Good luck getting Nicholas Altobelli to say anything positive. Ask him about playing music in Dallas and he's liable to tell you that he wants to leave. Ask him about his latest record, and he'll tell you that he wants to quit playing. Ask him about his divorce and — well, you get the point.
And yet, he keeps at it. Thing is, Altobelli smiles and laughs a lot and is pretty approachable. He can talk horror movies with you or talk about great Ryan Adams songs that never made it onto a proper album. Best of all, he isn’t afraid to eat crow about statements he has made in the past. And now he's releasing a new album, Searching Through That Minor Key, one that shows off some of his brightest material to date.
Back in 2013, when he was promoting his then-new record Without a Home, Altobelli hemmed and hawed about his career so far and how he felt out of place in the Dallas music scene. “This could be the last record,” he told us at the time. “And if I went back to work, I would quit music altogether. I would never pick up a guitar and write songs again.”
But he did add this: “I am going into the studio soon to record a couple of songs, but I do not want to say that I am making a record because the thought of making a record makes me ill right now.”
Two years later and he's back at it — in more ways than one. There's the new record, which got its genesis from those couple of songs he mentioned two years ago. Produced by Salim Nourallah, just like its predecessor, Searching runs relatively short; it's only 10 songs and just under a half-hour in length. But it's a smart blend of folk, country, rock and pop — a perfect record to play at sunset.
And there's more of that same curmudgeonly attitude along with it. Altobelli loves to complain about the heat in the Texas summers and still isn’t sure he fits into any scene around here, so the best question to ask: Why hasn't he left town? He smiles and laughs. “That’s something I’ve been asking myself since high school,” he quips. Altobelli cites some of the normal excuses — convenience, obligations to his family — for why he’s stayed, and adds another melodramatic flourish. “I would be shocked if I’m still here in the next three to five years," he warns. "I’m probably going to go somewhere north and start over.”
"Starting over" in this case means setting his sights on becoming a teacher and moving to Indiana. While he might sound like the subject of an article in The Onion (“Man Thinking About Just Packing Up And Making Exact Same Mistakes Someplace Far Away”), one of the other reasons is to move on from his divorce. Altobelli says it wasn’t a bad divorce but, he admits, “It was one-sided. To be honest, I’m still not sure what the reason was. It seemed to change from week to week.”
When his divorce was finalized, Altobelli decided to halt the work he'd started on Searching and record an EP called Mesocyclone at a different studio. Directly addressing his grief over the divorce over seven songs, he was able to return and finish Searching. Not surprisingly, Altobelli doesn’t have the most optimistic view of what’s coming next.
“Usually, by the time an album comes out, I have songs for the next one and am making plans for the next one, but I don’t have that for this one,” he says. Suddenly the deep-seated pessimism takes on a slightly different quality: “I don’t want to sound dramatic, but this could be the last one for a really long time," he continues. "But who knows, maybe next week I could have some songs. I haven’t written a good song in two years.”
Yet the new record works because Altobelli wasn't afraid to take some chances. It features a lot of regulars who record at Nourallah’s Pleasantry Lane studio. Nourallah himself plays bass, along with Rahim Quazi on keyboards, Chris Holt on guitar and many others. Standouts include “Dogwood,” “Alabaster” and “Sarah." He points to his early recordings, which he's since disowned, to make his point.
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“Those folk records, I would constantly try to make music that appealed to a certain person,” he says. “And to an extent, Without a Home was that. I was going to play the game and make something catchy." Not that Searching isn't still accessible: "I think a lot of it had to do with the high from [Without a Home] because it was an experiment that I didn’t know I could pull off," he says.
"This one, I didn’t do that," he adds. "I just wrote with no expectations or plans. That’s just kinda how I live now.”
Nicholas Altobelli’s Searching Through That Minor Key is now out on Dalton Records. He plays the Foundry on Saturday, July 18.