. Conversation over. That’s a succinct description for the heartfelt but retro-minded music Waterhouse has been making under his own name for the past few years. He’s not a poseur because he’s the first one to admit the debt he owes to what preceded him.
“I can’t pretend like I’m dumb,” says Waterhouse, who headlines the Brighton Music Hall on Tuesday. “I can’t pretend that I haven’t had these long, drawn-out inner monologues and dialogues with friends and fellow artists about these sorts of things, but it isn’t the focal point of my own art, either. But I think it needs to be addressed.”
When he surfaced in 2012 with his full-length debut, “Time’s All Gone,” Waterhouse arrived at the tail end of a soul revival that had peaked with Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Of his white male contemporaries, Mayer Hawthorne, Allen Stone, and Brookline’s Eli “Paperboy” Reed were already rolling with the momentum.
Waterhouse seemed at ease with his influences — from songwriter Bert Berns to offbeat jazz artist Mose Allison — and how they shaped his own style. It’s interesting that both Hawthorne and Reed have moved beyond their R&B roots recently. On last year’s “Where Does This Door Go,” Hawthorne leaned more heavily toward pop, and on his forthcoming release, Reed goes full throttle with thumping, Top 40-friendly tunes.
Waterhouse’s new album is a grower. “Holly,” out March 4, is a sliver of a record, 10 songs that shake, rattle, and roll for just a half-hour. You can hear the shape of the room in these analog-sounding recordings, which pay homage to Motown (replete with female backup singers) with traces of West Coast jazz. Waterhouse, on the mike and on various instruments, recorded mostly live with an emphasis on keeping the rhythm section and the solos freewheeling.
“The last one really was a record that was made without knowing it was going to be a record. It was cobbled together from three or four sessions,” Waterhouse says. “Whenever you’re making a recording, theoretically it’s supposed to capture a moment in time. I would say this one has the same spirit and same organic feel to the content, but I had a lot more time to edit myself.”
He cut the record at Fairfax Recordings in California with studio owner and co-producer Kevin Augunas (in the same room, Waterhouse notes, where Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was made when it was known as Sound City Studios).
The cover of “Holly” reflects the music’s commitment to natural tones. It’s a photograph of model Kate Amundsen, seemingly with no makeup and cast in a sun-kissed glow, a slight breeze sending a few strains of hair skyward. He makes the connection to how vinyl LPs from the 1950s and ’60s, particularly in the exotica genre (Martin Denny), used images of stunning women for commercial gain.
“They used to stick girls on album covers for no other reason than to sell them,” Waterhouse says. “But when I was writing this album, I thought, ‘What if I turned this on its head and actually wrote about the internal life of that woman?’ She’s the opposite of the superficial thing that’s supposed to sell the record.”
Matthew Correia, who plays with Allah-Lahs, a psychedelic rock band from California, has known Waterhouse since their days together at San Francisco State University. Right from the start, Correia recognized Waterhouse’s originality.
“He’s not all that similar to many artists today,” Correia writes in an e-mail. “He’s a perfect collage of what he loves, and in doing so it’s become something very much his own. I can’t think of many guitarists or singer-songwriters today who do all the things he does all on his own. It’s a lot of work to get what he wants sound-wise, and he runs a tight ship. Whether he has a full band with all the bells and whistles in a huge ballroom, or just a four-piece in a small bar, he always sounds powerful to me because the music is his words and it’s honest.”
From the way Waterhouse approaches album artwork to his love of vintage instruments to his insistence on old-school recording techniques, it has been suggested that Waterhouse was born in the wrong era.
“I think it’s true, but it’s a red herring. The feeling I have of any artist is that we’re attempting to create a world that doesn’t exist,” Waterhouse concedes. “That implies that we already feel like we don’t fit in the one we’re in. I don’t think in terms of eras. When I try to make or play something, those are moments when I feel like I’m existing outside of wherever I am, in a very cosmic sense. To me, it’s this dichotomy: I’m in the right place and I’m in the wrong place.”