Get To Know Nate Traveller [Interview]

Kieran Kohorst
Sinbad Zaragoza

It helps to try and establish an artist’s priorities throughout an interview – whether it be fame, the acclaim, the art, the fans, etc. There was only one thing on Nate Traveller’s mind when he joined our Zoom conversation – chicken wings, with Primal Kitchen buffalo sauce. “Feeling blessed,” he opens, immediately following it up with, “yo, is it fucked up if I eat chicken wings during this?” He gives a thorough recommendation of the sauce, describing its ingredients (avocado oil, dairy-free) and where to find it (Whole Foods), admirably committed to putting me on. The food in front of him isn’t indicative of his priorities, though. His relentless recommendation is perhaps a good tell of what is most important to him: helping others and looking for genuine connection at every opportunity, even (and maybe especially) when there’s a plate full of drums and flats involved.  

Through vigorous bites at the wings before him, Nate tells me about the celebration he enjoyed with his team just a few nights ago in accordance with the release of his newest project, Trvll W Friends. On Nate’s sober night out, he was joined by mostly the same crew that helped craft the experiences and subsequent music found on the LP. Trvll W Friends is more of a mission statement than an album title – most of the project was recorded while on the road with a close group of producers, collaborators, and friends, who you can hear on scattered verses and interludes throughout the tracks. The touchpoints of their East Coast trip include Blue Ridge, GA and some spots in New York and New Jersey, the collective making sure to invest themselves in the communities they stopped in.

He shares a story about coming upon a chili fest in one fateful city, and already in our short time speaking, I’ve picked up on Nate’s natural affinity for the concept of serendipity. “We walked around, we tried all the chili,” he tells me. “I got gluten poisoning, but it's all good. I was there with the experience and it was delicious. The chilis were amazing. That part of it, like being able to tap in and like, see the wavelengths of where we're going. These different waves of life and also being able to highlight the local businesses that we resonate with…it's all those moments where it's just like, it really is a faithful moment where you come together, you link up and it blows your mind.” This sentiment is written on Nate permanently and literally, encapsulated in ink on his arm. The Chinese language tattoo he sports is representative of “the relationship by fate or destiny, the binding force between two people,” he explains. “You know, I feel like that's always a sign you're on the right path: when you're getting your mind blown.” 

These beyond-coincidence occasions have resulted in some of the most fully-realized tracks of Nate’s recording catalog, uniting for supreme effect on Trvll W Friends. The secret to its genuineness? Full immersion and fearless intentions. “For the most part it was all in this last year…all the songs were made traveling, written and everything,” Nate says, giving specific landmarks for certain tracks where his physical location influenced his melodic direction. “Dead Asleep” came together in Colorado while “Myself Again” originated in Los Angeles, and a number of tracks can be traced back to Nate’s time working with Silk Beats in New York. While imbedding himself into the local scene was essential for Nate, it meant he wouldn’t always be comfortable. He learned to embrace the challenges of a new sound. “The producers bring the best out of me,” he admits. “I tell them like, ‘yo, let's take it to new spaces. Let's do this.’ I always just flow with the production; I'll never be boxed in. Like if someone gives me a hard ass beat and I feel called to it, I'm gonna hit it no matter what it is. And I'm gonna figure out how to fit.”

The box he is fitting himself into lacks the kind of hard and sharp edges most artists find themselves in, and that’s something Nate is looking forward to sharing with fans on his next release. “There's gonna be a lot on this next project I'm working on right now. It's going to be more exploration. People are going to be like, ‘oh, damn’…I've been cutting like Sinatra-type records, bro.” Eager to share his new experimentation, he graciously forwards the track to me. Nate Sinatra is more than a well-conceived adopted identity, it's a reality fans should be preparing for.

But I feel like I just got so tired of hearing the talking down, you know what I'm saying? And so I just really knew, with my music, I want to push up.” 

