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Diary of a Secular Superhero with Medium Build

Writing by Erandhi Mendis // Photography by Tyler Krippaehne

The rise and rise of diaristic songwriting has quietly gone hand in hand with the resurgence of mainstream country music. In the wake of an Americana-folk revival, if you open TikTok or turn on Top 40 radio – you’re likely to hear a Zach Bryan song, Beyonce’s Jolene or a bedroom pop cover of a Noah Kahan track.

Much like the re-emergence of ambient EDM music during the pandemic, country music’s 2024 moment suggests a desperate craving for stripped back honesty. As with all trending instances, there are artists who have worked in the wings only to arrive in public consciousness right on time: Medium Build has been quietly toiling away at a craft that feels foreordained.

Born Nick Carpenter, the Alaska based singer-songwriter has the kind of voice that makes it seem as though you can hear pain and feel sound.

I chat to Nick while he is driving. It feels fitting as I’ve listened to a lot of his record in my own car – for the past few weeks he has been my most consistent passenger.

“Are you in Melbourne?” he enquires immediately. We are trapped between timezones and datelines, something I quickly learn is deeply entrenched in who Nick is. Nothing about our chat feels like a press junket, and propped up against his gear shift I feel like I’m on facetime with a friend.

“One fried potato has like 10 different names,” he says casually. Out of context it seems silly, but he is waxing lyrical to me about his bottomless fixation on detail and landscape. “[Growing up] I just realised wherever you go, everything kind of looks a little different and people say things differently. I think it’s my best way of contextualising – I want to know how many churches are around, what the food’s like.”

This quirk is obvious throughout Carpenters work, not least of all on his debut album – aptly titled Country. Despite the expansive sound, the themes of Country feel small town and personal. A queer mid-west love story. About escaping things you love that hold you in place. Adoration for self and others – reckoning with mistakes, flaw and the yawning hollow of being human. Littered through the record are references to local watering holes I got a long neck down at the Blue Lagoon // I know you like them daiquiris here” or street names, corner of Glendale and Montana // when how much I love you reaches up and hits me in the mouth.” It’s not a new technique by any stretch but Carpenter’s delivery feels particularly intimate.

This magnified vulnerability on Country is a masterclass in diaristic songwriting. Someone once said to me that the best lyrics are the ones that make you feel a little uncomfortable to write. I’d go a step further and say that the best lyrics are the ones that make your listeners feel uncomfortable – as though I am reading something that I shouldn’t have access to.

In many ways, Carpenter is doing this with me over the phone. There is nothing media trained about the way we are speaking – he is as real as they come and it’s refreshing to speak with someone in the industry who is so open.

“I think I naturally give a lot away. I was the kind of kid in high school who was friends with everybody – not really belonging to one group. I was super Christian and really involved in my church too, which to be honest, I think there was literally a part of me being like I’m being nice to everyone cause that’s what Jesus did or whatever. Which is great, but I’ve also had to learn boundaries because not everybody deserves all of me.”

There is a thread of religious fervour throughout Country, though not in an overt Lauren Daigle way – instead it’s the delivery and production that imitates a rousing, contemporary pulpit that harkens Gang of Youths and Joy Olakudon in equal parts.

“It’s informed the way I make music so much. So so much,” he tells me. “My church was way smaller than [Hillsong/Megachurches] but we had bougie [musical] aspirations. We got our hands dirty and never really strived for perfection simply because we couldn’t afford it – and you know, it was all for God, so he’s not going to be mad with the imperfections? I think learning as a kid that even if I can’t play guitar very well, I can’t sing perfectly – at least I can really deliver the lines with intention or praise. So at an early age I learned how to really give a performance and focus on the feeling. I did that for like 10 years and then eventually lost my faith but I realised, hey – I can just go do this in bars now.”

It’s the kind of musical origin story that is both common and romantic. Boy finds God, boy becomes disillusioned by God, boy finds open mic bar. The overlap between religion and music is storied but Carpenter’s venn diagram blossomed within the communal aspect.

