Modern Nature finds artistic inspiration in move from city to suburbs

Andy Downing
Modern Nature

After living in a busy London neighborhood for a decade, Modern Nature singer and songwriter Jack Cooper recently relocated with his wife to a quieter home at the edge of Epping Forest near the outer ring of the city.

It’s a transition mirrored in Modern Nature’s full-length debut, How to Live, from 2019, which gradually moves from songs like the claustrophobic, tension-building “Séance” to more organic, spacious turns like the album-ending “Devotee,” which patiently stretches out like the morning sun over an expansive grass-covered valley.

"I wanted to make something that felt like a cohesive piece, like a song cycle or a musical, or the soundtrack to a film, and I had this loose idea for a narrative that would start in the chaos of a busy urban environment and would end in escape,” said Cooper, who will join his bandmates in concert at Ace of Cups on Monday, Jan. 20 (the musician expressed a long-held fondness for Columbus owing to his die-hard Times New Viking fandom, which includes playing a spate of gigs alongside the local exports in a previous group). "Living in central London was exciting, but I've gotten to a certain age where I don't go out much anymore, and I'm more interested in being at home, and I started to feel like I need to get out. So in that way it was a very literal story of moving further out and being more immersed in nature, or not even nature, really, but the suburbs."

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The album also explores deeper, existential questions, setting the loneliness inherent in big city life, which Cooper described by relaying the odd sensation of feeling completely alone packed alongside hundreds of fellow subway commuters in a city of millions, with the envious solitude offered by nature, which he called “liberating and exciting.”

Throughout, songs waver between these extremes. The undulating, unrelenting “Footsteps,” which has at least some Neu! in its musical DNA, mirrors a dart through lively city streets, Cooper singing of traipsing over harsh concrete as a saxophone imitates blaring car horns. “Oracle,” in turn, builds on little more than barely picked guitar, a soothing blur of sonic white noise and Cooper’s 3 a.m. vocals, which barely rise above a whisper, his words focused on living squarely in the moment. “See all you can see,” he exhales.

In building this insulated sonic world, Cooper purposely ignored what he termed modern “playlist culture.” “The songs aren’t really meant to be listened to in isolation,” he continued. “I’d like people to sit down and listen to this in one go, and to listen to it as an entire piece rather than individual songs.”

The pulled-back focus is also further backlash against the approach Cooper adopted in previous band Ultimate Painting, where he split songwriting duties with co-founder James Hoare, leading albums to feel more like a collection of singles than a coherent artistic statement.

“I suppose I got frustrated with that, to an extent,” said Cooper, who first explored a more thematic approach on 2017 solo album Sandgrown, a song cycle centered in his seaside hometown of Blackpool. “It was traumatic, in a way, like any relationship breakup, but I think I did a good job of looking at things optimistically, and those things I’d become frustrated with in the band, I was suddenly liberated from.”

With Ultimate Painting, Cooper released four albums in four years, the last arriving in 2018, and he said that each LP provided diminishing artistic returns. “By the last record it got slightly formulaic, at least in my head, like we were always chasing that first album,” he said of the band’s self-titled 2014 debut. “We sort of got into a thing where I was the one who had to come up with what could potentially be ‘radio singles,’ and I just got really bored by that. Also, I don’t really care now about the things I did care about then. I have no interest in being famous. I have no interest in being in a big band. I just want to make something I like, and Ultimate Painting got away from that. … With [Modern Nature] being the first real thing I’ve done since that, I wanted it to be very different.”

Ace of Cups

7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 20

2619 N. High St., Old North

ALSO PLAYING: Olden Yolk, Long Odds, Powers/Rolin Duo

Modern Nature