Declaration of independence

Apr 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

It's easy to forget that a guitar can sound this simple, this rustic and yet simultaneously universal and sophisticated. People tend to forget that a single instrument like the guitar — when bent to the will, skill and imagination of a dedicated craftsman — can create and populate entire valleys, mountains and burbling riverbeds. After all, the instrument can and has easily become a parody of itself in the hands of overzealous practitioners.

But the guitar, in its acoustic form, began as a universal tool of expression: portable and malleable, its six strings uniquely expressive.

It's in this tradition that Detroiter Nick Schillace finds himself, crafting idiosyncratic, deeply personal portraits of pastoral beauty. Case in point is his latest CD, Landscape and People, which unlike his 2005 debut album, Box Canyon, has the actual backing of an indie label, Burly Times Records, and national distribution.

His self-avowed spiritual forebear is the folklorist, guitar virtuoso and paragon of independence John Fahey, whose music found classic American folk commingling with Eastern influences, improvisation and unconventional tunings, harmonics and structure before anyone else even thought to try it. (One sign of Schillace's admiration is his Wayne State master's thesis: "John Fahey and American Primitivism: The Process of American Identity in the Twentieth Century.")

As a result, Schillace and his music are about the kind of independence an artist can only find once he or she has decided to pursue it, making an active choice to find his own voice and use it, creating his own artistic language via his pursuit of music and culture.

The 34-year-old Schillace grew up in a musical household of both avid listeners and players in Rochester. He introduced himself to his instrument of choice after first trying out woodwinds and piano in school bands. His first guitar, though, was "an old acoustic nylon string of my mother's that I used to bang around on. It was never tuned or anything." Tuned or not, he had found the tool of his future art.

"I really didn't connect with any instrument the way I did with the guitar," he remembers.

But being independent of spirit does not mean that you are necessarily disconnected from others. Schillace, once he chose the path of music, found ways to feed and nurture that spirit via teaching, learning, collaborating, recording and performing.

His solo performances are intimate affairs that take listeners along on an aural journey. Although his playing demonstrates his virtuosity at times, it's never far removed from being in service of the story. This helps give structure to a purely instrumental concert and helps the audience stay connected and attentive, even in a modern music consumption world that often discourages close listening.

"Live, I really try to capture an audience and take them through my compositions in a way that allows them to follow the structure of whatever story I'm trying to tell," he explains. "The more an audience listens, the better I can work with dynamics and get the story told.

"It's also important for me to feel like I can talk to the audience between songs and connect with them that way too. I like introducing the songs and explaining a little about where they come from. That's often harder than playing them!"

And connection is of paramount importance to Schillace. He seems to be one of those people whose talent, drive and enthusiasm creates an art form that entire communities can form around. In other words, he's seriously dedicated to his craft and yet totally engaged with other musicians and artists in a way that is, well, perhaps, uniquely Detroit. After all, one needs to connect to thrive in this city.

Schillace places serious value on those kinds of connections that foster growth, and not just in the music world. This real value is probably to be expected from someone who, as an undergrad at Oakland University, helped start an independent campus radio station.

"On a very personal level, being involved with independent radio introduced me to some of the most important people in my life, including my wife," he says. "But beyond that having that sensibility around me in my formative college years helped me realize that you don't have to totally buck the system to live a life that is progressive. You just need to make a choice to do your own thing."

Indeed, it's that choice that led him to take over his departing guitar teacher's Lake Orion school as a 19-year-old. And it's his humility and enthusiasm that has helped it grow to an eight-teacher staff instructing 200 students collectively.

"Teaching has allowed me to wake up in the morning and feel like, from the moment I get up to the moment I go to sleep, I'm doing exactly what I want. I can still leave on tour and the shop runs itself due to the great people I have there and, because of the experiences of touring, when I return I feel like I'm even more valuable as a teacher than before I left. It's a perfect situation," he beams.

The Ferndale resident's admiration of the Detroit area has grown, too, as he's performed more and more in the city while closely observing other communities while on tour.

"I've come to realize that if a person is stepping a little out of the mainstream to pursue ventures that inspire them, I instantly find that I have some kind of special connection with them," he explains. "I think there are more people like that in Detroit than anywhere else. More so than ever, I've felt connected to people in Detroit. The more I travel the more I realize how amazing it is right here. The people I'm inspired by in Detroit aren't limited to musicians, either. I know a lot of artists and small business owners that make me want to move forward with what I'm doing."

And connect Schillace has. Beyond his solo ventures, he spends a great amount of time playing in duos, with drummer Jon Moshier (they perform under the moniker of IndoorPark) and with multi-instrumentalist (and fellow Wayne State University School of Music alum) Joel Peterson. And when he's not playing live with those folks, he's also a member of the massive, gorgeously funky polyrhythmic Afrobeat orchestra, ODU. Recently, he's also been playing as a member, along with Peterson, of Jennie Knaggs & the Sure Shots. It's a lot for one man to pile on his plate, but it seems to flow organically for Schillace.

"I've always played solo guitar to some degree," he says "It gives me a lot more control over what is happening in not so much a musical way but through a linear path as a musician. I can more quickly integrate new ideas and maintain an ongoing identity and language. It's something that at this point I couldn't ever give up and it affects all my other projects."

But it always comes back to his solo work. And the recording for which this week's release party is being held is a finely filigreed collection of ideas, moods and aural stories that have a momentum of their own.

"I'm hoping that Landscape and People helps me continue to move forward and reach more people with my music. I feel successful when I know people are listening to my music and actually responding to it and that's happening more and more," he says.

"This is my first national release and so far things have been going really well. It's really easy for musicians to release music on their own and I've done that my whole life but getting beyond that has been huge for me. Even though I know I'll continue to always self release, having the confidence of people getting behind my music has been great."

And as for that first rustic guitar?

"It resides in California with my nephew. I still get to play it sometimes."

Nick Schillace plays a CD release performance on Saturday, April 19 as part of the six-day Tangential Festival at the Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tilman, Detroit; 313-737-6606. Starting Friday, April 18, with the Volebeats and Misty Lynn, its premise is "Folk music doesn't mean what it used to."
Other fest artists include Tipton Saxophone Quartet (April 20), Jennie Knaggs and the SureShots (April 21), American Mars (April 22) and Jewels and Binoculars. See for a full schedule.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]