A renaissance man? AJ Meadows talks about art, music and the colour of feeling.

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Back in June Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed an EP,  Got Me Singing The Blues,  from a band called Starship Nicola and we were able to catch them live at the release show a few weeks later. Information about the band was fairly limited, a collaborative effort between Glasgow band Harry & The Hendersons and a chap called AJ Meadows, an American apparently. We were impressed enough to pursue the enigmatic Meadows in order to find out some more about the man who wrote the startling Ella, a song we likened to Dave Crosby singing with The Incredible String Band. Turns out he’s a polymath; an artist, sculptor, musician and writer and he is from The States and is a bit of a globetrotter. Back in Glasgow for a few weeks Meadows took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about his work, the band and his future plans. We started off by asking him to tell us about his background, his art training and how he got involved in making music.

I was born in Michigan, USA but grew up in the south, travelling back and forth between Mississippi and North Carolina completing a course of study at Mississippi State University, graduating with a BFA in sculpture in 2009.  I first came to Glasgow in 2011 after just finishing a year of study at the University of North Carolina in order to study on the Masters of Fine Art course at the Glasgow School of Art.  Since completing the Masters course at GSA I have been quite lucky to be able to continue making my work.  I’ve recently been in several exhibitions across Italy and currently have a large-scale sculpture on display at Franconia Sculpture Park back in the States.  When did I first get involved with music? I remember I was 12 years old, and I was getting ready for school and just heading out the door to catch the bus, when my father stopped me….told me I wasn’t going to school that day.  In a mixed state of confusion and sheer pleasure, we hopped in his red Chevy pick-up and drove an hour into the nearest town. We pulled into the parking lot of an old pawnshop, and before we went in he said that I could pick any guitar I wanted. We came home that day with an old Yamaha 6 string.

Can I ask where or why you got the name Starship Nicola for the band?

There is a bit of a back-story to its origin.  I forget offhand the events that led up to that day, but on the 19th of November 2014 I flew into Dublin to meet an amazing woman who had a 50 ft long wooden vessel that was in need of repair.  The boat was docked in West Cork and in exchange for lodging on board and several hot meals a day it was agreed that I would utilise what carpentry skills I had and provide four hours maintenance every day.  She and her partner also had a house in Dublin that I agreed to paint.  So I would visit on the weekends and the train into town would announce the stops in Irish, one of them sounding like “Starship Nicola”.  I couldn’t shake it. Anyway, Anne, the woman with the boat, had a sister who was romantically involved with a producer, by the name of Billy who had a little recording studio above his garage up in Donegal.  Anne mentioned Billy in passing, and her willingness to put me in contact with him to say thank you for the work I was doing.  I didn’t hesitate, something felt very right.  I phoned him and he agreed to have me in the studio for 3 days.

And is that where the EP was recorded?

Yes. I think it’s important to say that at this point I was already planning to record some material that I had been sitting on.  The Starship Nicola EP itself wasn’t entirely pre-meditated, my original plan was to visit Billy on my own and record a very simple album with a similar to feel to Nebraska. One song I knew I wanted to record was Ella, but I was listening back to recorded versions and something was missing and that’s when I contacted Harry (of the Hendersons).  I asked him if he and the guys would be interested in coming over to Donegal in 2 weeks time to perform on the album.   I had first met Harry &The Hendersons at Stereo sometime back in 2013.  I was in a three piece folk outfit and we were their support act.  I actually met Vincent, one the singers for H&TH’s, at the Art School just weeks before that gig.  I was just finishing the Masters course and he was just coming in as an undergraduate and I was assisting a course that was intended to help prepare the student portfolios for review.  We talked about all kinds of whatnots, music came up, he mentioned the gig and not having support and I cheekily said I would do it. Anyway, they were onboard for coming to Donegal and then I phoned my friend Mark Gilbert who I had busked and played several shows with in the previous year, and he also agreed.  I then phoned Billy to tell him that seven more members were coming to his studio garage.  He laughed and said ok.

It all seems like a fortunate example of happenstance. The line up really gels on the EP and at the live show there was a great sense of camaraderie but I get the sense that this is but one phase of the Starship’s evolution, that you and The Hendersons are not the only incarnation you envisage.

Whether or not the line up is finalised? I think the answer lies somewhere in the unknown, tucked somewhere between a no and a resounding yes. I don’t think we ever really meant to become a band.  It was something very special and spontaneous, and perhaps it is best to continue to approach it as such.

