"Kiss [was the first band that] inspired me," he says via phone from a Louisville tour stop where he's promoting his terrific new album Last of the Great Pretenders. "Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over. All the posters of Gene [Simmons] and Ace [Frehley]. I was in. I saw a magazine picture of Gene spitting fire. I knew I had to do that. I wanted to spit fire and play fucking rock 'n' roll. Then, I knew I wasn't so good at democracy in a creative sense with the bands I put together, and I wasn't good enough to sing like [Kiss'] Paul Stanley."
And then the new folk movement produced artists such as Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls.
"That was hugely influential for me," he says. "I realized I could play acoustic guitar and my lyrics could actually convey something."
Writing meaningful lyrics has always been important to Nathanson, who released his first album 20 years ago. He says one of his high school teachers introduced him to the kind of literature (Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver) that would ultimately inspire him to write and convince him to become an English major when he went to college.
"Being an English major felt like the only thing to do in college," he says. "You got to read books and express your opinion about them. In college, you're in such a weird space, it's hard to correlate. Now, reading like I do, I think it definitely helped with my songwriting."
Nathanson takes his songwriting up a notch on Last of the Great Pretenders. An introspective affair that begins with the spirited "Earthquake Weather," it includes numerous references to his San Francisco hometown as he writes about everything from sexy waitresses ("Kinks Shirt") to bitter break-ups ("Mission Bells").
"Before I started making this record, I realized that I was managing how I was presented," he says. "I didn't mean to do it, but it was an unconscious thing. When I wrote a song, I tried to shave off the parts I didn't like about myself and shine a light on the parts that I like and that I thought people might like.
"I felt the songs weren't as honest as they could be," he contiues. "I realized that all the records that I love are by people who are being 100 percent honest and showing 100 percent of themselves. That was what made me love records so much. You have to respect music. You can't hold back anything. You have to give yourself fully to it. When people pull their punches, it doesn't engage me. That's how it all happened. It's this idea of detonating that old part of myself with this record."
Right from the album's start, he makes it clear he's going to write what he feels, even if it means turning out lyrics that sound a bit menacing.
"I wasn't [consciously] dishonest in my records [in the past]," he says, "but that's why I started this record with the lyrics, 'I would kill anyone who would treat you as badly as I do.' That's a truth that I'm not sure I feel comfortable revealing. I thought not only did I have to include it, but I had to make it the first song on the record. It was part of being honest with my inner creative assassin who shows up during the creative process and says not to say certain things. I duct-taped that guy's mouth shut and threw him in the trunk of the car. I was like, 'You cannot fucking be here.'"
Not that all the songs are serious. With its hiccupping vocals, the whimsical "Kinks Shirt" comes off as a perky pop number
"That song was my ode to this beautiful waitress who worked at this diner near where we recorded," he says. "She had tattoos from head to toe and looked like she didn't take shit. She looked like the kind of woman who would break someone's arm if he touched her ass. One of the producers wanted to make the lyrics an ode to the waitress we loved. I imagined what she and I might do if we got together and had a weekend together."
Even though Last of the Great Pretenders just came out, Nathanson has started work on the followup.
"This was the first record I had a really good time making," he says. "We had a really small great team of people to make it with me. It wasn't like it was easy on the level of the creative thing, but it was way more fun and it was way less anxiety producing and there was less bullshit. I'm starting to write new stuff. I can't wait to see what the next thing will be. It was a joy to make this one."