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Nick Peay’s breakthrough moment in music was a bit different than that of most musicians – it was during a slot opening up for his dad’s cover band at a Louisville, Ky., pizza joint.
“I did an acoustic cover of ‘Thriller’” by Michael Jackson, he says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go over, but I’m pumped about it.’”
To his surprise, it went over quite well – so well, in fact, that it pretty much brought down the house. He had begun playing guitar in eighth grade, had been writing songs since about age 15 and had played in several bands along the way, but hadn’t quite found his place on stage. Until that night, at least, when he communicated a familiar song in a new way.
“When I got done, people rushed from their tables to talk to me about what just happened,” Peay continues. “That kind of built my confidence up a little bit.”
He then smiles and adds, “I don’t think my dad ever played after me again.”
Peay would front the band OK Zombie before embarking on his solo career, releasing the EPs Life & Love & Us in 2011 and Feathers & Fables in late 2012, as well as a single titled “Looks Like Rain” in between. Each of the EPs are thematic, a trend Peay’s fans can expect to continue. Everything he creates is done so with purpose, as opposed to pulling together a handful of disparate songs and grouping them on an EP or album.
And while OK Zombie was a reaction to Peay’s love of zombie films – particularly the early Romero films, which were filled with social and political commentary – his solo work is created from a much broader palette. His songs are emotional, but they aren’t the stuff of Top 40 radio, where the subject matter is dominated by bad breakups and one-dimensional, wide-eyed romance.
“I like expressing the emotion of different things I’m going through, but not necessarily the standard relationship stuff,” Peay says. “I want people to be able to relate to my songs, but not just because they got a new girlfriend or just broke up with someone. I want people to relate, but on an intelligent level; I like making people think about things.”
For Peay, then, it comes back to writing songs that convey his own, unique feelings and perspectives in a way that will also connect with an audience who may see it differently. You may not like the song “Thriller,” but if it’s communicated in a new and unique way, who knows? In turn, he feels that the uniqueness in every person should be celebrated, and his way of doing that is in song.
“In the society we live in, where everything is so homogenized, being unique is almost frowned upon,” he says. “I think things would be more interesting if everyone was who they were as opposed to being who they think people expect them to be. I’m just trying to express to people that it’s OK to be who you are.”
This is why in a Nick Peay song, you’ll find characters like the music-store clerk who can’t let go of his rock-star aspirations, or the symbolic blackbird who can’t seem to find his true home – these are individuals in whom his audience may find something vaguely familiar and resonant.
Peay was influenced by the songwriters and bands of the 1960s and ’70s, and that music inspires his songwriting and musical approach. “There was meaning behind what they were saying,” he says. “Nowadays, I don’t feel like musicians stand up for anything. They say, ‘I’m going to write this generic love song so people will like me.’”
This is what drives him forward – finding those new avenues of connection, new avenues of expression and releasing the need to create more songs, unique songs, which in turn pave those avenues for him and, perhaps most importantly, for the listener. The fact that his music has been embraced by Louisville-area radio and also by fans and critics is the balance he has found between the accessible and the original.
“I’ve always sort of had that battle between being universal and being unique,” he says, “and I believe I’ve been able to find a good song between writing familiar and catchy music and creating unique lyrics that go with that song.”