The Beat ‘n’ Track with Robert Gay

This month, Vision editor Erin Carson sat down with Robert Gay, a longtime Nashville native who released his debut solo album, “When This Goes Bad,” in January. Gay, formerly of the Nashville band Nova Ray, set out to make the kind of album you could “carry on an acoustic guitar.” It’s an album of original songs, a few of which, Gay says, just “fell out of the sky.”

What made you decide to do a solo album?

Nova Ray had been going for about two years, and the time came where we agreed that it was done. By that time I had already started doing some writing on my own, so I ran with that and really enjoyed it. For a while, even that was on the back burner. Over the last couple years, I’ve done a lot of writing and independent recording. Actually, I had put together an album that was a very big production with a lot of over the top studio tricks. I decided that it felt a bit too much for my first self-titled project. Almost as a reaction to that, I wrote the songs that became this album, which I wanted to be the kind of songs you could carry on an acoustic guitar and vocal.  A lot of times the songs would come from sitting in the back of my car, a lot of times behind Bongo­–those nice tree-shaded roads on a sunny day, just playing guitar and singing. I found the right band behind it, and last summer we recorded. The rest is history, I guess.

Tell me about the album.

It’s called “When This Goes Bad” and it’s very much an honest, autobiographical kind of record. It’s got a lot of a classic lean to it. I wanted to be able to tell my story but also tell other people’s stories, so it’s got my friends woven into it as well. Several of us experienced breakups all around the same time, so that factors in on several songs. The basic idea of the album, I would say, is that there are good times and bad things, and even when it goes bad you still hope for the best. It’s worth the bad for all the good that happens.

Can you tell me more about the title track, “When This Goes Bad?” How did you write it?

I was at my friend Danny’s apartment and I was playing his guitar. It just fell out of nowhere. I wrote that song and “Fishing” back-to-back in the span of about two or three days, which is interesting because those are the first track and the next to last. It bookends with the same period of time at two different angles. At that time, it was about the excitement of a new beginning with the fear of how it might end, which I think says a lot about a solo career and an album and all of those projects you take on any time you are taking a step. There’s a risk, but I think it’s usually worth it to at least give it a shot.

When you write songs do they typically just fall out of nowhere, or is there a process?

It’s a little bit of both. The song “Wait for the Sun” really did fall out of nowhere. I woke up one morning and the chorus was in my head. I wrote the rest of the song around that. “Fishing” was similar. I was just playing my guitar and one day and it was this very vivid image of an old fishing pond like the one I used to go to with my grandparents in Georgia. With other songs, I’m very much a revisionist. I will really go back, especially lyrically, and make sure that I take steps to give a clear meaning and use the best words that I can. The initial concept may fall out of the sky, but I’ll work, sometimes for months, before a song is finished.

I was reading that both your parents are music producers and you’ve grown up around Nashville. What was home like? Was it very musical, or did they leave that at work?

Oh, very musical. My mom was a voice major, as well. My dad and I really bonded over Beatles records. He grew up listening to those and loving those, as well as a lot of old country, which found its way into this. There were always instruments and guitars around the house. I definitely owe them a lot for where I am today.

Is Nashville somewhere you think you’re going to stay?

As far as home goes, Nashville is it. The community here is great. I think the vibe and the feeling is really fantastic. I grew up down in Franklin, which is just a historic, homey place and then you get to come up to Nashville where there’s so much music happening all the time and so much excitement. I think it’s the best of both worlds because you get the southern charm and the really welcoming atmosphere of a small town. At the same time you’ve got this great city where music is being made every single day and pretty much everywhere you go downtown.

If you couldn’t do music, or you weren’t doing music, what would you be doing?

Before I decided to be a commercial music major, back in high school I was really considering creative writing. I’ve always been a word person. I got to attend the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities back in high school, which was an amazing experience. I took a lot of writing courses there and got to study some Shakespeare, and that really took my love for words and appreciation for the craft of writing to a new level. As it stands, I think I get to incorporate a lot of that into my songwriting. It all comes together.

Do you still do any creative writing?

I pretty much just channel it into my songwriting. I would like to start writing short stories again. I did that for a while back in high school, but lately I’ve done more story songs than literal stories.

If you could trade musical careers with someone, who would it be?

I think Paul Simon is fantastic. He’s had a very, very long career as Simon and Garfunkel and as Paul Simon. He writes a lot, actually. I read a really great review that he wrote in the New York Times on another songwriter’s book. I think he’s very well-respected. He even wrote a musical, which is cool. I grew up doing a lot of shows in high school, so I can appreciate that.

What’s the last album you’ve been listening to?

This morning it was My Aim is True by Elvis Costello. I love Elvis Costello. A song called “The Sight of You with Someone Else” is definitely influenced by him. It’s got that tongue-in-cheek, biting sarcasm. I think his melodies, his chords, his whole attitude, is really cool. I like that these days, even though he’s a Brit, he’s done the Americana thing, which was another angle for this project, that classic bit of Americana vibe.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on the full physical release [of the album] with a release show and all that fun stuff. Right now it’s just an online edition. I’m always writing, so I have another album that’s just about ready and some new songs that would be toward another album or EP. I also just started a new side project with the guitarist and co-writer from the Nova Ray, Jack Whitis, who actually engineered and mixed “When This Goes Bad.” He and I have worked together a long time and started writing together over the past few months, and it became more an electric guitar-driven rock project that we’re calling “1918.” Definitely music in all shapes and forms. Once graduation comes, I aim to really see where I can take my music career as far as dedicating to it completely. I’m excited to tour, to record, to really have time to promote.

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