If he'd been born just a few decades earlier, in the era of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, the world never would've heard Nick Jaina's voice on record, and he'd be perfectly fine with that.
"People don't really seek out songs anymore. Everyone's a songwriter now," the soft-spoken musician (and occasional Willamette Week columnist) says over a bowl of vermicelli noodles at Pho Hung in southeast Portland. "If this was the '50s, I would be a songwriter and never sing, because that's my strength."
For his new record, The Beanstalks That Have Brought Us Here are Gone, Jaina lives out his dream of remaining silent. Only, he's not necessarily writing songs for other singers—he's communicating through other singers. After producing a batch of songs for his last album, 2010's A Bird in the Opera House, Jaina reconsidered the ones that failed to make the cut, and found most didn't work because his voice just wasn't right for them. So, he brought in different vocalists to give them new life; those singers happened to be women.
"It seemed to just emanate from there. I tried to find ways to use female voices as instruments to do things my voice just couldn't do because it's masculine...slightly," he says with a laugh. "And it just changes the perspective of the story to have a woman singing it." But expressing himself from the point of view of someone else is how Jaina has always written songs, whether it's comparing his personal heartbreak to the pain of war or swapping genders. "It's extreme, but I think extreme emotions make for interesting songs."
Track 1: "When the Blind Man Rings That Bell" featuring Kaylee Cole
Beanstalks' spare, overture-like opener—which a friend compared to "Auld Lang Syne"—was inspired by a trip to Argentina. Flying standby on the way home, it took Jaina a few trips between the hotel to the airport before he was able to actually leave Buenos Aires. "It's an odd feeling, being in a place you've gotten familiar with and staying in this hotel, and you get to know the doorman and everything, and you're walking out to get to a cab and you're thinking, 'Either I'm going to come back here in an hour, or I'm never coming back,'" he says. "I realized that's every moment of your life: You never know if this is goodbye forever, or if this is going to repeat for days and days." In the midst of a divorce, the theme resonated with Northwest singer-songwriter Cole, as did the details of the lyrics: Her great aunt played piano in an old hotel in California. "Those are the magical things that you hope will happen when you throw these elements together," Jaina says.
Track 2: "You Were So Good To Me" featuring Jolie Holland
Jaina originally wrote this mournful, bossa nova-inspired tune for soul singer Tahoe Jackson, but a miscommunication led him to believe she was disinterested. (As it turns out, she took vocal lessons specifically to learn how to sing in the appropriate style for it; she'll perform the song at the CD release show.) He passed it along to Houston folk artist Jolie Holland, for who Jaina played trumpet—an instrument he's not well-skilled in, he admits—on her last record, in exchange for her promise of a contribution to the project. "She has this hyper-emotional quality to her singing that seems to disregard notes and formality sometimes. Her voice always gives me the chills just because of the unexpected leaps she does," he says. "The subject of the song fits with that, because I picture it as a widow singing it to someone she loves."
Track 3: "Once But Never Again" featuring Luzelena Mendoza of Y La Bamba
In contrast to "You Were So Good To Me," and despite its light, breezy feel, Jaina describes this song as a "diatribe," of a woman cursing a former lover rather than honoring him. It was originally intended for Laura Gibson, who felt she wouldn't be an appropriate fit. When Mendoza agreed to sing it, Jaina completely changed the instrumentation to better suit her voice. "Luz is amazing because she does these three-part harmonies on the spot, in one take. There's these crazy intervals and all these weird things I don't understand at all," Jaina says. "She just does them straight, and they just work. So many times I'm in the studio, and I'm thinking, 'I should quit singing, because this is how you sing.'â
Track 4: "Whiskey Riddle" featuring Annalisa Tornfelt from Black Prairie
Jaina first collaborated with Tornfelt at the wedding of a mutual friend, who asked them to duet on Etta James' "At Last." Although his vision for Beanstalks was to utilize female singers with a lot of character to their voices, Jaina realized then that her unaffected "prairie voice" would be perfect for "Whiskey Riddle," a rootsy folk number he'd been kicking around for 10 years. "When I sing it, it just seems like a depressing dirge," Jaina says. "When she sings it, it's this seductive, charming thing.â
Track 5: "James" featuring Johanna Kunin
A few years ago, Jaina dated a Christian girl. He went to church with her once, and found in the preacher's insistence that Jesus is a man whose return is worth waiting around for a metaphor for the leap of faith required by falling in love with someone. ("Again, the deep religious meaning is lost on me," Jaina says.) Sung with soaring grace by Kunin, a.k.a. Bright Archer, over piano and violin accompaniment, "James"—a reference to the Biblical apostle—also conveys the insecurity of being in a relationship with someone whose heart belongs to a deity. "Being in love with somebody who's essentially in love with Jesus is a weird position to be in," he says. "They'll never look at you the same way, and in some respects they're comparing you to this person who's impossibly perfect because he's not around."
