I’m sitting in my room, trying to convince a reluctant BILL NICKSON to let me hear his new EP. He doesn’t have the newest mixes with him, and he doesn’t want to play me the old versions on his SoundCloud. “I’ve heard them so much that I can only hear the weird, sticky-outy parts,” he tells me, but I’m insistent – I can’t interview him about an EP I’ve not heard. When he finally lets me hear it, he’s still mumbling apologies about EQ levels.
But it’s all beside the point – these songs would be beautiful in any circumstance, even croaked out on a sore throat with a barely tuned five-string guitar. The faraway sound of his voice and the instruments make me feel intensely nostalgic: for what, exactly, I don’t know. They feel plucked out of time, ageless in their sincerity. Each song feels intimate – like someone talking to their best friend, not the public. His sound varies quite a lot; from laid-back melodies, really relaxing and heartbreaking, like the last warm days of summer, on tunes like Better Days and Are You Alright; to the cerebral, relentless thrum of Grave, the aggressive wonkiness of its repetitive riff and drums, angry lyrics indistinct over the top.
Maybe this is something to do with the recording process – Bill doesn’t like to record anything twice, because it’s all about the moment, and the feeling of that moment, above everything else. “I’ve always just worked, like, the first time I do it is the final. I don’t approach it like a demo. I just approach it like I’m making the next song now; just bash it out in four hours, and spend the next eight months messing around with the EQs and the volumes and that.”
This dedication to spontaneity produces sounds loaded with emotion – even if we’re straining to make out the lyrics. “In Grave, the vocals are quite hard to hear in certain parts of it – I’ve kind of had a nightmare, just spent the last year trying to make them a bit more clear.” The song reminds me of Joy Division tunes – emotion is stripped bare and displayed in its most brazen, ugly form, doubling down on its own melodrama. I can imagine angsty teens loving that one, not in a bad way, I tell him. “Yeh, I think that’s where it’s come from,” he replies. “The chorus as well is: ‘You don’t know what it’s like’, and it’s one of those choruses where I wish I could be there and explain it to each person that listens to it, and be like: what I meant by that is that ignorant feeling that your problems are the biggest thing to ever happen, and no one gets it and stuff. It’s a tongue-in-cheek kinda thing.”
He admits to a certain early predilection for pop punk, one that we share. “I had a band in year six, but it was really embarrassing stuff – I was into Green Day back then, so I was straining my voice to sound punky – it was just really embarrassing. I used to watch Kerrang! religiously; I got into Blink-182 really early. I feel like there’s some stuff in my music that I will have picked up from back then; I’m not scared to go in that whiny territory a bit.”
Personally, I believe no genre has ever paralleled pop punk/emo’s capacity to just let the adolescent emotions fly without a shred of self-consciousness – and the result is pure theatre. Bill’s sound couldn’t be further from pop punk, but it retains that same confessional quality: “I dunno, it’s kind of like a diary of sorts; you can pinpoint each song in the past.”
After his early forays into the nasal world of childish bedroom rock, Bill has experimented with many musical mediums before finding his way back to guitar. “It was only just before I went to university in 2014 that I got into guitar stuff after doing electronic-y stuff for a while. And, I don’t know, it’s hard to write a song [that’s] not coming from somewhere inside, for me anyway. One of the first songs that I sang on was, kind of, about being alone and that, because I was always in my room, on my computer, throughout the summer and stuff, and I just found it to be… I dunno, it felt weird, it felt like a weight off my shoulders a bit, if y’know what I mean – not to get, like, typical. I just got into writing about how I was feeling.”
Years down the line, his songs still feel cathartic for him, which becomes a strange experience now that he’ll be singing them to an audience. “I don’t realise sometimes how, like, almost embarrassing some of the songs can be – like that Grave song. I dunno, I swear in it and that. Having a swear word in your song hinders it a bit in this day and age, but it felt like the right word at the time. I think it’s quite personal. I try to make the songs sound like how I’m feeling. And Grave is quite an all-over-the-place song on the drums – quite busy –and it’s just how your head can feel.”
The other songs on the EP go in a totally different direction; they’re incredibly soft, steeped in sentiment that feels really genuine. You’re a real romantic guy, that’s what I think, I tell him. “I am a romantic guy, but in a way where I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he replies. He tells me how each song relates to a moment in the whirlwind year he’s had, falling in love for the first time. “It’s weird; not what you expect from, like, the films and that.” The EP bears witness to the sweetness of these searing, complicated feelings.
Are You Alright is a beautiful song, I tell him: for me, it’s one of those god-touched melodies. “I still think about you sometimes, can you see that? Can you hear that in this song?” he sings.
“That one’s the oldest one in there, I recorded that in 2016,” he explains. “Can’t actually mess with it, either, because I haven’t got the project file anymore, so I just have this lo-fi music file for it. It’s the most complete one there, I’d say, even though it’s the roughest one. It’s kind of a Daniel Johnston song, where it’s just short and simple.” I tell him I’ve never listened to Daniel Johnston, and he can’t believe it. “He’s a massive figure in my whole musical journey, I think.” I want to know what he loves about him. “He’s probably the purest musician I’ve ever listened to – it’s just straight from the heart, and there’s no… he’s not doing it for any other intention than creating for himself. You can hear it in every song, and he sings as if there are a million people watching, but it’s inward facing. He definitely opened my eyes to how music can be your outlet, and people can find a way to love that. It’s true what they say, where if you can see it’s from the heart, it’s easy to like things, because it’s, like, pure.”
I’m curious as to how Bill’s very personal, pure relationship with music sits with the very public nature of a musical career. “Yeh, it’s weird. I don’t fully enjoy going to gigs and that, and standing in the crowd, and just being surrounded by people. I always have that feeling that they’re looking at the back of my head. It’s like that kind of insecure feeling in a crowd – I dunno, I prefer it to going to a gig I think, but it’s still awkward, I don’t know.” Bill has an irreverent approach to his own introversion, which comes through in the clear-sighted way he presents emotion. “I think I have select people that I’m quite comfortable with, and I’m not shy around, really, but I can still be a bit awkward. Like right now, I feel a bit awkward, ’cos of the interview, as you can tell from my voice – it’s, like, got this weird, shaky quality to it and I don’t know why.”
Bill’s musical development goes in the direction of himself, rather than the public. He’s stopped processing his own voice until it’s unrecognisable. “I used to make really dreampoppy, reverby stuff – it was a noticeable feature of the stuff I was making – and it was due to insecurity as well,” he admits. “I wasn’t a singer, so I used to hide my voice a bit by drenching it with reverb. Through university I got a lot more confident and found the sound that I’m doing now.” It’s about getting better at creating honest pieces of himself in songs, for himself.
“I think, when I grow older, the stuff I’ll be making grows with me a bit. That’s why I really want to put this EP out, because I keep making EPs, and getting tired, and putting them away instead of putting them out. I feel like I’m just missing loads of key parts of my musical growth being out there, so I’ve tried my hardest to make these songs good enough to put out. Even though they’re a bit older, a bit embarrassing and stuff – so I just wanna get them out there, so I can move on and make something new, and feel like I can grow a bit.”
Wherever his sound ends up in a decade, it’s certain that Bill’s now locked in. “Music has just consumed my aims, and what I wanna do in life. It’s what I think about all the time – my aim is to just make music, and keep putting it out, and doing shows.”
Bill Nickson’s new EP is released in August. Bill plays Liverpool International Music Festival on Saturday 20th July as Bido Lito!’s selection for the Music City stage, and plays Future Yard festival in Birkenhead on 23rd August.