A Q&A with Adele Nichols, a.k.a. Axons

Chicago-based songwriter and producer Adele Nichols started her latest project Axons, after a moment of profound and frightening loss – the sort of loss that would be initially difficult to comprehend for those who take their health for granted. Back in 2011, Nichols was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the protective sheath that covers one’s nerves are slowly eaten away by the immune system, resulting in either interference in communication between the brain, the spinal cord and other locations of the body. Typically, during the extremely early stages of the disease, symptoms can seemingly appear and appear for months. Last year, Nichols’ condition had worsened to the point that her hands were numb and motionless for several months. And naturally, Axons emerged during that period as a way for Nichols to deal with and confront both the difficult emotional and intellectual aspects of living with a serious, chronic and debilitating illness – in particular, a chronic illness with no known cure. 

Physically unable to play guitar and yet having a desperate need to create and express herself, Nichols turned to new ways of composing and creating music, employing the use of vocal loops, drum machines and synthesizers. And although the material of Inter Vivos, Nichols’ first album under the Axons moniker, possesses an icy, stark minimalism, there’s a beating and bleeding heart bursting from under it’s surface as the material’s narrators express themselves with an unadulterated candor. The modern sensibility of self-conscious and winking irony that we’re all occasionally guilty of cloaking ourselves in isn’t here on this album, and it’s refreshing. 

I recently chatted with the incredibly candid and friendly Adele Nichols via email for this installment of the Q&A. Of course, she talks about the fact that the Axons project was conceived as a way for Nichols to be direct, emotionally present and as cathartic as possible; about when she believes she has a finished song – which coincidentally is probably the most difficult thing for a songwriter to know; and she offers some honest advice to other artists trying to make a name for themselves.

Check it out below.

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Album Artwork Credit: Jenny Lang 

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Photo Credit: Rob Gazcol

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WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was your calling?

Adele Nichols: I took piano lessons as a kid, so I grew up knowing some basic fundamentals. I didn’t really fall in love with playing music and writing songs until college when I started teaching myself guitar. Since 2002, I’ve played in various bands and written songs. 

WRH: Who are your influences?

AN: My songwriting is irrevocably influenced by the power pop music I loved as a teenager. I was obsessed with Weezer growing up, and I never shy away from a catchy chord progression, or the soft-loud-soft dynamics of that kind of music.

These days, I listen broadly, and I love mainstream hip-hop, a lot of top-40 pop, 90s indie rock (and new music that recalls that sound), and sludgy garage bands.

As far as electronic music goes, I am attracted to music that combines organic and electronic elements and I am attempting to find new and interesting ways to do that with Axons. A few bands that I think do this really well are The Knife, Xiu Xiu and We Are Temporary. While all of these bands use electronic percussion, synthesizers, and chilly, mechanical sounds, at the heart of each of these projects is a vocalist who sings with fearless emotional intimacy. I love that juxtaposition, and that’s something I want to explore. 

WRH: How would you describe your sound? 

AN: I’ve described it as dance music with a punk rock heart. I use a lot of sharp sounding, hip-hop influenced percussion (predominantly 808 drum samples assembled with Maschine) and highly precise synth arpeggios, but I love to throw in some messy guitar lines and reverb-soaked vocal loops.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

AN: At this very moment, I can’t stop listening to these songs:

Dixie Cups and Jars” by Waxahatchee

Heartbeats” by The Knife

Loyal” by Chris Brown and Lil Wayne (In my life, I’m a feminist, but these synths and drums have burrowed inside my brain in a seriously insidious way.)

WRH: Your solo project Axons comes from a deeply personal place, as it’s heavily informed by your diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and how having a prolonged and debilitating illness has impacted almost every aspect of your life, and it’s addressed with an unadulterated candor. This candor also seems to have influenced the songs on the new EP that talk about relationships. After playing the EP numerous times, I felt as though I were in the narrator’s head, viewing the world through (presumably) her eyes. Was this intentional? And was there ever a moment as you were writing the material where a self conscious self editor in your head was saying “hey, maybe I’m going too far with this?” 

AN: I consciously decided with Axons that I was going to be emotionally present in my lyrics. I was going to sing about things that were actually happening, even if those things were confrontational, conflicted and unappealing. Was there a moment when I thought I’d gone too far with this? Yes. Those moments happen all the time—every time I sing these songs or listen to them. 

I never know whether I am navigating this gracefully. There is not a lot of grace in having a chronic illness. I worry about how my illness will affect the people closest to me; I worry about becoming a burden; I worry about losing my integrity. It’s kind of ugly to voice all of this, and to ask many of the questions that I’ve posed on my record.

But writing these songs was hugely therapeutic for me. The emotional and intellectual aspects of illness are often ignored. Writing these songs helped me gain insight on some of those issues. My hope is that these songs are also relatable to other people who have faced situations that pose a lot of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. 

WRH: How did you know when you have a finished song? 

AN: I’m never sure, but for me, one good sign that a song is complete is that I can play and sing the song live and I don’t notice many major holes in the melody or the progression of the various parts. When it gets there, I feel pretty good about calling it done.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying make to make it? Is there anything you’d do over if you had the chance?

AN: I certainly haven’t “made it” myself, so I’m not sure that I am qualified to give advice about doing so.

I guess I’ve learned from playing in different bands over the years that there are a million different ways to approach being a part-time musician while holding down a day job. None of them are invalid, but I think you should make decisions early on about what your goals are and what will make the experience satisfying. I’ve been in projects the main goal of which is to play fun, sloppy shows for a small circle of friends – if that makes you happy go for it! If your goal is to play the coolest venue in your city, work hard to make that happen. If the thing you’re most excited about is recording a good record, focus on that. I think it’s important to take the time to decide why you’re making music and then point your time, money and effort in the right direction (because doing music takes a big investment of love, effort, time, money and emotion, even if you’re casual about it).

In terms of things I’d want to do over, my biggest error was (and maybe still is) being overly shy about what I could do with my music. I think that ambition is good—so I would have been less afraid to set ambitious goals and high aspirations for my music. 

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