Nicholas Megalis isn't like most 20-year-olds. He isn't on Facebook, he doesn't have a driver's license, he hasn't been to college and he's never had a crappy job.
The singer-songwriter isn't like most local artists either. He doesn't play industrial-sized metal or bar-band punk. In fact, he doesn't play music that's at all classifiable. He calls it "piano rock," but that isn't quite right. The elusive, obscure and often challenging songs that Megalis writes and performs are often one-man-band bedroom projects that are just as much inspired by Ornette Coleman's free-form aural explorations as they are T.Rex's fuzzbox stomps. And it's one of the freshest sounds coming out of Cleveland right now.
Megalis first started making music when he was 15. An open-mic in Parma convinced him it might be a good career. "I made it a show," he recalls. "I invited everybody in my grade. I packed the place." In 2006 he recorded his debut album, I See the Moon, at Cleveland's Ante Up Audio. Two years later he released a follow-up, Praise Be, Hype Machine. He's performed at just about every club in town. He toured the country. He even opened for Nine Inch Nails when they played Quicken Loans Arena in 2008. His songs were featured on MTV's The Real World and Road Rules. And earlier this year he self-recorded and –released a free online EP, I Find It Sexy How You Mislead Me.
In January, Megalis moved to New York "for music," he says. "I wanted to play all those venues." He brought all his instruments — keyboards, guitars, an accordion, the Wurlitzer — with him, rented a "walk-in closet" apartment in Brooklyn, and started writing and recording. "But the songs I was writing weren't about New York," he says. "All my songs were about things I did in Ohio." (One of the songs Megalis wrote and recorded in New York is called "God Bless Ohio.")
So he returned to his parents' Broadview Heights home a month ago. Megalis says he was supposed to come home before that; he ended up staying in New York a little longer than he anticipated (his girlfriend, a Kent State University fashion student, was also living in NYC at the time). "My plan is to live in Cleveland," he says. "I want to have my base here and tour out from here. Cleveland is my favorite place in the world."
Given the nature of his unconventional and often personal take on pop music (most of his songs clock in at around two minutes), Megalis is one of the most grounded and affable artists you'll ever meet. He's got rock-star looks, complete with a flop of unruly hair that hangs down over his forehead. Onstage, he sports guyliner and tight red pants. No surprise that a huge chunk of his 23,000 MySpace friends are girls. "I'm an abusive MySpacer," he admits.
Since he's been back, Megalis has been trying to write. But he got bronchitis right before he left New York. You can still hear the strain in his voice as he talks. He even turns away from me a few times to cough. "It's hard," he says. "I can't do anything when I'm like this."
There's a new album in the works, which he's going to record at Ante Up again next month. This time, he says, he wants to go into the studio with his stage band (a drummer and guitar player), play it live with few overdubs and immediately put it out. "I hope it's released the day after I do it," he says. "I don't want to wait around for the record to get mastered and mixed. The more you sit around, the more you realize you don't like it."
As usual, the new songs are personal and honest reflections of Megalis' life, with some typically twisty detours. No rock-star navel-gazing or pretensions here. "Singer-songwriters are so manipulative," he says. "'This song is about my breakup in 1996.' I hate telling people about my music. My job is to write things that people can apply accordingly to whatever they want."