Writing the ode to your childhood: An interview with Nick Ward

“hooooooly shit this is some understated bedroom beauty.”

Declan Byrne

Triple J’s Declan Byrne succinctly summed up Nick Ward’s career with one comment on his Unearthed page. After finishing high school in 2019, the Sydney teenager is currently on his gap year. Preparing to release his first major project, Everything I Wish I Told You, Ward has been riding a wave of critically acclaimed singles and is ready to drop more. In July, he received a $7000 Level Up Genre Grant from Triple J and started releasing his web series KILL YOUR DARLINGS. A sometimes absurd, often documentary-esque approach to his music-making, KILL YOUR DARLINGS is a unique and refreshing look into an artist’s life.

The fourth (and final) episode of the series starts with Nick, 19, walking through the suburbs, delivering a monologue into his audio recorder. Filmed after our interview, the video features a pensive Nick, trying to unwrap the challenges of releasing his first project while being deep in the headspace of creating the second. The camera flashes to Nick’s interactions with the world around him; greeting a dog, attempting to burn the wings from his ‘Aubrey Plaza’ music video, and experimenting with practical effects.

The series’ unique visual style is a reflection of Nick’s filmmaking experience – a finalist of Tropfest (2018) and a winner of Trop Jr (2017) – he is an artist with a repertoire extending far beyond the audible.

This interview, recorded in August, features musings about Nick’s first project, what it means to create queer art, how music shapes your teenage years, and much more. At that point, Nick had recently completed the third episode of KILL YOUR DARLINGS, was mid-way through his gap year, and contemplating options for his future. Our exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What was your thought process deciding between a gap year and uni?

A: I always thought I could do the two, then eventually I was like fuck it, I wanted to give music a good shot. I didn’t want to waste 50% of my time trying to balance music and uni, without acting either.

Q: Did you set goals for your gap year?

I mean yeah but COVID kinda blew all my dreams out of the water a bit but that’s everyone you know, everyone has had to change their plans. I’d love to be doing shows and everything but you can’t know.

Q: Is there a new goal for this year?

Yeah! I just finished my project, we’re talking to a label about releasing it. It’s all the boring stuff right now, we’re past all the fun part of production, where everything is fresh. Now I’ve listened to the songs for months and months, it’s kind of like limbo now between releasing and having fun.

Q: Does it become hard to judge the quality of a song, listening over and over again?

Yeah, I think you get attached, let’s say when you start you record a really rough guitar, just to have something there. It sounds rough but you get attached. As I went along there were a lot of songs that just weren’t aging well, or couldn’t build, so I got rid of them. I funnelled a lot of those ideas into KILL YOUR DARLINGS.

Q: Do you think that’s you maturing as a person or your skills developing as a musician?

To be honest, I think a bit of both, I think I have realised the skill thing. I wish ‘Aubrey Plaza’ was my first single because looking back at the other tracks, I didn’t know how to mix or flesh out a song properly. A lot of people had that growth in secret and only release it when they are ready. So I guess, I started at the end of high school, my early songs were a process of working everything out as I went. It feels really good to be releasing music that is properly a… what’s the word?

Q: Representation?

Yeah, a proper representation of what I’m doing right now. It’s the first time I’ve made music like what it sounded in my head.

Q: Is that transparency of process important to you as an artist?

Yeah, I have a lot of friends that delete their old songs, I think a lot of artists are private with their process. My favourite artists, like Kevin Abstract and BROCKHAMPTON, are very upfront with their process. I feel like I then connect with their art more, It humanises it and makes creating music feel more achievable. When we think about someone like Frank Ocean creating music, we almost expect he goes into a cave and comes out a few years later with a fully formed album. With my album, I want to peel back that mystique.

Q: Is there almost a desire to be the person you felt you needed when you were younger?

Oh for sure, yeah I think so, I think KILL YOUR DARLINGS is the show I would have died to have seen a few years ago. The videos on YouTube that are similar to it, were really important to my development. I wished there were more of them.

Q: What’s the thought process, you’re making the album, what point do you go, ‘I want to make a web series’?

It kind of happened one day, I posted about it that night and then I released the first episode the week after. I knew that I had music coming out in a few months, so I needed to do something to fill the time and help make people aware that new music was coming up. It took a few different phases, at one stage it was going to be a mockumentary kind of thing. I ended up deciding to make it as informative as possible, just cause that’s what I would have wanted when I was younger.

Q: Does it feel like an escape from music creation, or is it a chore?

It depends, the first two episodes I completed within the first week of having the idea. So there was a break before making this third episode which came together a bit slower. I might have a break after the next episode, just so I can figure things out, I’d rather have quality over quantity.

Q: Back when you were more film orientated, did you want to be a musician?

