The Spaces In-between: Nick County talks Cocorico with Marty Mooney

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I received a Facebook message a few nights ago from someone who made a pivotal impact on me as a young man. Marty Mooney was my advisor for the 4 years I spent away from home, living at a boarding school in New Jersey. When I arrived, I was an angry, confused kid that had already broken the law, been on probation and spent time at a juvenile facility.

I almost didn’t make it through to the end of high school and after a few glasses of wine, my mom likes to say, “if it weren’t for Marty Mooney, you would be wearing an orange suit.” My dad once promised Marty a box of cuban cigars if he could get me through high school. He certainly earned every one of those stogies.

Mooney has a formidable and stately air about him– built like an NFL linemen, with an ice blue Irish catholic gaze that could be equally effective as a CBGBs bouncer, a philosophical jesuit, or as he actually is, a tough but caring leader, a shepherd of kids in transition to adulthood. To complete the picture for the reader, he is also a very capable bag-pipe player, an Irish literature aficionado, avid outdoorsman, a savvy music fan and a devoted family man. These days, he is head of school at Bridgton Academy in Maine.

It was a great surprise to me when he reached out to say he had been listening to my new record, Cocorico Simpatico Corazon, and I was amazed at how accurately he was able to pinpoint some of my influences and able to strike at the heart of these songs after a few listens. 

I asked Marty if he would like to interview me in what would truly be a meeting of my distant past and artistic present. What follows is a  dispatch of our conversation.

MM: Ok, let’s get this thing rolling. So, I said earlier that I felt like the horns in “Walkin” came out of nowhere, but now I’m listening to “I Could Wait for You All Night”–which is, in my 3 hours with the album, my favorite song. And of course they’re there as well–so I need to do more listening. I love horns and miss those kinds of arrangements in modern music. Is it me, or are you conscious of the vibe that horns brings into what you’re doing? Or is it that I’m just not listening to the right stuff? I’m 52 years old and run a school in Maine. I’m not exactly living in the mainstream. The Hammond organ in “Pink Huffy,” same thing. Love it.

NC:  Absolutely. I am unabashedly old school with my tastes, and I feel like horns are under utilized in the current rock and country categories. My hope is that they take the listener back to the raw power and deep romance, the nostalgia of the Boss or The Band’s seminal live album, Rock of Ages

A quick story: while the guts of this album were tracked in LA, the horns were tracked later in North Miami at City of Progress Studios, where many cool Miami soul records have been made over the years (most recently, an awesome album by Jason Joshua and The Beholders). My girlfriend was able to track down the current horn section for KC and The Sunshine Band, and they came in one afternoon, and blew through these great arrangements written by my buddy Erik Gundel. They moved so quickly that we had time for one more. “I Could Wait For You,” was arranged on the spot by the guys, and my friend Danny Kokomo (who plays bass on this album) had the idea to have them vamp those staccato notes in the outro instrumental section. It was a dream to see the songs come to life in that way. I thought it could be a cool way to reference that 70s exuberance, take a little country off the tunes, and do something a little different. There is something about good horns that makes you feel alive and on the edge!

Were you listening to this stuff as a young man? What was it like hearing those early Boss records for the first time?

MM: I was telling this story today, you might as well hear it: My favorite band was Kiss. 1976, 77–Kiss Army, the whole deal. When Darkness came out, there was this girl at camp who was like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Daisy Duke.  So she says to me, “You like Bruce, right?” I’m like “Yeah, oh of course. ‘Born to Run’ is my favorite”–only song I knew. So that night, I borrowed my friend’s older sister’s cassette of Darkness–which had just come out–and memorized every song. To this day, I always associate that great album with me falling in love with this girl.

NC: See, that’s what I mean. Experiencing this stuff in real time.  A great album is like a great bottle of wine, it bottles the essence and the spirit of the moment.

MM: “If You Can Forget Me (You Can Forgive Me)” is really cool. Love that song.

NC: Thanks, I wrote it more as a ballad and Chris Tomson wanted to give it the Waylon Jennings treatment in the studio. Put a little pep in its step but I still kind of hear it as a ballad. I think it has the sentiment of a ballad.  For me, the speaker is clearly in denial. whatever he did, he can’t go back. The thing he is asking is impossible, asking someone to erase the past.

MM: How does the tempo affect the experience of the lyrics? Later in the 80s I loved The Cure and The Smiths–who could write the saddest damn songs in the world but they had a great beat and you could dance to ‘em.

NC: It depends on the song I guess. I think everything contributes to whatever the narrative is– the instrumentation, the tempo, the feel, imbues the narrative. With that song in particular, I think it gives it an almost manic energy– like the speaker is really desperate to convince this person it isn’t over when it clearly is. There’s something subversive about doing that, luring. A sad slow song, you can be like “I don’t want to listen to that” but if it boogies, you can make them hear what you’re saying.

MM: “Pink Huffy,” we all know that guy. Or maybe that’s me and where I grew up.

NC: Well, me too then– small town America. A quick story about that song: It’s actually the one song on the album I didn’t write. It was written by Gavin Richard, who is now a firefighter and a father of three in upstate New York. When I was in college, he was in a band called The Kamikaze Hearts. They were doing this acoustic Neil Young front porch kind of thing and I was obsessed with them. 

There were a few songwriters in the band, but Gavin would always write these kind of literary songs– kind of Dylanish stories. Small town lovable losers, boys going with their grandpas to the Mason Lodge, stuff like that. I thought it would be an interesting complement to this song cycle, and got in touch with him. 

