Nick Waterhouse sounds like trouble in the first few seconds of his debut album, the terrific “Time’s All Gone” (Innovative Leisure). The music sounds like a party in full swing, each instrument playing exactly what is needed, and no more. The sound of a stick hitting the crash cymbal feels absolutely right. Saxophone scrapes the low end of the mix, its brawn contrasting with the menthol cool of the female background singers. Waterhouse’s voice veers between a croon and a cry, and his guitar says its piece and gets out.
“Have you ever made the best of a bad situation?” he sings. You can practically taste the smoke of a saloon at closing time, as Waterhouse and his band give their blues one final swing around the dancefloor.
Waterhouse grew up in Southern California, the son of working-class parents who made it clear that “music was not an option” as a career, Waterhouse says. “Because there was no health insurance in music.”
He played in a couple of Orange County bands as a teenager, but felt like a misfit socially. The one saving grace was finding an analog recording studio, the Distillery in Costa Mesa, where he could shut out the outside world and play music his way. Still, “the idea of being a musician was this daunting, monolithic thing,” and he moved to San Francisco when he was 18 to attend college, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree in literature and aiming for a career in academia. A series of dead-end jobs, from working in retail to serving coffee, only further proved his insuitability for the straight world.
“I was struggling with this idea of being responsible,” he says, “what a person is supposed to do in becoming an ‘adult,’ formulating your code.”
He found a refuge at a Bay Area used-record store, Rooky Ricardo’s. The proprietor, Dick Vivian, became a trusted friend who introduced Waterhouse to countless deep-soul, blues and R&B singles from the likes of the Marquees, Jackie Shane and Maxine Brown.
The common thread that tied together those records: “I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but it’s this underlying feel or tone of the blues,” Waterhouse says. “It’s melancholy, and sometimes it swings like hell, or it sounds so tough. It’s about a greater cosmic feeling that even when you’re happy you have something on your mind.”
The dusty 45s, with their unself-conscious intimacy and spontaneity, rekindled his interest in music. “It was a way to communicate,” he says. “It was the right language for me.”
Waterhouse returned to Southern California to visit his parents and, almost on a whim, asked the studio proprietor at the Distillery if he could record a song he had percolating in his head. He hired a few friends and acquaintances to play and cut “Some Place,” a hard-driving wail about going somewhere, anywhere but where the narrator is right now. “I sang it as hard as I could, tracked it completely live,” he says. He was proud of the effort, but not expecting anything more than the satisfaction of finally getting it done. He pressed 500 copies of the single, and it soon sold out, building word of mouth buzz in Europe and back in San Francisco (it’s now a collectors item worth hundreds of dollars). His friends on the local DJ scene urged him to play a show in support of the single, which prompted him to form a band and write more songs.
After that debut show in December 2010, Waterhouse cobbled together the resources to record an album. He worked more jobs to pay his musicians and rent the studio. Eventually, the Innovative Leisure label signed him to a deal, releasing the “Time’s All Gone” album earlier this year.
About the only downside has been the perception that Waterhouse is somehow tied in with the retro-soul movement, as if he’s trying to revive some long-lost era.
“When I was making the record, I was making exactly what I wanted to make,” he says. “It’s not about, ‘You’re into old stuff.’ It’s a matter of taste. It’s a personal statement about my life. I see people playing music indebted to other times and never felt like I fit in with them, because it sounds mannered to me, not as direct. I started thinking about it, too. The only time when I stop thinking is when I’m playing. That’s why I realized I would be OK when I made ‘Some Place.’ It’s more that I felt like I didn’t have any other choice.”
Nick Waterhouse: 9 p.m. Wednesday at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $14, lincolnhallchicago.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye