Flying High with Duo Sparrow Blue: An interview with Todd Nickerson

Sometimes bands will slow down their schedules, back off the old gigging time, and move on to other projects. Sometimes people from two situations like that will come together and create new music. That is the case with Todd Nickerson (of the band 6 East) and Katy Boc (of The Jones River Band). The duo has been playing around on the south shore and Cape for a while now, but the duo will celebrate the release of their first recording on November 22nd. The record is called “Mabel” and melds together the influences of both Boc and Nickerson into one, sweet, rootsy sound that is just as clean and crisp as it displays hints of Americana goodness. I caught up with Todd Nickerson to talk a little about the release and how the band was formed and how their new project, Sparrow Blue, has taken flight. Check it…

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RLR: This record is a bit of a departure for you from your 6 East days, even though the mechanics are very much the same in that at the core both projects are “duo” based. How have you and Katy influenced each other’s sounds here? There are certainly some hints of bluegrass (making an assumption due to that fiddle influence) but also some acoustic driven folk rock (ala you I am guessing?). Talk about that a bit.

TN: Having spent the past few years playing traditional American music, Katy’s fiddle playing and vocal harmonies flavor my folkier tunes with hints of bluegrass and roots music. We play a lot of traditional songs and fiddle tunes at our live shows that are fairly new to me, and that influence can be heard on some tracks on the CD as well. I come from more of a folk-rock background and there are elements of that style on the album as well, with songs like Santa Ana and Next to Nothing, which pushed Katy into an edgier style of playing.

RLR:  Sparrow Blue is an interesting name for the project. Where does the band’s name stem from?

TN: My family has a 100-year old remote beach camp on Cape Cod that I am lucky enough to be able to spend time at. No electricity, no running water, and a wood stove. It’s a great spot for songwriting, decompressing and getting away from it all, without having to drive too far. Our CD cover is a photograph of the camp. Katy and I were there this past spring for a songwriting day and replaced an old and broken bird house. After I took it down from the weathered cedar tree, we found it had four eggs in it. The parents came back and were rightfully upset that someone had stolen their eggs, so we put the bird house back up and hoped we hadn’t disturbed them too much. They were black sparrows with blue on their wings so that’s where the name came from. We’re glad we escaped the bird attack with all four eyes intact, and we’re happy to report the eggs all hatched in the spring.

Sparrow Blue – ‘Mabel’ from summer sky digital media on Vimeo.

RLR: “Mabel” has seemingly been the single from the project, or at least the first release from the record on a broader scale. With drums and a fairly full arrangement…is this what folks can expect from a live performance or will you guys be striping things down typically?

TN: Instrumentation for live shows varies for us, depending on the venue. We primarily play as a duo, but frequently add upright bass and occasional drums. There’s something about the stripped down sound of a duo that we really love in intimate settings, but we also love to play with a full band from time to time. Hearing what other musicians bring to the songs, and the way in which their own style shapes them in a new or different way is always exciting.

RLR: The record is very CLEAN sounding. More so than most “roots” albums, which tend to have a bit more warmth, sometimes muddy or tape sound to them. The guitar sounds are super crisp and the vocals are really clear. Was that a purposeful aesthetic choice for you guys?

TN: Yes, that was definitely an aesthetic choice for us. ‘Clean’ is exactly the word we used when describing what we wanted the album to sound like to our producer. We wanted to avoid sounding muddy, and make sure that each instrument had it’s own space and voicing on each track. We definitely wanted the vocals to be forward, to have their own presence and clarity.

RLR: I understand you guys recorded a good portion of this project yourselves. How was that process for you? Did you learn a ton? Where had you been coming from as far as knowledge? I, for one, am super impressed with what you guys wound up with!

TN: The drums, bass and some acoustic guitar were recorded in the studio, but everything else was recorded in our living rooms. Every recording project has been a learning experience for me, from getting comfortable playing and singing into multiple mics, to mic placement, from learning a new interface, to trying to capture pure sounds without sounding too sanitized. Recording on our own gave us the time to work on getting the sound just right, and in the process we learned a LOT! It was great to have time to record, play things back, listen, re-record what we didn’t like, and embrace what we did. Home recording can also be a challenge, for example, when your neighbor decides that day is a great day to cut down trees with a chainsaw, or your dog barks in the middle of a take, or your kids come barreling down the stairs – these were some issues we had to deal with during the process. We had many recording sessions that lasted until the wee hours, but we also had a lot of fun with it.

RLR: How has the songwriting process worked for you guys? Do you write together? Do you write separately and bring back ideas to one another? How is that dynamic?

TN: We write some songs together from the start, and we write some songs individually, but developed them together later. Usually one of us has an idea for a song, and gets it started, then bounces it off the other one and we collaborate on lyrics and song structure. Sometimes songs we have started individually end up moving into different directions with the other person’s influence.

RLR: Staying on songwriting, where do your songs come from? How important is crafting a good song to you?

TN:  Crafting a good song is very important to us. We try to write songs that tell a story or that draw from personal experiences to which listeners can relate. The songs on this album blend some of both.

RLR: Anything else you want to push or let folks know about this new record and what is next for the group?

TN:  We have a CD release show coming up on Nov 22 at the South Shore Conservatory in Duxbury at 2 pm. It’s free and open to the public and we hope people will check it out! Dave DeLuca, Steve Latanision, and PJ Justice join us. There will be free beer…

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