By Jim Schutze
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With his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt and well-worn tweed jacket, Nicholas Altobelli looks like a man without a style. Perhaps that's just the way he wants it. Sitting in Opening Bell Coffee on a sunny afternoon, Altobelli muses about what he does and why he does it. And like most moody singer/songwriters, Altobelli isn't too sure or too happy about anything.
"I don't want to be considered a folk artist, because I just can't stand it," Altobelli says without a hint of sarcasm. "I don't like folk music, but that was all I could do when I first started."
Back in 2008, Altobelli released his first effort, Waiting for the Flowers to Bloom. Mixing folk and alt-country, Altobelli proved to be a capable songwriter with a bright future. Yet after a couple more albums and an EP, Altobelli found himself at a creative crossroads.
"I don't want to be a folk artist and I hate being called alt-country as well," Altobelli says. "I hate the term indie rocker, too. That's the dumbest term I've ever heard. Even the term singer/songwriter makes people think of Dave Matthews."
With confusion about his focus and direction, Altobelli decided to try something outside of his range, a move that would have him even question his desire to play music.
In 2011, he began recording an album that would eventually be called Without a Home. Trying to pull off an uncomfortable mix of R&B and Americana, Altobelli recorded an album's worth of material that he would totally scrap.
"I thought it sucked badly," Altobelli says. "The songs that I was coming up with were just shit. I told the producer, Taylor Davis, that I couldn't release these songs, that I had to start over."
Altobelli's album makeover included changing producers. Out was Davis and in came Salim Nourallah along with a totally new backing band. Altobelli claims a total turnover was absolutely necessary.
"If I was going to start over, I wanted it to be complete," Altobelli says. "It was really hard because Taylor and I were friends. I had already spent a thousand dollars. I didn't want him to think it was because of the sound. It was just the songs that I was writing. They were awful."
Under Nourallah's guidance, Altobelli began writing another album. He resurrected three songs from the earlier project, but turned over all the major decisions to Nourallah.
"I've recorded with Salim before, but this time I let him have full reign," Altobelli says. "He picked the songs. He picked the order. He arranged everything. It was kind of surprising and incredibly satisfying."
The producer wholeheartedly concurs.
"I just encouraged Nicholas to do something with a fuller sound — bass, drums and electric guitars," Nourallah says. "He really responded and trusted me to hand pick what I felt were the best songs for the record. There was no denying he wrote some amazing tunes, his best to date. If Nicholas lived in L.A. in '73, I'm pretty sure he'd be well on his way to fame and fortune."
The reworked Without a Home is beyond what either Altobelli or Nourallah imagined. It's damn near a revelation. Songs like "The Lucky Ones" and "I Don't Think Tonight is Going to be a Good Night" are much fuller than the Altobelli efforts of old. Gone are the dour, slow waltzes and the overt earnestness that can plague many singer/songwriters. In their place are 10 shining examples of something more like rock. Altobelli's world-weary vocals remain a constant, but Nourallah's arrangements have done a world of good.
"I knew when I heard the first couple of songs that this was going to be good, better than anything I have ever done," Altobelli says. "I should have self-titled this album. It is a new debut for me. That stuff I did before was not me."
Yet even the optimism of finally completing this project has been dampened by the toll it all took on the artist.
"This entire ordeal took 10 years off my life," Altobelli says. "Last year was pretty rough. I didn't have a record so I didn't have any income. It's getting to the point where I may have reached the end of it."
Altobelli is betting his career on the fate of the new album, even though he doesn't believe the Dallas scene has ever been one where he could find success.
"Next year, you could see me working for your local independent school district," he says. "This whole experience has been soul-crushing. It's so awful. Dallas, the whole Dallas scene is so strange. I have more fun in Denton, even Fort Worth. Dallas doesn't get me and I don't understand."
Altobelli's frustrations with the Dallas scene began with some of his earliest performances, but the opening slot that proved to be the dagger in his heart came at the House of Blues in late 2008. Altobelli had just released his EP Streetcar Visions.
"I opened for Bob Schneider and it was a fucking disaster," Altobelli says. "The album I had out was the slowest record I've ever made. I mentioned Bob's name between every song and the audience cheered, but they kind of caught on by the end. I didn't sell a single CD even though there were 2,000 people there that night."