Nat Baldwin’s been writing, performing, and recording music for virtually all of his adult life. In addition to playing bass in Dirty Projectors , Baldwin has recorded half a dozen solo records that put his upright bass and his vocal range on full and incredible display. Baldwin’s also a fiction writer, and in the past two years, he’s published stories in PANK, Timber, Alice Blue, and Sleepingfish, among other journals. Like his music, his stories present a complicated world populated by conflicted people. When it comes to politics, though, Baldwin’s stances are decidedly unconflicted: earlier this week, he appeared onstage in Iowa City alongside Vampire Weekend in support of Bernie Sanders. Having met Baldwin three years ago at Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival , I decided to drop him a line to ask about his writing, his music, and about this week’s rally for Bernie.
Nate Brown: In addition to writing, recording, and producing your solo records, you’ve written for, played bass in, and sung with some truly remarkable acts over the last decade, and I’m curious to know how that very public life as an artist—appearing onstage with The Dirty Projectors or in an episode of Portlandia or playing with Vampire Weekend during this week’s Bernie rally in Iowa—compares to the comparatively solitary act of reading and writing. Do you prefer one over the other?
Nat Baldwin: I’ve been very lucky to have had some pretty wild performing opportunities over the years. It would be a little absurd to say that I would rather be reading/writing over such experiences. I think my obsession with reading was a natural reaction to the insanity of tour life and constant travel. Books became a way to slow down and stay in one place. Tour life is very manic, too; it’s not all rocking out and screaming fans and post-show brews and high fives.
The other side of touring is sitting in a car or van or bus staring into space or talking to people you already spend twenty-four hours a day with for months on end and trying to figure out where to eat or get gas or sleep. Those moments of mundanity seemed like a good time to retreat into my own world to balance the insanity. Luckily, I found the right books that made me excited to do that.
Now, writing allows me to live in a creative world that doesn’t totally wreck my body. Of course, it must be something beyond that, though, something about the creative process of writing that gets my blood going, something difficult to articulate that I hope to always be in search of. Maybe, for now, it’s just the excitement of a new challenge.
Either way, there’s no one next to me in this dark, little room cheering me on when I write a great sentence, but the fact that I keep going back to find the words and the right way to fit them together must mean something.I find the links between music and writing as creative acts to be endlessly inspiring and hope to continue to create a deeper connection between the two. And my future musical endeavors will, no doubt, affect my writing. All that said, playing with Dirty Projectors and all the experiences we’ve had has been truly amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Aside from the opportunities you mentioned and others like them, just working with and getting to know the members and past members of the band has made any challenges worth it. And I don’t know what exactly a “genius” is, but Dave Longstreth is the closest I can come to a definition. As soon as I get the call to go back on the road, I’m there.
NB: When “The Red Barn ” was published in Alice Blue Review, I was struck by the darkness and the brutality of the piece. Can you talk a bit about how you came to write that story?
Nat Baldwin: Yes, that piece is very dark. When I first started writing it, I didn’t realize how dark. I don’t even think I realized it until hearing people’s reactions. I was thinking more about the tone established by the clipped, rhythmically repetitive sentences and the disorienting effect of the shifting narrators than I was about the darkness of the content.
Joyelle McSweeney  and I had been corresponding a bit, and I sent her the story when I was only a few fragments in, and she was extremely encouraging at a time when I didn’t know how to continue. That was a pivotal moment, and I realized that a core idea of the piece was to tell the same stories from multiple perspectives to show the psychological chaos borne through forced entrapment.
Of course, the piece does not necessarily represent physical experiences in my life, so to speak, but it certainly does address, in a psychological sense, past traumas that the story then molds into a new shape. As a reader, I love the experience of being ripped to shreds by a work only to be stitched up and refreshed on the other end. We can’t look away or scroll through, but are forced to be dragged through the dark. I think it’s positive and productive to feel fear and discomfort because those are feelings that already exist within us, buried deep down, that need to be stirred up. A story or work of art creates access to that fear and in turn allows for its release.
There’s obviously so much fucked up shit in the real world that people are afraid to look at or acknowledge because they don’t want it to disrupt their perfectly comfortable lives. I think one of the responsibilities of art, or the kind that I’m particularly attracted to, is to slap people like that in the mouth.
NB: You’ve also published some fiction under a pseudonym. What led to the decision to publish under a pen name? And do you think you’ll continue to do so or is it going to be “Nat Baldwin” form here on out?
