IN THE REALM of music writing, hyperbole isn't just condoned, it's absolutely encouraged. This becomes problematic, however, when your subject is legitimately brilliant. I'd feel embarrassed describing Nick Jaina as a genius outright, and I'm sure he'd hate that, too, but it's so tempting—because he is so clearly the real deal.
At the very least, Jaina exhibits extraordinary "classic" talent. He's a breed that's becoming increasingly hard to come by in a scene saturated with halfhearted dilettantes and weekend rock stars far more interested in "being in a cool band" than they are in writing great songs. Jaina gives a shit—and despite what your friends with the nice shoes may have led you to believe, that's always been way cooler than not giving a shit.
He is also one of the most intense musicians I've ever conversed with in a professional context. It's that sort of near-palpable intensity, the kind you can see scintillating in someone's eyes. We're having what could technically be considered "brunch." Jaina is sitting across from me eating a sesame seed bagel with insane, brain surgeon-like precision and somehow he appears pretty intimidating while doing this.
Jaina has a new LP titled Primary Perception, and it's predictably great. Like all the best music that could loosely be categorized as "pop," it's simultaneously heartwarming and wrenching. The title is a colloquial reference to biocommunication, the borderline paranormal study of plant life as sentient, emotional life forms. In the 1960s, Cleve Backster with the CIA posited that any sort of spontaneous thought or occurrence could elicit an emotional response from plant species. But because something authentically spontaneous is impossible to voluntarily conjure, the theory was unprovable.
Jaina says the concept of biocommunication is a metaphor for the approach he took to recording the album. "There are some things—as a matter of fact, some very important things—that are not provable by a scientific method or really any sort of gauge of measurement. Things like falling in love, or the magic of performance where everything falls together perfectly. I'm trying to capture something in the studio that's magical and spontaneous in a similar sense.
"Usually you go into an album and you're thinking, 'Oh, we're gonna get really good snare sounds,' or 'I can't wait to use this new microphone,' and that's great, but I just think about a music fan, and they're just a plant... They don't catch all those little things. It either moves them or it doesn't," he continues.
Jaina's method for fostering such spontaneity was to enlist musicians he "trusted very much" to play on the record, but not to comprehensively rehearse with them prior to recording (similar to the process that guided many of Bob Dylan's '60s sessions, or Van Morrison's Astral Weeks). "They would come into the studio really casually—it was like a campfire—and I would just present a song to them that they hadn't heard before then, and we would try and work it out within that time period, reach a conclusion within a couple of hours, and then move onto another song. It was very focused, very in the moment, and that was the unifying idea: to somehow capture that magic of your first impulses, when you're not over-thinking things.
"I think of it like I'm the editor of a paper or something," Jaina continues. "I contribute the source material, then allow a space for people to express themselves, and if it ever gets out of control I'll cut it, but I don't like to dictate beforehand."
Jaina is finished with his bagel. The conversation feels a little more comfortable now. I ask him if he thinks people still value songwriting.
"I wonder that every day," he says. "If that's the case, it's hard to think about. I mean, I care very much about investing my life in getting better at songwriting, so it's weird to think about it not being something that's valued. But I do often wonder: Does anybody care? Or I'll be listening to modern rock radio, and what I think is actually a great song will come on, and I wonder, does anyone notice the difference?"
At the very least, the plants do.