February 19 2016. Michael Nau is with his wife Whitney McGraw in hospital, by her side as she gives birth to their second child. Music, understandably, couldn’t be further from his mind.
It’s no small coincidence, then, that the singer’s debut solo album Mowing is entering the world simultaneously; released the same day via cult Seattle indie label Suicide Squeeze.
Eight months on, Mowing is about to come out in the UK and Europe on Full Time Hobby, after owner Nigel Adams fell in love with its meandering blend of country and soul.
For its author, an unassuming, slow-talking folk singer with a beard that looks a bit like a bird’s nest, it’s a strange feeling. “It was crazy. We didn’t know when it [the birth] would happen, so I couldn’t really book a tour or do too much. Honestly, it’s nice to get a second chance with the songs,” he says.
In fact, other than while recording, Michael hasn’t played Mowing live at all. An upcoming UK support tour with Okkervil River will soon change that.
“It’s my first time over there [in the UK],” says the 32-year-old from Maryland, in the the Appalachian Valley. “I’m excited. I want to change the songs and present them as differently as possible, I find most pleasure in that.”
With a drummer and bassist joining him on the road, he’s intent on exploiting the hazy looseness of Mowing’s 12 tracks. “[Improvising] makes everything more fun.
When it really gets there is when we’re playing and there are those moments where it just feels right, that feels good. Being able to record the album like that changed everything.”
Mowing represents the first time Michael – who fronted folkier acts Page France and Cotton Jones before going solo – has recorded with a band live in the studio.
Further differentiating it from his previous work is the fact that the album was written and recorded in dribs and drabs over a three-year period during which Michael and Whitney were acclimatising to parenthood.
In the end, after writing in Maryland, on tour and on the back porch of the family’s temporary home in Nashville, he found himself swamped. “I was kinda lost when it came to figuring out what it was,” he remembers.
“I had so many songs and no real idea how they went together, but [I like it] it just feels like songs, y’know?”
One listen to Mowing and his airy description makes perfect sense.
This is a record very much in the vein of Tim Buckley, Lee Hazlewood or The Kinks’ mellower moments, and tracks such as wispy lead single Love Surive or the crawling Mow and Good Moon would sound just as good on a long car journey as they would staring out of a window on a rainy day.
A love of reggae and soul lends tracks like Maralou and Winter Beat an extra layer of hopefulness.
Michael’s sleepy speaking voice makes sense of the record’s latent pace, and he puts his chilled disposition down in part to where he’s from: “It’s quiet and slow here, it’s not like I’m being pulled in a million different directions every day”.
For a summation of just how settled he is, look no further than Mowing’s sleeve: shot by Whitney (who also sings on the album) it’s a soft-focus photograph of the singer and his son lounging around on a sofa.
“This album means I can get back to rhythm, routine and cycle, that feels easier for me. I have the support of my family, so I can just enjoy playing music,” Michael finishes.
With the deadline for submitting his next album fast approaching and a debut British headline show in December, Michael is going to have to get used to that feeling.