Photo by Garrett Walters.
Madeline Robinson was the first touring musician I ever really met. After following her solo releases on the pre-Bandcamp internet we eventually became friends through her occasional shows in my small town in upstate New York. Touring since she was 17, Madeline's name is like a password in the national house show underground. She began her Nice Try project in 2013, performing and recording her songs with a band for the first time. Nice Try's excellent new self-titled album is available as a pay-what-you-want download. The following conversation was conducted in two parts via Facebook chat and later edited.
The first Nice Try release represented some changes in your songwriting and performance. When did you decide to leave your old moniker behind? Was it a conceptual decision?
Well, I never left Madeline Ava behind. I play fewer and fewer solo shows. It's still something I'm willing to do, but the decision to try starting a band was huge. I knew I could make music but I still sort of believed that I couldn't play guitar or make loud songs. But I wanted to so badly because, in a lot of ways, I was sick of what I was doing. I started playing solo shows in 2012 using electric guitar before I started Nice Try which was the first step. The first Nice Try songs were really just Madeline Ava songs with a drummer. When I started writing songs with a band in mind was when it really started to make sense to me. It was partly conceptual, though I don't wanna give myself too much credit. Mostly I loved so many loud bands and I wanted to find a way to be a part of that. It felt like a really big deal. People seemed genuinely shocked or sometimes outraged that I was playing an electric instrument. I heard a lot of jokes about selling out.
Had you begun to feel limited by your solo project?
Definitely! There's only so far you can go without seeming ostentatious. For whatever reason, I felt a lot of pressure to keep it light and positive when playing solo. A band just seemed like a safer place to get emotional. The first demos I recorded for Nice Try were so over the top, more like riot-grrrl or something because it just felt like, "okay, this is a band now so I have permission to shout." In the same way that it's less embarrassing to make a mistake in a band than when you're alone on a stage, I think it's less embarrassing to bare certain emotions behind some extra layers of sound. Starting a band, a lot of the excitement was in proving people wrong and showing a different side of myself and rolling my eyes at the people who were upset to see me playing loud music.
When I started playing solo I got called “cute" a lot. “Sweet", “precious", “innocent". It was always fine with me. I was flattered by it for a long time, but it started to feel like the only things people were saying. I don't mind being cute but I don't want to be cute and that's it! Whenever you're talking about someone's music, you should probably make sure you're primarily actually talking about their music! It would upset me to see "cute girl, cute songs" under my name on flyers - though all those people meant well. So starting a loud band was a way to make people have to start saying something else. And, in part, to change my own perceptions of myself, which were pretty clouded by what I'd been hearing for so long. I still think of myself as sweet and nice because those are good qualities but I also hope I have it in me to be loud and mean when I need to be because those are also important qualities. I'm still working on it.
I was listening to the first EP today for the first time in awhile. It's very loud and direct.
I think it's a really weird blend between basically quiet solo songs with a drummer and what I was just talking about, me being really excited to get loud and just letting it all out at once.
How is writing a Nice Try song different than writing a Madeline Ava song?
It's different in a couple of ways, one more practical and one more emotional. It's different in that I used to never think about drums. All drumming was more or less the same to me. I'd just write a song and then see what the drummer would do. Now I can write a song and feel excited about what it will sound like with the extra push or decide that it wouldn't really work that way. More quality control, I guess. But I also recently started using my songs in a different way than I ever did solo. I don't like this about myself but usually if somebody treats me badly I can't find the power to do anything about it in the moment. But for the first time I've started addressing it in song saying, sometimes pretty directly, you hurt me and I'm mad and it's so so helpful for me. It's so permanent.
I love the idea that you can get stepped on one time by a person but every time you play a show or somebody listens to your album... you get the final say! You win! Playing in a band has made me feel more free to express things I haven't always dealt with well and I feel that singing about being a tough person, even if it's mostly hopeful or imaginary, actually has made me a tougher person.
