The Voice Of Nico Vega

Nico Vega’s Aja Volkman talks about the band’s new album, its current tour with Imagine Dragons and Atlas Genius and how being an artist is a little like being naked.

The band released its fifth EP, Fury Oh Fury, earlier this month.  Nico Vega’s second full-length album – We Are The Art – is due out later this year.

Chatting on her cell phone while the band was traveling from Dallas to Houston, Volkman gave Pollstar an inside look at what it is like to front a high-energy, high-performance band.  Married to Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, Volkman and her husband have their infant daughter on the road with them, making the journey somewhat of a family affair. 

Volkman also talked about songwriting, the band’s creative process and those Pink Floyd moments when someone asks, “Which one’s Nico?”

Photo: Frank Ockenfels

How is the tour going?

Really well.  We’re huge fans of Imagine Dragons.  Atlas Genius is also really cool and really good guys.  It couldn’t be a better tour because I feel like the Imagine Dragons’ audience is really excited and cool … accepting and loving.  It’s just nice to play for people who want to like you as opposed to people who are ready to hate, or something.

Do you think there’s a kind of an art to matching bands for a tour like this?

With Imagine Dragons, they’re such a high-performance band … you want to have people who are pretty performance-based.  It’s hard to hold your own next to that band. It’s a really epic tour.  The people who are coming out to see it, they know what I’m talking about.  They have all this stage stuff going on. … It works for us because we’re a performance-based band as well.  Yeah, I think there is an art to it.  You definitely don’t want somebody who is going to out-perform the headliners, but I think that is pretty impossible on this tour [laughs].

You have a new album – We Are The Art – coming out this year. Wasn’t that scheduled for a spring release?

I think it’s going to be early summer.  We just released [Fury Oh Fury EP] to say, “Hey guys.  We’re back in the game. We’re ready to release a record.  This is what we’re doing.”

I think an EP is the absolute best way to do it. It seems as if it’s what people are doing now. For us it’s definitely been helpful … not just like dropping a record out of nowhere.

Will any of the songs on Fury Oh Fury be on We Are The Art?

Oh, yeah.  Actually, I don’t know how many of them because I think we’re undecided … We have everything done, finished and recorded, I think we’re still kind of deciding what we want to release on the record or how many songs we want the record to be.  Our last record was something like 13 songs.  It was a really long record and that’s really fun … but I think a lot of songs on the EP will be on the record.

It’s been said that artists have their entire lives to write the songs on the first album, but only a year or two to write the music for the second album.  Does that apply to Nico Vega?

Not actually so much. We did the first record and it wasn’t an accumulation of all the songs we had written previously.  There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t on that record as well.  So the second record is … more of that than what we’ve written since then and some other things – spur of the moment stuff.

When we were practically finished recording everything it was like, “Oh, we just have a few more ideas.”  So it’s kind of all over the place. I think some fans will be disappointed because some songs they’ve heard live are not going to be on the record. … We had so much material. That’s not a bad thing. I think it’s good to have that much material.

How does Nico Vega create its music?

It’s different each time. It used to be very standard.  Rich [Koehler], the guitar player, would come up with riffs, at home at two or three in the morning, and would record these epic pieces and then bring them in and play them for me.  Some stuff … like on the first record, was stuff he had floating around and I started to write on it.  Then … he would come up with a riff on the spot and we would start writing on it and I’d write lyrics.

This more recent record, we started doing a lot of things … recording and writing at the same time.  It’s been different every time.  It think part of the reason Nico Vega has been able to work together for so long is because it’s really fresh. It’s not like we’re writing the same rock song over and over again.  Everything sounds different than everything else.  It’s all a different experience.

Songwriters have talked about using words or phrases, not because they drive home the meaning of the song, but because they sound good within the context of the song. Is that something you can relate to?

Usually, I think my songs come through when there is a synchronicity between the two. Where something is rolling off the tongue and it fits what I am expressing.  That’s the magic of the moment.  That’s probably the thing when people say it’s coming from another place, it’s not really just coming from you.  When that channel is open, that’s when I get the most excited, or have the most fun doing it. When it’s coming together like that it’s almost magical.  It doesn’t feel of the world, or something.

On the flip side, it’s really hard when the channel isn’t open and you’re trying to force something, write something and it’s not really there.  Or you write something and it’s kind of mediocre. … It’s like the channel is not open. There’s such a distinct difference between the two. I think, as an artist, you always hope that channel will stay open.  I think, for some people, it really does close over time.

Photo: Cameron Jordan
“It works for us because we’re a performance-based band as well.”

When you listen to Nico Vega, what do you hear?

We just write it … it’s expressing what we are inside … It’s an expression of what is going on with me and two other people and the way we come together. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t listen to it, I wouldn’t be making the music if I didn’t like it.  I don’t have an opinion about it because I’m so close to it.  It’s a lot easier for me to critique someone else’s music.