Nat Baldwin: My name from here on out. The primary reason I used the pen name was that I knew I would be too eager and wanted to allow myself to be dumb, anonymously, so that I could learn from my mistakes. When I first started writing songs, I recorded my first show on a minidisc and converted it to CD-R and began sending it to every venue I had ever heard of and started touring immediately. Looking back now, the songs definitely sounded like the first songs I’d ever written. I didn’t wait to develop a specific voice before putting material into the world but, instead, developed the material through the process of performing. The embarrassing moments, in hindsight, are totally erased by the acceleration of development made possible by simply diving in full force.
With writing, I knew part of me would want to learn from the negative side of that experience and maybe create something a little more polished, but, ultimately, I knew the eager side of me would take over. And it did. I started sending stories out immediately. Some of them were horrible—completely atrocious. I did all the things editors must hate like withdrawing and resubmitting multiple times or writing to ask questions and probably all sorts of other dumb things I didn’t know were dumb (and still might not).
It was nice to submit anonymously and unabashedly in order to figure out what the fuck I was doing. When the stories were close, the editors gave great feedback. Just the act of submitting, itself, was informative. Sometimes I would be all excited and press “send” and then be like, “whoops.” Placing myself directly in the action was super exciting and helpful. When I got the acceptance from Alice Blue, I thought that was a good time to use my real name.
That story felt like the beginning of a voice, the voice that previous stories had been searching for. I also didn’t want my name in music to give me an advantage in publication, so when that piece was accepted under the other name by a journal I admired as much as Alice Blue, it seemed like validation that the work was beginning to work. Just now, I checked and the first rejection under the pen name came exactly two years ago this month. In those two years: sixty-six rejections.
NB: What was playing in support of Bernie Sanders like?
Nat Baldwin: Completely insane. I’ve been feeling the Bern for quite some time, since about ’02-ish, so this was a dream I never would have even dreamed. When I first heard him speak, back then, on TV at my parents’ house, I was struck by how sensible his ideas were, how he represented what I thought to be a true liberal. He was not and is not making wildly outlandish proposals. I was so disheartened by the slime and insincerity of the political climate at the time, the candidates that called themselves “liberal” and then voted for the war or were not pro-choice, shit like that—it was depressing.
So, even though I was totally floored by this speech of his that I stumbled across, I also lacked hope that someone whose ideas so perfectly aligned with mine would have a shot in my lifetime at the presidency. Now, the thing that is especially exciting about this possibility is what his campaign and the ideas behind it seem to be inspiring. I got the feeling, while at the event we’d just played, that the crowd fully understood that he can not make the changes necessary in this country on his own, that true change is a group effort and that he is just acting as the spark.
So often, a candidate is elected, and we just sit back and hope they fix everything. Bernie, on the other hand, is inspiring people to take action, inspiring people to care about the issues. So the event was incredible. Vampire Weekend is also an awesome band, and those guys are old buds, so it was a fun way to get back on stage with a full band, especially with Dave from DP and his brother Jake, too. I didn’t know I was going until 36 hours before my plane left. I absolutely love Iowa City, as you know, so that was a nice plus to the trip.
NB: Each election cycle, there are arguments about whether artists (particularly musicians and actors) should come out in support of political candidates. On the one hand, people in the public eye have broader access to audiences and can really help spread a candidate’s message if they feel moved to do so. On the other hand, there’s the perennial claim of the undue influence of celebrities in the political process. What’s your take on that issue?
Nat Baldwin: Maybe we all know this story, but when I was a kid I remember vividly Michael Jordan being asked to endorse Harvey Gantt, the black progressive Charlotte mayor, in his North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms, the homophobic racist with ties to the Klan. Jordan declined to endorse Gantt and in response, said: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
I was ten and that made me want to vomit. I think if people feel moved by a candidate’s message enough to willingly receive any heat that might come with the endorsement, they should have the freedom to make that choice and run with it.
NB: In your fiction and your music, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Nat Baldwin: I should be working a paper on Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis” right now, actually, but this was a nice distraction. I’m back in school attempting to finish my BA, and when the semester is in session time for music and fiction is hard to come by. I wrote a story over the holiday break that I’m excited about, though, so it was encouraging to know that I can put the “pen” down for a moment and still come back fresh. I’m especially excited to take Peter Markus’ online fiction workshop again this summer to see what material comes from that. I’m hoping what is produced will flesh out a mini collection of stories that could turn into a book.
Musically, I’d like to take a break from solo shows in order to focus on writing new songs. I don’t know when that will be but hopefully this summer. And as I said, when the time comes for Dirty Projectors to rock, I will most definitely be there in full effect.
Nat Baldwin is a writer and musician living in Maine. His fiction has appeared in PANK, Sleepingfish, Alice Blue, Timber, Deluge, and The Spectacle. He has released several solo albums and plays bass in Dirty Projectors. He is currently pursuing a BA in English at the University of Southern Maine.