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Five Minutes With: Nick Jaina

Portland renaissance man Nick Jaina talks his upcoming show at the Sou'Wester Lodge, recent traveling, and working on many projects at once.

Q&A by RYAN HUME

Published on December 18, 2014 10:00AM

Nick Jaina will perform at the Sou’Wester Lodge in Seaview, Washington, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20.

Submitted photo by Veronica Cross

Nick Jaina will perform at the Sou’Wester Lodge in Seaview, Washington, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20.

That is the real gift of being a human being in a society: We can constantly be shown different ways of thinking and living, and if we are flexible and humble we can assimilate those ideas into our own sense of our self.

Get to know Portland-grown renaissance man Nick Jaina — singer-songwriter, band leader, composer, essayist and now playwright. Jaina will bring his hybrid one-man show, “The Hole in the Coffin,” to the Sou’Wester’s living room at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20 in Seaview, Washington.

“Hole” recounts Jaina’s experience of going to the New Orleans funeral of his hero only to end up in the coffin with a gun and a Bible. Watch the video trailer for the show and learn more at nickjaina.com. You can stream or purchase many of Jaina’s nine-plus albums through his website or directly at nickjaina.bandcamp.com. For more information about the show, visit souwesterlodge.com

Tell us a little about the experience that shaped your new one-man play, “The Hole in the Coffin.” What is it about this experience that dictated the performance’s experimental form of blending narrative storytelling with songs?

It was originally written 17 years ago as a “jazz opera,” but I struggled with figuring out how to actually stage it, because it would require a lot of musicians who could act, and the entire second half of the show takes place inside a coffin. I figured it would work better as a story, where the audience can imagine all the other elements. I’ve only done the show in New Orleans so far, and all the moments in the script where I explain aspects of New Orleans didn’t really have to be said because they already know it. So it will be interesting to see how it works in places far away from New Orleans.

I wanted to create a show that is a) less than an hour, b) focused on music, c) involves enough flexibility that I can tailor it to where I am and d) I can perform entirely by myself. I think three band bills in clubs have become very predictable. Even if a band is really great, they are contained in a form that has become very conservative, and it’s hard to break out of that. So I’m slowly trying to find ways to do something different, but still utilize my strengths and not make a fool of myself.

In the last few years you have devoted some of your attention to more ambient modes of music — co-writing ballets, building the soundtrack for a stage play, just to name a few of your many projects. You also move around a lot, having recently spent time in locales as disparate as Colombia, New York City and New Orleans when you are not in Portland. How does exploring these other forms and geographies inform your songwriting process?

It’s just good to get your mind on a different track for a while. It’s so easy to think that one way you’ve been thinking is the only way to think. If you change your physical environment or the crowd of people you’re hanging out with, you start to think differently, and that is very helpful to your own growth. That is the real gift of being a human being in a society: We can constantly be shown different ways of thinking and living, and if we are flexible and humble we can assimilate those ideas into our own sense of our self.

In January, Perfect Day Publishing will release your first book, “Get It While You Can,” which is part memoir, part music criticism, part love letter. You are also a prolific essayist. Does the prose flow from the same muscle as your songwriting, or do you approach writing a book or essay from a different angle?

It’s a different muscle. Songwriting is so constrained and ambiguous. You have very few syllables to work with so you have to just give a little sliver of a perspective. With a book, you have all the space you want in which you can stretch out. It’s like being a horse who has been let out of the stable, and his hooves can just pull the ground beneath him as he scampers through the meadow.

You seem like an artist who isn’t afraid to set some conceptual boundaries to a particular project — whether it is an experiment with structure, like “The Hole in the Coffin,” or form, like your stage work, or arrangement, as with your 2011 album “The Beanstalks That Have Brought Us Here Are Gone,” in which you wrote and produced a new album’s worth of songs, but chose to have each song sung by a different female vocalist. How do concepts or themes such as these free or mutate your creative process?

Once you set some boundaries it’s a good way to help you start collecting pieces, because you know what roles need to be filled, and then all the pieces that go together feel more intentional. So it’s sometimes easier to write, I find, when I have more projects, because ideas come all the time, and sometimes they don’t fit with one thing, but they fit with another. So if I were only working on one thing, I’d have to throw a bunch of stuff away. But because I have more containers open, I can find the right fit for each new idea.



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