“I still love the group thing. I love the energy exchange. As a kid I wasn’t going to concerts but it was still 200 people in an auditorium – or even if it was like bible study at someone’s house; everyone just singing together. I realised it was the music that I loved. When I zoom out I realise even today I’m just giving secular worship leader youth group guy trying to encourage people in the crowd to scream.”

They don’t call the Ryman Auditorium “Mother Church,” for no reason – experiencing music in a collective setting is particularly formative regardless of your belief systems. The sense of belonging and sharing is so heightened and cathartic that often it can only be likened to a spiritual experience.

“I know that if I’m in a bad way that I will generally feel better if I play some music and scream or sing a little. Performing, I try to show up with the ambition of being present and using that experience to try learn some shit too. It kind of preserves the spiritual side of it.”

I joke that performing as Medium Build is a proper devotional practice which he laughs at – “devotion is such a churchy term man, but yeah – it is.”

Having only spoken to Carpenter through a crunchy phone line, there are a lot of things about him and his artist project that feel steeped in faith. The work feels deeply intentional and the lyrics often capture a sense of unbridled devotion – to self or others. It’s most noticeable on the love songs within his debut; he sings about love without ownership.

“I love that lens because I think I used to write a lot of more bitter, sort of possessive love tunes and I got so tired of doing them live. I sort of had to check myself, like I don’t want to be some dude in his early 30s being like ‘you didn’t do what? But you promised!’ – I was like damn I need to let go of expectations for people and grow up a bit.”

He tells me the love songs still feel corny to sing sometimes, but that they’re sweet. I counter that it’s possible he has achieved enough cringe that it’s authentic.

For Carpenter, being genuine is entrenched in his quest for being understood. The complex balance between wanting to share and the resistance to be perceived. It’s a human paradox that being known helps us affirm our existence all the while craving the sanctity of solitude – in an age of connectivity, there is as much longing for self-actualisation as there is fear of it.

On Country, Carpenter digs into this on his track “Known By None.”

“To actually want to be known is like – quality time, safety, trust. It’s not cool, not sexy, I just want people to see me, understand me, right? That’s why I write songs, I want people to understand my little gooey lame core. That kid who could sit anywhere in school, who is he friends with? Who does he trust? Now that I’m older and more people want my attention I do have to think more about who I trust.”

With the rise of Medium Build in the past 12 months there is however an implicit level of trust that Carpenter has developed with his fan base.

“I think people know Medium Build now. But all those fans just used to be people that I was friends with and now that list has grown and people will find me on YouTube or whatever.”

While he speaks about this with gratitude he doesn’t shy away from the themes on the album that suggest fame is as much a sacrifice as it is a blessing.

“The number of people who know me – Nick – that list has gotten smaller. I’m still kind of sad about that but you do get to choose who you give your deepest core to. You know, I grew up with people who overshare and I do get pretty deep in the songs and online so that’s still an active choice.”

If we abandon the pursuit of being known, then what? It is his answer to this question that frames everything I know about Carpenter. He is somewhat antithetical to so many artist tropes but I think that is what engenders his success.

“I just want to be content. Happy, healthy – I mean obviously those are moving targets but like, content with the people I spend my time with and proud of the things I say. Being okay with money or food I have on the table. I want to spend more time outside. I’d rather be more in touch with the little things or like the big real life moments than the minutiae. I just want to be OK, man.”

Eventually this is the message of Country. To venture through discomfort, uncompromising on candour only to come out the other end at peace. In that way it’s a 36 minute microcosm of what many of us are striving towards. I think about this later after Nick and I hang up and I return to my car with his album on loop. It’s not a coincidence that in a landscape marked by unprecedented social and political upheaval that the resonance of diaristic songwriting stands as an island of escapism. The counterbalance to curated perfection has obviously made its mark over the past 5 years in mainstream music – timed bittersweetly with a period of history characterised by isolation.

Carpenter knows this, through Country he acknowledges that the quest for vulnerability is lifelong.

“I think people feel so much shit they don’t say. I think that’s a universal thing, everyone feels something they don’t feel safe saying. We’re quite performative online which I think makes the journaling/diary shit feel almost like you’re watching a superhero. Like, if I can watch Phoebe dob on herself then maybe I can fess up too.”

You can keep up with Medium Build on Instagram and stream his debut below.

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