It’s weird, I’ve been making music and learning instruments since I was six. They’ve both been big parts of my life, ideally, I’d love to do both. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that film is inaccessible, especially with the resources I have. Like there’s so much money involved and you need so many people to come together and create something. Music you can just create, alone, at home in my room for cheap.

Q: Inaccessible in terms of creation or consumption?

Making, like in terms of making feature films or professional short films. Everyone has a phone and can make content now; which for music videos, visualizers and think pieces DIY works. For the type of movies I wanted to create, it would have taken way too much money, time and people.

I was at a dinner party once and talking to a filmmaker, he thought that film was the peak art form because it involves music, photography, story, writing and fashion design. I kinda thought that’s why I wanted to create films, to involve all those elements in my process. However, I can bring all of that to music if I focus my time on world-building.

Q: Do you think that world-building is more project-based, or as Nick Ward, I am going to build a world around me and everything I do?

Probably more project-based, I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing over and over again. It’s really interesting when each album or era for an artist has its individual space, aesthetic and look.

Q: What does that look like for your next project?

I have a big whiteboard with all my ideas. I think this project is very proud that it’s been made in my bedroom, it has all the DIY elements while chasing a cinematic, faux high art aesthetic. I don’t want to box myself in, just because it was made in my bedroom. I want to help other people realise that their vision doesn’t have to be limited by resources or their bedroom. You don’t have to be lo-fi.

Q: You said in KILL YOUR DARLINGS you have to want to be the best, what does being the ‘next big thing’ mean to you?

I feel you have to always be looking ten years ahead of you, so even when you are ten years ahead, you haven’t reached where you want to be yet. I mean a lot of the greatest artists are never happy, maybe you can’t be an artist and be happy? I’m not sure yet, maybe my opinions will change as I get older.

I guess success to me, would just be having an audience to release my stuff to and get around it. The money doesn’t matter, it’s hopefully more having people that get excited and respond to what’s released.

Q: Is that response a more important metric than happiness?

I don’t know, it’s hard at this stage of my career. I don’t know what it’s like to be successful yet, so my thoughts will change. In terms of happiness, I just want people to react to my music as I reacted to my favourite music.

Q: Do you feel like there’s pressure to succeed as a nineteen-year-old, or that there is time?

Yeah well, I have completely unreasonable expectations for myself. I’ve always felt I had to have my career completely sorted out by twenty, which is silly. No one knows who they are when they are twenty. I’ve slowly started to realise most of my favourite artists didn’t even start to make waves till they were twenty-four, so I should be patient. I kinda like to have unrealistic expectations, it’s a rush and pushes me to work harder. Maybe the older you get you become less ambitious, I’m not sure.

I heard this quote the other day, “losing feels worse than winning feels good”. I feel like whenever something bad happens I just get swallowed up but when there’s something I’m thankful for, I feel like I forget about it the next day. It’s a bad habit at the moment, maybe that’s part of never being happy where I am?

Q: Is music the way you cope?

It’s a bit of a cliche to call music a form of therapy but it is. It’s kind of weird, now that I’m listening to the project and have a bit of removal from it, I’ve kind of realised I’m like damn, I’m talking about some pretty heavy stuff here. Like you forget you’re writing about yourself, I try to think I’m writing about a character and maybe that allows me to be more authentic and genuine.

Q: Are you scared people might make assumptions about that character and think that’s Nick?

It is from Nick! I think it’s important to be super genuine. I hate the idea of there being a wall between me and an audience. I just want to show that you can be completely yourself and don’t have to adopt a super quirky, weirdo character to be successful. I don’t want to play a character at all.

Q: There’s this trend of labelling musicians, whether it’s their genre, identity or location, do you think they are productive?

I get it, labels are just there to make everything more digestible. Like critics and most blogs will list off three artists you sound like, I understand it’s helpful for people to know what to listen to but it can box you in. The first year I was making music everyone was like “it sounds like Joji” and I love Joji but I feel we approach music differently. Each song since I’m compared to someone completely different.

Q: Does it take away the nuance of an artist?

Yeah, it just boils you down to, if you like Joji you’ll love x and y. It doesn’t take into account all the references and nuance you’ve embedded.

Q: You’ve said before that in a sense you have to be a control freak, is that about your whole process or just the vision?

I guess it’s because I’m in a solo position, I couldn’t be in a band. I think I get very possessive of ideas, it’s almost like you want to be the only person that could let you down. I’m not sure if it’s a toxic way to think but I’ve got a really small group of people around me, we all understand it, add elements, and make it work.

Q: Is there much guidance towards making that group work, or is it a synergy?

I think there’s a solid synergy, a lot of us share references. Like my friend James, whenever he comes over we’ll spend the whole time watching music videos and come out with an idea for the next clip.

Q: Your next album is a reflection of you in your bedroom, what does that sound like?

