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Photo By Paul Moffett
Nick Peay

Nick Peay Makes Musical Lemonade

Kevin Gibson

Saturday, Aug. 13, was the night the lights went out in Louisville. It was also the night of Nick Peay's CD release party for his new solo release, Life &Love &Us.

Please move on, please move on, is what Peay kept thinking as the storms approached. They moved in at about 70 mph, however, before moving on an hour later, and a good portion of the Highlands went black. Peay's CD release, naturally, was to be held at the Monkey Wrench.

He arrived at the venue to find the Wrench also shrouded in darkness, and the club owner's response was, "I don't know what to tell you, man."

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

Nick Peay

Photo By Paul Moffett

Nick Peay Nick Peay

"I kind of freaked out a little bit," Peay said.

But there was good news: Because the club has three different power sources, there was power to the air-conditioning unit, the coolers and the pizza oven. So they put all the bottled and canned beer on ice, made some pizzas and "lit a shit-ton of candles."

"There wasn't an empty seat in the house," Peay said. "It was really cool. Everyone said it was a show they would never forget. It wasn't exactly what I planned, but I don't think I could have planned a better night."

Lemonade made.

THE PERFECT GIFT

If there was one thing you would like to have but probably wouldn't buy for yourself, what would it be? For Peay, it was a ukulele. The front man for the indie-pop band OK Zombie spent most of his musical time in recent years with a guitar in hand, but the ukulele had always intrigued him.

So his girlfriend, Jean Frederick, bought him one for his birthday in November 2010. She may have created a monster. The new toy became something of an obsession, and Peay began writing songs on it. That experimentation led to the songs that make up Life &Love &Us, his shiny, happy solo album.

As a companion disc, Peay also recorded Love: A Ukulele Tribute to the Beatles. (You haven't lived until you've heard "Hey Jude" performed with a ukulele.)

"I think it's a neat little instrument," Peay said. "I fell in love." In fact, he said, from that birthday until this past March, that ukulele was pretty much the only thing he played. His Ibanez Iceman which has a cool body style that makes it resemble a tiny Epiphone Thunderbird became his almost constant companion. He also ended up getting an Epiphone ukulele with a cutaway body that creates a resemblance to a miniature Gibson Les Paul.

"Nick mentioned that he would like to get a ukulele a few weeks before his birthday last year," Frederick said. "It is rare that he wants something music related that I can research and buy without consulting him. When I saw the Ibanez Iceman at the store, I just could not pass that beauty up."

One of Peay's favorite things about the ukulele is this: "When you take away all the big production, it has to be a good song in order to stand on its own. I made the decision to go back to songwriting for songwriting's sake."

OK Zombie songs are full-band affairs, with lots of instrumentation, and therefore tend to be more musically driven. It's a different ballgame when it's just a man and his four-string.

"I just wanted to craft some really good songs," he said.

So, Peay studied some classic songwriters and even read some books on songwriting, one of those being "Writing Better Lyrics" by Pat Pattison.

One exercise he undertook involved building verses of a song so that every time it arrives at a chorus, there is a different idea in place. This led to the song "Haunting Place," which isn't necessarily a ghost story, but rather an overview of a relationship and the place where the two people spent their time over the course of the relationship.

In the first verse, the two lovers go to the park with "a picnic lunch and a box of wine." In the second, they are discussing bringing their children to the haunting place: "Well take a shortcut through on Halloween/They'll jump from a bush, we'll pretend to scream."

And in the final verse, their children now have children. "We'll spend our free time here and reap what we've sown./So if you go for a walk in the park with someone/Our love is blooming there for everyone."

He insists the songs aren't necessarily autobiographical or even terribly personal; he simply wanted to write some songs people would enjoy and relate to on some level.

"I tried to make universal enough that it would mean something to everyone," he said, "but unique enough that it wasn't beating a dead horse."

The themes within are indeed universal, yet with their own spin. "Wild Dreams" is about fantasizing about simply running away. "Swept Away" is a metaphor for love that was inspired by the spring Ohio River flood. "The Circus Has Come" is a look into the mind of a man who apparently is terminally ill.

"The Great Green Room" is what Peay "lovingly refers to" as his "hippie song," as it is about the beauty of the world, and the title track is simply about being good to one another because, "We're in this together."

Frederick cites this one as her favorite songs on the disc and an audience favorite as well. She attributes the warm reception the EP is receiving to the positive nature of the songs.

In fact, Frederick, who calls Peay "equal parts artist and nerd," noted that the lemonade-making positivity that comes through on Life &Love &Us reflects Peay's attitude about pretty much everything he does.

"His positivity gets to show through on Life &Love &Us," she said. "I knew instantly that he had raised the bar with this project. Not only were the songs good, but they were positive, which you just don't hear much of anymore. It is such a nice change of pace."

Another unique aspect of Life &Love &Us is the artwork. The slipcase is simply brown recycled material, with the album and artist names stamped into them. But an accompanying booklet includes all the lyrics, and contributed photography and artwork from Louisville-area artists and photographers.

