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Songwriter Nicolas Krgovich Explores His Los Angeles Obsession in 'On Sunset' and 'On Cahuenga'

Nicholas Krgovich is best known for his work with No Kids, Gigi and P:ano, but his solo work is about to put him on the (West Coast) map.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Krgovich

It was spring in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and Nicholas Krgovich was thinking about Los Angeles. The year was 2003, and Krgovich was fulfilling a singer-songwriter residency at a “multi-disciplinary retreat for artists” by the name of the Banff Centre. He was in between albums with P:ano—the Vancouver indie outfit he co-headed—and was starting to write solo material from scratch. Despite being surrounded on each side by a mountainous landscape, his intuition led him out of the clean Canadian air to find inspiration in the smog, sprawl and seduction that California’s grandest city offered.

“I think LA is this unknowable land, filled with people making stuff,” Krgovich explains to me from his apartment in Vancouver. “This weird, smoggy place is where people come to realise make-believe.” Krgovich is wearing the same Phantom of the Opera shirt from his press photos and somewhat resembles a tousled Ewan McGregor with glasses on. He is warm and receptive throughout our conversation, but takes many long and thoughtful pauses between his responses. His mind goes blank every now and again; there’s a fair share of run-on sentences with no conclusion. It’s understandable if his mind blanks out or if his attention heads elsewhere, given a recent schedule which has had him pinging around time zones. He recently finished a two-week stint in freezing Europe with Sinkane, performing songs about the allure of LA to metropolitan Europeans, and has returned to a Vancouver winter in the middle of a Pineapple Express effect, all to discuss his LA fascination further.

That same fascination with the City of Angels has taken Krgovich to more gruelling places than his recent travel itinerary. In October, he released his sophomore solo record On Sunset, a real labour of love for the songwriter. Produced by John Collins (best known for Destroyer’s Kaputt), On Sunset is an album built for intricate sound systems and headphones, an ornately-detailed pop record tethered together by Krgovich’s blue-eyed soulfulness. It’s the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist yet, a lovelorn glide through a city of lonely interstates and endless parties attended by socialites; an album about noticing your sheer insignificance in a huge city. The chorus to On Sunset’s opener "The Backlot" finds the artist looking over the LA landscape and correlating the cemetery below with a movie backlot; “I don’t know why I’m here at all,” sings a deadpan Krgovich, strings swelling atop the lightly shuffling piano-pop in the background.

That same song was originally written in 2003, back in the Rocky Mountains, at the start of the process for what would eventually become On Sunset. "The Backlot" was the first of many sounds to eventually end up on the full-length; the last was "City on Night," recorded just over seven years later. His time spent at Banff Centre challenged him to disregard rough drafts and to work through each song to some sort of natural end. “We spent ungodly amounts of time refining those already fully-formed songs,” he tells me. “I was driving myself mad, trying to make a record like I was making one of the greatest works in pop history." He pauses for a reflective chuckle, his modesty peeking through his ambition: “...although I knew that wasn’t happening.” He admits losing perspective, leading to mixing session for single "Along the PCH on Oscar Night" that lasted for three straight days. On-and-off for nearly eleven years, in between stints performing alongside Mount Eerie and Casiotone for the Perfectly Alone, the project swallowed him whole.

On Sunset is an album with surprising immediacy despite (and perhaps because of) its gestation period. One would imagine that LA would have left Krgovich’s mind for a while. Perhaps he would peek into the “intimidatingly large pile” of unreleased material he had amassed since 2012.

Instead, he returned to those songs once more. Now we have On Cahuenga, a companion album to be released in January. Black-and-white mumblecore to its sister album's Technicolor prestige sheen, On Cahuenga turns off the beaten path and gets real, stripped down to Krgovich's voice and piano. It is a fascinatingly spare record, the type where an overdub's presence functions as a jump-scare, and the improvised feel of the record—caught in one afternoon this past April—makes an interesting contrast to its plush sister record. As good as it is, I can barely think of another artist returning to the same well with such eagerness, so soon after they'd drained it.

The way he sees it, On Cahuenga is more an act of friendship than of creation or commerce. While on tour with Advance Base in 2011, he played that band’s Owen Ashworth rough mixes of the material that would make up On Sunset. Ashworth was obsessed, requesting the Krgovich record the material for release on Ashworth's Orindal label, though the sheer idea of re-recording such an intricately orchestrated album with nothing other than his voice and piano amused him: "The absurdity of using so much brainpower… and money... and resources on this huge undertaking, then banging out this in an afternoon.”

Cover of 'On Sunset'

The move from a grandiose project to a low-key lo-fi solo piece is incredibly rare; the unwritten rules of music call on an artist to transform their intimate art into something bigger and grander over time. Krgovich recognises he took an “unnaturally backwards” route in the typical solo career, but is glad that he underwent the learning curve. As he learned writing in the Rocky Mountains, his songs had to be completed and rendered airtight, whether blown up to fill a room or simmered down to just one man in a room. “I needed to investigate every corner of every song in order to present them through me and my keyboard,” he tells me. “I always wanted the important thing about the song to be inherent in the song itself—not necessarily tied to the performance.”

I ask Krgovich if he was obsessed with the songs that became On Sunset, that he couldn’t let go. Krgovich’s expression screws up and he makes a type of frustrated noise, then calms down and thinks about it. “I don’t know that feels like.” Another long pause. “But maybe.”

Right before the European tour with Sinkane began, Krgovich’s UK label Tin Angel set him up with a touring band. “I landed in Birmingham, drove straight to band practice, practiced for a couple days then headed out,” he says. The practice was a blast, as were the gigs, which found mostly favorable reactions. The material showcased on both On Sunset and On Cahuenga turned into something spare yet fully-fleshed; comfortable yet kinetic. His excitement is palatable.

I ask him, half-joking, whether or not he has considered re-recording the material from On Sunset yet again and making a Los Angeles trilogy. He smiles, says that it would be “crazy," and then, he pauses. It’s different from the long pauses from earlier in our conversation—now it’s as if a spark has been lit. I can almost hear the cogs turning in his brain, and I wonder if he will continue to investigate every corner of these songs over and over, to return to the smog and seduction of his lonely LA, and to the loneliness of his songs’ narrators. It is an abnormally warm winter in Vancouver, and Nicholas Krgovich is thinking once more about Los Angeles.

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy is dreaming of the West Coast on Twitter.