“GROWIN’ UP, my father was a pastor," says Michael Nau of Cotton Jones. "I didn't really have a very broad or vast collection of music. Both of my parents sang and listened to gospel music, so that was all through the house."
And while soulfully lifting, Nau's own gospel is far more existential. Over glittering drifts of guitar and omnichord, church organs, deep rolling rhythms, and reverbed-out tambourine clicks, Nau's rich brassy tenor soars, concerned with the little things: simple beauties to melt the darker days. There was a time, however, when Nau directly addressed the religion that was woven through his childhood. That band, Page France, garnered national attention in the mid-aughts, but eventually change came—though Nau's not sure quite why.
"I guess some of those topics are still being dealt with," he explains. "I'm still constantly trying to figure all that stuff out. It comes through in the music a little differently now... it just kind of felt like it was time to move on."
So Page France became Cotton Jones. Overt biblical references melted away in favor of wonder and a greater sense of place, Nau's picturesque home of Cumberland, Maryland. He described it to me by phone.
"Cumberland is a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains," Nau says. "We live on a hill. It's quiet. It's beautiful—there's a lot to look at. Churches and houses built into the hills. Visually it's like nowhere I've been in my travels. It's a pretty special place." But having already pored over Cotton Jones' latest record, Tall Hours in the Glowstream, Cumberland felt familiar.
Nau lives there with his wife and bandmate, Whitney McGraw, whose delicate, breathy voice sweetens his as honey to milk. McGraw, who shares in writing melodies, has been with Nau since Page France, much like the rest of band, and together they grew up into Cotton Jones, a band more robust, adult, and profound.
The maturation has had drawbacks. The players revolving around the married principals aren't always available to tour like they once were, and the business side is never fun. "Any bit of success has never really made me happy in my heart," Nau says. "So I have to always make sure for myself that I'm doing it for the right reasons."
With McGraw at his side, Nau seems steadied—they're set to play for the long haul. "It's the whole lifestyle," he says. "And the music, it just blends in with our everyday life."