With a New EP and a Forthcoming Album, Dwight + Nicole Are Ready for the Next Step | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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With a New EP and a Forthcoming Album, Dwight + Nicole Are Ready for the Next Step


Published November 3, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson

The wind picked up, ripping through the tall grass and bushes and carrying a hint of the coming winter. Nicole Nelson walked out of the Burlington house she shares with her partner in life and music, Dwight Ritcher, arms loaded with firewood. While she fed the outdoor fireplace, Ritcher and I smiled appreciatively, two shivering Jersey boys in denim jackets. Nelson, in her warm winter coat already, gently chided us both.

"See, I don't even mess around," she said. "If I'm cold, this coat is going on. Denim season is over, boys."

"It was so warm in New York yesterday," Ritcher lamented as he edged closer in his seat to the fire. "I wasn't ready, man."

Nelson flashed her partner an understanding grin and squeezed his arm. "To be fair, we've both lost all sense of time these last two weeks," she explained. "When you go into studio mode, everything else sort of falls out of focus."

The duo, known to the world as neo-soul act Dwight + Nicole, has just finished what Ritcher called "the most intense period of recording of our lives" in Brooklyn with Grammy-nominated producer Joel Hamilton (the Black Keys, Yoko Ono, Mavis Staples). He helmed both their 2018 EP Electric Lights and the just-released EP Further.

Ostensibly, I was at the duo's house to talk about the latter, a five-song collection of bangers, from the head-nodding R&B shuffle "Heart Is Home" to the slow-burn "Time." While Nelson and Ritcher were excited about the new EP, there was no hiding the glee on their faces over the session they'd finished only hours before we met.

Between the two records and a newfound willingness to embrace spontaneity in their career, Dwight + Nicole (formerly punctuated by an ampersand) are eyeing what they think could be their biggest year yet.

"It's hard to describe the feeling we have right now," Ritcher admitted. "Things are just starting to bubble up, like it's building. And I don't even know to what, exactly. But it feels like a lot of energy is gathering."

The two musicians met in Boston and were a fixture on the music scene there in the early 2000s before moving to Vermont and eventually releasing their first record, !Signs, in 2010. Over the years, they've built a reputation as talented and versatile songwriters, as well as one of the best live acts around.

A little over five years ago, they added drummer Ezra Oklan (Matthew Mercury, Francesca Blanchard), creating a powerhouse trio. As the band has expanded, so has its sound, from the rootsy, blues-driven soul of Shine On (2014) to the increasingly rock and pop-styled material on EP Electric Lights (2018).

"We've really felt the growth lately," Nelson said as she settled into an Adirondack chair, flames flickering in her eyes. "I like our old stuff; I'm proud of it. But as you grow, you develop the ability to actually make the sounds that are in your head.

"When I listen to the new stuff," she went on, "I realize that, Holy shit, this is what I've wanted our music to sound like for 18 years!"

To Ritcher, what made the latest studio session so special wasn't so much finding a long sought-after sound as giving in to a sense of trust. Describing himself as "someone who usually works from a place of structure," Ritcher enjoyed being out of his comfort zone. 

"It just kept snowballing," he recounted. "We got down to Studio G and thought we were just going to make another EP, but the session kept yielding incredible stuff. Ezra even said it felt like one of his best sessions of all time, which is saying something."

Oklan confirmed the sentiment a few days later by phone.

"It feels like there's a new direction with the writing," he said. "Joel is an incredible producer, and he's really put this modern sheen on the songs. But Dwight writes with such a retro feel, the combo makes for some killer songs."

Ritcher is aware of the modernity that has crept into what has traditionally been a sound steeped in love for the past. Early Dwight + Nicole records focused strongly on the duo's shared love of classic singers such as Mavis Staples and Etta James. While that influence hasn't waned — just listen to Nelson's soulful vocals of "Into the Shadows" on Further — the band's sound is evolving at a faster pace.

"There's an electronic element to the new LP," Ritcher revealed. "It's a nod to how Nicole and I grew up in New Jersey and New York, listening to KISS-FM and Z100. All those pop songs had electronic drums. We're branching out a bit into modern pop sounds and looking back at the same time."

Retreating from the cold to the warmth of the couple's kitchen, Nelson queued up an early mix of "On Your Way to Go" from the forthcoming record as an example. The song is a taut slice of electro-R&B with a bob-and-weave bass line unlike anything Nelson usually plays on her red Hagstrom bass guitar.

"I love that groove," she said, eyes closed as she listened. "There's so much space."

In the couple's living room is a piano that was a housewarming gift from the previous owner, who is a fan of the band. Ritcher explained that much of the extra material that turned what was supposed to be a new EP into a full-length album came from him messing around on the piano while he and Nelson entertained guests.

"I was just trying to make background music," he admitted.

Ritcher is "always writing," he said, and often records those experiments on his phone. "We weren't expecting Joel to hear them and want to develop the weird ones," he said. "But that's sort of what happened."

Nelson laughed. "Yeah, but your weird little stuff is oddly brilliant!" she enthused.

The process of turning Ritcher's iPhone fragments into actual songs "became a trust exercise," Nelson explained. "If you believe you can make music out of anything, then you can," she said. That realization allowed her to relax and "just trust the music."

"If I could give young Nicole some advice, it would be less planning, less thinking in general," she said.

There might be something to that newly spontaneous approach to making music. The title track from Further was spotlighted in last month's issue of American Songwriter, and Dwight + Nicole recently launched their first featured Spotify playlist. Additionally, earlier this year the Flynn named the couple the organization's first Flynn Fellows, a residency that allows them to work as liaisons between the theater and the greater Burlington community.

"You can feel something happening," Oklan observed, noting how their recent work has sparked the band. "We all speak the same musical language, so I can tell why they're so excited about this new material."

"It's the bubbles again," Ritcher said. "I really wish I could explain it better, but there's a momentum we're trying to grab hold of. We're not really even planning a tour right now, we're just focusing all our energy on this new record and getting ready to properly promote it and maybe get it to a label." Then he added, "We're ready for the next step."

Learn more at dwightandnicole.com. Stream Further and the rest of the band's catalog on Spotify.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Taking It Further"

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