Analogue Music | Nick Flora

Nick Flora

By Matt Conner

Let's start with those small chalky hearts.

When Nick Flora first announced his most recent album would be titled Conversation Hearts, my instinctive response was to simply nod and say, "Of course!" The familiar holiday candies are easily, with brief sentiments embedded like "Be Mine." A playful Valentine's Day garnish with (seemingly) as much substance as the two or three words inscribed on each.

Flora has a way of mining for meaning in places often overlooked—in this instance, he's crafted a relationally focused album on the messages our hearts really carry and the challenges of giving your heart to another. On the surface level, it's ear candy easily shared or digested. Just below the surface, however, Flora has mastered the ability to turn that analogy into something deeper and more fulfilling—or challenging. By album's end, Flora has asked (and answered) one of life's most difficult questions: is love worth the risk?

We recently asked the Nashville-based singer-songwriter about what he calls his obsession with "the world within the world" and a newfound level of honesty in his own songwriting process.

Analogue: Conversation Hearts came out early this year and even the name and cover imagery seemed to me as the ideal Nick Flora example. You’ve got this great way of taking what’s in front of us and flipping it around, of using pop cultural examples and reimagining them. Does that feel foreign when I say that?

Nick Flora: Thanks for saying that. That feel right actually. [Laughs] Growing up, I was the kid who just took the black and white answers to questions and didn’t think twice. As an adult, I broke out of that and became obsessed with the world within the world. What’s really going on beneath the surface? What drives us all to do what we are doing and why we are who we are? I want to know everyone’s origin story.

The art and artists I was drawn to were the ones who said things we were all thinking but afraid to say. Or the ones like Ben Folds, David Bazan, and Randy Newman who wrote songs from points of view I’d never heard before. That was fascinating to me. The pop culture thing has always been there, though. I love pop culture and the way it’s a cultural referential touchstone for almost everyone. The fact that I can make a Princess Bride reference on stage in a town I’ve never been to for a bunch of strangers, and people laugh or smile makes me happy. It’s instant connection, it makes the whole world feel like a small town. But I’ve always spoken in “references.” That’s not a new thing.

Analogue: Do you remember the first artist who really did that for you, who showed you what was beneath the surface? You mentioned a few already but I was curious if there was someone who helped you turn that corner in the first place.

Nick: The one that stands out the most is Ben Folds Five. I remember seeing an early TV performance of theirs and my brain lit up like “I didn’t know you could do that.” They have so many songs that floor me, but their most popular song is about a high school girlfriend having an abortion. They never mention the abortion specifically. They just focus on the details of the day and the emotions felt, but it works. And it was a hit song! That’s mind-blowing to me.

Analogue: That’s even what I like so much about this new album. This chalky Valentine’s Day candy, which is the very definition of sugary and superficial, is used as an entrance into what relationships are really about, which of course is the substance of the songs within. Was it purposeful to make this such a relationship heavy record?

Nick: Yeah it was pretty intentional. It started out because I wanted to try my hand at love songs. I never write them really, and wanted to write something upbeat and fun. But then my marriage imploded, I had friends who marriages were in turmoil, and I had some of the deepest, richest friendships of my life come into bloom. All I could think about was “is love worth it?” One side of my life was saying no and the other was a resounding YES.

Being human is a volatile state by itself. It’s a continual struggle with fluctuating emotions and evolving thoughts, shedding false narratives that were based on our past experiences. Our walls are up all the time and we are scared to be truly vulnerable for risk of pain. Then to add another human to the mix (let alone many humans) it’s a recipe for disaster. On paper, love and relationships don’t make sense. But both are crucial to our survival and continual growth as people and as a species.

Analogue: When you say that the two sides of your life were saying no and yes to that question, how did you hear that? Was the music part of the ways in which you were working out those answers and hearing from both sides?

Nick: For sure it was. For the first time in ages I wrote to work through my emotions; to make sense of things. A lot of people do that, but I usually write to reflect on a time in my life or a certain subject, to get some perspective. But this time I just wrote while I was sitting in it. I didn’t know what was going to come out, which is scary, but also so freeing. I didn’t have the luxury of time to see the upside to it yet, or put a button on the end. And because of that the songs are way more honest, I think.

Nick Flora
Nick Flora

Analogue: Was this whole album a before/after process for you? You mentioned writing songs in a new way, so does this mean from this point forward, it’s a new process?

Nick: It’s not necessarily a new process moving forward, but more of another tool in my belt I can use in the future. Some songs need to be written while you’re going thru stuff. You can capture the truth of the moment in a way that once you’ve lived it, you kind of lose some of the grit and reality of it. People have commented on these new songs by saying “there’s so much unflinching honesty in them" and that’s because in that moment it’s all I had to work with.

Analogue: I want to go back to what you were saying when you mentioned you didn’t know what was going to come out. Wendell Berry says that when you recognize you’re writing a poem, you’re no longer writing a poem but something else. You’ve written songs knowing you’re writing songs but were these more than songs or at least beyond in some way?

Nick: I was attempting to write songs for sure. I set out to write my version of love songs, but very quickly the songs started taking the shape they took since I was only interested in what was honest and real in that moment. I had lost any capability to BS or write anything that wasn’t rooted in reality. So the writing helped me understand aspects of love that I’d been thinking about for a long time, but it helped me out since I had to make a record too.

Analogue: You come to the end and admit that “love is worth the risk.” Did you know you’d land there?

I had lost any capability to BS or write anything that wasn’t rooted in reality.

Nick: I get why people stay alone. I understand people being single forever, or just being “surface” with their relationships or friendships. Truly loving another person, or letting someone in to love you, is terrifying. Best case scenario you live a long time then they die and you’re devastated. On paper, that sounds like a bum deal. After all I’d been thru personally, and all that I’d mined from having conversations over and over with others, I was prepared to write the “life sucks and then you die” song that encompassed my feelings on some days.

But if I was being really honest with myself, in those dark moments, there were people there holding the light for me. I didn’t ask them to, they just did it because they saw someone worthy of love and stood next to me when I couldn’t hold it for myself. That kind of unconditional love is infectious. You can’t love because you’re expecting to get it back. You have to love because people are worthy of it just by them being a person on this planet.

I landed on “love is worth the risk” because there’s nothing else I could say that would more perfectly encapsulate my “findings” with all that life had handed me, with every conversation with friends and strangers, we are better for taking the leap. We are better off saying “yes” to things. We can only grow and evolve and learn and thrive if we let ourselves love and let others love us; if we keep entering into community ...over and over and over. It’s the only way.