Last fall, Nick Thorburn (also known by the stage name Nick Diamonds) fled New York. The ethereal-voiced singer behind such indie-rock acts as Islands, the Unicorns, and most recently, Mister Heavenly — his supergroup with acts including Man Man’s Ryan Katner — had gotten out of a serious relationship and needed to get away. He wound up in Los Angeles, crashing with a woman who “puts up” artist types; his pain and her piano were the central songwriting tools for the new Islands album, A Sleep & A Forgetting. Thorburn calls the hushed collection of songs, out next Tuesday (but streaming now on Vulture), his most confessional work to date. We spoke with the songwriter about the album, moving west, and occasional Heavenly bassist, Michael Cera.
Why leave New York, a place you had called home for nearly five years?
A relationship ended and I decided to go as far from New York as I could. I bounced around a little bit for a few months. I kind of landed here in Los Angeles. The situation was unusual: A friend of a friend, this woman who is basically a patron of the arts and puts up certain people — I ended up in her house. It had a piano and a rehearsal space and all these amenities. I was able to focus on songs and things that had been percolating over the last couple months, but that I hadn’t been able to really address emotionally. When [the music] came out, it came out in a flood and I had the piano there to guide me.
People think of Los Angeles as chaotic. But it seems to have been a safe haven for you.
I went inward. It was a really fertile ground to be in at that state in my emotional landscape, where I was at with my feelings and how I really hadn’t addressed them. It had been about four months of floating around, touring, and working on the Mister Heavenly record. When I did land [in Los Angeles] in October, it gave me a little bit of time to reflect. For the most part, I just hid out and worked on these songs.
You’ve described this as your most personal record.
It’s a confessional record. I was speaking in the most plain terms possible while still using the mechanics of songwriting. I was still trying to tell a story; I was still trying to use evocative language. But the main M.O. was to cut through the bullshit that I might have previously set up to protect myself. I had to fight with myself on this record during the writing process. I didn’t want it to be a pitiable move, but it was very direct, not cloaked in motifs.
The opening line of the song “Can’t Feel My Face” (I miss my wife / I miss my best friend every night / I miss my home / I miss my own bed, my old life”) is certainly direct.
Yah. [It’s about] the life I’d been making for myself. And the life I was building with someone else. There was regret and dealing with a loss.
Explain the difference in the recording process between this record and your solo album, I Am An Attic, released under your stage name Nick Diamonds.
It’s basic alchemy when it comes to me and projects that I embark upon. With Islands, it’s me times whatever else. And the whatever else has been Evan and Geordie [Gordon], who played on the last record; they have a band called the Magic who opened up for us on a tour years ago. I liked it so much that I fired my whole band and made them join in a really kind of manic kind of move. The solo record was really just top-to-bottom me in my bedroom with the few little things I had at my disposal, without any input or guidance from anyone else.
Is there potential for another Mister Heavenly record?
Mister Heavenly is open-ended. There’s definite possibility to make another record. We had so much fun making the last one and touring, even if only five people had bought it we’d want to work again. I think we’ll probably get back in there and do it.
Michael Cera served as bassist for several Mister Heavenly shows. How did that come together?
We’re friends. We’re old pals. We did an event together almost six years ago now. He was the host and I was the musical component. We were just mutual admirers of each other’s work. We had a good jumping-off point for being friends because we got what we were each doing respectively. If we make another Mister Heavenly record he’ll probably play on it. It was never intended to be a gimmick or anything other than him being a terrific musician who was around and wanted to do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he retired from acting and pursued a music career, because he could definitely hold his own. He’s probably more musically proficient than any of us.
I Am an Attic had a pay-as-you-like model. This was quite commendable.
It wasn’t like I was doing an experiment or a focus group. I’d made this record. I didn’t think it was the strongest material I’d ever done. I genuinely was grateful for all the people who’ve supported me over the years and considered my music worthy of paying for. I really wanted to give back. The irony is the people who really support me chose to pay. Hats off to them. They’re the reason I’m able to do it. It really was a situation where people didn’t have to pay for it and hundreds decided to spend money. It was really kind of heartwarming.