While low-register piano ballads aren’t typical of what we’ve come to expect from Nate Traveller, nothing much about his sound has been conformative. His cited influences are wide-ranging, with mentions of The Fray, Flatbush Zombies, Pro Era, and The Underachievers intertwining with his southwest Florida roots. There’s traces of alternative music, pop, hip-hop, and R&B in his music, all genres displayed in varying proportions across his songs. His particular sound can be hard to pin down, but there’s one term Nate has developed that feels fitting: Medicine Pop. “My pops, he told me like, you know what, your music is like medicine, bro. He's like, ‘medicine pop…that should be your genre.’ I really resonate with that cause that's my goal, you know. I want it to be sonically pleasing. I want to hit all those spots sonically, but I also want it to be very medicinal. I want there to be utility to my music. I want it to be useful in a way that goes into the shadow aspect of ourselves as humans, and maybe make someone feel more seen and help them understand. Express something that maybe they felt and they don't know how to articulate it.”

This is a common goal for most artists – to identify a listener’s pain with their lyrics, to pick at hurtful memories like a scab to build a deeper, more permanent connection; to associate themselves through shared pain. While Nate Traveller looks to find the same relation to his listeners, his intention is to facilitate healing, to bring not just relation but understanding. Sometimes that involves “going into those crevices of ourselves where maybe we don't want to be seen or we don't want that part to be open to the world, but still touching on it and being like, ‘hey, this is a human experience, (an) authentic human experience, and we're here to express it.’” The way Nate tells it, his purpose to uplift others comes from his own observations as a music fan. He speaks about how in his formative listening years, “there was a lot of cutting up and punching down on the listener and it still happens a lot in music.” This practice is especially prevalent in hip-hop, a genre that Nate takes obvious influence from. “Hip-hop saved my life. Hip-hop has been such a genre of growth and accountability for me because of the way it cuts up. Like, a good rapper will really put you in perspective and put you in check in a way. But I feel like I just got so tired of hearing the talking down, you know what I'm saying? And so I just really knew, with my music, I want to push up.” 

For Nate to continue on this mission, it’s best to stay on the path he’s established for himself. He understands this as well – he plans on making Trvll W Friends an ongoing series, going beyond the sonic and geographical boundaries he’s held so far. “I wanna get out next time,” he tells me excitedly. “Eventually we'll do it outside the country, too.” Some scenes he has his sights on include a B&B in Albuquerque, New Mexico and a ski resort in Colorado. Despite my caution of skiing due to the numerous injuries reported to me by friends, Nate characteristically showed no fear, just awareness of his capabilities. “I feel like I've been pretty athletic all my life, but I don't know,” he says with a laugh. “I'm going to be on the bunny hill, dude. I'm a tiny man, bro. I might end up flying down those hills, you know.” In the face of danger, Nate is willing to sacrifice for the benefit of growth. “Every time I want us to be like breaking out of our shells too and trying new things, you know. Like I want it to be a full on experience like that.” 

His tone changes as the conversation shifts to a more humbling topic: Nate’s 2020 diagnosis of Hyperacusis, a condition that reduces his tolerance to noise. He had been mostly chipper and effervescent in our interaction before, but now he takes more time between his words, staring in different directions in search of the right phrases. He gives me a nearly complete timeline of his diagnosis, from the morning he woke up and felt like his ears “could almost break” to the divine intervention he found in plant-based medicine. The purgatory between these events was filled with wrong answers from specialists, leading Nate to online forums that he hoped would uplift his spirits and provide an encouraging community of peers. Instead, he found nothing but pessimism from the few who shared this rare condition with him. “It (was) really depressing,” Nate says of the posts around the forum. “They're like, ‘damn, I've had it for four years; sometimes I feel like I just can't go on anymore…some people are really feeling defeated about it.”

The incurable nature of Hyperacusis can lead many of those diagnosed with it to depression and social isolation, which is exactly what Nate’s doctors looked to treat him for after his diagnosis. When his audiologist recommended antidepressants, Nate cried in his office, beginning to feel the weight of Hyperacusis. He declined the medication but left with a new awareness of the stimulus his ears could take. Talking with others on the phone can hurt his ears due to the frequencies required; if he’s at a restaurant and glasses are clinking for a toast, it can register intensely for Nate. There are times he submits himself to a “sound fast,” and being away from noise can help him build up a tolerance to re-engage socially. “There's so much suffering in that experience,” he admits, honest but not surrendered. “But it's so beautiful,” he immediately continues, “and it's fruitful. There's so much perspective that you get from it.” He committed to continuing music, recording his 2022 LP Born Erased afterward while growing his understanding of the world around him. 

