How Nick Ward’s ‘Aubrey Plaza’ Begins An Exploration Of Masculinity & Queerness In All Its Complex Glory

In the last few weeks, the world has felt a little more compassionate and gentle. The majority of us are more caring of the world around us. Stories of neighbourhoods banding together to purchase goods for the at-risk, a natural uplift in empathy for the people that may be compromised by the pandemic and a notable increase in general consideration for the people around us.

A big aspect of that has to come from letting down the guard. Particularly for Australians – even more so for Australian men – acknowledging that the world isn’t what it has been and the notion that the “she’ll be right” idea might just not cut it anymore, has provided a positive force to men to be softer, more compassionate and decent to their fellow person.

For some young men, this has been something they’ve been crying out for the men around them to express for a long time before a global pandemic shook the foundations of what we know human interaction to consist of. Enter the Sydney artist Nick Ward, who at the tender age of nineteen, has been delicately interpreting the intricacies and opportunities of being a young man in its many forms since he released his first music a mere couple of years ago.

On what feels to me like a milestone record, the nonsensically named Aubrey Plaza seeks to look into that through the most vulnerable lens he’s used yet.

I’ve been doing a thing on Instagram weekly-ish called the Isolation Hour, which is basically really simple five minute conversations with makers of music that you love and the ones I’ve been really excited about that I think will be on your playlist soon. Considering its brevity, Nick and I only got into a basic discussion of what this song explores, in essence – the journey of discovering the complexity of masculinity – and what aspects of it you’re able to feel comfortable with around certain people in your life.

There’s something in the way Nick spoke about this topic on the show that I wanted to dive deeper into, one-on-one, without everyone peering in. I’m really glad I did. Nic Kelly in bold, Nick Ward in not-bold. Enjoy.

A lot of the time, these conversations are properly organised and I don’t really have a conversation with the artist until we’re face-to-face like we are now, but you and I texted and I felt like you had something you needed to say. What’s going through your head right now?

I think I’m really excited because I know that this song, I made for me. At the end of the day, of course I’m concerned about what other people think, but I already feel creatively fulfilled. I think that if I went into this song trying to make a pop hit, then I would care about what other people thought, but I think I’m already happy. I’ve already kind of done what I needed to do, there’s nothing left to do. There’s a really great analogy that someone used, that as an artist, you kind of have a sandcastle that you’re building and you’re perfecting it for all these years. And then when you release it, it’s just like putting it out to sea and it’s not yours anymore.

It’s nice in theory, but a lot of artists struggle with it in practice. Cognitively, they know it, but there’s always that insecurity that they could be doing more, they could affect the way that it comes out, they could affect the way it’s perceived by people after the fact. Have you found yourself resigned to the fact that you’ve done the work that needs to be done?

That’s something that I’ve had to learn over the course of a couple of singles. I’m still very early days, but I felt like shit the last couple of times I released a single, on release day. I was looking for validation… I just cared about the playlisting and streams and things like that. I think maybe there is a way that you could affect that, technically, by submitting it to things and asking people to pre-save it… But I feel like with this song, I don’t really care how it goes. I just want it to be out. It feels like I’m getting something off my chest by putting this song out.

That’s a very special place to be this early in your release career, I think. It’s testament to the maturity with which you approach your music. It’s not easy. I can’t count the amount of artists I’ve had conversations with where they’re talking about the other stuff like their videos and content and that’s what they hinge the success on, they don’t hinge it on the fact they’ve got something that’s meaningful to them, that they know should connect to other people because it’s genuine. That’s what this song will do.

At the same time, I love doing the visuals and stuff like that. I think that a song or a musical project shouldn’t just be limited to the music itself. So I’m still trying to do a video and I might even be making a behind the scenes of the song. I’ve got nothing better to do, to be honest.

That’s been a beautiful thing lately, I feel like I’ve been able to dive so much deeper into people’s process. Are you watching what Charli XCX is doing at the moment?

