In this interview spotlight, we chat with Nathan Peterson about his latest project, influeces, and challenges. Nathan also shares his story about losing his baby daughter due to a disease that left her “incompatible with life” at birth. You might want a tissue handy.
Full Q&A along with links and a stream of Is It A Sin? below.
Where are you from and what style of music do you create? (In your own words, not necessarily in marketing terms or by popular genre classifications.)
I was born in Chicago and grew up in the suburbs. Some of my childhood we lived in Germany (my dad was in the army).
I write music about life. Usually I start songs thinking I’m writing about someone else’s life; eventually I realize the song is about me and my own experience of life. Most of my songs seem to be about different frustrations I have with life, and I suppose that’s become my way of making sense of those frustrations as they arise.
Until a few years ago, I played with my band, Hello Industry. Recently I went solo. So right now my genre is “guy with a guitar.” At some point I’ll bring back the beauty and fullness of other instruments and other musicians, but right now I’m learning a lot about myself and my music by keeping it stripped down.
What led you down this path of music and what motivates you to keep going?
I started as a worship leader – I played in churches and for student conferences. I was always trying to fit in my own music while playing all of the well-known Christian worship songs. We were growing and doing pretty well, playing for larger and larger audiences. At some point I realized that if I followed the path I was on – if we became the ultimate worship band – I didn’t even want that result. So I called the band and told them we were done with conferences, and we immediately pulled off of that track. We went from playing for several thousand people to playing for twenty people at house shows, but it was us, so it was better.
A few years ago my wife and I got news that our fourth child was going to be born with a disease that made her “incompatible with life” (their words). We paused the band and readied ourselves to say goodbye. Olivia miraculously survived birth and ended up living 14 months. During that time my wife and I were sleep deprived (like, 1-3 hours per night) and endured the most horrible emotional pains, watching Olivia almost die multiple times many of the days, feeling our bodies and our minds falling apart, and seeing how it was affecting our other three kids. Olivia would have these seizures and stop breathing. One day she had over 15 of them. Those months were hell, but they were also some of the most treasured months of our lives. We were given such a gift, getting to know and hold and love Olivia; getting to know ourselves so much better as well. Olivia was “incompatible with life” – she couldn’t hold her own head up, or talk, or contribute to society in any tangible way – yet she taught us about life and living and beauty. She changed us forever. Six months into Olivia’s life I started playing solo house concerts, figuring Olivia may life for a long time. Just me and a guitar. I’d never done that before. I wrote and recorded four songs in our home during that time as well. The songs are about what we were learning at the time – how to still live, present in each moment, in the midst of complete uncertainty. I released it this year as an EP called “So Am I.” I also wrote a book called “So Am I.” Olivia passed away last March. She got a cold and her body just couldn’t get through it.
After some time off, I eventually started writing and recording again, and I’m just now starting to play shows again. My current project is a follow up book and follow up album called “Dance Again”, which is all the songs and words I wrote during the 14 months after Olivia’s passing. It’s not as beautiful and hopeful on the surface as “So Am I”, but below the surface, I think it’s just as beautiful, if not more. Grief and loss, just like joy and laughter, are part of the human experience. Too often we hide parts of our humanity we deem unsuitable and share only the parts of ourselves we want others to see. Not only is that bad for us personally, but it creates a culture based on a lie. That’s not who we are. We’ve got to have the courage to be where we are and nowhere else, and to share our humanity from wherever that is, even if it’s ugly.
Have I answered the question yet? 🙂 The thing that motivates me to keep going is an inability to do anything else. I’ve tried many times, many years, to do other things, but eventually I ran out of energy trying to edit who I am.
How is this new release different than previous ones? Were you trying to accomplish anything specific?
This release is a single called “Is It a Sin?” It’s the only angry song I’ve ever written. I’ve never really let myself become angry – I’ve viewed it as weakness. But after Olivia died, this song spilled out of me during a morning walk – the whole thing, almost word-for-word. I came home and copied it down and did very little to it after that. It’s very raw. Angry. You can hear a battle going on between the anger and heavy guilt. Also, surprisingly, I think you can hear a tenderness in it as well – a beauty. I didn’t know there could be beauty in anger. This song has changed what I believe about anger.
This song will be part of the Dance Again album mentioned above.
Name one or two challenges you face as an indie musician in this oversaturated, digital music age? How has technology helped you (since we know it does help)?
It’s difficult to not measure myself as an artist against much more popular artists. When I do that, I can get paralyzed by the chasm between where I am and where they are. So that’s one challenge the internet does not help. Finding people to compare yourself with is far too easy now.
Another challenge with technology is the infinite options it creates. Should I be on Snapchat? Should I be on Soundcloud? YouTube? Should I do Facebook Live performances? When there are so many options it can be easy to feel like we should be doing all of them. We forget who we are and just start going down every single possible avenue, which eventually kills us and our creativity.
A way technology has helped is in the recording process. I have a favorite ribbon mic plugged into a favorite interface plugged into my laptop and can record whenever I need to. Then I can email my recording to my mix engineer in Nashville and mastering engineer in LA. I can have a song finished in a week. That’s amazing. That being said, it took me a long time to rule out all the other microphones, plugins, etc, etc. Again, technology can paralyze us with options, but now that I’ve got a simple setup, technology is working for me in a helpful way.
Where is the best place to connect with you online and discover more music?
And on iTunes/Spotify/Amazon and all the socials.
Anything else before we sign off?
Just a thank-you, to you and to your readers, for listening to this song. It’s not an easy song to listen to. I feel VERY grateful (and less alone) knowing you’ve journeyed through this song with me. Thank you. I’d love to hear thoughts (positive or negative) about the song on any of my socials.