I've also been learning that a lot of that isn't my fault. After awhile, what people say about you starts to sink in and you can start unintentionally filling the role you've been assigned. That may just seem like personal information, but I've had so many realizations through writing songs and exploring my emotions in that way.
Is that a big distinction between the first EP and this record? Initial anger turned to self-knowledge and forgiveness and confidence?
In a way, maybe. There's not too much anger on the first EP, honestly. "Angry" is the only song on there that we still play a lot and I guess it is an angry song - haha. It's so simple but it resonates more with me than most of the others. I guess it is a confused song and not a very confident song but an admission that I have more harsh emotions. Self-acceptance and affirmation would be a good choice of theme for the new record. I don't think it's always completely obvious but that's what it all feels like to me.
Can I lead the conversation towards a topic you might not totally agree with? I just have this idea I want to see what you think about it.
Dang, let's do it.
I feel like there is a central theme in your music that you have approached from many nuanced angles that is broadly "acceptance," a unique neutrality. It's in your album titles, lyrics, song names—this general concept of understanding reality as it stands. I'm not sure how much I want to say. Does any of that make sense?
I can talk about that, yeah! My life is wonderful right now but I think most people, including myself, have a lot of darker moments. I've never really been too interested in singing about that or lingering on that. But for me, when I emerge from a dark place, I'm overwhelmed with how great it feels to just feel fine. I feel bad a lot and the best I can usually hope for in those moments is to feel okay. To be able to say, "this is my life and I am alright with that." I love the special moments too and the happiest ones but I don't know if that's as relatable. The majority of what I am dealing with in life is the neutral, and for whatever reason, people don't make art about that as often. I care a lot about elevating the mundane moments because they're still so laden with meaning and excitement. Sitting on the couch next to someone you like, making eye contact at a show, falling asleep at night and not feeling bad about anything. I really hope doesn't all sound too dopey or saccharine.
Knowing you I think it's a very particular mindset. We've been in a room together during some of the worst shows of my life.
In moments where I would get worked up or worry or observe true interpersonal train-wrecks in real time you would be there, also worried I'm sure, but also somehow transporting yourself. As if you understood more deeply that the situation or show or day would pass, that we would wake up after sleeping someplace and continue on and it'd probably be pretty fun or at least better. You would focus on a small way to make the situation better instead of freaking out about the macro-problems.
For your personal imagination enjoyment, for this entire phase of the conversation I have just been squeezing the hand on my stuffed minion over and over and laughing out loud at its different sounds. That's all really nice of you to say. I do generally feel in life, when people are stressed out about something currently happening, that I can't relate. I freak out a lot and get stressed but usually about larger things. Am I upset to be in a traffic jam? A little bit. But I know I won't care much in a few hours.
I'm the opposite of course. We've been in situations where a well-meaning person running a show does some innocuous counterintuitive thing and I watched you laugh it off while the steam in my mind started to build and then I'd chill out and hope it ended up being a funny story.
And it basically always does! Oh my gosh, I was just trying to tell somebody about that Ohio show we played and couldn't remember the detail about you not wanting to give someone your phone number exactly right. Why did she want to text you? She had some strange reason. You were hiding outside because she was obviously going to figure it out soon.
I don't even remember that. I remember the donation jar had a dollar and three pennies in it and having to explain to the host that a microphone alone was not enough to amplify a voice, that we also needed a PA.
Well I don't remember that! Shows how bad my memory is.
No, no. Could you dig into Bloomington (Indiana) a bit? It seems like a very active place that a lot of outsiders have outdated ideas about and on the ground it's super complex.
At least in the DIY scene, people definitely have a lot of ideas about Bloomington. I had those ideas when I was younger and wanted to move here before I'd even even visited, I think. Plan-It-X records does come from here and a lot of prominent folk-punk acts have and do live here. But what's so special to me about this place is how many different people are doing their own thing and doing it very passionately. There are so many different music scenes here which shouldn't make sense for a place where you can walk everywhere. There are houses putting on shows that I have never been to. My favorite bands in town cross so many genres. Everyone seems so exclusively influenced by themselves and I love it It's so inspiring to live and work around your musical heroes. The people I admire most shop at Kroger just like me! if they're doing it, I can probably do it.
