Joe Kurmaskie is many things, The Metal Cowboy, a proud Portlander and the author of “A Guide to Falling Down in Public.” Read his interview in July’s Literary Arts feature.
During a recent performance at Mississippi Studios, Nick reads a few lines from one of the unsent love letters in his new book, Get It While You Can. On that single page, he calls attention to those undefined moments in life—the anticipation right before an orchestra begins to play, the beats of time it takes you to change a record after it hits the center groove, or the quiet way a stripper puts her clothes back on after her performance. Nick occupies those moments like an ancient poet, not missing a signal the universe has sent him. Each chapter is imbued with a very modern wisdom that anyone can benefit from.
Like many musicians, once Nick got his hands on a guitar at an early age he was instantly hooked. The words came first for him, and he would work to learn the music that accompanied his feelings for a girl. In his adult life, he has dealt with all the complicated emotions by writing songs about them, releasing albums, and performing around the world—but still remains unfulfilled.
I met Nick on one of those dove-gray sky days, as perfectly melancholic as his songs. In between his musical performance the night before and a rehearsal for an upcoming one-man show, we sat outside a coffee shop and discussed his highly anticipated book, his career, and his thoughts on current pop music.
ELEVEN: What made you decide to write this book?
Nick Jaina: I wanted to do it for a while, but I never wanted to do it just as a personal achievement. To print something and take a selfie and say, “I did this, hashtag yay me.” That doesn’t interest me, because where does that really get anyone? Your friends buy it and pat you on the back. If I was going to write a book I decided it was going to be something that was going to enrich people’s lives in some way. To me that had to come after working my way out of my own troubles. So the book wasn’t about all these great things that I did. . . it was showing vulnerability and struggle and how to get through that, or how I got through that. Because those are the things that have helped me the most. To see that other people stumble, and not figure things out, and get really low down and sad. For me, it’s depression, sadness, heartbreak, and working through that, and finding a way to really be happy.
11: Was having your guitar stolen the impetus for the meditative retreat?
NJ: It was kind of a coincidence, really. It was a full year of heartbreak, and sadness, and then finally committing to “Okay, I’m going on this retreat.” Just a couple weeks before, my guitar got stolen. Those things seemed to be working in concert together to provide this break from my previous life. Which I appreciate now. I hate to lose something like a guitar, but when things get lost, you can move on in a way—you’re not tied to the past. It was an opportunity for that.
11: There are some very humorous moments in the book. Like when you return every day for mediation, and there’s always the “douchebag with the swooshing windbreaker” sitting right next to you.
NJ: You think you’re going to get better with meditation and it’s in this serene place where everything is perfect. And it is quiet and nice, but there are people there, and they make sounds. You have to deal with that. Wherever you are, the world is not created for you to be perfectly happy. So that’s what you have to negotiate.
11: Were those unsent love letters throughout the book to anyone in particular?
NJ: They were about a couple of people that I was not able to communicate with. The relationships had gotten to that point where it was not ok, and I still just wanted to say things to them. They were never written out as letters that I thought I would send. It was a device to say things that I couldn’t say, in a way that I could be as honest as possible. Because I wasn’t using names or specific details. I just wanted that shot to have pure emotion and sentimentality, the way songs can direct an emotional message.
11: You list the kinds of sadness in one chapter. Was that structure used for a specific purpose? There’s some humor about making a list about which kind of sadnesses one may suffer from.
NJ: Yes, it’s meta and self-referential. Like a lot of things, you feel stupid when you are doing it, and afterwards you can say maybe it was worthwhile. There’s this voice in your head that’s saying, “This is stupid, why are you doing this?” Maybe that voice isn’t the actual voice of writing, but he seems to be. Maybe that guy is just an asshole. I feel that letters and lists are the easiest things to write because you know your audience. You don’t have to worry about tying things together or making a narrative. You just list things out and it can make you feel better. When it’s sadness, which I was dealing with, it was like, ‘Let me make it something I can laugh at at times, or just quantify, and understand it.’ So it’s not infinite.
11: Can you talk about the title, Get It While You Can?
NJ: Sure, it’s what the book ended up being about. The idea of stop living in the theoretical world, and stop always thinking of six months from now, or six years from now. It’s just: Don’t forget to be in the dirt, and participate right now. That’s always been very hard for me. I like to perfect everything in my mind, and build these structures. Then you get out in the world and if you’re not accepting that it’s a real world that you’re interacting with you’ll be disappointed. My whole path of happiness has included a lot of just get dirty, get messy, being okay with mistakes, with broken dreams, and failure. Just laugh about it.
11: What do you consider failure? Is it the lesson of falling down and getting up, or is it trying and not getting to the level you want?
NJ: The failures for me have been the shows where nobody is there, or they are there and they walk out, or they are just talking through it. You care so much about this thing, and you spend so much time on it, and people won’t give five minutes of their time to listen.
11: How important is having a career in music to you?
NJ: It’s very important, I mean it’s everything. . . It’s more important than being famous or anything. Just in the sense of if I have an idea for a project or a band or a show I want to be able to do it and not run out of money or time. And that, for me, is what is having a career means. I can bring my ideas to fruition. It’s all I ever wanted.
11: How long has it taken you to get to that point?
NJ: I don’t know if I’ve gotten there [laughs]. Every project I start, I don’t know if it’s going to be feasible—money-wise, or time, or anything. But I don’t want to let that stop me from starting. So it’s always a question in my mind of if it’s going to be possible.
11: You have some music critiquing in here as well. I love the line about SXSW—watching crummy bands rehash an old sound and getting paid a lot of money for it. Can you speak on that a bit?
NJ: Well it always happens with art or music where a real movement or real expression happens in a certain way. They don’t look at the roots of what lead to that, they look at the superficial aspect of it. “Oh punk music is distorted guitars, so I’m doing punk.” It doesn’t mean the same thing every time. Sometimes punk is playing really softly. Distorted guitar isn’t threatening anymore. It’s in commercials. That keeps happening. The tools of rebellion get re-appropriated to promote and sell the establishment. That’s the only time that I get bummed out about the state of music. When it doesn’t acknowledge that. It’s like ‘No we just want to cash in, we just want to get in that commercial.’
11: You write a lot about coincidences in this book. How do they affect you?
NJ: People say that word as if it’s a throwaway thing. I’m not saying there’s some force pushing these things out, but everybody needs to find a path in their life. That guides my way. If three random people in a week say the same word, or mention the same city, I’m going to investigate that. It’s like these things are bubbling up. The crickets are chirping at you, and you should listen to that. To me that’s what being an artist is. Taking little shiny objects, and connecting the lines and putting them together. That doesn’t have to be on a canvas or an album, that can be your whole life. »
– Scott McHale