I figured out the song by memory because I’m not sure they ever recorded it, but that’s how much I loved it– it always stayed in my head. I changed some lyrics as I didn’t remember all of them, and it was cool to connect with him and get his blessing. They were heroes of mine and were one of the reasons I abandoned whatever course I was on to write songs.

MM: “Violent Sleeper,” I’m hearing John Lennon. You a Beatles fan?

NC: Of course. The B section in that song, straight Beatles. “If You Wanna See Me” trying to be Lennonesque. I wanted to write a medley, also a Beatles thing. The album has a story that is connecting all the songs, but that really maybe isn’t important to anyone but me, suffice to say, the song is about lovers splitting apart on an island as a terrible storm is coming. That was the last song I wrote for the album. I knew the album needed one more song to put a pin in it. 

I was leaving in a month or so to record, and a terrible hurricane was coming right for Miami– I thought the story in the song was coming for me, a little crazed. Anyway, it missed us directly, but a mango tree fell on my house and I didn’t have power for a month. I went for a week, to the powerless house, to my piano room, sweating bullets in the August heat, by candlelight, sipping a tall boy, and listening to the workers outside trying to get the electricity back on, all the while blasting Madonna in the middle of the night. It was pretty vibey, and once the song was done, I knew the album was done, songwise at least.

The progression is very Beatles. without getting too much into it, the way it moves, chromatically, meaning stepping from A to B to C, is a cool trick and something in their toolbelt. So yeah, you are spot on once again! You could have been a music critic in another life!

MM: I used to read Rolling Stone religiously. Again like 1982-1990 or so. Before the internet, that’s how you found out about bands. I was in school in New Hampshire, so we were really cut off. That’s maybe connected to a question I wanted to ask: As an English teacher one of the things you do is try to talk to students about narrative distance. Kids usually want to assign all of the thoughts and feelings of a 1st person narrator to the “author.” Is that distance something you think about? Deeply personal sometimes seems deeply authentic, but a fully drawn character and his/her experience–which is totally different from yours as an artist–can be equally so.

NC: It’s something I think a lot about actually. It’s a gripe I have in general with how people perceive the song in relation to the songwriter– kind of on the Oscar Wilde trials tip. I think it’s important to recognize the speaker in the song isn’t always the songwriter. Why does it matter even? 

I’ve been thinking about it a lot today as one of my songs addresses father, mother, and brother. the way I write, I am usually just feeling super hard emotionally, and I am looking to channel that somewhere. I didn’t write that song because I was mad at my dad, I was just feeling a lot at the moment and was thinking about the Lennon song, “Mother”, and thinking about how incredibly powerful that opening is. I’ve read a little about where that came from, some popular, dime store psychology of the day, but really, I was just trying to channel that raw emotion and that was the best I could come up with at the time. 

Today, my mom and my brother, independently, listened to the album for the first time. I was really scared they would take it the wrong way, especially as my dad recently passed. I was all geared up to have this high falutin conversation about narrative distance as you put it, but it didn’t come up, thankfully. I also wrote the song 7 years ago or so, it was the first song in this cycle, and I’ve been sitting on it for a long time.

MM: Which song?

NC: It’s called “Against Me”. I wanted it to be old testament/new testament. Wrath and revenge, but ultimately, reconciliation and forgiveness– I may be a lapsed catholic, but that shit runs deep! “Against Me” I took from Our Father. I liked that connection. I forgive those who trespass and trespass against me. I have three albums I conceived in my head many years ago, but they have interconnected themes, father and son relations is one of them. The next album will deal with that more directly. That’s some Joyce shit, Stephen and Bloom.

MM: I was 29 when my father died. It’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, in a way. Talk about influences and authenticity. As you get older, you find yourself doing and saying the things he did. Unconsciously, but you do it. I had a good relationship with my dad. We were close, but I always wish I knew him better. He came from a generation–and a culture–where there was a lot you didn’t share with your kids.

When you talked about Gavin and “Pink Huffy”, you were saying like, small towns and that. I am thinking a lot about sense of place, both literal and psychic space of the voices in your songs. “Racetrack” (left or right), “I Could Wait For You” (waiting in a space neither here nor there), forgotten or forgiven… It’s the between spaces that seem the most interesting I think. That’s where the gold is, don’t you think?

NC:  Hmm, that’s interesting, I don’t think I had made that connection, but the in-between you speak of feels very American literature. Quiet desperation. 

MM: But that’s exactly it. Those places in between–maybe except for the “Pink Huffy” guy–are choices and movement and maybe growth maybe clarity.

NC: He’s totally a Raymond Carver character, but he’s in the inbetween, who knows whether he’ll work out or not. That’s maybe why I like that song so much, that’s the authenticity–that you don’t know– that he doesn’t know.

MM: I think the closest I can come to that authenticity question is self awareness. Knowing yourself is a hard thing, and as I listen to these songs, I’m thinking these speakers are in a range of that self awareness. It’s scary, but there’s a lot of hope for them. You really care about these people and this world you created on the album.

Nick County and The Rainbow Smoke perform one night only, songs from Cocorico Simpatico Corazón at Gramps August 30!
Support from Daniel Milewski and Baby Bear Lo-Fi. RSVP here.

Nick County

Nick County is a songwriter, gambler, and birdwatcher living in Little Havana. His new album, "Nick County & The Rainbow Smoke: Cocorico Simpatico Corazon" is currently streaming on all digital formats.