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Nabil Ayers is President of Beggars Group US and an author with bylines in The New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and GQ. His new memoir, My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family, details much of his life in the world of music, including his first encounter with his father, the musician Roy Ayers. Nabil is currently on tour with the book.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I was fascinated with music at an early age, and by the time I was 5, I recognized that some albums had the same label logos. Obviously I didn’t understand what that meant, but I noticed some kind of connection. Whenever I played in bands as a kid, I also taped our rehearsals and sold cassette copies at school. I didn’t realize that I was already in the music business at the time. I was a DJ at my college radio station, and interned at PollyGram Group Distribution in Seattle at the same time.
After college I worked at Easy Street Records in Seattle, while also playing drums in a band called the Lemons, who signed with Mercury Records when I was 23. I learned a ton in that band—from the label, our lawyer, our manager. I opened Sonic Boom Records in Seattle in 1997 with my business partner (the store celebrates 25 years this fall, we sold it to a customer in 2016). While running the record store, I continued to play in touring bands and started releasing music by artists I loved on a label I called The Control Group starting in 2002. It was always my band, the store, and my label (in that order) until 2008, when I moved to NYC to focus full time on The Control Group. That decision naturally led me to falling into an amazing job as the GM at 4AD US for 13 years. Now I’m the President of Beggars US in the same office, but working with all of the Beggars labels.
Can you please briefly describe the book?
It’s a memoir in which I cover a lot of ground—my mother deliberately got pregnant with me when she was 21, with my father’s consent, knowing he wouldn’t be in the picture; my life growing up as a bi-racial child in both very diverse and very homogeneous communities, and my life surrounded by the music by my father, Roy Ayers, whom I’ve never known. It’s chronological, and music is the thread that ties it all together—whether it’s me buying my first album when I was 5; or playing my first show with a band in front of 6,000 people in Seattle in the early ’90s; or getting to present a platinum record award to Pixies backstage at Madison Square Garden. Mostly, it’s about my father’s influence over me despite his non-existence in my life.
How did you come to write this book?
I started writing a lot of short pieces for no apparent reason other than that I felt like I needed to do it, not for anyone other than myself. I liked some of what I wrote, so I started to shape some pieces into pitchable 1500-word personal essays, and cold emailing editors at outlets with the goal of getting published. It worked, and I got better at it (both writing and pitching). I landed pieces in the New York Times and GQ, and soon I was writing a lot more, and realized that when I wrote about my childhood and my father, the pieces were much longer, and didn’t really fit that short personal essay format. Soon I had many of the pieces of a larger thing and I realized it could be a book, so I started working on it in that context. I don’t think I could have sat down and said, “I’m going to write a 300 page book.” I had to do a lot of the work and surprise myself by already having a head start.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
It was pretty fascinating to me because I’m in the music business, and the publishing world is somewhat (but not completely) similar. I didn’t know any agents or authors, so I started googling and wrote a book proposal based upon what I found online—a short synopsis, a bio, and a couple of chapters. Luckily I had a few friends who knew some agents and they put me in touch. Almost everyone I spoke to was interested, and I started to work with the agent who I liked the most, and also the only one who also read my entire manuscript, not just the proposal. She shaped my proposal and sent it to a small group of editors she thought would be interested, and I ended up selling the book (that’s the term) to Viking. It was quick and not terribly stressful, and proved to be a great decision (both the agent and the editor).
How did you go about writing the actual book?
Before I knew it was a book, I started writing about my father and the handful of times I could remember meeting him. When I ran out of those stories, I wrote about the times my mother and uncle told me I met him, but that I don’t remember. Then, finally, I wrote about the many times I’ve heard my father’s music and how it’s made me feel—it’s my version of running into him.
Once I had all of those stories - some were many pages, others were just a few paragraphs—I realized that if I could create a through line and put it all together, I might be able to write a book. The next thing I did was spend a lot of time interviewing my mother, learning about her mindset as a 21-year-old who chose to be a young, single mother. Writing about my bands, record stores and label work was fun and not terribly difficult.
The hard stuff was about my father and all of the feelings that are tied up in that process. The most important thing was writing knowing that I had the control to make sure nobody saw what I was writing if I didn’t want them to. That allowed me to take more risks, and say things I never would have said if I thought people might see it. A lot of that ended up in the book
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
Writing about my job at 4AD was pretty easy because it was so current… so much so that the first draft didn’t have very much of that material at all. My editor asked me to include more, and it came out pretty quickly and easily.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
It’s a very slow process. I was probably about 2 years in when I sold the book, and that was over 2 years ago. I felt impatient for a lot of that time—even though I knew we were on a specific timeline and things weren’t getting pushed back. But in restrospect, a lot happened during that time that changed the book. And having the time to really sit with it—and take a few months away from it—really allowed me to get deeper in and make it better.
What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?
I think the best music books are about much more than music—they’re stories about people and lives with music as an element. I often have to defend how much I love the David Lee Roth book Crazy From The Heat, but the way he talks about his early life as a Jewish kid in Indiana, and visiting his uncle’s club in the Village—it’s just a great story and very well-told. The Van Halen bits are also great, of course.
What’s next for you?
I start a book tour on June 7! Can’t wait to go to different places and talk with different conversation partners. It’ll be like touring in a band, but without any other members to be late or outnumber me on dining decisions.
Anything you want to plug?
Bartees Strange’s new album Farm To Table, out June 17 on 4AD!
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