On the EP you do a version of Wildwood Flower, do you listen to much old time Americana? What artists/music do you listen to and what have been your influences?

I go through exclusive stages with music.  What I mean by that…when I come across an album that affects me in some way I tend to give it my full attention, almost obsessively.  Take for instance my iTunes library, Paul Simons’  album “Graceland” has 120 listens, The Bad Seeds “Abattoir Blues” and Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” are both in their 53rd rotation, and “24 Postcards in Full Colour” by Max Richter is on its 86th play.  There is a wonderful compilation of Ethiopian music called “The Very Best of Ethiopiques” that I am listening to at the moment. As a child I was of course introduced to the rock classics, but more importantly the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the more playful Ricky Skaggs, Cajun Moon to this day is one of my favourite songs.  But it wasn’t until after high school that I began to appreciate and understand the importance of earlier Americana. When I was 19 I was gifted the Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of 80 or so folk and blues tracks from the 1920’s and 30’s. It was an easy introduction to the roots of a genre of music I loved but my knowledge of which at the time didn’t expand past The Carter Family.

Influences for writing music go far beyond the actual music I listen to though it is an integral part of the songwriting process.  I tend to document in detailed writing the happenings and goings-on of my immediate surroundings and encounters with real people.  These writings are almost always the source for the lyrical composition of my songs.  When the time is right to compose a song I don’t sit down with a pen and paper.  I sit down with the dozens of journals I have kept over the years and I read them using lines taken directly from the pages and allowing the song to develop in an intuitive manner.  I don’t try to force a meaning.  The meaning behind the song is secondary.  The colour is important.  Colour is feeling.

Can you talk us through Ella? It’s a captivating song with some tremendous harmonies but it twists and turns quite a bit before the choral ending.

Thank you Paul.  Ella is actually the first track off the EP.  Sometimes a song, an object, or even a smell can become fixed to a memory. I had Ella Fitzgerald’s “You Got Me Singing the Blues” on repeat for about a year. I would make dinner, put the record on, and it never failed.  No matter what was happening around me and in my life, she was still singing the blues. My song Ella tells a story, with the first four verses speaking of loss, and the dangers of living life to someone else’s standards.  The very end of the song, where we build the voices into a wall of sound is the manifestation of memory…a heartfelt version of Ella’s classic song.  When I showed Ella to the guys for the first time it was the night before we were meant to be recording and though we had shared the same bill, we had never actually played music together. And I think this is why the song works so well, how it is able to maintain this sort of honesty and rawness.

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Got Me Singing The Blues EP artwork

What about future plans for recording or playing live?

There are actually several recordings currently in the works.  Alongside a handful of demos we’ve started as Starship Nicola, Mark and I are going forward with a short concept album.  At its root are seven songs written during my stay in Glasgow all revolving around and questioning this idea of “home”. Mark is an incredibly talented musician and has supplemented the tracks with layered violin harmonies as well as gentle synthesizer.  Various recorded sound samples can also be heard throughout. It’s currently 22 minutes in length, and has the potential to continue to grow.  We are hoping to finish and release it in the next month or so.

At the moment I am working with Chris Blackmore of Holy Smokes Records to line up a small Scottish tour, a handful of shows that would potentially start here in Glasgow in October.  Future live shows, for now, would logistically be few and far between simply because of visa regulations but I don’t think this is going to stop us. There is already talk of playing across Europe next summer and bringing Starship Nicola to America in 2018.

You’ve got a blog called Temporary lovers which is populated with fairly gnomic thoughts and memories. Have you any thoughts about publishing any writing, short stories or such?

The blog loosely chronicles the development of Starship Nicola and highlights each of the members.  It takes its name from the idea I mentioned earlier about the accidental nature of the band and it being special and spontaneous, but goes beyond the scope of the music.  It is stark social commentary. I’m actually waiting to release the final post for Temporary Lovers.   I intend to publish the writings in small quantity just as a record of our time together.

Outwith Temporary Lovers, I am collaborating with a good friend of mine.  His illustrations are amazing, quite unsettling.  It’s my hope to put out a short illustrated novella, a playful mix of fiction and personal memoir.  It is nearly complete, so I anticipate this coming to fruition quite soon.

So there we go, a sneak peek into the world of AJ Meadows and Blabber’n’Smoke will try to keep track of those future plans. In the meantime you can catch up on Starship Nicola goings on here and read Temporary Lovers here.

Harry & The Hendersons in the meanwhile are fundraising for their debut album and are playing a show this Sunday at Broadcast in Glasgow, details here

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