The 1974 thriller Chinatown, a film-noir homage set in 1930s Los Angeles, proved as influential to Nick Waterhouse as any music when he was a teenager. “The thing about those stories, for me, was about the atmosphere,” says Waterhouse, now 28, who also gravitated to French New Wave cinema and the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. “It wasn’t about who killed the girl. It was about what killed the girl.”
You can sense that atmosphere in Waterhouse’s second album, Holly, dedicated to Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne. Out March 4, it’s a sort of musical novella that reflects Waterhouse’s own L.A. environs. “Holly’s like a Madame Bovary of Echo Park,” the singer/guitarist says of his mysterious protagonist. In turn, he taps cinematic minimalism from early R&B, jazz and blues influences rather than the snappy soul that anchors the Dap-Kings, Fitz & the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne.
“I don’t really understand the whole retro-soul thing,” says Waterhouse, who acknowledges that people have mistaken him for fellow L.A. denizen Hawthorne. “I guess we both just have baby faces and wear glasses. But again, it’s the details. I like to think I have a little less H&M in my wardrobe and a little more Brooks Brothers.”
The Huntington Beach native plucked his musical trappings not so much from Orange County, where he played on the psych-garage scene with Ty Segall, but from San Francisco, where he studied literature in college and became a DJ. He broadened his tastes during an apprenticeship at Rooky Ricardo’s, a vinyl-record shop where he worked amid collectors of vintage soul and blues, girl groups and garage rock, experiencing the equivalent of a literary salon. “You don’t get the community feel as much [today],” he says, lamenting the downside of the Internet age. “You just get this kind of data dump.”
In turn, many people display a one-dimensional view of soul and R&B, Waterhouse says. “It’s funny how many reviews I’ve heard say, ‘This guy’s doing like a Motown thing,’ and to a guy who listens to Arcade Fire, I’m sure it sounds like Motown. But there’s a rich series of tributaries in mid-century music on 45s.”
For his part, Waterhouse emulated R&B guitarists like Lowman Pauling of the 5 Royales as well as primal blues players to hone his spectral twang and clipped rhythms. “It’s like the Steve Cropper feel, where six notes communicate a lot more than a Stevie Ray Vaughan lead,” he says. “It’s putting the groove of the song above all else, even your lead playing, or feeling like you’re skating on top of it. A lot of surf [rockers] play like that, but I’m equally influenced by Otis Rush or Ike Turner.”
As for vocal influences, Waterhouse acknowledges Van Morrison, Ray Charles and Mose Allison, even covering Allison’s “Let It Come Down” on Holly. “[Mose] existed in this sweet spot of intellect and earthiness and blues and jazz and some American folk sensibilities,” he says.
“I was always a reluctant singer,” adds Waterhouse, who favors cool, emotive intonation over striving for high notes. “That was something else that Mose made me feel OK about. At the time I discovered him, I was listening to so many heavy black voices that were really just outstanding, and I was feeling bad that I had a very limited range. He helped me re-evaluate.”
Waterhouse compensates with style, feel and attitude, surging in the new album’s jumpy advance single “This Is a Game,” which rocks with brawny sax pumps and a Doors-y keyboard break.
He likes to get his band “to where it feels airtight and then let it relax like 10 percent,” Waterhouse says, and he plans to bring a seven-piece combo including backup singers to the Brighton Music Hall on Feb. 25.
Waterhouse recalls his 2012 Boston debut at nearby Great Scott, saying, “People were wild, man.” But don’t expect a scene as wild as the noir-ish video for “This Is a Game,” where the singer/guitarist gets rolled by thugs outside the club for coming on to a kingpin’s girlfriend. As Waterhouse says, “We can’t get beaten up and kiss people every night.”
Nick Waterhouse plays the Brighton Music Hall on Feb. 25.