God knows Ian Fisher could have chosen a more sympathetic historic character to name his new album after. But once you've heard him sing the title track of Nero it's hard not to feel for this would-be emperor strumming his steel-string lyre, musing “maybe it's a phase or maybe I'm fucked” while the flames leap up from the valley below. As metaphors go, that blazing town could stand for the ruins of this 27-year-old's identity: “The album has a lot to do with the destruction of who you once were in order to become something different,” says Fisher, a native of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, USA, on a dodgy Skype link from an apartment in Berlin, Germany, the closest he has come to having a proper home in years.
Ian Fisher has come a very long way from where he once was indeed. At the age of only 21, he crossed the Atlantic and half of Europe to touch down in Vienna, Austria. After spending a year there, his energetic presence inspiring the local music scene, he moved on to Berlin with a guitar and a serious one-a-day songwriting addiction to his name that would only get worse the more he travelled. Since then Fisher has spent his time all over Europe, interrupted only by an unhappy six-month detour to New York City (not for him), playing hundreds of gigs, mostly on his own, sometimes in bands, sometimes dressed as a woman in a major Shakespeare theater production (we'll come back to that later). Writing songs about what he saw along the way and in the process, ironically, discovering his own distinct American voice: “I didn't always listen to country music or these really American forms of folk music. They kind of came into my life as security blankets when I lived in Vienna and when I came to Berlin. It's one of the things that I really love about the place where I'm from.” Those musical influences and that transient lifestyle can explain why an expatriate, like Fisher, can make such an “American” sounding record despite the fact he has spent the last half-decade on the other side of the world. “I’ve really lost my Americanism, the majority of it anyway”, he explains, “And one of the reasons that I turned back to country music is in an attempt to find a part of me that I lost.” It's the palpable excitement of that very personal reconnection that makes the formally traditional approach of this record sound so fresh and direct.
Fisher has always believed that a song is best when presented simply. For Nero, the first official album released under his own name, the “no fancy stuff” approach of his earlier DIY recordings stayed, but the process, equipment, and end result were quite different. In February of 2014, Fisher brought several dozen songs to the Berlin studio of Fabian Kalker (multi-talented German producer and Fisher’s collaborator in another, more pop-flavored project called Junior). From there the two month long process of arranging and recording began. They teamed up with Ryan Thomas Carpenter (another one of Fisher’s regular collaborators, multi-instrumentalist, and fellow Missourian), Ollie Samland (the gifted German pedal steel player), and Alexia Peniguel (the beautiful Australian singer who goes by the artist name A Seated Craft). Before the album was done it had spilled over into three different studios, two bedrooms, and one concrete basement (with no toilet) in Berlin, Hamburg, and Vienna.
The tracks are largely lead by Fisher’s pristine voice captured by a few rare old German Neumann microphones from the 60’s. A consistent backdrop for the album is formed by close acoustic guitars and spacious piano and pedal steel guitar. Percussion (a somewhat uncharted territory for Fisher’s music) is also quite present throughout the album, allowing the acoustic guitar to fall into the groove while the rhythmic burden is carried by someone else, á la Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three. Some songs however (notably Constant Vacation and Almost Darlin’) called for a very full arrangement, adding bass guitar, würlitzer, organ, banjo, mandolin, and when necessary, a cowboy chorus or two. Nero’s palette is much broader than anything Fisher has done before and the variety between tracks is very rich with uncluttered and poignant arrangements that always put the song first.
Nero is steeped in the homegrown country and folk roots of Fisher's songwriting. It’s so “American” in fact that it’s hard to believe that this expatriate is not some typical American tourist passing through Berlin, soaking up its bohemian charm while getting by on “ein Bier” and “Dankeschön”. But he actually speaks fluent German and has immersed himself in the continent's rich cultural heritage. He has been acting and singing (in a dress and heels) for two seasons of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or Was Ihr Wollt in German) to sold-out audiences and with rave reviews at Munich's prestigious Residenztheater. In casual conversation he will even cite Joseph Roth, the Jewish writer from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as his favorite author. That gives you a sense of how deep his relationship with Europe, the place where he spent almost his entire adult life, really goes.
