Do you know who you are? Nick Ward, and the questioning of self

Do you know who you are? Nick Ward, and the questioning of self

On his Everything I Wish I Told You EP, Nick Ward takes a tender look at identity, understanding, and the complex self.

“Do you know who you are?”

Few questions could inspire such visceral reactions – maybe you’re sure that you do, or perhaps the very question makes you uncomfortable. How would you get to know yourself, and even if you did, how would you know that you’d found the real you? In the grips of a lockdown, hemmed by four walls, Sydney singer-songwriter Nick Ward decided to get to the bottom of it. It’s an inquiry that’s kept him busy.

He’s busy even when I get in touch, the call opening on the hustle-and-bustle of an inner-city assembly. “I'm doing all right,” he says happily. “I just had to duck out of the Invasion Day rally.” If he’s nervous about his debut EP - Everything I Wish I Told You - arriving in little more than a week, it doesn’t show. He’s more concerned with hitting the street, speaking his truth, finding some shade, and staying hydrated.

Nonetheless, as he explains, there’s some quiet trepidation. “Obviously it's the debut, so I don't really know what to expect releasing a batch of songs,” he says. “I'm kind of used to the whole one song rollout and kind of telling people to focus on one thing.” That’s an approach that’s seen Nick go from lo-fi novice to bedroom balladeer, with 2018 debut single Crush his quietly confident arrival.

There’s little confidence – quiet or otherwise – in the song itself, which fuses a restrained rendering of The Pixies’ Where Is My Mind with Nick’s confessional lyricism. Infused with ideas of infatuation, belonging and self-esteem, Crush is a raw dispatch from the trenches of queer adolescence, all but stained with the tears unshed. “I hardly ever cry,” he admits in a shy tenor, “I wanna when I'm sad, but my eyes stay dry.” It’s just one of the ways that Nick perplexes himself, with a quick aside perhaps the song’s most confessional: “I never understood me very well.”

On 2019’s Beside U, he reaches for an elusive love, tender as he sings “no one’s ever been beside you, but I’d like to,” and on Skin, which made him a 2019 Unearthed High finalist, the powerful conceit – “heard he hates his skin, cos it doesn't fit” – builds to a looping mantra: “you don't know me, I don't know myself.” There are big ideas, and then there’s identity, the prism through which all those existential flights must pass. It’s a necessary constant, a factor in each and every passing thought.

In that sense, Everything I Wish I Told You is less of a shift and more of a sharpening. Having just recently graduated from high school, Nick’s search for essence has only intensified, burnished by the liberating scope of the so-called ‘real world.’ “It's definitely the natural theme that I'm drawn to,” he admits, a little self-conscious. “I think that because it's my first time approaching it in music, it may seem very broad... just me saying, 'Oh, it's about identity, not about a certain intricacy or certain theme within that’.”

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Across six tracks, Nick traces his life from the cradle to the brave new world, probing his quirks and turning that gaze on the listener. “It was important to me that the first line and the last line of the whole project is, 'do you know who you are,'” he tells me of opener Overture, a string-heavy introduction to a man in flux. “I don’t ever want to change, but I don’t want to stay the same,” he repeats, that back-and-forth familiar to anybody who’s stood on the cusp of adulthood. “I think that as soon as I realized I could talk about it in music, I just made a bunch of music about the same thing.”

Fleeting bites of childhood memories bookend tracks, intercutting reflection with memory itself. That doesn’t stop FMF from being a standout cut, upbeat and exhilarating in a way that those anthemic singles weren’t. “That was another song from lockdown,” elaborates Nick, “it's about a lot of things, but it's mainly inspired by the feeling of being in this routine of just waking up, staying in bed, watching YouTube, going to sleep.” The undeniable hooks that run throughout are inspired, at least in part, by an unlikely influence: screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

“I realized that humour and happiness only adds to the dynamic of the film,” he explains, pulling from Kaufman’s singular fusion of comedy and disarming existentialism. “I think that humour brings people together, or if I'm going to transpose it to music, dancing brings people together.” The juxtaposition of his angst-laden lyrics – “fuck a job and fuck my friends,” he sings, lending the track its titular abbreviation – and the light, chirpy arrangement certainly makes for a jarring dance party. “The sad songs and the more personal moments will kind of stick out a bit more, or people will connect with a bit more, because you're throwing them through all the different emotions.”

That range, which bursts forth on the EP, speaks to Nick’s yet-deepening craft. “I think that when I was starting out, I kind of let myself feel and be pigeonholed by people being like, 'Hey, this is a nice lo-fi, chill song, whatever’ – you know, 24/7 anime beats to study to,” he says with a little laugh. “It's was kind of like, 'oh okay, I guess that's what people want.'” Even as his process has remained the same – he’s still laying tracks in his white-walled bedroom; still mixing alongside shelves of DVDs – his vision has extended outward, incorporating an even wider range of influence and inspiration. “At this point, I'm just making whatever I really feel like making. It's still just me in my bedroom, but I think the ambition is probably just a bit greater now.”