Being a critic is a depressing thing at times.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel good to judge everything – judge your own music, judge other people’s music, judge, judge, judge. I don’t necessarily think it’s the healthiest thing for anybody.

But when you’re, say casually listening to music – a song on the radio or TV or in a film soundtrack – do you find yourself analyzing it?

That’s just so hard not to.  I really try not to.  I’m not always successful.  I definitely have opinions of my own and I try not to judge other people’s work too harshly because I know what it’s like to be an artist. Even that frustration when you’re not creating something that you want to be creating or it doesn’t feel like it’s at the level you want, everybody as an artist is doing their best.  Ultimately, at the end of the day, there is a reason we called the album We Are The Art.  That is an expression of you or you wouldn’t put it out.

It’s kind of like being naked. It’s like taking your clothes off and walking out into the middle of the street … every time when you release something. You’re put in this horrible place but you’re also really excited about it.  You’re a little bit in love with it, it’s like one of your children. At the same time you’re so close to it you don’t have your own gauge.  You have no idea how good or bad it is.  To put your songs out like that, you’re so exposed. It’s a scary thing.  People really tear you down, or it’s easy to tear other people down and judge everything.  But at the end of the day … if we could come to a place in the world where we’re all really accepting, we [could] see art for the expression of the person behind it.

Does Nico Vega have many Pink Floyd “Which one is Pink?” moments?

Yeah. Everybody thinks I’m Nico [laughs]. … We did pick a name that is like a person’s name. I just thought it’s a beautiful name.  It doesn’t give you a hint of any genre.  You hear that name and you’re like, “I have no idea what that band sounds like.”  I guess that’s the only thing I do feel we accomplished, I want people to see us and not have a judgement based on what our name is.  It think that’s my favorite part of the name, it’s kind of a mystery.

Do you go through vocal routines or warm-ups before a gig?

I definitely have routines.  I’ve gone through different periods where I used to warm up a lot.  I’ve also gone through times where it’s actually taxed my voice to warm up. The way it works right now, I don’t push my register to a point where I’m uncomfortable with it when I’m on the road because [if] I make a mistake it’s really hard to recover from it, if I have 50 shows or something.  I kind of play it safe on the road.  Usually, when I’m recording is when I really let loose.  Because I have time to recover and if I make mistakes, it’s OK. It’s not going to kill me for the next 50 shows.

You’ve done some acting. Is this something you want to pursue?

I’m on the fence about it. I love acting.  If opportunities came up where there was a role for me … and it doesn’t compromise any of my integrity, I would do it.  I learned a lot from the last movie I was in. It was a romantic role. When you’re an actor, you really have to separate yourself from the role.  I’m not very good at that. It’s been a real challenge for me.

If I was going to act again, even now and then, because I have a child, I wouldn’t compromise that.  I probably wouldn’t do anything romantic again or do anything that’s going to interfere with my emotions and personal life. 

I was in theatre school when I was much younger and was really into acting.  But I was also an emotional wreck. I think [for] a lot of actors it’s only a character and they can go home at the end of the day. I’m not sure I can do that. So, in order to do that, I don’t think acting is the best avenue for me.

That being said, if something sounded like a lot of fun … and I wasn’t compromising my own adventure, I’d totally do it.

What do fans not know about you?

I have a 5-and-a-half month-old baby that I’m touring with. I think a lot of fans do know that, but some of them don’t.  I’m a family person.  I think people probably by now know this is the only thing I’ve ever done and know how to do.  I’ve worked other jobs, but I was always in rock bands.  I do want people to know that you can do both.  You can be a family person, have a family and be stable and healthy and be in a rock band. That’s how I live my life.  It’s not like I’m sacrificing being a mother to do this.  My daughter is with me, we’re really close. She has stability.  We’ve created a routine on the road with her. The band is really supportive and I have great people around me.

I think it’s important to know in this life that you can make it whatever you want it to be. And that we’re so much stronger than we ever could have imagined we would be.  That’s how I feel about myself. To be doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do, all at once, is a miracle to me.  At the end of each day it’s like I take a deep breath and I’m like, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m actually doing this all.”  And I want other people to know that they can do it all. They don’t have to make enormous life sacrifices, give up dreams or give up the idea of having family.  You can really do it all and that’s something that’s important to me.

Photo: Cameron Jordan
“To put your songs out like that, you’re so exposed. It’s a scary thing.”

Upcoming gigs for  the “Night Visions Tour” featuring Imagine Dragons, Nico Vega and Atlas Genius include Silver Spring, Md., at The Fillmore Feb. 22; New York City’s Roseland Ballroom Feb. 23; Boston at House Of Blues Feb. 25; Toronto at Sound Academy Feb. 27; and Indianapolis at the Egyptian Room Feb. 28.  March shows include Detroit’s Fillmore March 1; Milwaukee at The Rave March 2 and Chicago at House Of Blues March 4. 

For more information, please click here for Nico Vega’s Facebook page.  And be sure to check out  Pollstar’s 2010 Hotstar interview with the band.  Just click here.