Just the two of us

Nat Baldwin lugs his bass into your heart
By CAMILLE DODERO  |  April 22, 2008

CONTRA-BAND: Baldwin’s approach is terrifically earnest, terrifyingly intimate, and terribly special

I almost slept over at Nat Baldwin’s house once. It was an accident, really, a not-even-vaguely scandalous incident involving a Portsmouth-bound carpool to a cozy martini bar called the Red Door and my ride back to Boston’s bailing to stay at Nat’s nearby place. I was kindly invited to crash there too, with the half-kidding caveat, “If you don’t mind the bass.”

Years later, I still can’t help minding the bass. Nat Baldwin’s upright bass is Joanna Newsom’s harp, Andrew Bird’s violin, Britney Spears’s coochie — a partner so indispensable, it’s a personal trait. Live, the 28-year-old Portsmouth native (who comes to Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square this Saturday) drags his docile accomplice onto the floor, bow in hand, and saws away at her tummy like a man trying to cut a cow with a butter knife. Then over this gorgeous bull-fiddle hum, he belts out these melismatic flourishes: You-hoo-hoo leh-heft me on-hon the Lay-ake Ear-eee, Lay-yake Erie, Lake Erie. This delivery is terrifically earnest, terrifyingly intimate, and terribly special.

So special that few people know yet what to do with Nat, who at the moment is living in South Berwick, Maine. Telling strangers that he’s a singer who also slays on the contrabass nets “some funny reactions.” I mean, the kid shows up in a Celtics T-shirt? One time, a shall-remain-nameless dude who’s now in a “fairly popular new band” inquired with oblivious sincerity: “You play upright bass and sing? Is it, like, comedy?”

“I like the role of being this outsider,” Nat admits, calling from the Kittery shore. It allows for a broader range of inclusion: he can share bills with free-jazz jockeys or strident noise wankers or neo-folk beardos and not get anyone too upset. Unless you count that one little shit who didn’t like Nat’s experimental solo screechings April 11 at a Union Square loft and came up afterward to demand, “Why do you choose to sound bad?”

People probably once also said that about the Dirty Projectors, contemporaries with whom Nat has a tight affiliation. In the last few years, Nat has schlepped his voluptuous sidekick (“It’s like a big, delicate person”) around the country to play with the 2006 incarnation of Dave Longstreth’s rotating outfit and recorded the bass parts for that same band’s endlessly lauded Black Flag reimagining, Rise Above. Another connection that will set Google Alerts ablaze is the producer of Nat’s full-length Most Valuable Player, which comes out next Tuesday on Broken Sparrow: Grizzly Bear bassist/studio whiz Christopher Taylor.

“Me and Nat fell in love with each other right away,” Taylor jokes over the phone. They became bros while cloistered in Longstreth’s Brooklyn apartment working on Rise Above — Taylor produced that too — and Nat was hungry to record 10 songs he’d written with a proper engineer. “I really like the guy — and he’s an incredible bass player,” says Taylor. Since Longstreth had already been conscripted to play 12-string, they left the equipment there for an extra week and made MVP. The collaboration went so well that Nat has already done studio time with Department of Eagles, the Taylor-engineered side project of Grizzly Bear guitarist Daniel Rossen.

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