There’s an unintended irony that lurks within the liner notes of Nathan Ma’s Lonesome Heartland, a no-fi acoustic pop album that navigates the dark void of human loneliness: Ma recorded it in his bedroom with the help of about 40 of his closest friends.
But the company Ma keeps and the amount of individuals that group includes is beside the point of his ambitious 30-track cassette, which will be released by Unread Records & Tapes around the time this article is published. If anything, it’s a testament to the severity of the can’t-get-out-of-bed hopelessness Ma has either been fending off or embracing for more than a year.
"I have a lot of great people around me and people that influence me in so many great ways and I'm so appreciative of it, and it's not to say that I'm not being supported by my friends and family,” Ma, 24, said from his punk-rock bedroom, which is located at the crest of the historic Middle House. “But there's still just something missing — I'm just still lonely."
Ma is not a victim and certainly not a “sob story.” He made sure to tell me as much last month while the music of Strawberry Switchblade occupied the pauses between his sentences and a haze of incense fogged up his cut-and-paste living quarters. Ma said he was just feeling the feels and decided to do something creative with that energy.
"I was feeling a lot of crazy emotions at the time,” he said. “I'm still pretty young and I was in a long term relationship that ended and I just didn't really know how to deal with that."
To respect the boundaries of his former partner, Ma didn’t go into further detail about the breakup. Besides, that’s what his songs are for. But the singer-songwriter — who, when not concentrating on his solo material, sings in the hardcore act Bib and plays drums for Sean Pratt and The Sweats — also shied away from discussing death, another major theme throughout his album. Indeed, Ma wears his heart in his chest when strangers ask him personal questions in his bedroom, but he isn’t uncomfortable slapping it back on his sleeve when writing a song. He’ll strum his acoustic guitar with it, even.
The majority of Lonesome Heartland was written and recorded about eight months ago in a span of roughly 30 days. Ma shows me the field recorders he positioned around his room to pick up every creak in his house. One of the recorders still has a thrift store price tag. It reads, “$9.99.” Ma said his songs were performed in different locations in his bedroom to give each one its own unique quality or lack thereof. For example, "lalala" sounds like it was recorded in Ma's mini fridge whereas "Jenny doesn't love" sounds like it was performed in the bedroom across the hall.
The songwriter said he recorded the first few ditties solo and then thought it would be cool to collaborate with his friends, including members of Omaha expatriates Navy Gangs and Oklahoma City’s Cherry Death.
"It was pretty much organic," he said. "I'd tell everyone, 'Just do what feels comfortable — this is the general idea, but you don't have to abide by it,’" he paused for a moment. "I want my friends to feel comfortable, more so than imitate something that I want them to do. I think it sounds so much better when everyone is doing what they feel sounds good."
Stylistically, Lonesome Heartland is lethargic and sloppy. Flubbed notes and discord aid in the album's punk aesthetic and remind the listener that Ma is in too much pain to give a shit. Songs like "She moved to L.A." and "My baby loves the sea (why not me?)" cut to the bone with pop precision, channeling Gene Clark of the Byrds. Ma is truly a budding songster who follows his vision all the way to the atmospherics of his preferred medium:
"I love the concept of listening to a tape so much it sounds like shit after a while,” he said. “It's cool. Why is that not cool? It's personalized for you at that point. And not all tapes sound the same."
Ma said he developed his love of cassettes listening to Unread Records & Tapes acts such as Ed Rooney, Kyle Jacobson and Nutrition Fun. The "homemade" label, which once had a home in Omaha, has been responsible for over 170 releases since 1994. Founder Chris Fischer, who now operates the label out of Pittsburgh, wrote last month that Unread's taste favors "the spontaneous and pure," the same qualities that resonate with Ma's LP.
“I think this thing has been cooking in his [Ma's] brain for a few years," Fischer wrote, "and now it’s all spilling out into an epic and — what will sadly be, I’m sure — overlooked album that’s as fragile as glass, yet retains purified juice and memory. His solo songwriting career is just beginning. It takes nerve to record the way he does and slap your birth name on it. I think he is realizing that and becoming confident enough to recognize that what he is doing not only means a lot to him but has merit for others.”
Ma said Fischer began encouraging him to write a solo album even before he knew how to play chords on a guitar. Ma was 18 at the time and was singing and drumming for the indie act Places We Slept. Unread eventually put out his band's first EP in 2013 and soon after released Ma's first solo material on a 2014 split with local act Razors.
"It's an understatement to call Chris a hero of mine," Ma said. "I look up to him so much. I think if it wasn't for Chris, I don't know where I'd be in music — I definitely wouldn't be making music by myself."
While Lonesome Heartland hasn't healed all of Ma's emotional wounds, the songwriter said he feels lighter now that his feelings have been dubbed to tape. And looking back, Ma said he can finally appreciate how he got here and, ultimately, where his pain will take him.
"The motivation of feeling alone just drives you to do the things you didn't have the encouragement to do before," he said. "You're just like: 'Fuck it, I don't have anything else left.'"