Ethan Slater and Nick Blaemire have done a lot of things together, but their new project Edge of the World might be their best work yet. The concept album, which releases this Friday, is a musical they’ve co-written that tracks a father and son who move to rural Alaska, and the son’s journey as he adjusts to his new surroundings and the circumstances that brought them there.
Before the record drops Nick and Ethan spoke to me about why their creative partnership works so well for both of them, the themes and process behind Edge of the World, and how they found the perfect tone for this record that is both an adventure and a love letter to those you love most. Learn more about them and their upcoming project in our interview.
“Working with Nick is amazing for a million reasons, but one of them is that he is incredibly generous and also not precious as a collaborator, which is a really amazing combination as a friend, but also as an artistic collaborator,” Ethan explained. “He throws a lot of ideas out there. He takes in all of the ideas that I’m throwing out there, which are often too many. But then as we go down the line, if something happens in a sense rubbing the wrong way, he’s so willing to discard without any ego. And I think that makes for a really great process in addition to a great product.”
“I appreciate that immensely and reciprocate that immensely, which is why I think we’ve been able to work together for so long,” Nick concurred. “We met doing workshops of SpongeBob, which was actor to actor, but it was very clear very quick that we had similar senses of humor and similar just sort of vibes. And it’s an amazing thing to find collaborators, because it is a trust fall. Especially when you’re letting somebody into something that you’re making, you’re sort of saying ‘Do you think I’m good enough?’ It’s a vulnerable place to be.
“And so I really feel very grateful that Ethan is as open and cool as he is as both a friend and an actor and a writer, because we’ve had to navigate a lot of, okay, so Ethan’s going to sing on this album. And I’m going to tell him that I think this take is better than this take,” he added. “Everything we say to each other is through this just fundamental respect. That has been such an easy sort of truth for me. And I’m glad to hear, Ethan, that it’s been good for you too.”
Audiences still have plenty of fond memories of Ethan and Nick’s performances in SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical, where they portrayed SpongeBob and Sheldon respectively during the production’s Chicago run. Ethan would go on to earn a Tony nomination for his role. So when they’re sitting down to write for actors on a project like Edge of the World, does their expertise as performers help them craft the material?
“Absolutely. I actually think that I became a writer a little bit out of my frustration,” Nick told me. “Being an actor has a bit of a cap to the collaborative process. Sometimes it can be really wonderful and freeing to be in somebody else’s machine and help them realize their vision. That can be a really powerful thing and I do love that, but sometimes I would be involved in something, especially a piece of new work, and feel like oh, this would work better if X, Y, or Z. But I don’t want to be a jerk and stick my nose where it doesn’t belong if that kind of collaboration is not what that team is looking for. So I just decided I’ll start writing my own stuff.
“Suddenly you get a chance to create a roadmap for another actor that is hopefully trustworthy. And it is a really fun thing,” he enthused. “We got to work with Norbert Leo Butz on this album. He’s a hero of ours, and he has a really high bar in our brain that we wanted to clear dramatically and musically. It was a bit of a fingers crossed moment when we sent him the stuff. Is he going to like this? Is this going to pass the Norbert Leo Butz test of quality? And then he’s filtering it through his brain and his BS-ometer.
“The fact that he made it to the album either means that we’re in a lawsuit that we’re not telling you about,” he joked, “or that we were able to find common ground in the way we made something. And I think us being actors definitely contributes to the way that we are able to do that.”
Though Edge of the World is not an autobiographical musical, Ethan has been open about how the project is personal to him, which added another layer to the creative process. What was it like for him emotionally to be willing and able to put so much of himself into the album fans are about to hear?
“It does feel really vulnerable. It’s why it’s really amazing to have collaborators that you trust, that are sort of taking care of that vulnerability in little ways, because there’s a real self-consciousness when you’re writing,” he said. “You put something out there and you’re like this means something to me, but does it actually mean anything? When other people interpret it, does my intent come through? So to have a collaborator who is both looking for the intent and the impact and seeing and doing that with care is so important when it’s something that’s this vulnerable.
“But I also think that that ties in a little bit to us both being actors and performers in addition to writers. All of these characters in this show that we wrote are people with whom we empathize, people that we love and we really care about. These are characters that we would want to play if they were ever the right kind of role for us. You approach it knowing that an actor is going to take this on and so you want to do right by the actor who’s going to take it on. And I think that means approaching the characters and the stories with true love in each one.”
Of course, when going to such emotionally intense places in any project on stage or in an album, there’s a certain balancing act that Edge of the World pulls off flawlessly. It’s the fine line between reaching for these honest and emotional moments, but also keeping the material engaging and lifting the audience up rather than bringing them down. This is a record that creates hope, and Nick explained how they struck the right tone.
“You can’t just deliver broccoli to an audience and say eat it because I told you to,” he told me. “There’s certainly things—I remember seeing Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory which, it was a really, really dark show. It almost didn’t care that I wasn’t entertained, but it did have this really interesting package that was put in. The set was incredible. There was a really interesting way that the production gave visual and movement to the themes and showed them rather than relying on the script to tell me how to feel. And it was a big kind of eye-opening moment for me. The way that you get people to deal with or accept or connect to your themes is to create a tone that is attractive and entertaining. It’s got to be entertainment on some level.
