Michael Nau has some new threads. Well, “new” might be a stretch considering he's a thrift-store kind of guy. But at least they're not the same clothes he wore yesterday.
“Man, I wear different clothes every day now,” Nau laughs. “For a while, I just didn't change—it's easier to just wake up in your clothes, especially on the road—and I continued to do that at home. Then the other day, I ended up finding some new threads. It's a new way to start the day, and I kinda like it.”
In a small respect, Nau's progression away from his self-proclaimed “Sloppy Mike” approach to grooming toward something a tad more domesticated is representative of a broader sea change in his life and music.
Nau co-founded Page France in 2004, and the group's ethereal folk-pop steadily built a strong cult following with five releases in four years. But a chaotic band dynamic and the relentless “paranoia and stress” of the creative process began to weigh so heavily that he shelved Page France in 2008 and returned home to the sleepy western Maryland town of Cumberland to focus his attention on The Cotton Jones Basket Ride (since shortened to Cotton Jones), a side project turned primary endeavor.
“For the first time, I didn't really understand what I was trying to do or what I should be doing,” Nau says. “I was just at a point where I'd wake up every day and sit in the park or on the couch and just wonder what I was going to do next.”
It wasn't long before the leisurely pace of Cumberland—a postcard hamlet of 21,000 people cradled in the Appalachians—began to work its resuscitative powers on his psyche.
Cumberland “has had a big influence on everything we do,” Nau says. “There's a certain type of laziness in how the songs feel and that mood comes from what's going on around me.”
The languid setting hasn't exactly slowed Nau's prodigious output, however. Paranoid Cocoon, the latest Cotton Jones offering, is the band's fifth release in two years, a staggering yield that includes another full-length and a string of EPs.
“We got a little ahead of ourselves and released a decent amount of material that could have been worked on more,” Nau admits. “They're pretty raw but the EPs were kind of a way to just figure out what Cotton Jones was going to become.”
Paranoid Cocoon isn't a radical departure from Page France, but there is a significant mood swing—both musically and creatively—that suggests more sanguinity and less misery. Likewise, Nau's approach to lyrics—often noted for both their ambiguity and spiritual references—has undergone a subtle transformation.
“I think the mood of each song is more important than the actual lyrics,” Nau says. “I used to write lyrics and then fit them into songs, and now it's more about trying to create something beautiful sonically. Music is something that can really affect your mood, and I just want it to be in a positive way.”
That extra pep in Nau's step is reflective of the musical freedom afforded in Cotton Jones compared with Page France.
“Musically, it just feels a lot freer,” Nau says. “I think that's the biggest difference to me is that it feels a lot looser in almost every aspect.”
All this comes as a surprise, especially when you consider that the core of Cotton Jones is made up of Page France exiles (Whitney McGraw on vocals and organs and drummer Chris Morris).
“There are a lot of familiar faces just with a different presentation,” Nau says. “We record the same way and operate the same way, but we've been focusing more on song composition and trying to be better musically.”
And while the music isn't quite sunny in a puppies-and-rainbows kind of way, there's no mistaking a gilded edge to the clouds that previously lorded over Nau in Page France.
“I'm in a place in my life where I'm getting a lot more sleep and I'm actually looking forward to another day when I wake up,” Nau says. “We've been working on material that's really bright and that's probably a reflection of me being in a good place in my mind. I'm content with what's going on and I'm excited about moving forward.”Cotton Jones play Friday, June 5, with The Parson Redheads at Bar Pink. www.myspace.com/thecottonjonesbasketride.