Yeah! That’s really cool. Also, Troye Sivan, with finding his graphic designer online and opting to work with freelancers he sources from Instagram, you’re kind of seeing stuff happen in real time, which is really cool.

Let’s talk about these visuals that come with this record then. What do the wings on your back in the cover art represent?

Similarly to the title Aubrey Plaza, it has absolutely no relevance to the song.

Incredible. We went into this briefly in the Isolation Hour, and I think that the angel wings do talk to this, is there a sort of letting down of the masculinity guard going on in this record a little bit?

100%. That’s the thing, sometimes I just do a bunch of random shit and then I come to realise what it means afterwards, or at least try to attach a bit of a bullshit meaning to it. I’m like a high school English teacher.

What’s that line called? Is it the ‘thesis’ at the top? And then everything had to sort of relate back to it?

What I tried to do with all my visuals is paint a pretty feminine, well rounded portrait, of myself. This is the thing, when I think about my music and the issues that I touch on, a lot of the songs that touch on masculinity aren’t released yet, so I think now’s the time to really start like, yeah, throwin’ it in their face.

How did you start going down this rabbit hole of exploring masculinity?

I had a short film in Tropfest, like, two years ago. It was about mental health in teenage boys. I think, because of the response to that film, I realised it’s obviously something that needs to be talked about. People who have a platform and a position to talk about it, especially artists, you might as well be talking about it. I think as a young man, that’s one of the things I can talk about, I have an experience. I’d feel really weird about making music that didn’t mean much. That’s not discrediting anyone who does but I could never see myself making, like, a party song.

This is going to be almost the flipside to the interview I did with Bajillionaire, where we talked about how he has found this real love for writing extremely good yet silly songs about things that didn’t actually happen, in contrast to the work that someone like yourself does, that really taps into things that are quite important to you. That’s what sets different artists apart from one another. There’s space for dumb party songs and there’s space for earnest – but not fake earnest – there’s space for what you’re doing at the moment, a genuine reflection on your existence and the existence of the people in your ecosystem. Is that kind of it? Do you feel like you’ve found your lane that you want to travel in for now?

When I listen to my friends’ music, and I see that it’s so danceable and upbeat, I’m like, shit. I wish I could do that.

But this is slow-danceable!

You reckon?

Absolutely! This is like, the one slow dance on prom night energy.

That’s kind of what I was thinking. I think in the future, I’d like to blend the earnestness and vulnerability with more of a pop edge, but not in a sell-out way.

I wouldn’t underestimate how pop-edge this song is, though.

I feel like I see my music as just weird shit I’m making in my bedroom. Then people will be like, “wow, this is way poppier than your other stuff.” With my last single Marmalade, I was like “this is the most upbeat one yet guys,” to my friends. They were like, “this song made me want to kill myself.”

Look, pop doesn’t need to mean upbeat. To me and everyone’s got a different kind of definition of pop, but my definition of pop is to do with the structure, almost. Where you’ve got kind of a consistent chorus, a melody it always comes back to, a build in the structure that goes from one place to another by the end, that’s kind of my def of a pop song. So in that context, this is absolutely as a pop song and it’s a very good one. What’s your connection to pop music? What’s your what’s your upbringing been from a pop perspective?

The first band that I fell in love with was ABBA. The best. Then I think it was The Beatles and then Green Day, just out of the blue, then into a heavy metal phase for a bit. Metallica, Megadeth

I’m sorry to hear.

I really like when artists talk about pop music in this weird like, romantic, way. Like, when Lorde talks about a pop song and the idea of a pop song, I think it’s really interesting. As you said, when it comes to structure and even just accessibility and relevance in society, pop music is what everyone’s listening to and I think I really admire artists that kind of take pieces of experimental, underground music and blend it into a pop formula. That’s why artists like Death Grips or even Charli are so influential is because they’re still making ‘substantial’ music whilst also being accessible and fitting into a certain structure.