What went into your decision to move to Bloomington?
My decision to move here was shockingly arbitrary. I had just finished school and knew I had to move somewhere new and this is a place where I already had some friends and one of them had a room available. It was mostly happenstance but the important part is that I stayed. I think people our age feel pressure to move a lot. People always ask me if I plan on moving as if that's a normal thing. Every year I live here, I feel better about it. I love knowing all the recurring characters and the history of the different buildings and watching music evolve. I guess that's what some people hate about small towns - not having much mystery. I'm a big supporter of the "don't move where it's easy" slogan.
Could you point us toward some of your favorite locals?
As far as Bloomington bands go, I would love for the world to listen to Brenda's Friend, my favorite ever two-piece, featuring two of my all-time heroes, Amy O and Erin Tobey. Also check out Bobo, a syth pop solo project created by another major hero of mine. People love to compare Bobo to Grimes but I can't stop hearing Fleetwood Mac. And if you really feel like exploring Bloomington world, also check out Mike Adams at His Honest Weight, Jacky Boy (debut album coming soon), and Vollmar.
[We ended the first part of the interview here and picked back up a week later.]
Since we began chatting the new album was released. How are you feeling about it?
It feels so good! Putting this album out felt to me like "Hey, don't forget that we're still here and doing stuff!"
Did you feel like people had "forgotten" about Nice Try?
I just wasn't sure! Our last release came out three years ago and we don't tour all the time so it's easy to imagine people who live far away considering us an inactive band which is scary because I feel so active! I would love to be in this band regardless of the circumstances but we are really lucky to have a lot of people right now who care about us so I really want to seize that moment as much as I can. Things could always change.
I've felt like your solo releases were updates, periodic points on a line where you showed us what you had been working on. But you had to wait and plan to record these songs as a batch. Was that a notable shift in your process? Did it change how you feel about the songs now?
I love sharing my stuff immediately! I've always had a hard time not recording a song the day it gets written. So part of me, playing in a band, feels really anxious about sitting on songs for so long. But sometimes I'll hear a solo song I wrote and have absolutely no memory of it or completely hate it so working with songs for so long makes it a much more curated playlist. If I can't completely stand by a song, it's going to get thrown away at some point.
What relationship does your writing have with releasing? Do you know what form you want your next release to take?
Absolutely not. Maybe that's bad to admit. With this album, we decided to record really suddenly and had only planned to release maybe two songs. The idea was to record a batch of songs and choose our favorites but we just ended up loving them all so much. People are so confused about the album. Is it an EP? A full length? It's kind of funny because I don't understand why it matters at all.
Do you think that the audience's discomfort with the lack of LP or EP label has something to do with methods of advertising or press? This goes back to our pre-Bandcamp experiences maybe, that in the past five years there has been a shift towards more formal releases even from small artists. Also, are you committed to releasing your music physically?
People are just so used to it clearly being one or the other. I definitely think of it as an album but it really is fine if you want to call it something else. Or maybe people are wondering why you would release an album so short - there's still more room to be saying something! One guy shared our Stereogum premiere and said something like "Love these songs! Can't wait until the full batch comes out!"
I can't imagine not putting out physical releases. That question almost confused me. The music world is more and more internet-centric but you're losing so much if you just completely dive into that. What comes to mind is kids who come visit Bloomington and just buy a bunch of stuff out of the "local" section at the record store. I'm sure lots of kids also browse the "bloomington" tag on Bandcamp but those aren't necessarily the same people
How do those groups differ? You've mentioned to me that, anecdotally, it seems like people who used to be more regionally focused are now more interested in the East Coast, press-approved punk and don't seem as interested in discovering new local music. Do you still see that?
