Nathan Siler did not want to move to New York City. His wife made him do it.
He would have been perfectly happy to remain in Oklahoma City, occasionally playing and writing with his longtime bandmates in the Fellowship Students and pursuing solo musical projects.
“I came up here because my wife (Jamie Buxton) is a music theater performer, and she said, ‘You know, I absolutely have to go to New York to make my living,'” Siler said in a recent interview from his New York City home. “When my wife told me that she wanted to leave, I absolutely did not want to come here. We fought about it a lot and I eventually relented. I had a lot of fear and anxiety because I've always loved Oklahoma and I loved playing with the Fellowship Students. But once I moved here and kind of lived here for a year and sorta got used to it, I really started to like it.”
Now, five years after the move, Siler is paying the bills as a classical singer, having made his Carnegie Hall debut last year with the American Symphony Orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale. He's also a soloist in the chamber choir Musica Viva of New York, among other gigs.
And he's finally turned his long-held dream of releasing a solo alternative rock album into reality with “Real as Ritual,” recording under the moniker Portraiture. He's supported on this 12-song collection of experimental pop-rock adventures by Fellowship Students members Matthew Alvin Brown (guitar, backing vocals), Jacob Becannen (drums, backing vocals, percussion), Steven Stark (guitar backing vocals) and Mark Vollertsen (piano, Fender Rhodes).
Siler — on lead vocals, electric and string bass, acoustic guitar, synthesizer and percussion — coproduced the album with Trent Bell, who engineered it at his Bell Labs Recording Studio in Norman.
With the exception of the dreamlike instrumentals “Miami Weiss (Part I)” and “Miami Weiss (Part II),” which were written by the Fellowship Students as a group, all songs were written by Siler over the last 10 years, dating to his sophomore year at Oklahoma City University where he pursued a degree in music composition with a minor in vocal performance. First recorded on a four-track machine, the songs served as a safety valve relieving the pressures of “serious” composition.
“I always was in bands before I started going to college for composition,” Siler said. “But I didn't really know when or if it was going to become an album. I just kept doing it. I just kept putting it down onto the four-track and I really liked what I was hearing and I didn't know, I was exposed to so much at the time — 20th century music, experimental stuff and the regular classical stuff — that I didn't know how it was influencing me, but I know somehow it's all in there.”
Over the years, the songs have been performed live in various forms by the Fellowship Students. The polished and perfected versions that make up “Real as Ritual” are characterized by unconventional melody, chord and rhythm structures owing, no doubt, to Siler's classical training, as well as his eclectic pop influences.
He cites Morrissey, Shellac, the Weakerthans and Pavement as his “adolescent influences.”
“When I was a teenager I was just obsessed with the Smiths and Morrissey, but more so, Morrissey was the one that sort of seduced me into the music with his lyrics and his style,” Siler said. “But the person that really changed my life musically was Johnny Marr. The way he plays guitar, the harmony, the textures of harmony and just the sound of his guitar that's so sparkly. I think he's one of my heroes. He's definitely one of my heroes of all time.”
The more modern acts that may have helped shape Siler's sound include Boston-bred Hooray for Earth.
“They combine just these gargantuan melodies with really heavy, growling guitars and almost dance-electronica beats. I don't know, it's just a really fantastical approach that's just really gigantic.
“And there's another band called Jeff the Brotherhood. I love their fuzzy sound and their just no-nonsense approach and just sort of an easygoing rock vibe that I definitely identified with. And some of my older influences crept in, like the Tom Tom Club is a big one, and a lot of people have said they hear similarities between us and XTC.
“So up to the day that it was recorded I was still culling sounds and textures from new bands that I really admire.”
Once the album was completed, Siler had a recording he could play for other musicians in his quest to recruit permanent members for Portraiture. He ended up tapping Oklahoma expatriate and old college roommate Warren Loy for guitar, brother Morgan Loy on drums and guitarist Shawn Bartels, who has also had an international career as an opera singer.
“The vision for the band is just to start out as a solid four-piece that's pretty traditional rock music,” Siler said. “But once we establish ourselves with those fundamentals, I plan on taking us into some more abstract directions, into doing some more crossover stuff with sort of an experimental approach mixed with rock music, dance music, that kind of thing.”
Siler's wife, Jamie Buxton, has done well for herself in the Big Apple, too.
“Yeah, she's had a very successful career in regional theater and when she first moved up here she was cast in the musical ‘Hair' over in Europe,” Siler said. “She was basically based out of Berlin. So, yeah, she stays busy with a lot of music theater projects, and she's a very talented singer and dancer and actor as well.”
Meanwhile, Siler hasn't given up his day jobs.
“And, you know, I'm not wealthy but it's great. I'm making it mostly as a classical singer with some supplemental income coming from playing instrumental stuff. Playing for cabaret shows as a guitarist and doing other projects. Writing and arranging, composing. I still do lots of arrangements for Matt Brown and his Rockademy class back in Oklahoma, and actually this spring I'm going to be doing all the arrangements for Sugar Free Allstars when they play with the Philharmonic.”
But his priority project is now Portraiture.
“Everything is secondary to that and I will continue working in the classical world and I enjoy it very much too,” Siler said. “And Portraiture wouldn't have the kind of sound it did if I weren't influenced by so much of the entire history of music and classical music, strangely enough, is where I've been able to make my living and so I'll continue to do that. It's the best day job there is — besides writing.”