Back to you, this song starts with a quite poignant lyric. “Do you know who you are?” Do you know who you are at the moment?

Fuck no! I don’t think I really should, to be honest. People go their whole lives not really knowing. Not to be a wanker, but I think the ~journey~ is more important. And I think that especially at my age, it’s really hard to find out who you are, I think especially in 2020, social media and certain masculine stereotypes I think really fucks with how people are gonna grow up and perceive themselves. That’s the thing, a big part of my own journey, in the last couple of years, was coming out to my parents as queer and then realising, “holy shit, there’s as many queer male stereotypes as there are in the straight community.” I would hang out with a lot of my friends and we’d go to Stonewall and stuff like that and I’m like, “I don’t really fit in here either. I think that it’s a lot more complex than just “he’s straight, he’s gay,” I think a lot of my journey is about appreciating the gray area and appreciating that you don’t fit into a certain binary and how complex and fluid identity is.

It’s such a huge spectrum, isn’t it? I think you realise that more and more… How long have I been a big ol’ queer for… seven or eight years now. Every year, I find that where I sit on the ‘spectrum’ or the binary of both sexuality and gender, very much changes every single every day. I feel like my connection to queerness and masculinity is evolving. Do you get that sense as well?

100%. I think that when you tell people, you feel kind of locked into a certain place. When I started dating my girlfriend everyone was like, “wait, I thought that you were…” And then that made me feel weird. I was like, “wait a second, am I doing something wrong? Is this a phase?” That first lyric is “do you know who you are, or do you just take a guess, paint a pretty picture and then try your best,” because it’s like, do you really know who you are? Or are you in a ballpark and then faking it til you make it?

The word ‘queer’, as well, I think scares a lot of people.

Really? I love it.

I love it. I think it’s such a beautiful descriptor, but I think for a lot of people – particularly straight people that you tell you’re queer – they still see it as the slur that it was and they don’t understand that it actually just means this beautiful not gay/not straight/not even bi or pan…

It just means, like, freedom.

Exactly! That’s exactly what it’s about! Other artists around you, who do you think is doing the best job at exploring that sort of spectrum at the moment?

I think Lontalius, he’s one of my favorite musicians, I think that he is really unashamed of who he is. I remember when I saw him play live, opening for Japanese Wallpaper. He had a little spiel before one of his songs and said, like “I feel so good singing about boys and I’m gonna do it til the day I die… live your truth.” I was like, that is 100% right.

I’m going to take that with me, I’m gonna run with it. That’s a really nice place to be, to be able to hear that and go “yeah! I’m going to fucking do that!”

I think the thing that I haven’t seen, at least in like ~Sydney~ is a real exploration of bisexuality and queerness. I would love to make a double-sided song, where one half’s about a boy and one half’s about a girl.

Conan Gray’s song The Story, started exploring his, best friendship with a girl and then his young queer love with a boy, but you’re right, in Sydney, no one talks about it. It’s always one or the other.

That’s the thing, I think it’s a binary thing. You’re either a straight artist and you’re talking about like, all the girls you’re getting, or you’re a gay artist and you’re talking about boys or girls. There’s not really a middle ground kind of paved out. I think with that space kind of open, might as well get in there.

How explicit do you plan to be on saying “I’m queer,” with the music to come?

I’m working on an EP at the moment, well it’s more of an album actually, and it’s very clear and explicit. Hell yeah.

That must be really exciting.

I don’t know. I remember Kevin Abstract saying something really cool about like, “if you’re vulnerable yourself, it forces other people to be vulnerable too,” and I think that’s what I kind of want to promote. I want to have fans who are open to sharing their own experiences. I want to promote that more especially in young men. If there’s anything left to say, I would say that this song itself is more about the relationship I’m in and the fact that I can express this side of me. I think that songs, sometimes, are more than the lyrics. To me, that slide guitar solo is just like, QUEERNESS!

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