If anything, I'd say those groups are the same in a positive way because they are actively seeking out new music. I definitely see a shift that bothers me. I don't know how real this is, but I feel like I'm starting to see less and less bands being shared on the internet by friends and more and more of the same handful. I think the popular bands have a vibe that feels secret and special which is really cool and plays into that. I guess another aspect is that blogs and press have really become a part of the DIY scene suddenly and it's messing with people's brains. That sounds really dramatic! I mean, I absolutely love most of the bands everyone else is obsessed with too. At the same time, it feels like everyone on the planet knows about these East Coast pop bands but some of them will come to play in town and no one will go to the show. So, in a way, it's all sort of imagined.
It seems like that most people have a limited understanding of which bands have significant support from publicists, labels, or booking agents and how much that matters. It's strange to realize that many people would contextualize Nice Try within the same framework as a band that has international distribution, major press campaigns, etc.
I keep almost saying something along those lines but it's confusing because while no one is saying "WE ARE A DIY BAND" it's obvious that somehow these very pure DIY kids are latching onto bands that are definitely not. Social media helps that, I think, as an easy way to seem very present and accessible. It also helps that the popular sound is one that used to mostly come from more DIY bands. And it sets such an unfair precedent for other small bands making similar music.
I definitely agree. I have a couple more thoughts to run by you, please engage with them however much you want or ignore them if they're undercooked: "DIY" used to be shorthand for guitar pop played in basements, basically a genre, and that music was self-released and shows mostly self-booked not out of principle but out of necessity. Now "DIY" seems more useful as a descriptor for the work around the music but it's still used to mean "pop." Do you think that's true?
I feel like DIY has always been useful for describing a sound and for describing a practice. But now it feels like people can hear that sound and there is an assumption that the practice follows along, whether it actually does or not. DIY is one of those almost useless music words though. Punks use "DIY" more than almost anyone and they are usually not talking about electric guitar pop music.
What music are they usually talking about? I'm asking for my own interest, because i'm not sure.
I think I try pretty hard to not say it... but I imagine exactly what you described but with a little more effort to intentionally only include bands that truly DO IT THEMSELVES. I can't talk about DIY without thinking fondly of the Max Weiss song which is definitely a bullet point in the argument for DIY being a practice and not a sound.
Second (and last) maybe undercooked thought: I was recently talking to a pretty prominent person in our corner of Bandcamp who said a high school student asked to interview her about DIY and she answered honestly, saying she had a booking agent and a publicist, and how to make performing/releasing music your career those methods are basically required. The musician felt bad, like maybe they had unintentionally discouraging the student. If your music is popular it probably means you're not-so-DIY but if your methods are perceived as DIY by a young person at home on the computer and they are inspired to start a band or host a show... is that disingenuous? How honest should we be? Does the artist have a responsibility to disclose those details?
It's complicated because so many people are being inspired to start bands and projects which might not be happening if popular music seemed more off-limits. The problem just seems like the new expectation that your band should become extremely popular too. I don't know a solution to that. I think the good probably outweighs the bad. Because I don't think, or at least I hope, most young people aren't starting bands with fame being their only goal. Obviously no band is posting on Facebook "Hi everybody, we put a lot of money and PR work into this band, just to be totally honest." How do you even make that clear? To me, one of the very best things that can come from making music is to hear other people say they were inspired to do the same. You sort of lose some of that power when you become too famous.
Maybe a pointless hypothetical, but if a big label wanted to work with you and offered you money to record, opportunities to tour venues opening for a bigger band, publicity, would you be open to it?
Absolutely! But I've been freaked out about how to best navigate opportunities like that since I was probably 16. I remember when Japanther had a song in a Nike commercial and so many people were so mad. That was scary because I kept secretly thinking about how many opportunities that money probably allowed them. My aunt's indie rock band was on The Real World and that was the coolest and funniest thing. Nobody called them sell outs.
So what are your goals for yourself and your music moving forward?
I would be really happy so stay at this level forever as long as I keep growing and changing personally and musically. I really want to challenge myself more because that's when I feel best about myself. I always want to play new places and see new bands. I'm playing bass in someone else's band now which is something I never thought I could enjoy doing but that's been so challenging and rewarding in a way I've never experienced. I just want to keep moving!