NIC HESSLER A pop-rock wizard!
Ellen Wildhagen

AT THIS POINT in time, MySpace has now been the butt of jokes for longer than it was the world's most popular social network.

But its influence on music lives on, not only in superstars like Nicki Minaj and Lily Allen, who got their big breaks on the site years ago, but in newcomers like Nic Hessler, a pop-rock wizard whose first full-length album only came out in March.

Hessler is 24 now, but in the mid-'00s, he was a teenaged home-recording enthusiast growing out of a punk phase and learning to love his mom's Beatles and Beach Boys albums. He spent his time online listening to bands on MySpace, scanning their "top friends" for record labels and other bands, and posting demos to his own profile.

That's how he stumbled upon Captured Tracks. The New York-based label is now a paragon of gauzy, '80s-vibed indie pop, but it was just beginning to build its empire when Hessler friended it on MySpace.

It worked out well.

"I got a cryptic email from [label founder] Mike Sniper that was like, 'Tell me about your music,'" Hessler says. "I was so nervous about it. And then he said, 'Send me all your songs.' So I sent him my demos and he was like, 'Wow, we can definitely do a record.'"

In 2010 and 2011, Hessler released two 7-inch singles on Captured Tracks under the name Catwalk. He was working on his first full-length album when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder that left him partially paralyzed for a while and unable to play guitar.

The condition forced Hessler to take a break from music and his album. Looking back, the timing was kind of fortuitous, he says.

"In my head, it was like, 'Okay, this is going to be my first record. It's got to be flawless.' So many bands, their first record is so good, and I wanted my first record to be that good," he says. "I realize now that I was thinking too much about it and how it had to be perfect. But no one knows what perfect is. I reached a point where it was like, 'Okay, it's not perfect, but it's an accurate representation of what I'm going through.'"

Soft Connections may not be perfect, but it is a charming set of breezy pop songs that shimmer and sigh like a heartbroken dusk on a beach in Hessler's native Southern California. Half the album's songs were written between 2007 and 2010, and the other half were written after Hessler returned from his illness. Nonetheless, Soft Connections feels seamless and fully formed. (It was also released under Hessler's name; he decided to ditch the name Catwalk.)

Hessler, of course, is always working on new music, and he says the newer songs on the album reflect his present-day self, while the older ones feel like the work of a guy that's long gone. Still, he knows that his first album, while a long time coming, is better than it would've been if he'd had a chance to finish it years ago.

"I still have those old mixes and I'll occasionally listen back to what could've been, and... I'm really happy with how it turned out," he says. "I think getting sick gave me some time to step away from it and to get some new perspective, not only on life, but also on the album."