Sometimes a song just grabs you right away. Nick Everett‘s Liar was one of those songs. I wasn’t content, though, just enjoying it. I wanted to know why I found it so compelling.
I caught my first glimpse of Nick as he tuned up his guitar before a set a few weeks ago at the Wunderbar in Edmonton. The place was cheerfully packed with music types enjoying carefully selected craft brews while Nick stood unassumingly on stage, wagging his head emphatically with song playing during the break. Once it had finished, he leaned gently into the mic, “Helllloooooo, I’m going to start singing songs now.”
Dressed in a light blue button-down shirt tucked into dark grey jeans and wearing worn tennis shoes, my first impression was that Nick looked like a grad student who’d escaped his computer for the night. He didn’t seem to be trying to put on a performance or create a stage persona, but his soft-spoken love for making music drew everyone in. He told stories about almost every song: one a friend’s composition that she’d thrown in the garbage, another inspired by his failed attempts to get a band together to support another friend. There was no masking the pleasure in his voice when he introduced a new one that they’d just recorded that morning at the local campus-community radio station, CJSR.
The best reception, though, was for this week’s Song of the Week, Liar. It was released on a split EP with fellow Halifax band Poplar Pines in 2011, and when we chatted by email after the show Nick acknowledged that it’s definitely his most popular song. He doesn’t really know why though. “I’m really not sure why people like the song as much as they do… Like other songs I’ve written, this was an expression of angst I was feeling at the time and, unlike other songs, filtered through some sort of backward moral statement. Other than that, it’s the most basic pop song structure…Really, I have no sweet clue.”
And while his answer made me laugh a bit, it’s also sort of true. I had trouble at first putting my finger on exactly what I liked so much. I was tempted to just say, everything. Thinking about it more carefully, though, there are some things that make the somewhat straight-forward pop song feel like so much more. The first piece that stood out was the syncopated drumming. While the verse and chorus structure is simple, the rhythm is complex and often unexpected. It makes a really great contrast. Come to think of it, contrast is one of the main hooks here. Eerie synth makes way for chaotic crashing that is quickly replaced by sparse guitar and vocals. The pattern continues throughout the song: soft, simple and sparse interrupted with loud, complex and chaotic.
When I asked Nick if that was intentional, he said he didn’t think so. It was instead a matter of just going with what sounded right in each place. “The song was written over a period of months – like everything I write – and was a bunch of disparate pieces brought together in a simple structure. The rhythmic changes weren’t a conscious decision so much as they were just what sounded right at the time. …It was as intentional as just listening to the guitar and vocal tracks and saying ‘This song needs _________ right there.’ I just listened to the basic recording and responded to it. I don’t know what kind of effect it gives – listening and responding is just what I do.”
I’m not sure it could be quite as simple as that because a lot of effort went into those chaotic crashing sounds, which apparently include “crushing a can, chair dowels on a plaster wall, three plastic bags filled with cans and trash and pennies being beaten against a window, 3 pieces of metal I found on walks being hit with stones, a sock full of driveway gravel, and about 7 or 8 CDs being smashed mid-air with a hammer into a laundry hamper lined with a towel.” Hey, whatever works.
Back at Wunderbar, though, I’m intrigued because the song not only gets cheers of recognition when he begins, it gets a great reception when he’s finished even though the stage version has hardly any of those contrasts. There are no crushing cans, no socks full of gravel and no smashing CDs into a laundry hamper. It’s just the subtle syncopated drumming and Nick’s guitar and voice. And frankly, it sounds great live. So I’m left trying to figure out exactly how Nick makes it so engaging on stage.
If you’ll permit a small detour, I’m slightly reminded of watching my old middle school students do scientific investigations. When an activity was going well, one of my favourite things to do was to find an inconspicuous place, where I was out of the students’ way, so I could just watch them. I loved seeing their faces as they made connections between what they were observing and what we’d talked about in class, when ideas suddenly came together for them and they would rush forward to try to see if their new hypotheses would work. Those moments were magic. Now, when I talk to my science education undergrads about trying to create those moments with their future students, I usually do it by making reference the zone of proximal development.
The idea originated with Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose work on the relationships between social language and learning has influenced generations of educators. The term is usually explained as the distance between what a child can do on her own and what she can accomplish if she works with a teacher or more capable peer. What’s often forgotten is that the idea was first proposed in relation to children’s thinking and concept development, and I’ve always preferred this way of explaining it. Like other psychologists at the time, Vygotsky recognized that children actively develop ideas about the world, but he also knew those ideas wouldn’t just spontaneously turn into complex and abstract scientific ideas. Students need help from adults to develop mature ideas and scientific thinking. The zone of proximal development can describe the place where students’ own ideas about the world are able to meet the scientific ideas of their teachers.[i] Those moments where you add one little piece of information or remind kids of something you talked about earlier and their faces light up? When they gasp and say “Oh, I totally get that now!” Those are the moments you’ve been in the zone of proximal development.
So, back to Nick Everett. In trying to understand why the song and the live performance work so well, I happened upon something that caught my eye. Nick was a little hesitant to chat with me about Liar, apologizing that he wouldn’t necessarily have much to say about science. When I emailed him later, “I’ll do my best to answer these questions,” he wrote back, “but like I said, I can’t promise much insight or any brilliant commentary – I think in music almost exclusively.” Of course, I reassured him that his answers were terrific: both helpful and interesting. One in particular, though, brought everything together. I had asked directly about managing the complexities of Liar live, making it work with mostly just a guitar. He brushed the complexity off a bit and responded, “I taught myself to play by writing music, so every new song I write is beyond my playing ability. It was impossible to play when I was first writing it, but now I could play it sleeping – it’s very much a part of me.
And suddenly I saw the connection. What we’re seeing on stage, and hearing on the record, is the embodiment of Nick’ own zone of proximal development. As someone who thinks in music all the time, we’re seeing the results those moments when his abstract ideas grab onto and pull his ability to play. There’s a little bit of what happens to my students when their eyes light up during an experiment in Liar. Something about it captures the spirit of that moment, and I think that’s what makes it so compelling.
Back at the show, at the end of the set someone yelled, “One more, plueeeeessssse!” To which Nick responded with a shy and self-effacing smile, “It’s entirely possible that we don’t have any more songs.” From what I’ve seen, I can guarantee that won’t be true for long.
[i] This explanation of the zone of proximal development is found in Chapter 6 Vygotsky’s Thought and Language and is expertly described by Alex Kozulin in his foreword to the 1986 edition from MIT Press.