Nicholas Altobelli is back from the brink with 'Home'

Posted 9:32pm on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013

Nicholas Altobelli likes to chase storms.

And not strictly in a metaphorical, musical sense -- although he's quite adept at that, too; more on that shortly -- but in the literal, get-in-the-car-and-drive-toward-tornadoes way.

The 28-year-old singer-songwriter, who undertakes these excursions with his brother and sister, thinks nothing of tracking violent weather into middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma, coming within 100 yards of something most people hunker down to avoid.

"It's like a drug," Altobelli says, seated outside Dunn Bros. Coffee on a windy, sunny February afternoon. "We'll go out twice a year on the highest risk days. The hunt, the chase is really addicting. It feels like a gamble that went right."

The parallels between his hobby and his art are striking.

Like someone driving into their own heart of darkness, chasing an elusive truth, Altobelli, who once flirted with the idea of becoming a meteorologist, takes considerable risks on his latest album, Without a Home, which was released Tuesday.

Given that a year ago, the San Diego native was ready to walk away from music altogether, the raw nerves on display throughout these 10 songs are understandable, even admirable.

Factor in his battles with depression, self-doubt and anxiety -- which fueled not one but two bouts of writer's block -- and Home begins to take on the dimensions of a minor miracle.

It was only after scrapping a mostly completed record and then meeting with Dallas producer Salim Nourallah that Altobelli, long one of the area's more prolific talents, decided he wasn't quite ready to stop making music.

The unfinished record prior to Home, made with a producer Altobelli declined to name, was first tracked last January, keeping him on a pace that had seen releases every year since 2008. But when he got the mixes and listened to the recordings in sequence, he knew he had to pull the plug.

"I was like, 'This is awful; these are the worst songs I've ever written,'" Altobelli says. "It was so cheesy. Originally, I was going to go for this R&B-Americana thing. ... I wrote songs based on that, but it was not a good thing."

Altobelli's frustration was compounded by the fact that he had suffered through writer's block to pen the now-unusable songs. Convinced he needed to give up and go "back to school and become a high school teacher," the troubadour found himself at a personal and professional crossroads.

"I thought maybe this wasn't for me," Altobelli says. "I even had the press release written: 'OK, I'm done with this crap.' It really almost happened, but in listening to my past catalog, I thought, 'I want to end on something that stands out.'"

Salim the savior

Enter producer and musician Salim Nourallah, who had a long conversation with Altobelli last spring, and encouraged him to try again.

"That meeting inspired the process, and I wrote [ Without a Home] in a month," Altobelli says.

Although he often relies upon what he calls "story songs," Altobelli found himself mining his own life for the first time, creating what he describes as "panic attacks set to music."

"Usually when I'm freaking out and I write it, I usually have no idea what it means at the time," says Altobelli, who has undergone therapy and consulted a psychiatrist. "I needed to write about [depression and anxiety], because I kept it hidden for a long time. I didn't want to write story songs like I had before. I decided I'm going to write something that's autobiographical and honest.... It seemed like a natural step forward."

Nourallah, a veteran of the DFW scene, says he has seen many artists in Altobelli's situation decide that they can no longer take the emotional, financial and psychological hits and they decide to quit music entirely.

"As much as I love Dallas, it's a very, very tough city to play music in and get kudos," Nourallah says. "[Musicians] can't let it get them down or make them question their worthiness. They have to keep going and find the comfort in doing good work and knowing it's good."

Altobelli puts it bluntly: "Salim is the reason why I'm still playing music."

Apart from moral support, Nourallah was instrumental in assembling the band that helps make the songs on Home pop in a way nothing that Altobelli has released before has.

Enlisting local luminaries like John Dufilho, Becky Middleton and Paul Slavens to work at Nourallah's Pleasantry Lane Studios, the producer puts an appealing gloss on some of Altobelli's nervier compositions: "I don't feel things that you want me to feel/I just want to lie down and wait to feel real," he sings on the album closer, I Just Want To Feel Real.

Starting over

The sleek presentation helps the songs go down smoothly, even as it also distances Altobelli from the spare, plaintive folk style that has dominated his catalog.

"I thought about self-titling this [record], because I was done with the folk stuff," Altobelli says. "Starting over; control-alt-delete. I feel like I'm back in 2008, starting out."

And like a man who has survived a particularly harrowing squall, Altobelli is invigorated when he talks about the future.

He's assembled a new backing band, the Gigawatts; he is booked to play 35 Denton next month; and, in May, he will open for Paul McCartney's son, James, at the Kessler Theater. He's even working on a "more acoustic," seven-track EP, tentatively titled In Your Arms, for future release. As much as he may have wanted to quit music and pursue other things, Altobelli knows now that it's not that simple.

"I can't turn [songwriting] off," he says, "and if I don't do anything, I get really depressed about it."

But whatever menacing clouds may hover on the horizon, Altobelli won't head for shelter. He'll embrace the turbulence, drive straight into the teeth of the storm and emerge tougher and wiser.

Altobelli says, "I'm a contender here -- I'm not just that folky guy that plays the Ryan Adams sad songs."

Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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