For Stephen Nikleva, it’s definitely not all about the music. There’s album-cover art to enjoy, too.
That much is obvious from the guitar and mandolin player’s long-awaited solo debut, Square Moon. On its cover, an artist’s hand is shown putting the final touches on a leggy belly dancer, who’s strutting her stuff in front of a craggy lunar landscape. She’s not wearing a space helmet, but that doesn’t matter because there’s plenty of vintage atmosphere in Saveria Renucci’s design, and even more in Nikleva’s grooves. But it’s not all retro fun. Nikleva might champion the exotica genre popularized during the 1950s and early ’60s, but he’s also capable of making stylistic connections that wouldn’t have seemed possible during the heyday of the mai tai—although, as he notes in a telephone interview from his East Van home, the past wasn’t as square as it might seem.
“People ask me, ‘Why did it take you so long to put an album out?’ ” the Newfoundland-born musician muses. “And I guess I kept thinking, ‘Well, what kind of album would I do?’ I just wasn’t sure how to approach it, you know? And finally I had a feeling that I should just go in and record the songs and see how they all came together. But, again, when I think back to some of the albums that inspired me, they would take different styles and put them together and that was fine. It wasn’t like things had to be any one genre.”
Nikleva’s referring to collectible gems like George Barnes’s Guitar Galaxies, Billy Mure’s Supersonic Guitars, and Dave Apollon’s Mandolins! Mandolins!, copies of which are likely close to hand. In addition to having toured with artists as diverse as pop-rock hitmaker Sarah McLachlan, Métis songwriter Sandy Scofield, and alt-country pioneer Ray Condo, Nikleva’s spent the last 30-plus years amassing a sizable yet carefully curated LP collection. His focus: stringed-instrument music and campy cover art.
“I haven’t counted them,” he says when asked about the size of his obsession. “But imagine an apartment wall just covered with records!”
A slide show of his favourite covers will accompany the music when Nikleva and his band host a release party for Square Moon this week. “I’ve really enjoyed collecting vinyl artwork from that era,” he adds. “It’s really captivating, the design and the colours, so I thought I’d go through my collection and find record covers that fit in with the theme, and then I’ll project them on a screen at the side of the stage.”
After Square Moon’s launch, Nikleva continues, it’ll be time for him to get back on the road as a sideman. At the moment he’s playing Gypsy jazz with Roma violinist Lache Cercel, country swing with Petunia and the Vipers, and eccentric alt-prog with Red Herring, back from the dead after a 14-year hiatus.
“As soon as I finish with the CD release I’ll be joining Lache in Turkey to do a couple of shows in Istanbul and Ankara,” he reveals. “I’ll have to miss the Romanian part of the tour this time, but I have had a chance to go to Romania with him—we played Transylvania and then hung out with his Roma family in Bucharest, playing music together on the sidewalk. I got the thumbs-up from his family, which was nice.”
That’s a rare honour, but with Square Moon’s release there’ll be many more upturned thumbs in Nikleva’s future.
Stephen Nikleva and his band host a CD–release party for Square Moon at the Waldorf Hotel on Thursday (April 9).