It's not easy separating Page France from Cotton Jones. Not only could the monikers of Michael Nau's former and current musical projects be character names from a children's book, but the sweet, laconic folk-inflected pop of both acts narrate a similar story.
Page France began in 2004 just as Nau was graduating high school in Cumberland, Md., and attracted attention for its swooning indie-pop ache. The melodies shimmer like sun-dappled leaves in a summer breeze " a light, organic sway that brings to mind the delicate beauty of Neutral Milk Hotel. Nau's unaffected tenor croon is joined by keyboardist Whitney McGraw's backing harmonies, revealing naive warmth. Indeed, the innocence was so not put-on that small-town boy Nau struggled with the rigors of the road, the confessional aspects of his craft and insatiable anxiousness.
Originally a solo side project, The Cotton Jones Basket Ride moved center stage when Page France broke up two years ago, and Nau sought a fresh start. McGraw joined him, and since then, the duo has released several EPs and two full-length albums, including January's "Paranoid Cocoon," after which the act simplified its name. The hooks are still strong, arrayed now in tie-dye, psych-pop colors with a hint of Page France's folksy guitar, drifting with a dreamy bob.
Despite the critical accolades Page France had already racked up, Nau needed to cut the cord. The constant challenges were messing with his head.
"Any bit of success never really brought any sense of peace to my mind or my heart, and I think dealing with that made what we're doing now so much smoother," Nau said from Arlington, Ore., where the duo's converted "green" bus skulked down an alley in search of discarded cooking oil.
"Whenever I was on the road, I felt like my problems were the only problems in the world," he said. "Going from growing up in a small town, and being there and knowing the same people and all of a sudden spending seven to eight months a year on the road, it was kind of bizarre."
Page France's strong religious iconography " with songs dedicated to "Jesus," the burning "Bush" and the low-swinging "Chariot" " brought focus to ideas Nau was still sorting out, but just being honest about his thoughts and emotions put an uncomfortable spotlight on them.
"I felt like I wasn't really worthy of explaining anything or saying anything about what those songs said," he offered. "I was just trying to figure it out and that was kind of my language. Every night it got to the point where we had to play the songs, and it just got too hard to try to re-create them in my head or in any way for other people. It's definitely something I couldn't personally deal with it at that age."
Nau took some time to be alone at his Cumberland home, before rejoining Cotton Jones with a new spirit. Culled to just Nau and McGraw, songwriting became easier with less cooks and the two approached "Paranoid" with new intent, not just excited young fervor.
"There's a little more of a focus and direction where we feel more comfortable steering it in, whereas Page France everything was just kind of on the spot," Nau said. "We didn't really have an agenda or an idea of what we wanted to make, so it was just kind of pure raw energy."
The break also gave Nau a chance to get his head straight about life on the road, which he hit with a new attitude.
"We learned how to take comfort with us, rather than always feeling like home was always somewhere else," he said. "It never mattered to me if the song made somebody feel good or made somebody smile; it was always about myself. Recently, Whitney and I both are feeling like if we're going to be playing songs for people, rather than trying to entertain, I'd like people to have a good feeling in their heart. Whether it's the music, what's being said or our doing it out of pureness."
Cotton Jones with Coyote Teeth and Green Corn Revival perform at 9 p.m. Wednesday at The Conservatory, 8911 N. Western. "Chris Parker