Give Grace To Others: An Interview with Abby Nissenbaum

by - April 27, 2023

Photo courtesy of Kara Nikol

For over a decade, Abby Nissenbaum’s entire life and personality revolved around being an academic. She found herself having a bit of an identity crisis after leaving her Social Psychology PhD program, and reminiscing about her years spent as a performer.

Her youth and teenage years involved performing in regional musical theater and classically training as a soprano. Songwriting felt like the right path in this crucial moment of her life, so she picked up her cheap, amp-less electric guitar and taught herself a few chords.

From there, a few songs were written and ultimately became the starting point of her EP, Unreliable Narrator.

“I… started reflecting on the ways that external negative situations and others’ hurtful messages had been impacting my own internal messaging and mental health,” she said. “I had read a research paper where depression and anxiety were characterized as ‘unreliable narration’ of one’s own life, and thought it perfectly expressed how I was feeling. It's easy to take negative input at face value and start internalizing it, but if we start to think of all those mean words as ‘unreliable narrators’, it takes away their power.”

The EP was recorded half in Los Angeles with producer Riley Geare and half in Nashville with Matt Qualls. Within four days, Nissenbaum’s time with Geare was jam-packed.

“He's a one-man show,” she said. “A true virtuoso on any instrument you put in his hands, awesome producer and engineer, and resident vibe guy.”

In Nashville, recording sessions felt like get-togethers. Friends from Memphis came up to serve as session instrumentalists, auxiliary engineers and production assistants. Despite both experiences being vastly different, they were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that truly benefited her.

“As an indie artist, there's not much time to sit and vibe in a space or really hang out with collaborators, so the sessions were all very intense and work-focused to make use of precious time,” she said. “With that said, the sessions were a ton of fun! I leaned into each experience and came out of my shell a bit more every recording session, which was helpful both professionally and personally.”

Her greatest challenge during the creation process was honing in on her guitar skills. Working alongside Geare and Qualls was exceptionally helpful, and Nissenbaum was able to not only convey her sound to others but track her own guitar parts.

She learned so much during the creation of Unreliable Narrator that really helped her work through the topics discussed in her songs, such as depression, isolation, heartbreak and addiction.

“Songwriting can be a cathartic process, but it can also help you meta-analyze situations or look at different components from a bird's eye view,” she said. “I've learned that sometimes it's helpful to write about your own experiences almost as if you're an independent third party. Through songwriting, I've actually found it easier to give grace to others and view things through a more rational lens.”

Just four years ago, Abby Nissenbaum had never written a song. She had a vague understanding of guitar chords, and zero knowledge of music production. These days, she is constantly writing and has found a solid group of collaborators. Unreliable Narrator was born out of a challenging time in her life, but gave her the chance to fully embrace a passion she thought was lost.

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