It’s an ambition that shows in the finer details: the voices that seamlessly layer in the Holding the Man; the transitional ebb-and-flow of harmonies on My Own Private Interlude; the all-too-real pain and bold conviction of the storytelling on I Wanna Be Myself Or Nothing At All; and the quiet, true-to-life resolution that is Aubrey Plaza. Nick explains how Everything I Wish I Told You found him “trying to operate in that kind of bedroom pop space, but trying to do something a bit more artsy with it,” an approach he almost immediately qualifies as “pretentiously trying to take it way more seriously” than it actually is. “I think maybe it's the Australian in me that's just trying to say 'oh look, I'm being a moron,’” he quips. “‘How dare I enjoy my own music!'”

It’s helpful, then, that Nick’s debut arrives alongside some coveted cosigns. The quiet contributions of Chris Lanzon, who sings backing vocals across the EP, and Golden Vessel, who put some production finesse on Holding the Man, are invaluable, but it’s the guest appearance from Lontalius, a formative influence, that excites the most.

“I went to his concert when he played with Japanese Wallpaper in Sydney, and I just said hi to him afterwards, and struck up a conversation,” says Nick, beaming. That quick meeting would blossom into a creative back-and-forth, with Nick sending demos and edits to his idol-turned-collaborator. “He really loved Aubrey Plaza, and kind of asked if he could sing on one of the upcoming projects!” “His verse actually was written before mine,” he admits, the pressure from his benchmark “definitely stressful” but ultimately beneficial. “I think his voice comes in as a kind of like a Yoda figure at the end, just telling me it'll be alright.”

In a way, that mirrors both Nick’s experience with Lontalius’ music – a guiding light in his high school years – and his experience with the art of collaboration. “I think a lot of artists are kind of chronic overthinkers, myself included,” he says, explaining the liberating feeling that comes with such assists. “I think that when you're working on someone else's music, you kind of have a bit of a step back. I would love to get into producing for more artists… I'm kind of addicted to it at this point!”

It’s a habit that shows on Everything I Wish I Told You, a project that – with those few notable exceptions – is wholly the handiwork of the singer himself. Nick’s self-taught expertise goes way back, as he’s been writing, recording, producing and mixing from his bedroom for as long as he’s been on the scene. “It's not like I know any mix engineers, or can afford any mix engineers,” he says with a laugh, happy that lockdown – a creative toss-up – was mitigated by his insular process. “Bruce Springsteen was huge for me growing up,” he says on songwriting, “and there's a really great quote from him where he said, "blues in the verse, gospel in the chorus." You tell them your life story in the verse, and then when they connect with you, you all come together in the chorus and you're singing together.”

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That idea of ‘togetherness’ is key. In an age of brand contrivance and public relations pushes, Nick’s music feels disarmingly intimate. It’s a feeling mirrored by his remarkably accessible website, which sees him frequently taking on fan questions that cast him as a sort of ‘agony aunt’. In a sense, it’s not that different for him.

“I guess the Australian in me is and was scared of releasing music, but I think the more I do it, the more I kind of get high off of it,” he says with excitement, “just that feeling of people relating to you.” It’s a feeling that comes in the form of emails and DMs from across the globe, sent by fellow teens who find resonance in those vivid verses. “It's interesting because when I get a DM from some kid in like California telling me his life story and saying that something made him feel less alone, it actually makes me feel less alone, that someone is listening to my music and sees themselves in it.” There’s a harmony to that relationship, not nearly as one-sided as it might seem. “I really love that kind of sense of community that queer art brings, and vulnerable art brings.”

We talk about his playlists, which careen from Angel Olsen to Death Grips, and he considers all he’s yet to make. “It's pretty crazy-sounding,” he eagerly says of his next project. “It's very hip-hop inspired, very industrial hip-hop inspired, and IDM inspired... I think it's the first time I’ll let myself say that a Nick Ward song kind of goes hard!” No matter where inspiration leads him, Nick knows he’ll be tethered to his ever-mysterious self: “as long as I'm making music that's personal, and I feel like I'm being authentic making it, I don't really care what it sounds like.”

In appealing to authenticity, we round back to that central inquiry – who is Nick Ward, really? According to the man himself, he’s a mystery we might never unpack. “While I've been making the project, I've kind of realized that there is no real answer. It's one of those rhetorical questions.” He sounds at peace as he muses over his inner journey. “It's almost like the meaning of life, you're not really supposed to know – it's about the search.”

That might be true, but listening to Nick’s music, you can’t help but feel he’s careening towards something. His songwriting is sharper, his production deeper and expression richer, and as he courts further greatness with Everything I Wish I Told You, you can feel the young artist coming into his own.

In the meantime, the search continues – and, with any luck, so too does the music.

Nick Ward's debut EP Everything I Wish I Told You is out now via Hunnydew Recordings.

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