I think it’s a lot more hi-fi and professional than people might think it will be. Like I had the opportunity to work with proper mix engineers and using new equipment. So there are strings instruments, it’s quite expansive and grand in a sense, while still being quite personal. The crux of it was all made at home.

Q: You were talking recently about what a Pop song is, do you think it’s good to go against the mainstream grain?

My favourite pop music is when people mix experimental or blend abrasive elements with pop formulas and structure, like Charlie XCX or Death Grips. I think the label ‘Pop Song’ is more about the packaging than the music. A seven-hour recording of someone throwing a bucket around a warehouse isn’t a pop song but if you use that sound as a texture with other instruments and lyrics, then it would be a pop song.

Q: Did you throw buckets around a warehouse?

Yes! I actually did, on one of the songs, it has my dogs snoring too. I walked around one day with a recorder and dropped sounds into a song, it was lots of fun.

Q: Do you find sounds that inspire you, or collect everything and then try to feel something out?

You get better results when you turn on a mic before something happens. I feel like the best ideas are just lucky or unexpected. It’s inspired by FINNEAS. I also found all these tapes my parents made from when I was aged like 1-7 and chopped those up too.

Q: It’s almost as if the project is a reflection of your whole life up till now?

Yeah no absolutely, I think it’s super strange. I think everyone can relate to this but like you look at your baby photos and go “damn, that person drank fifteen beers on the weekend”, you are like “damn, that person has a whole life ahead of them”. That can be super sad or funny.

I would love to have a discography like the movie Boyhood. Where each project is a reflection of where you were at a time.

Q: Do you feel like that means you have to live life before you make another album?

Yeah! I’ve already started writing the next project and I’m talking about really different topics. This first project covers like ten years of growth so not everything relates to who I am now but it’s part of who I am. I feel the second project will be slightly more adult.

Q: Is what you write about more focused on your feelings or concrete moments and experiences?

I try to make them as concrete as possible. I have been listening to phoebe bridgers recently and she is so specific with what she talks about, I find it powerful. It’s this paradox of: the more personal you make it, the more people connect with it. You can write a song where you are like “I’m sad” and everyone can be like “so am I”. If you mine that sadness though, people will connect to it on a much deeper level.

Q: Is there a topic you feel isn’t being mined enough in Australia?

I feel the fluidity of gender, identity, and sexuality, particularly in Australia, hasn’t been explored enough. I think that a lot of queer art is being forced into a marketable binary space, like, this person is so flamboyantly gay and that’s who we are going to market their music towards. I think we need to break down the barriers and be like “hey anyone can listen and enjoy this music?”.

Q: Do you think that marketing prevents people who are unsure of who they are from being exposed to new ideas?

Yeah for sure, we consume art not to understand more about the artists but to understand ourselves. It sounds corny but I feel music has always been there for me. I’ll listen to artists like Kevin Abstract and find out more about myself listening to it. It’s tricky, while there are a lot of toxic male stereotypes, I think there are toxic queer stereotypes as well. For me growing up it was hard for me to know what was what, as I don’t know where different things started and ended.

We label everything and make it all so binary focused, black and white. I hate it. For KILL YOUR DARLINGS I just wanted to make a pep talk in the form of a video. I hope that my music can be there in the way others were there for me.

Q: Do you think the lack of coverage of the questions surrounding identity is a more an Australian or general Masculinity issue?

Our understanding – as Australia – of Masculinity is different from how it’s seen in Britain and America. It’s tricky I think Australia has a bit of a teardown culture. I live in Sydney, which is fairly progressive so I can’t speak for everyone but I feel there is a problem in the way that ‘the other’ are treated in society. It takes effort to accept the new.

Q: Yeah, I think a lot of people just cover things up and it can take art to reverse that.

I think we are all on that journey. A lot of people leaving high school are realising who they are or who they truly weren’t. Going to an all boy’s high school, I feel you had to strip your personality down to be palatable. No one wants to be torn down for something they believe in or expressing themselves, so it’s easier to be someone else.

Q: Has this year been a process of removing the faux palatable elements?

 Yeah, I think so, it was something I realised early on. I’m well on my way but at the same time, the other day I had a bit of a breakdown. I’m always talking about being the truest version of yourself and like don’t be mainstream but I’m guilty of it so much too. I found myself doing actions that are inauthentic all the time, I have a long way to go too.

Q: Now that you are working with labels and producers do you feel there is a need to play by other’s rules or be someone else again?

No, I don’t think so, the label I am working with liked what I was doing. They don’t think I have to get this haircut or sound like this music, I feel that would be antithetical to them signing someone for who they are.

Q: That’s awesome, I’m looking forward to the project. Thank you so much for talking!

Thank you. It’s been really refreshing.

Nick’s New Single ‘I Wanna Be Myself Or Nothing At All‘ (feat. Lontalius) releases October 8th