NIC HESSLER IN LOS ANGELES, MARCH 2015. PHOTO BY CARA ROBBINS.
To call Nic Hessler’s debut record “long overdue” would be an understatement. Hessler first signed to Captured Tracks under the name Catwalk in 2010, and at 18 years old, he released two promising singles filled with shimmery lo-fi guitar pop. But soon thereafter, he hit a career-halting snag. “I woke up one morning and I just collapsed. My legs felt strange and numb,” he recalled over coffee earlier this month. After three inconclusive hospital visits and a number of tests, Hessler was diagnosed with Guillain-BarreÌ Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that aggressively attacks the nervous system.
Though curable, the disease temporarily paralyzed Hessler’s extremeties. Recovery, he says, was a long and dark process. As months went by and Catwalk’s album sat untouched, the band’s name quietly disappeared from the Captured Tracks roster. Meanwhile, however, Hessler kept writing.
Five years, one name change, and plenty personal growth later, Hessler reemerges with Soft Connections (out today via Captured Tracks) and you can listen to the album’s single, “Do You Ever?”, exclusively below. The 13-song album spans the length of Hessler’s young adulthood, calling to mind the hopeful, surf-inspired jangle of Catwalk’s early work, as well as a newfound and cinematic propulsive swagger. We recently sat down with Hessler in Los Angeles to discuss touring woes, the upside of illness, and some of the stories behind Soft Connections.
ALY COMINGORE: I saw you play as Catwalk years ago. Who were your bandmates then?
NIC HESSLER: It was whoever I could find, honestly. The lineup was always changing. It was me writing songs and recording them in my room, and then getting together the only musicians that I knew and begging them to play a show and maybe stick around for more than a month. It never really worked out.
COMINGORE: Back then, did you know you wanted to pursue music as a career? Did you want to tour?
HESSLER: Yeah, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to. In the beginning I was kind of afraid of traveling. We did one little West Coast tour and I had panic attacks the whole time. It was miserable. But I think I’m over it now and I’m ready to do it, especially because I have the label helping out. Before I was trying to wear all the hats and facilitate everything.
COMINGORE: How did Captured Tracks find you?
HESSLER: We played with this band Woven Bones in Silverlake. I honestly thought it was going to be our last show. I didn’t know if music was what I wanted to do. I really thought I was going to quit, make music on the side, and do something else, but we played this show and the next day I got an email from Mike Sniper from Captured Tracks asking me to send him all my songs. It was like, “Oh, okay, maybe I won’t stop doing this.” I felt like people started to care right as I was questioning whether I did.
COMINGORE: Do you think you were questioning music, or questioning the situation?
HESSLER: It was the situation. I’ll be making music no matter what, whether or not people are hearing it, whether or not I’m playing with people. I was just getting discouraged by the people I was playing with. I felt like everyone was always doing me favors, which felt awful after a while.
COMINGORE: What do you enjoy about making music?
HESSLER: I think it’s a way that I get to know myself better. I’ve been doing it for so long and I feel like it’s the only way I’ve been able to figure myself out as I get older. I know that I’ve changed, but it’s a hard thing to think about as it’s happening, you know? The way I write is a stream of consciousness thing and the way I put words together is kind of telling. I feel like it’s always a discovery and it’s an escape.
COMINGORE: When did you get sick?
HESSLER: It was the very end of 2012. I was mixing the record that Captured Tracks was going to put out, trying to do it all myself. Then Arin Fazio from Avi Buffalo moved up from Long Beach to help me, so we got an apartment and were working in retail together. I was trying to mix the thing, but it was taking a long time and I was feeling pressured to get it done. Meanwhile I was still trying to get in the groove of recording at home. It just wasn’t really going anywhere. I [also] had a cold for two months that wouldn’t go away. Then I woke up with what they call “rubbery legs.” It’s a really bizarre thing to describe, but that’s when I knew it wasn’t a cold anymore. I got this weird muscle weakness and then I started getting double vision. The condition basically starts in your eye muscles and then the paralysis moves throughout your whole body.
COMINGORE: And at this point you’re 20 years old?
HESSLER: I was 21. It was really strange. I went to the hospital on three different occasions and they kept telling me I was fatigued from a virus, but it was really weird. I couldn’t hold my hands up; they’d just start shaking. I tried to play guitar and I cut my finger open because I couldn’t feel it. It was this weird numbness. The messages from my brain weren’t getting through to my extremities, and it was just from having a virus for a while. Your body starts attacking itself.
COMINGORE: But it’s curable?
HESSLER: Yeah. I did treatment, so I was in the hospital for two weeks. Within the first day I got my eyesight back, but I had to learn to walk again. I had a walker. It took a long time to get it under control. Even doing regular things, like holding a cup of coffee, were hard. I feel like it was a good thing, though, because it stopped me in my tracks and made me realize that I really needed to finish the record. It was taking over two years to do for no reason, other than me not knowing what I was doing and trying to be all, ” I can do this myself.”
COMINGORE: What prompted the name change?
HESSLER: So much time had passed from the time I started the record to the time I finished it. I felt like I had changed a lot as a person and as a songwriter. Half the record is songs I wrote in 2006 when I was 15 that I’ve been reworking, and the other half is songs that I wrote right before I finished it. I had these five songs that felt new, and I didn’t want to tour with songs that I’ve been playing since I was 14.
COMINGORE: Were you concerned with how the songs were going to blend together?
HESSLER: A little bit, but I also kind of like albums where each song is its own world. It’s not that important that it’s cohesive, as long as each song is dense enough to take me somewhere else.
COMINGORE: What made “Soft Connections” the title track?
HESSLER: I think it’s the most different one on the record. I wrote the lyrics when I was in the hospital, so it marked an end point of all these songs that I had written from the time I was 14 to now.
COMINGORE: That’s almost a decade.
HESSLER: I know. I’ve already written enough songs for the next album, but I’ve got to get this one out. I’ve been holding onto it for so long and trying so hard to make it perfect. And it’s not perfect…
COMINGORE: But it’s never going to be…
HESSLER: Exactly. I realized you just have to embrace that.