Words by Sarah Leighton
In talking to Duncan Nielsen — known as DonCat to the Bay Area music scene — about his recently-debuted EP, Kind of Love, it becomes incredibly clear that the introspective, introverted style of the lyrics and chill folk sound that comes through in the six songs that make up the EP are not just his musical persona, but rather a true expression of who he is as a person. Duncan is, and has always been, a loving old soul with unparalleled wisdom and outlook. “When I was in 6th grade, there was a talent show and I did a Blues Brothers song instead of a Backstreet Boys song. And for the record, I was the most comfortable on stage than I have ever been. Moreso than I am now," he says, by way of example. He seems to have stayed true to this persona for many years.
A few years ago, Duncan was brought into the successful San Francisco-based band Geographer (brainchild of Mike Deni) on guitar, synth, bass, and vocals by fellow drummer and close friend Cody Rhodes. While Geographer’s sound of “soulful music from outer space” is very different than the low-key, folk sound of Duncan’s solo work as DonCat, it is evident Mike Deni’s keen ear for production and his ability to mix modern contemporary music with all of his favorite pastimes, has had a profound influence on Nielsen’s creative growth and ability to love the process. “Any time you write with anybody new, it definitely opens this new room of ideas for you. You know, just a new perspective. It does have an effect on what you do. You just pick up little tips and tricks. Kind of absorb what they’re doing.”
The songs on Kind of Love seem to pour out of Duncan’s mind, but sat dormant until he decided to revisit them and give them the attention they needed to realize their true potential. Like a lover who sees something in someone before the other person does: "They were waiting to come to fruition because they were so underdeveloped, having been from the past couple of years. Plucking them off the shelf and bringing them to the forefront, and working them a lot to kind of take a new form, they also felt new for that reason.”
The concept took shape over the course of the record. In realizing there was some kind of pattern, Kind of Love started to prove itself to be a collection of songs solely about the different types of love humans tend to experience. The songs range from obvious romantic love, to more obscure kinds, like love centered around the self and love for strangers. Ultimately, the EP results in a focus on the universal understandings of love, steering away from the more personal of experiences and instead attempting to chronicle the human condition.
Kind of Love was intended to be stripped-down and minimal, taking a lot of inspiration from Jessica Pratt’s style of simplicity. “How powerful it can be with so much simplicity," Duncan says of Pratt. "Kind of oxymoronic, but it’s such a simple sound. That inspired the approach to the record and, to be honest, it was going to be a lot more minimal than it currently is.” Duncan's sound is minimal by nature, and each song features his voice, his acoustic guitar, and not much else (though he did have some help — Alex Swain mastered the whole record, and his bassist Chris Sugiura engineered and mixed “Diana”). A true labor of love, each track was recorded on a tape machine as a single take in his house, with 270 degree views of the city.
When listening to the EP, it is as though you are right there with Duncan as he’s in the midst of the recording process. Like the San Franciscan fog slowly rolling into view, before you know it you are completely engulfed in the simple and mesmerizing sounds on Kind of Love. However, there is one song that lacks this stripped-down, minimal approach and sounds just a little more produced than the rest – “Diana.”
Similar to your first love, it is hard to forget “Diana” when listening to the EP from beginning to end — particularly, it’s easy to identify out of the other five songs on the EP due to its distinctive use of the saxophone and exuberance of emotional authenticity. “[It’s] especially magical for me because that was channeling a big influence, John Mayall and his record, The Turning Point,” says Duncan. “Saxophone playing is very stylized; like a fingerprint. When you hear it, you know it, and I wanted to create that sound and that feel. That and especially because it’s sentimental to me like recreating something I grew up listening to and appreciated. And you hear it, and it feels very yesterday in a way.”
There are many different kinds of love to be experienced when listening to the EP. Experience them all in person as DonCat takes the stage at Swedish American Music Hall as part of Noise Pop on February 22. He will play Kind of Love in its entirety, as well as some other songs.
Raised in the Bay Area and schooled in the mountains of Colorado, Sarah is a lover of live music, ugly dogs, international travels, and vintage treasures.