Peay held a contest on his website which challenged people to design the cover for the CD. He got a number of submissions, all of which he liked.

"I couldn't pick one," he said, "so I decided to use all of them."

Lemonade.

And one other unique feature should be noted about the CD it contains a bonus track titled "A Day in the Life (of My Dog)" that may actually be the disc's highlight. The impossibly happy tune as if it's easy to play a sad song on a ukulele tells it all from his German shepherd mix, Champ, and his girlfriend's pit bull terrier, Shelby, which he calls "the most awesome dog ever."

There is an interesting back story about Shelby; when Peay and Frederick began dating, one of Shelby's favorite pastimes was chasing feral cats and Peay has two cats himself. There was trepidation when the couple decided to move in together.

"I thought, 'Oh no, this is going to ruin our relationship,'" he said with a chuckle.

So they got Shelby into a socialization and obedience training program, and the difference is amazing. She recently received her "Good Citizen" certificate from the American Kennel Club.

"Now, she curls up on the couch and sleeps with the cats," Peay said.

Is that canine lemonade?

PLENTY TO GO AROUND

Peay is focusing on music now, although he also does work as a free-lance graphic artist. He earned a bachelor of arts in music business from Middle Tennessee State in the early 2000s, before coming back to Louisville, working a few different jobs, and then going back to school for a visual communications degree.

That helps a lot, because it means he can do all the design work for his musical projects. He even screen prints his own t-shirts.

His education in music business is a big help, too. He knows how to market, and knows how to get things done through other people that he may not know how to do himself. After he checks off things he can do to move a release or a promotion forward, he then notes what he can't do himself, and asks, "Who do I know who can do this?"

"Pretty much anybody can be successful if you work at it and have a good idea," he said. This spawns a discussion about the definition of success. By Peay's estimation, "Success is whatever you want it to be."

For example, Life &Love &Us may not sell a million copies, but it can be a success. "I really look at this release not as 'I have to sell X number of copies or this or that,'" he said. "I did all this myself, people really like the record, and people are telling their friends about it."

He did a show in Nashville recently as part of the release promotion, as an example. "I sold a bunch of records to people I didn't know," he said. "That's a success. At this point, however I look at this record, it's a success."

He also puts a lot of effort into making OK Zombie successful, which is a different animal than his new-found love for writing songs on the ukulele. For one, he finds the band fun, and he also writes more emotionally for OK-Z when the spirit moves him.

"And I get to be weird, and make funny references that only die-hard zombie fans might get," he said.

Prior to this year's Zombie Walk in the Highlands, OK Zombie will play a show that will have them musically synching up with George Romero's original "Night of the Living Dead," which play on a screen behind them.

He remembers getting into zombie movies a few years ago, "but I always thought the soundtracks were just crap." The first OK Zombie CD, as a result, was an instrumental album titled Horror Movie Soundtrack.

A band like OK Zombie really is built for that kind of unique fun, which is right up Peay's alley.

'YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE BEATLES'

When Peay got his beloved Ibanez Iceman last year, the first song he learned on it was George Harrison's classic "Something," from the Beatles' Abbey Road album. This is a song Paul McCartney has played often on ukulele in recent years, in tribute to his friend George. Why? Because Harrison himself was a fan of the ukulele.

"It was obvious that Nick was hooked on the uke immediately," Frederick said. "I gave it to him as soon as the sun came up on his birthday, and he managed to pick around and figure out how to play 'Something' by The Beatles before the coffee was ready. He has played the ukulele every single day since."

He recorded this song, along with "And I Love Her," "I Will," "Hey Jude" and "All You Need is Love." The disc is intentionally stripped down, with only the ukulele, lead and backing vocals and a few strings here and there.

He did so for the very reason he recorded his original ukulele compositions to let the song take center stage. And Beatles songs are built to stand on their own. Still, there is always some risk when re-creating something that was arguably done perfectly in the first place.

"I was super nervous about putting out the Beatles record," Peay admitted. "You don't mess with the Beatles."

But he has a friend who is a Beatles fan to the degree that he had traveled to Las Vegas on multiple occasions for the express purpose of seeing Cirque du Soleil's "Love." Now that's a Beatles fan. Anyway, Peay said, "You're my test subject."

"If he enjoys it," Peay reasoned, "it's probably safe to let other Beatles fans hear it."

But even this came with challenges. For example, in the song "Something," there is a lead guitar run that is pretty much impossible to re-create with a ukulele. He mimics the lead part with his mouth and then says, "What do you do there?"

So he improvised, but in the end he did a ukulele solo that actually is pretty close to what George played originally.

"Other Beatles fans have said it's good, so I'm pretty confident," he said.

Peay is pretty confident in other ways. Besides having the guts to "mess with the Beatles," he is adept at coming up with new ways of doing things new ways of keeping things fresh. If he can take a power outage and turn it into a candle-lit beer-and-pizza party, there's no telling what he might do.

Making more lemonade is probably on the agenda at some point.

"It's a damn fine lemonade, too," Peay said.