How then has Europe affected the music of this country musician without a country? Just listen to the unflinching self-observation of the beautiful duet with Alexia Peniguel on Again and Again (written after a night of sleeping on the floor of an abandoned house in Austria) or in the haunting Springsteen-circa-Nebraska-esque Comin' Down (inspired by a concert for five people and a lice infested mattress in the attic of a bar in Frankfurt). And when Old World melancholy clashes with a young American's get-up-and-go enthusiasm, you end up with that sense of ambiguity that makes listening to this record so rewarding, tough as it may be to deal with in real life. “A lot of these songs were written on the road, in shitty backstage rooms, or on strangers' couches in the middle of nowhere,” he says, “They are tired songs that keep me company and give me some form of strength, some type of perspective to make the darkness of being lonely and on the road a little bit lighter.” In this way Fisher has made his own comfort from melodies that would turn any European Autobahn into an American highway within the first few bars.
It almost makes you worry that Ian Fisher might be ready to quit his Constant Vacation “from broken hearts to hearts to break” in exchange for something more solid, maybe realizing after all that what he really needs is love, a message arriving “from a rambler's radio” in the song All Ya Need. The lilting melody of the chorus recalling the back-to-childhood joy of hearing a Beatles classic before the sobering realization that its message was easier sang than done: “And it shook me to the bone.” But then listen to lines like “Although I'm lonely now / I'd do it again” from the title track or “Adios, my almost darling, so long my somewhat friend / They say that all things come to a fitting end” from the most rambunctious song on the album, Almost Darlin (written after a strange concert he played with Father John Misty) and you’ll know that this album is not about self-pity. This album is not about regret.
“I'm fully aware of the fact that this is the life that I want, and I wouldn't exchange it for a life of stability,” Fisher says, “Inherent in this type of life is chaos, transience and relationships that can't go too deep. That gets old of course, but at the same time it makes the world a big spiderweb instead of a little square on a map. It's almost as if my life exists simultaneously in ten different cities. And I really like that, even though it's very confusing, and it implies a lot of traveling, a lot of construction and destruction, constantly.”
But with every new life you make for yourself an old one is lost. It is precisely that nostalgic feeling that runs through the words of songs like Too Bad (“I may build a bridge or I may burn a bridge, but I’ll never have it both ways”) and binds the lyrics of this album to its roots in the misty-eyed music of Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. And yet Fisher’s songs have their own brand of sentimentality. He didn’t write them in a tour bus on some great American highway and he hasn’t spent his nights in taverns in Nashville. His songs are from smokey Viennese cafes, from trains through the Alps, from dark Berlin dive-bars. Ian Fisher may live on the road, but it’s a different one than his idols sing about.
It’s in the album closer, Just Like A Stranger, that the paradoxical spirit of Nero is most clear, and in the end, most moving. A would-be prodigal son sings of being in route so long that even home now feels like a foreign land. The most sympathetic companion is a distant freight train that echoes his song: “whining low and far-away; alone and out of place.” This restlessness makes the worn out aesthetics of Nero make perfect sense.
As a boy in Missouri, he dreamt of the big wide world out there. Now in Berlin, or out on the road, he can cross back over the bridges he burnt by walking his fingers over the fretboard of his guitar. It's a handy shortcut, but it doesn't quite lead you back to where you started out. As Ian Fisher says, “No matter where I am there's always a part of me that's somewhere else. It's going to be like that for the rest of my life. I think that it's worth it in the sense that when I'm old, if I get old, I'll be able to look back on these different lives and have something to be nostalgic about. But at the same time, no matter where you are, you're always somewhere else.” Having traveled so far and become a changed man in the process, Ian Fisher is now forever a stranger both in his old and his new home, “a stranger everywhere”. What could be more heroically country than that?
released January 29, 2016
Ian Fisher - vocals / acoustic guitar / banjo
Ryan Thomas Carpenter - piano / wurlitzer / acoustic guitar / synth / bass guitar / percussion / banjo / backing vocals
Ollie Samland - pedal steel guitar / dobro / mandolin
Alexia Peniguel - backing vocals
Fabian Kalker - bass guitar / synth
Heta Salkolahti - fiddle on "All Ya Need"
Sven Fritz - fiddle on "Almost Darlin'"
Harmen Ridderbos - backing vocals on "Almost Darlin'"
Produced by Fabian Kalker
Co-produced by Carpenter, Samland, Peniguel, & Fisher
Mixed by Hannes Bieger
Mastered by Tammo Kersbergen
All Songs Written by Ian Fisher
Recorded in Berlin