by Annie Parnell, Editor
Jodi (Nick Levine)’s first full-length album Blue Heron is, in many ways, an expansion of the solo career they first started with their debut EP Karaoke. The former Pinegrove member, a multi-instrumentalist who remembers growing up with their father touring in “country bar bands,” recorded that first record alone with a single stereo mic. On Blue Heron, however, they chose to bring a few others onboard. Tommy Read of Lazybones Audio, Andrew Stevens, Adan Carlo, Read’s son Jeremiah, and Levine’s brother and frequent collaborator Zack are all featured on the album, an intimate folk-influenced release for fans of Jason Molina, Damien Jurado, and Hand Habits.
“I’ve learned how to ask for help in the places that I need it,” Levine jokes over Zoom, the two of us each sipping our coffees (me: French press, them: cold brew). That production expansion, ironically, allowed them more space to fine-tune on Blue Heron, which is characterized by Midwest emo guitars and a sloping pedal steel. What results is a final product that’s not only more hi-fi than their previous work, but more “realized” and ”contained.” It’s a little closer, they say, to the slowcore “queer country” they want to accomplish.
That process of learning and communicating is also on display in the lyrics of Blue Heron. Breakout single “Go Slowly” opens with the frank question “does this party stress you out?” before unfurling into one half of a painful small-talk session, interspersed with pleas to slow it down.
Levine has a gift for phrasing these particular anxieties of connection, something I admit to them that I’ve been fascinated by since first hearing the term “metacarpal karaoke” in their last EP. The imagery used to describe this discomfort in Blue Heron — “crying to the beat” in a house show basement, finding an apple core in a drink cup, a descending throng of hawks — is in turns familiar and surreal.
There’s a theme running through this album of childhood and innocence, too. This echoes in nostalgic tracks like “Buddy” and “Slug Night,” which deal with the jarring awkwardness of being on your own. The music video for “Hawks” features a montage of home videos that, prior to production, Levine hadn’t seen in years.
“Really intense,” Levine says when I ask what it was like to parse through all that footage, which features them and Zack riding the bus to elementary school, playing t-ball, and learning to play various instruments. One of the biggest takeaways was how much their parents are “the same people they were 20 years ago.” This cyclical perspective on time is also clear in the way Levine jokes about “explicitly becoming my dad.”
“Hawks” also provided another opportunity to call for backup. In order to film some contemporary footage playing childhood-sized instruments in Chicago’s LaBagh Woods, Levine wanted to use an analog video camera that they already owned, which crashed right as they set up to record with Jake Karlson of Low-Moon Productions. “That was really bad,” Levine laughs while recounting the story, thankful that they were able to source a similar camera the next day.
Many of Blue Heron’s little epiphanies occur like this, with nature at the center. The album’s title, and the tattoo displayed prominently on its cover, are the results of two real-life blue heron encounters. In the first, Levine was facing a severe case of writers’ block in the Catskills while working on a song-a-day project when a heron appeared. “It helped pull me out of the spiral,” they explain, reminding them to stop missing the forest for the trees.
By the second heron sighting, Levine and Read had produced most of the album in Texas. Cosmically, the two were workshopping album titles when they spotted it on Read’s property. The sighting banished “any hesitation,” and led to Blue Heron’s final cover, a literalization of the closing track’s lyrics “great blue heron in the lake swimming, you’re on your back now.”
“But is it really so bad to be floating around?” Levine asks after that line in title track “Blue Heron,” while a guitar wafts behind them. It’s a meditative parting question that, when followed with a self-admonishment to “get it right,” offers a fitting conclusion to Blue Heron’s preoccupation with growth — both an urge to keep changing and evolving, and an acknowledgement that sometimes, it can be just as nourishing to let yourself be still.
Blue Heron is available now on all platforms.
Annie Parnell is an Associate Editor and Staff Writer with Country Queer and cohost of the radio show Cowboy Church. She also runs the newsletter Tugboat. Currently, she’s based in Charlottesville, Virginia.