Islands Get Personal
Published Feb 14, 2012Nick Thorburn has long had a morbid streak. As the songwriter behind Islands (and having been a key contributor to an array of projects including the Unicorns, Mister Heavenly and Human Highway), his lyric sheets have frequently been riddled with ghosts, bones, and humorous ruminations on death. But when he set about penning a collection of songs in the wake of a fresh breakup, he decided to abandon his usual motifs and turn his focus to a new lyrical subject: his own heart.
"I think I'm getting to a point in my musical career and in my personal life where it seemed like the next logical step was to start writing songs that could cut through the devices that I would normally rest on to tell a story or to express an emotion or opinion," he tells Exclaim! over the line from a friend's house in Los Angeles. "It was a fight. It was a constant uphill battle to just get to the heart of what I was trying to say and really cut to the quick of the song."
He eventually overcame these struggles thanks to extensive self-reflection. "I was bouncing around for a few months with a really cloudy outlook, and it gave me a little bit of time to think," he reflects. "Once I started going inward, songs started coming outward."
The resulting album, A Sleep & A Forgetting, was recorded in a swift session that saw Thorburn and Islands bandmate Evan Gordon handling production duties. The tracks were recorded live off the floor with minimal overdubs, and these bare-bones arrangements serve to emphasize the intimacy of the subject matter.
"When I was preparing these songs and when I was making plans to go into the studio, the impetus was definitely to make things stark and reinforce the directness of the lyrics and the simplicity of the execution and try to match that with the production," he explains. "I'd just grown tired of being in a studio with producers who fixate almost obsessively over every minutia, every intricate sound, until it sounds great, but the essence of the song isn't necessarily within that."
Sure enough, A Sleep & A Forgetting is the most emotionally striking album in Thorburn's catalogue to date. The pained "Can't Feel My Face" pairs a carnival-esque organ with the harrowing opening lyric, "I miss my wife/I miss my best friend/Every night," and when the songwriter namedrops himself on the tear-jerking soul ballad "This Is Not a Song" ― crooning, "Nick, if you ever learn it never shows" ― it's as if to prove just how autobiographical this material really is.
So how does he feel now that he's laid his feelings bare for the world to hear?
"Kind of freaked out. I'm kind of nervous," he admits. "I've kind of made myself a target, emotionally. It's embarrassing. I try not to think about the specifics."
Despite his discomfort, Thorburn notes that these insecurities reaffirm the honesty of A Sleep & A Forgetting. "When you're leaving yourself open for embarrassment and you're making yourself vulnerable," he observes, "I think that's when you're really starting to make something true."