Israel Nash: The Hill Country Wall of Sound
photo by Cameron Ford
With his Texas studio fully operational and his family growing before his eyes, Israel Nash hunkers down and vibes out with a defining collection of cosmic rural rock-and-roll.
“We’re thinking about bringing a zebra to the ranch. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they sell here in Texas.”
Singer-songwriter Israel Nash is sitting in his Dripping Springs house—a speck in the 15-acre patch of Hill Country he bought in 2011—describing the future finishing touches to what he calls his “forever home.” Developing the land has come in pieces; Nash and his wife sold off two acres to his parents and created space for their daughter, Willow. But with the completion of Nash’s own studio, Plum Creek Sound, assembled over three years inside an old, metal-silo Quonset hut, the home has become a haven. And this is where the rocker’s euphoric fifth album, Lifted, was conceived and born.
Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., for several years, Nash had already scored some serious critical buzz and garnered a growing fanbase across the States and Europe when he decided to pack up his Williamsburg apartment and head south to Texas seven years ago. But the gamble worked and, with his first LP after his move, 2013’s Israel Nash’s Rain Plans, he truly cultivated a sound. Israel Nash’s Silver Season followed two years later: a lush, pastoral and densely psychedelic album of sweeping country-rock that married Neil Young’s wise storytelling to the sonic experimentation of My Morning Jacket.
“We made Silver Season [in the studio] without any running water or AC and tarps on the walls. Rain was delaying construction,” remembers Nash. “The studio has been here for three years, but to call it a studio two years ago would’ve been a stretch.”
Though there isn’t a sign of struggle in the flowing epics of that album, Nash vowed to finish Plum Creek Sound so it could fully embody his next record, and set out to master production and engineering skills so he wasn’t “the guy who owns a yacht but can’t drive the fucking thing.”
In the meantime, life in rural Texas was rolling along, and Nash was diving deep into his small town’s rich musical tapestry. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and more headlined the Dripping Springs Reunion in ‘72; three years later, Johnny Cash proclaimed his affinity with “Down at Drippin’ Springs.” Today, Nash counts Ben Kweller and Delta Spirit’s Matthew Logan Vasquez as neighbors. Nash and Kweller were even tapped as judges at a local talent show, Walnut Springs Got Talent!
By early 2017, multiple streams converged into a river, propelling Nash’s songwriting. His studio was just about done, his baby was becoming a child and the hills were speaking to him louder than ever. And he’d finally found the peace to simply sit and listen.
“I would go into the studio and lock myself away, often stay there until 5 a.m. I let myself be totally open, free-form. It’s not sitting and waiting; it’s finding inspiration,” says Nash.
Plum Creek Sound was his catalyst, with “16-foot tall ceilings and six-foot doors that open up onto the hills—and that’s all you see,” he says. “I was reading, watching movies, listening to recordings of [British philosopher] Alan Watts, then walking out to the wooden patio to smoke a joint. Then, I’d come back and keep moving. Picking up new instruments, experimenting with sounds—I was finding songs in all kinds of ways.”
Nash welcomed the ranch’s sounds into his songs; he made field recordings of crickets, rattlesnakes and rain storms, then mapped them onto a keyboard to be played under his melodies. “I wanted the base of the record to be the sounds of the ranch. It was a music-is-everywhere mindset,” he says.
Lyrically, Nash was firmly grounded on the ranch as well. On “The Widow,” he vows “to keep the house and sweep the floors clean” before he goes “running through a wildflower haze.”
“When we bought this place, it hadn’t been updated since ‘71; no one had lived here in a dozen years,” he says. “But I realized all the joy we have looking at this view, making love in the woods—people have done it all before. The song is a promise to do our part, to take care of the house. We’ll do good things here.”
With nearly 40 songs written, Nash invited his band to Plum Creek Sound last summer, but not before spending his “vibe budget.” “We bought weird lights and lasers and extra incense. I invited my Zen guru to come out and lead a meditation for the guys,” he says. Beyond good vibes, Nash ensured that everyone was fresh and ready to get experimental. He scheduled short, 10-day sessions separated by a few re-energizing weeks.
“It was like going on tour—with anything over two weeks, people miss their family and have dirty underwear,” he says. “We made it so everyone came back excited about new ideas.”
And, they certainly experimented. Collectively, the musicians fleshed out Nash’s gorgeous, levitating folk songs with thick, ethereal harmonies, skyward guitar solos and echoing drums. (Nash calls it “The Hill Country Wall of Sound.”) Plus, of course, there was a backdrop of assorted ranch wildlife.
“We would try anything—double up a drum part or six people playing acoustic guitars,” he says. “I made a rule: We’re not thinking about how we’ll pull this off live.”
The resulting Lifted is cosmic rock-and-roll firmly planted in the soil, at once full of memorable hooks and unknowable layers—songs about spirits and full moons, but also about human love and fear. It’s a twelve-track mix of immersive guitar grooves and meditative melodies. Or, as Nash puts it: “All the things hidden in the headphones.”
This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.