Track 6: âThe President of the Chess Club,â featuring Amanda Spring of Point Juncture, WA
"It's nerd love," Jaina says of the record's most lighthearted and catchiest track. Although joyfully sung by Spring from the perspective of a girl crushing on a brainy high schooler, many of the details of the song, which describe a boy with an effeminate walk "who mispronounces words because he's never heard them in conversation," are taken from another of Jaina's real-life relationships, with a well-read woman from Canada. Not every lyric is inspired by her, however: The line referencing a notary public came from his mother. "She said, 'You can get a certificate as a notary public, and you can just drive around and notarize things, and it's not that hard,'" Jaina says. "A few weeks later, I play that song for my brother, and he's like, 'All you heard when she was talking about a career was lyrics for a song, weren't you?' That's the only thing I care about when somebody is giving me career advice. It's hopeless."
Track 7: "Ortolan," featuring Myshkin
An ortolan is a French songbird; it is also a French delicacy, served whole—feathers and all—after being drowned in cognac. When he first heard about it in an NPR story, Jaina was drawn to the concept of a creature beloved for its singing being killed and consumed in such a brutal manner. "It's like being in love: You want it to taste really good, so you torture it, then you eat it," he says. "That's kind of what love is." Jaina wrote the song for Myshkin, singer-guitarist for gypsy jazz collective the Ruby Warblers and an artist he considers deeply underrated, and not just because of her penchant for singing about birds. "I wrote this song that was lyrically dense and had a lot of tight imagery coming quickly, and that's the kind of song she writes," he says. "Maybe that's why she hasn't taken off: Her songs are almost too packed with amazing lyrics, and you have to crack them open a bit."
Track 8: "Missing Awhile" featuring Corinna Repp of Tu Fawning
Jaina pitched a few songs to Repp, who told him she chose this one because it made her cry. "It's a song about suicide, or the last ditch before suicide, which would be to just kind of disappear," Jaina says. Harking back to Repp's solo material more than the dusky noir-pop of Tu Fawning, "Missing Awhile" is indeed a subtly moving composition, featuring only melancholy guitars, gently brushed drums and a distant organ. Jaina says he is familiar with the depths of depression explored in the lyrics, where he's considered leaving town and effectively becoming a ghost. "I've been at those moments where that seemed like the best option. You don't want to dwell on it or be self-pitying, so maybe it's easier to give that to someone else to sing."
Track 9: "Awake When I'm Sleeping" featuring Audie Darling
If the jangly electric guitar reminds of Brooklyn indie rockers the Walkmen, well, that was Jaina's intent. But having Darling sing this song brought out elements he didn't even know were there. "Audie has some inherent country twang to her voice that she doesn't even admit to, but you hear it there. It's that Neko Case style, where it can be so small but it completely changes the whole landscape of what you think the song is," he says. It's a beautifully uncomplicated song, both in its arrangement and lyrics, a series of contradictions expressing deep yearning. "I just always think I should try to write something simpler," Jaina says. "Artistically, the goal is to open up and let people inside rather than just being obscure or obtuse. I'm trying to find the limits of that."
Track 10: "No One Gives Their Heart Away," featuring Laura Gibson
Beanstalks concludes with the song that started the entire project. Jaina had tried to get venerable Portland crooner Gibson to perform one of his songs for years before she finally connected with this gentle lullaby. He originally thought to begin the album with the song but moved it to the end because of its dreamlike quality. "I like the idea of listening to an album as you're going to sleep, and the last song ending as you're half-conscious," he says. "It seems like that kind of song, that at a certain point lifts up into the clouds." It also expresses what Jaina considers the message of the entire record. "To take it literally, nothing is for free. Nothing is given to you, you have to earn it—with relationships, too. It wouldn't be as good if someone just said, 'OK, I'm in love with you.' You should have to earn it, constantly.â
SEE IT: Nick Jaina plays Mississippi Studios Wednesday, Aug. 24, with Dovekins and Run On Sentence. 9 pm. $10 day of show. 21+.