Photographs by Travis Commeau

The Accidental Tastemaker

Soft Junk Records’ Nic Schurman creates a space where artists can thrive

Some people are born to connect the dots. They bring players to the table. There is no other way to describe tastemaker Nic Schurman of Soft Junk Records, the creative enterprise that masquerades as a label.

Soft Junk produces music, books, art, and erstwhile digital projects, and plays host to singular, otherworldly events— a psychedelic salon, at its best. The space Schurman has called home for three years rests in the enclave at 919 Gallatin Ave., surrounded by a jumble of fast food joints, auto parts stores, quick-marts, and telephone lines, just beneath a hillside “HOWDYWOOD” sign of his own making — in other words, it’s the perfect location for a post-modern modern.

Soft Junk dabbles in magic, its very shingle at the door an inside nod to the iconic image of the boxer carved into Charles Bukowski’s gravestone, which also bears the phrase “Don’t Try.” Witness the boxer.

“The first event we ever did — I had no real intention of using this as a spot to throw parties and stuff,” Schurman says, nursing a beer, seated in front of several large art pieces. “Circumstances led to it. My roommate at the time, Joey Scala, and his band, Promised Land Sound, needed a space on short notice to do a record release show. They were getting rained out at Fond Object.

“It was last minute, the day before. I agreed to do it, but wanted to know how to make it different. Joey’s dad is Mark Scala, Chief Curator for the Frist Art Museum, and an artist, himself. He never had his own show in town! We held his first show during the record release party. It was fantastic, and I said to myself, ‘Wait, this is going to be magic. We can do this other thing for people who want to be off the radar.’

“Things have grown from there.”

Evidence of that growth is found in Soft Junk’s recent hosting of “Shrimp Cocktail,” a poetry and performance art experience, mashed up with a full-blown dance party in January. The event, engineered by Maggie Wells and Meg Wade, featured readings and immersive art by Third Man Books’ Chet Weise, Brooklyn-based poet and artist Kiely Sweatt, local poet and artist Richard Harper, and visual essayists Sarah Minor, Laura Cavaliere, and Doug Lehmann.

The term “immersive art” is fitting, though it bears the weight of the buzzword. Soft Junk was the vehicle, Schurman was the facilitator, and the mission was the collective blowing your mind.

The event came on the heels of a lo-fi art show in which the artists locked themselves up in the space for 24 hours and created work to hang and show the following day. Spontaneity is a key theme here.

“It feels good,” Schurman says. “I don’t know — so many people meeting for the first time. The events bring a lot of cool people together … and I know when you walk in the door, the space kind of snaps you out of your normal real world routine — you have to engage.”

Schurman’s appearance invokes a certain bearishness, albeit a thinking man’s party bear. Big and bearded, he anchors Soft Junk’s space, his two-story cave accented with random artwork. The backdrop for the interview includes multiple hands standing upright, eliciting the impression of a strange tree line in Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Schurman is a music man at his core, though, having moved to Nashville after a history of building shows in the unlikely, and fertile, live scene of Carbondale, Illinois.

“I was a punk rock dude,” Schurman says. “I was not going to move here, you know. Then, someone I had played in a band with moved here, and I was hosting all these shows in Carbondale in which more and more bands from Nashville were popping up. I was working with Jeff the Brotherhood, Pujol, Promised Land Sound — all those guys are coming to Carbondale. I figured out there’s some shit happening down here.

“I started visiting more and coming to shows here. We had always gone to Chicago. We started coming here, and it blew my mind. When I moved here, it took zero time to assimilate into a group of very creative people. I feel like I’m here to make things happen.”

The band Clear Plastic Masks was Soft Junk’s first creative foray, with the release of Nazi Hologram in 2016, and established the label as one willing to take chances — at least one unafraid of perception. The band and the record were critically acclaimed, and set the stage for Soft Junk’s work with Champagne Superchillin’.

In 2017, the label released Destino! on cassette only,  which gained local notoriety, and introduced French singer Juliette Buchs to the world. Drummer Charles Garmendia of the Masks, and Ben Trimble of Fly Golden Eagle completed the trio, which produces a soulful pop mix sound, adventurous in its subject matter. The band relocated to Brooklyn, but still maintains a strong Nashville connection. The second album, Beach Deep, was released last summer on vinyl by Soft Junk, and distributed by New York-based Broken Circles.

The first single, “Amor Fati,” according to Buchs, is based on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. Not the everyday fodder, though it certainly should be.

“Life is like a chorus, a theme that comes back identically and that you have to listen, sing and love, again, again, and again, to the infinite,” Buchs told NPR Music upon the record’s release. “This repetition of the same theme is what Nietzsche calls the eternal return, like the back and forth motion of ocean tides I felt through the writing of
Beach Deep.”

Schurman somehow manages to find the edge between high art and the down and dirty details. When you get things done in that context, you are doing soul work. Things often hang on a small purse.

“We went with vinyl and cassette on Beach Deep,” Schurman says. “For Destino!, we only did it on cassette because we were dealing with a limited budget. Then we had to decide whether to spend the rest of the money putting it out on vinyl or to make music videos. We stuck with cassette and started making music videos for it. I think they worked. It put them on the map.”

For the ironic rock ’n’ roll band Country Westerns, Soft Junk tilts more old school in presentation.

“We’ve released two 45s for them,” Schurman says. “We talked it out and decided to do a series of those. Like, it’s kind of a vibe. Big hole. Old school-style. And I printed all the covers here at Soft Junk. So it felt like it was really — we’re doing it from home here. It feels good.”

Other artists in the Soft Junk pipeline include singer-songwriter Nick Woods and Jonathan Stone Phillips of Faux Ferocious — two disparate worlds, one creative umbrella.

“Nick has written a lot of great songs, but never released them,” Schurman says. “He’s cut from the same cloth as John Prine, I’d say. And Cowboy Jack Clement is his personal hero. I think we can pull together a masterpiece with his songs — he’s a true storyteller, and we’re going to release something this year.

“And, with Jonathan Stone Phillips — he’s coming from a bad-ass punk band. Tough stuff but he’s got this great deep, rich voice and what we’re doing is a mellowed out vibe where his voice really comes out. It’s just so cool.

“You can see we don’t move toward a specific style with the music. It just happens to be people I know and have fallen in love with their music, personally. I want to help them all out somehow.”

The personal approach seems to work best for Schurman. Soft Junk even offers some limited recording services to artists that match the aesthetic, providing the space and equipment.

“I’m not engineering it myself, either,” Schurman says. “We’re letting the artist that I’m working with go for it. And so far that’s worked out
really cool.”

Another unexpected turn is Soft Junk’s plunge into book publishing with Rockaway, new fiction from Jeremy McAnulty, and To What Do We Owe the Pleasure, collected poems by the same Richard Harper who appeared at Shrimp Cocktail. Soft Junk facilitated the printing, including some limited-edition hardcovers, and placed them in local bookstores and bars. Not Random House, mind you, but a real, tangible street-level effort. It’s all about the facilitation of dreams. Schurman sees Nashville from the inside out, and hopes to unlock the
underground potential.

“The majority of people I see aren’t from here,” he says. “They’re from everywhere else. Like me. So everyone’s just looking around, walking in circles, trying to figure out what they can tap into. They don’t even know, themselves.

“So, I feel good having a place where a lot of people do come together, meet others, and feel excited about creating work with other people from different parts of the world. You know, it’s connecting humans. It makes me feel great.
I love doing it, so I ain’t gonna stop.”