Like many of us these days, Nicholas Altobelli has abundant time on his hands.
And, like some of us these days, Altobelli is making productive use of it.
As a lark, the musician recently wrote, recorded and released a new EP — the evocatively titled I Took My Hockey Stick and Smashed It Against An Old Tree — in the span of a few overnight hours, uploading the finished product to Bandcamp on April 10.
“I was really not expecting to make any album whatsoever,” Altobelli says. “I was up at 1 a.m. one night and was like, ‘You know, I’m just going to record these [songs].’”
Arriving on the heels of his 2019 LP Vertigo, and the single “Ghost/Wonder,” which he released in February, Old Tree is an arresting dispatch from the early morning depths — a kind of In the Wee Small Hours by way of American Football or Conor Oberst.
Although brief (the EP clocks in at less than 20 minutes), Old Tree lingers. Altobelli, armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and his expressive tenor, conjures vivid images: “I stayed up all night/To make this mixtape right,” he sings on “Midnight Radio,” a tune as steeped in the romanticism of nostalgia as much as it is the notion of love.
Altobelli, who works by day as an English teacher for Frisco ISD, describes the songs — some of which scarcely last more than two minutes; thoughts conveyed almost as they evaporate — as being “basically all about my childhood.”
“The title of the album comes from a very vivid memory I have of — I was like, 10 or 12 — taking my hockey stick and hitting it against a tree, and then the tree kind of bled this liquid,” Altobelli says. “I felt so bad that I hurt this thing. It’s weird — it still kind of haunts me today.”
This excursion into yesterday, Altobelli admits, would not be possible were the world not locked down amid a pandemic.
“Leading up to recording it, I was going through my old yearbooks,” he says. “I even drove around my old neighborhood, and I started getting flooded with these [mental] snapshots … of memories. That’s how I wanted [the EP] to feel — like you’re going through a coming-of-age kind of thing.”
There is also the comfort memories can bring and the need to salve whatever pain is present.
Even before coronavirus turned the world upside down, Altobelli had already endured a tragic, deeply strange start to his year.
In January, Altobelli’s uncle John Altobelli, his aunt Keri and his cousin Alyssa were among those killed when a helicopter carrying, among others, basketball legend Kobe Bryant crashed in Calabasas, California.
“That whole thing was very surreal, to see your family on TMZ,” he says. “It really opened up a few things for me, and that’s probably where [Old Tree] originated, because I’ve definitely been exploring my past a little bit.”
Finding meaning in what came before and using the artistic process to help heal for tomorrow is what Altobelli takes away from Old Tree, a project for which he’s matching all proceeds and donating the total amount to Foundation 45, which funds mental health and suicide prevention programs.
“I have struggled all my life with depression,” Altobelli says. “They’re such a great foundation, and I know during these times, they’re probably not seeing the funds they should be getting. … I’m fortunate enough that I have a career and a job that is stable, and I’m still getting a paycheck, so I don’t want to accept any money from this. I’d rather just get it to where people need it.”
As for what lies ahead, Altobelli has post-quarantine plans percolating (a single titled “Time Will Tell,” featuring McKenzie Smith, Doug Burr and Kristy Kruger; a music video or two), and says he’ll likely have another EP out in May, as well.
Otherwise, he’ll be doing as many have done during this challenging time: turning toward that which consoles him.
“I’ve found myself going back to when I was a teenager, when I would just listen to music,” Altobelli says. “I don’t have a religion, but I believe in the religion of music. It’s saved me a few times. I’m trying to get back to that.”
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.