Songs without end: Nettles takes you on a poetic, musical journey

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Guion Pratt formed his band, Nettles, in the pubs of the Irish countryside before returning to Charlottesville to add local talent to the lineup. Photo: Abby Farson Pratt Guion Pratt formed his band, Nettles, in the pubs of the Irish countryside before returning to Charlottesville to add local talent to the lineup. Photo: Abby Farson Pratt

About seven years ago, Guion Pratt was living in County Meath, Ireland, working on a farm and writing poetry. He and a friend played songs —some of Pratt’s originals plus a few Bruce Springsteen tunes—as a guitar and saxophone duo in some area pubs.

They called themselves Nettles, for the leafy, stinging plants they had been weeding on the farm. Pratt was drawn to the onomatopoeic quality of the word and, he says, it made sense with the impressionistic texture created by layering thoughtful lyrics over fingerstyle guitar.

The name—and his penchant for making multidimensional music—stuck, and when Pratt moved to Charlottesville to study poetry at the University of Virginia, he brought the Nettles project along and opened it up to a number of local musicians. Fellow poetry student Juliana Daugherty joined with her Irish and concert flutes, and the Nettles lineup has included Sam Bush on guitar and keys, Chris Campanelli on guitar, Michael Coleman on drums, Brett Jones and Joseph Dickey on bass, Daniel Levi Goans on piano and a handful of others (including Travis Smith on sax back in Ireland).

Like a nettle, these folksy, Irish-y, alt-  songs will stick to you, but they will get under your skin in a dulcet way. To truly hear Nettles and experience that pleasure, you must listen. With Nettles, nuance matters.

“I’m not interested in ever getting my hands completely around a song, in wrestling it down and saying, ‘That’s what it is,’” says Pratt, who comes up with lyrics and a basic arrangement before bringing a song to the group. “There can be multiple avenues into and out of a song, entrances and exits where the end of the idea is not necessarily the end of a song.”

Take, for example, “Brando,” the second track on 2015’s Locust Avenue, formed around Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Lyrically, it follows the arc of the play from Stanley’s perspective, with tensions building between a husband and wife as a sister overstays her welcome and people start to talk. “All the gossip on the porches / And the talk in all the churches / Is white as a forest of birches / Drier than drought / Loud as a shout / Empty as doubt,” Pratt sings, his voice reminiscent of Ryan Adams’, tender but strong and always thoughtful.

“Brando” then moves out of the Streetcar plot and into an exploration of rage: “Well the ocean will have what it craves / I’ll win your love or roll you in my waves / And you say you don’t mind when it rains? / I’ll blot out your sunlight and swallow your planes.” Then Stanley erupts: “I threw the radio / my first mistake / then my hands got to flailing / caught you in your wake.”

The instrumental arrangement matches. It begins with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, bright flutes and light percussion; drums and flute dance around each other as other instruments come in from time to time, sonically swelling the emotion. Like boxers circling the ring before a match, the now dark flute and heavy drum go back and forth before colliding when Stanley explodes. The song ends on a deep flourish with Stanley yelling up to Stella from the street below. The band—like method actor Brando—has become the character.

Daugherty points out that it’s the power of the collective Nettles that makes this extraordinary nuance possible. They’ll work for hours to get those parts just right. Together, “we’re capable of much more than we would be on our own,” she says.

Pratt finds Nettles’ songs in many places, in Brando and Stanley; in podcasts about locusts and in planets that have no orbit. He finds them in Ruan Lingyu, a Chinese film star of the 1920s and ’30s whose life tragically mimicked art when she committed suicide at age 24, and in Harry Caul, the fictional audio-surveillance expert who hears too much in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

But none of his songs are completely about these subjects. When Pratt crafts a song around, say, Lingyu, he’s seeking to understand what draws him—a 28-year-old man living in Charlottesville in 2016—to this film actress who lived nearly a century ago and half a world away. He’s certain that there are many possible connections to uncover in each performance of a song; he never wants to give it all away, because “a song can’t mean many things if one person can hold it in his hands,” he says.

Pratt and Daugherty are currently working on an EP of traditional folk songs, and Pratt says a new Nettles record is in the works. In the meantime, the band will play some local shows this spring before Pratt departs for a solo tour of Europe to introduce these songs to a new audience.

Ultimately, Nettles’ songs shorten the distance between the past and the present, between fiction and reality. Pratt hopes that a song is always elusive enough to carry him and the listener out and into life to be amazed by wondrous stories of planets, insects or fictional characters. Don’t try to pin them down, he insists. Just stand before them and say, “Wow.”

Who is your favorite storytelling songwriter?

Tell us in the comments below.

–Erin O’Hare