Edmonton roots artist Joe Nolan finds his way out of the darkness and into the light with new album Cry Baby

When you build something up and it quickly goes away, you can do two things: Dwell and give up or move on and build it again.

Actually, strike that, if you’re Edmonton singer-songwriter Joe Nolan you can actually put them all together: Dwell and give up and then move on and build it again.

Not surprisingly, this is in relation to his career, one that seemed poised for something amazing. The artist getting signed to tastemaking Canadian indie roots label Six Shooter Records on the strength of his timeless songwriting, genre-bending sound and ghost-chasing vocals, seemed like it was only the beginning.

One album, five years later, that beginning was an ending that has led to another beginning. He’s ready to put the past behind, move on, with lessons learned, eyes wide open and no hard feelings.

“I don’t want to speak ill of anybody,” Nolan says from three hours north, before heading south for a Saturday, March 2 Ironwood show, before heading way East for a tour of Sweden and Norway. “But I think I got caught in something I didn’t even really know, which turned into a self-destructive period of time for myself and now that I’m out of it I realize that I was in a terrible, terrible situation and agreement, and it kind of fucked up everything musically to deal with my career.

“Everything went to shit.”

He continues. “I don’t want to blame anybody because at the end of the day it’s me who is totally responsible for my career. I chose to be in that place for that long.

“But now I know not to do it again and I’ll learn from it, and that’s a positive.”

He points to the business side of things that got in the way of his making music the way he wanted to, such as try to write a hit, as well as things that you’re supposed to think about even if they have nothing to do with making music, such as “don’t wear corduroy pants in this photo shoot” or play that show.

There was a lot of advice and very little in return except frustration and self-doubt — two things most artists don’t need any help with.

“I held on because there was the possibility of — these people had power to open so many doors, it’s as easy as turning on the lights for them. And when you’re at the (mercy) of that, it’s like, ‘Maybe tomorrow they’re going to actually make a phone call on my behalf.’ It was five years trying to convince someone that I was ready to make a record and then eventually I did it on my own because it was either that or packing it in basically.”

Be glad he didn’t, because that album he made and released as an independent again is the gift that is Cry Baby.

The best of an already stellar three-album career, the 10-track offering released late in 2018 plumbs the depths of the deeply personal in a way that is striking and disarming even for someone who’s already made it his calling card.

Cry Baby is as naked, raw, intimate and relatable an experience as your ears will hear, soulful alt-country-blues that recalls everyone from Tom Waits, Jeff Tweedy, Brian Fallon and Ryan Adams to Booker T.

It conjures the darkness Nolan was going through while giving you sunlight to, like him, find your way outside.

“I hope it’s a hopeful album, that was my intent,” he says.

“I was in a good place when that was happening, coming out of this five-year vicious cycle of being drunk most of the time, to be honest, and other things.

“I had some incredible help and support that came my way right before this album happened that helped me be able to do it without label support. So I’m feeling way better now. This has really helped me putting this out on my own, it’s been really rewarding …

“I think this is a fresh start, a new start, and I’m excited about it.”

A great deal of that is the freedom he was allowed when he was finally, well, free.

And he also gives credit to engineer Edmonton Scott Franchuk, whom he recorded the record with instead of heading back down to Nashville to revisit his working relationship with producer Colin Linden. Franchuk, he says, gave him free rein to work without boundaries and do whatever served the songs.

“He let me go to those places where I probably wouldn’t comfortable or able to get to with anybody else, and that, that’s an incredible thing that he allowed me to feel comfortable enough to do that.”

One of the first examples of that was the recording of opening cut Al You Gotta Do, which, on a whim, Nolan wanted to go out into the hallway and record the vocals for. It’s a barely-strained, brooding, twangy, mood-setter, that crackles and sizzles and sets the table for what’s to come, with his hushed, gravelly growl hovering over it like cigar smoke in a brandy snifter.

That song, or the initial reception, gave him the confidence that he was headed in the right direction with Cry Baby. It actually won the Cobalt Songwriting Prize at The Maple Blues Awards in January of 2018, seven months before the album dropped.

“That felt really good because I had a lot of doubt about everything on the album and it was nice to get recognized for that weird stuff that we were doing.”

The record is full of highlights such as that, with the track following, Music In the Streets, a Fairytale of New York-like duet with Americana artist and one-time tourmate Lydia Loveless (“She freaks me out, I think she’s such the real deal”) and spoken-sung closer Ode to Sturgeon County is positively Springsteen-esque in its quiet, elegant epicness.

The latter Nolan calls his “most vulnerable song on the record,” which also features string arrangements from late Canadian jazz legend Tommy Banks.

“That was an amazing moment that I’ll never forget,” he says of seeing Banks in the studio working with the musicians. “He was so gracious and amazing. That was probably my favourite moment in recording this record.”

It’s one that he wouldn’t trade for anything.

This despite the fact that Nolan admits Cry Baby, while a new beginning, was only that, a beginning. He’s happy with it as a statement of that, but is already ready to move on from that and keep on building anew.

“There’s a lot of things now, it feels old to me already, that I would maybe would have changed. That’s why I say I’m looking forward to making a new record already because … that was such a time and place when I was singing those songs, I wrote half of those songs pretty close to the recording day so there really of the time, perhaps I’m too angsty or something.

“But I feel like it’s a little bit all over the place and part of me thinks that that’s OK because I was all over the place at the time.

“I’m really proud of it, it’s a piece of me and I feel like it’s a stamp that I’m wearing and it’s the start of something hopefully positive.”

(Photo courtesy Trevor Mann.)

Joe Nolan performs at the Ironwood Stage on Saturday, March 2. For tickets and reservations please call 403-269-5581.