Nathaniel Street-West

Nathaniel Street-West

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Rock - Roots/Rock n' Roll | Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Total Song Plays: 134   
Member Since: 2003
   Last Login: over 30 days ago

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Bio (Part One)


Somewhere in Malibu, in a living room overlooking the ocean, a miracle transpired last November.

What else could you call it when Mark Howard, one of the most respected engineers and producers in the business, with credits that include Bob Dylan, U2, and R.E.M., drives down from the desert on little more than a hunch and moves his studio into the home of an artist he barely knows?

And what do you call it when some of the top session players, from up-and-coming stars like Alanis Morissette’s keyboardist Zack Ray to legends on the level of Jim Keltner, come to that same house and, in just one week, begin and finish an album of that artist’s extraordinary songs?

Call it a miracle if you like, but the real miracle is in the mind, the hands, and the voice of Nathaniel Street-West, who takes a big step toward greatness with that album, Witness.

Like landmark albums of years past, Witness is a live document, recorded by great players gathered into one room, feeding from each other’s energy and from the fountain of Street-West’s brilliant material.

Like the best of today’s releases, it’s tuned to a modern sensibility, alive with images that tumble through surreal streams of consciousness or pare down to the essence of anger and fear and wounded love.

There are epics on Witness, like “Debra,” a story of shattered beauty that bewilders as it enlightens, like a beacon in a house of mirrors. And there are moments of abbreviated eloquence, like “Road of Life,” which is here and suddenly gone, like the song’s picture of a jet plane that’s borne love away.

There’s plenty of space in this music – space for Street-West’s guitar to drip, rich and honeyed, through the dreamy shades in “Flowers of Summer,” or for his voice to quake and break with anguish in “Coldness Follows.” A song that Keltner said, “really got to me. I immediately connected to a person in my life who is meaningful to me. When art touches you where you feel that strongly, it doesn’t get any better. It’s what it is all about”

The emptiness, as much as sounds, that fills Witness, speaks from Street-West’s soul – and every moment that’s heard, every silence that’s felt, announces the arrival of a visionary, one whose music can change the listener’s world.

Despite his youth, Street-West has traveled a long way. Born in a cabin in the Sierra foothills on the day after Christmas, raised in places as contradictory as Texas, Colorado, and Florida, Street-West learned early on to live with uncertainty – to thrive on it, actually. He became comfortable in his role as new kid in town, learned to live with and eventually overcome a persistent delicacy in his health, and mastered the guitar so quickly that he was admitted at age fifteen to the Musicians Institute in Hollywood – the youngest student ever accepted by that competitive academy. He recorded his first homebrew album at fourteen, released a few more over the next several years, played for tourists along the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, played for 500+ at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard …

But all of it was only a prelude to Witness. Dissatisfied despite his accomplishments, Street-West poured through his record collection to find the ideal producer for what he was trying to convey. His search led him to one of his favorite albums, Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind. There, in the engineering credits, he found Mark Howard’s name. A cold call was made, and – miraculously – Howard showed up at Street-West’s home in Malibu.

“We talked about anything and everything,” Street-West recalls. “I told him my history. He talked a little about himself. I think we both sensed that it was fate and good timing that brought us together.”

At Howard’s request, Street-West burned some samples of his songs – 57, to be exact – onto discs and sent them to his home up in Joshua Tree.

Bio (Part Two)

“The songs he chose were the ones that had my best lyrics,” Street-West says, “including a few that I hadn’t finished yet, which surprised me. And each of them tells a story – which wasn’t a surprise, because Mark told me in our first conversation, ‘Above everything else, I’m drawn to lyrics with a story in them.’”

(“For me, great songs are journeys,” Howard confirms. “I’ve worked with some of the greatest songwriters alive today, and Nathaniel writes as they do in that his songs give me visions, just like reading a book. You feel that you’re in a dark place, or in a desert; wherever it might be, his songs take me there.”)

Right after that Howard showed up with tons of equipment packed in his Airstream trailer. Unloading it all into the Street-West family’s living room, he then summoned his selected musicians, some of them veterans from the Time out of Mind session, others offering a fresh perspective on the challenge of bringing great songs to life.

Before recording, Street-West made a critical decision: “Even though I’d worked with ‘producers’ on my previous projects,” he explains, wiggling quotation marks in the air, “I always did most of the engineering and essentially all of the producing myself. So I decided to surrender that control to Mark, and that felt wonderful. He’s the best recording engineer in the world. And that sound that drew me to Time out of Mind and his other projects, that’s Mark’s sound specifically – and that’s what I wanted on Witness.”

More than most producers, Howard immerses himself in each project, even moving into the artist’s home and becoming a part of his or her life, as he had done earlier in the year with Michelle Shocked. Beginning each day around noon, the musicians would show up, the live recording would begin, and by the time the catered dinner arrived two or even three songs were in the can.

Subjects ranged from the political – specifically, the tragedy of Iraq (“Daddy’s Fine,” “Desert Mirage Love Letters”) – to religious intolerance (“Infidel”), to the gravitational pull of the family, in moments both wistful (“Wedding Song”) and desperate (“Coldness Follows”), to the shadows that creep ominously across suburban vistas (“Thunder”). And each blossomed through the confluence of Howard’s sonic concept, the musicians’ synchronicity, and the artist’s unwavering, uncanny focus.

(“The sound of the album evolved,” Howard explains. “The whole record is a voyage, with amazing textures that take you into different worlds. Just like some of my favorite albums, Witness has songs that each sound cool in their different ways and yet, strangely, they also connect.”)

“It was incredible, how it all came together,” Street-West agrees. “I’ve never heard a bass player get the kind of tone that Daryl Johnson gets. And Jim Keltner came up with the most amazing drum parts. (Keltner, for his part, says “I was really knocked out by the maturity of Nathaniel’s guitar playing; his approach is unique.”) But Mark was always involved in bringing out their ideas. For example, when Tony Mangurian got ready to play chimes on ‘Mind,’ Mark told him, ‘Okay, you’re in a church, far away, in the distance.’ And that added just the right magic to how he played.”

Magic, miracle ... these aren’t the kinds of words you associate with most new albums these days. But there’s no better way to describe Witness. Some albums document exceptional performances. Others are sonic masterpieces – monuments to studio wizardry. Rarely do these qualities meet and enhance each other, but that’s what happens throughout Witness.

Let’s add one more word to the list: classic. That’ll become clear in the years to come – but, judging from what we’ve heard from Nathaniel Street-West, by that time he will have taken us to some other place, vivid and mysterious. “He’s a very old soul,” says Keltner.

“His journey is just beginning …”