Instead of cowering or sheltering himself from the harsh realities of living with Hyperacusis, Nate Traveller has embraced his role as an advocate for all struggling with ear health, and has pointed advice for those unconcerned with threats to their hearing. “If you want to hear the leaves in the trees in the wind when you’re 80 years old or you want to hear your kid cry, you’ve got to take care of your ears,” he warns with care. “I thought I was invincible,” he says of blasting music in his headphones, ignoring his dad’s advice to mind the volume. “Don’t go overboard because it's always going to bite you in the ass. But we do that as humans. I’m so extra – I’m going to be overboard for the rest of my life. So my process is to refine the best I can, but it’s definitely the school of hard knocks.”

The consequences of Hyperacusis on Nate are heightened due to his chosen career as a musician, and he’s come to grips with the fact that there are some aspects of his career he won’t be able to achieve. He doesn’t see himself as a touring artist, as it would be too much of a detriment to his ears. While his perspective has taken the shape of a realist, he does save some room for optimism: he was able to perform a show with one of his friends and collaborators BUNT., offering some hope of occasional live showings for Nate. Chinese medicine has also been a revelation for dealing with the effects of his Hyperacusis, and there’s a possibility of the condition subsiding later in life. “(My acupuncturist) told me that a lot of times it'll come and go, and she believes that it's not going to be with me forever,” Nate says with bated breaths, cautious as if he dables in superstition. But there’s not much reason to believe in these karmic ironies when you have the kind of faith in fate Nate Traveller exudes. “She feels like it's just here, like serving a purpose. And, you know, I hope so. But I'm also not getting lost in that. If this is what it is, I'm a rock this way. And I'm gonna be grateful for what I still do have.” 

Moving forward, the conversation was much more grounded, an eye-level appreciation reached between the two of us that made it clear to me how Nate endears himself to fans. He lectures on the music industry and the concentrated nucleus of labels and streaming services, vocalizing his confidence that he can overcome the mafia-like ties because of the support he has and the support he projects. “Never take God out of the equation,” he tells me when discussing the relationships he’s made through music and the impact his songs have had on listeners. When mentioning his work with BUNT., Nate doles out the most candid compliment I’ve ever come across: “BUNT. is such a sweet guy bro…like, you can see his mom in his face.” He muses on the idea of songs living lives of their own, referencing Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” as an example of a song “transforming and taking a whole new form.” His collaboration with BUNT. on 2023 release “Clouds” placed Nate in a position where he was looked favorably upon by the powers-that-be in the industry, his streaming numbers skyrocketing and fanbase multiplying. The sudden success hasn’t seemed to derail his approach whatsoever – “Always just understand that this higher power could just come in and blow your mind in the best way possible. You know what I'm saying? And never write that off or count that out.”

While his career actively unfolds in front of him, he still has goals he hopes of achieving sooner rather than later, including becoming a more visible advocate for ear health. “I would love to get endorsed by Eargasm. I would love to be pushed more in the forefront, I would love to be on a commercial,” Nates expresses passionately, his enthusiasm for the cause overwhelming any doubts of insincerity. In regards to his music, Nate would like to curate an official Medicine Pop playlist on a streaming service, highlighting the voices who provide the same spiritual cures as he does. Finally, we decide to begin a movement to nationalize Nate Traveller Day, an occasion created by his father: “Every Friday is Nate Traveller Day,” Nate shares, brimming with pride. “He plays my music for all his work friends.” As the Zoom window closes and I scroll the market for Primal Kitchen buffalo sauce, I take a moment to consider the nuanced but abrupt impact of Nate Traveller that has already taken place. While my instinct is to attribute our connection to good fortune, I’m only reminded of Nate’s strict no-accident attitude. “When the magnets come together, it's always for a reason, you know?” he assured me early in the interview. “It's always for a purpose.” Given his fateful journey to becoming a voice for millions to hold on to, it's hard to cast any doubts.

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