“[We’re] making a concept album that we want you to rock out to in your car or camp to or want to see live and project images from your own mind on to these songs. I think a huge help for us with this show was the idea of imagining Alaska and the expanse of this place. And maybe as you imagine it, you start to wonder why you’re imagining it and how it relates to what’s happening in the songs. But there is this sort of shiny object to look at that takes away the heaviness until it drops. Every show sort of has that moment when it all comes together and you realize why the tone was X and the story was Y. It equals Z eventually, hopefully.”
Aside from the story that unfolds in Edge of the World, there’s a story behind the making of the album, too. It’s no small feat to gather a talented cast led by Ethan, Nick, the aforementioned Norbert Leo Butz and Lilli Cooper, plus the musicians and crew to actually produce said record. How did these two pull everyone together and what did it take to get the record across the finish line?
“The process of pulling the group together had a lot to do with the fact that we were making this during a pandemic,” Ethan recalled. “Lilli is a really good friend of ours. Norbert is a hero of ours. We reached out to Norbert. Honestly, while writing these songs, there was always a little bit of us that was like ‘You know who would be great singing this? You know who’d be so good at this role?’ And when I say a little bit, I mean a pretty big bit. The fact that he was so into it and became a part of it was such a great honor and a boon to the show, to the album.
“But pulling it together, we were doing it in a pandemic, we were recording remotely. There was a lot of it that was like, necessity is the mother of invention. It’ll be the most streamlined and the most live and organic feeling if I’m playing guitar on the album and I’m singing and Nick is singing and we’re finding the ways to make it happen from all different parts of the continent. That was a pretty unique part of this experience. It wasn’t everybody get into a room, but it needed to feel like everybody get into a room, which meant keeping it sort of small and intimate and using Zoom as best as we could.”
“We haven’t even met Norbert in person yet,” Nick laughed. “I did a reading with Norbert a year before we asked him to do this. I was in the room with him for five days, but we barely talked. He was doing My Fair Lady at the time and was exhausted doing double duty. When we signed with Broadway Records, who are releasing the album, we told [Broadway Records president Van Dean] our dream Henry is Norbert. He was like oh, we did Norbert’s live album. We will get in touch with him for you and maybe you can talk to the guy who produced that live album, Aaron Ankrum, who I also have never met. Ethan met him this summer, but he lives in Minneapolis.
“So it’s the thing that we all know is true about this pandemic. There’s so much to be sad about, there’s so much that we’ve lost, and that is sort of immeasurable. And then there is also this sort of strange serendipity that has come from it…Ethan was living in L.A., I was in Brooklyn, Lilli was in Harlem. We had musicians all over the country. But suddenly we’re all able to be in the same virtual room. And making an album about togetherness and trying to create a really alive feeling thing, which I think we accomplished,” he continued. “To be able to do that through the internet is both sort of backwards, but as Ethan said, necessity is the mother of invention, and that can often bring you closer to something then you maybe would have been if it was just another recording to do at Power Station in New York for one day. This became a real long-form project for us all to do that got us through this pandemic in a lot of ways.”
Now audiences are finally going to get to hear the finished product for themselves at the end of this week. So what would Nick and Ethan consider their favorite Edge of the World tracks? What should audiences really keep an ear open for?
“I would love to just shout out a song that I think is a really superlative piece of songwriting and also is like Norbert’s pièce de résistance, vocally and acting-wise, called ‘Rocks and Things.’ It’s track six. I had no part in writing it. Maybe I helped organize some choruses, we did some rearranging, but I remember hearing that song and that was the thing that really sold me on working on this. There is a question and something that this character is trying to reconcile that is so fertile and so theater-worthy and story-worthy. I think I said to Ethan early on, how do we do justice to this song? How do we raise everything to meet this song?
“I think we’ve done yeoman’s work to do that, but I still think that song lives in this kind of rarefied place, where it’s the one that you remember when you leave the theater, where the lights all coalesce in that perfect moment and the audience explodes. And it’s not the 11 o’clock number, which is also really interesting. It’s sort of the moment where the show takes a turn and becomes something else.”
“It feels pretty unoriginal for me to say the same thing,” Ethan commented, “but one of the other things was we had Norbert do a mic test on it…He sends us him singing the song, just a piece of the song, and we’re listening to it. Aaron in Minneapolis, I’m on the West Coast, Nick is in New York and we’re all sitting at our respective computers with our headphones on like oh, this is going to work. This whole remote recording experience, this whole whatever it is, this making art right now, it’s going to work and it’s going to be amazing. So that song means a lot to me in the show. It also means a lot to me in the context of the album and the process of making the album.
“Another song I’m really excited about is ‘Olivia’s Song,'” he added. “For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is how amazing Lilli Cooper is. She brought so much to the song, not only in performance but as an artist slash friend slash human slash collaborator, and I love the track so much.”
Is there anything they want to say to audiences as they dive into the new album?
“Shout out to our band—Mike Dobson, Marco Paguia, Christian Ankrum, Ethan Slater, and Aaron. Aaron played horns, strings, keys, percussion,” Nick said. “We’re really excited to share it with you. Especially going into the fall, it’s going to be a great fall album, when the foliage is changing. Hopefully it makes you appreciate the trees around you a little more and hold your family tight, hold your friends tight. And thanks for listening.”
“Nick said something really briefly that I want to pull out again, which is you could listen to while camping, which sounds pretty random and weird,” Ethan concluded. “But if you have the opportunity to experience this album while just sitting under some trees, that’s one of the many ways that we think it can be experienced. And what Nick just said, thank you for listening. We hope you enjoy it.”
Edge of the World releases Friday, August 6 on iTunes, Apple Music and other digital music platforms.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.