A decade ago, journalists, fans, critics, and audiophiles alike were wont to compare Nick Waterhouse to his predecessors. And it was a convenient way to categorize an artist that has since proved uncategorizable—he had a voice that balanced somewhere between Van Morrison and Ray Charles, an aesthetic that caught the attention of style reporters at GQ, an ambitious production vision that stood out among the lo-fi rock and alternative bands of the zeitgeist. And he was disarmingly earnest in his own influences—citing artists like Mose Allison and Them as early inspiration. But now, coming off of his searching, intimate, self-titled album of 2019 and bringing us “Nick Waterhouse Live at Pappy & Harriet’s; In Person from the High Desert” in 2020, it’s clear that comparisons, of any kind, no longer suffice.
After self-releasing his debut single “Some Place” in 2010, Nick Waterhouse and his backing band, The Tarots, along with three back-up singers, The Naturelles, quickly caught the attention of then-nascent, Los Angeles record label Innovative Leisure. Released by Innovative Leisure in 2012, Waterhouse’s debut album, “Time’s All Gone,” was an incredibly ambitious record. Full band, three back-up vocalists, careful and intricate arrangements, a studied balance of light and dark, thoughtful decisions on everything from studio to album art: Waterhouse had vision.
While Waterhouse continued to release records at a steady clip—“Holly” in 2014, “Never Twice” in 2016, the self-titled “Nick Waterhouse” in 2019, and now “Live at Pappy & Harriet’s”—he extended his vision beyond his own act, collaborating with friends like garage-rock mystic Ty Segall and retro-futurist R&B bandleader Leon Bridges. He meticulously produced the successful debut and sophomore albums of long-time friends the Allah-Lahs, whom he met after moving from southern California to San Francisco, fortifying his musical education by selling vinyl in the Lower Haight. There is a “Waterhouse Sound” and it’s resonant in both his own records and his collaborations, rooted both in the man and the method — recording everything on magnetic tape, through analog equipment, and playing live, eyeball to eyeball, whenever possible.
Though Waterhouse’s artistic practice has remained thoughtful and deliberate, it’s also proved adaptable. As his career grew to encompass a consistent schedule of national and international touring, producing, co-writing, and working with legendary elders like Ira Raibon, Maxine Brown, and Ralph Carney, the story of Waterhouse’s musical arc can be tracked through the sounds and arrangements on each record. From the magical, youthful ambition of “Time’s All Gone” to the more reflective and existentially fraught “Nick Waterhouse”—it all tells a story.
The breadth and pace of his output is also evidence of the fact that however stylishly he may do it, Nick Waterhouse works. Hard. “Nick Waterhouse Live at Pappy & Harriet’s” came immediately after a long and intense string of European tour dates, which came immediately after a certain reckoning that most musicians encounter at some point, or several points, in their careers: a point where Nick Waterhouse, whose artistry and musicality evokes a blistering energy and drive, was questioning the whole thing—the shows, the exhaustion, the money, the will.
It turned out that the excitement and momentum that fueled the 2019 European tour answered those questions in the resounding positive. And “Live at Pappy & Harriet’s” reflects the work of an artist who has seen some things. He’s studied, he’s composed, he’s receptive, he’s loose, and he’s gotten to know his own artistic practice in a way that shows up, fiery and raw, on this live, hometown record.
Because ultimately, Nick Waterhouse is not simply in dialogue with others. He hasn’t responded to a revived appetite for neo R&B or Ronson-type pop production by altering his vision. He has remained, resoundingly, Nick Waterhouse. Whatever growth, transformations, or nuances a listener can hear are entirely his own story. Waterhouse has built his own sonic world, one whose orbit is totally unique. That sonic world is rich and complex; its language is intelligent, clever, and vulnerable; it’s at once ambitious and intimate, groovy and deeply serious.
In fact, the Waterhouse sonic world might look a lot like a glimmering desert sky at dusk, or the damp, overheated air that awaits through the doors of Pappy & Harriet’s. And now we’re invited in.