David Baronio (left) and Jeffrey Philip Nelson (right)
Thanks for taking the time to talk with the Nonsense Society, Jeff. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard about you is that you make your living as construction worker. Can you tell us about that? How did you end up working that job and recording music on the side. Is music your goal or are you simply happy to write these amazing songs when you get home from the job?
Hey Chris, first I just want to thank you for conducting an interview with a guy that hasn’t made a dent in the American Musical Cannon. I appreciate you giving so much of your time to creative people who do art because of the love they have for creativity.
To answer your first question, Yes, I am in the construction business. I have been building homes ever since I graduated college in 2005. I originally thought I was going to be a teacher (Majored in English) but was offered the opportunity by my dad to run projects for his General Contracting business. About five years into it when the economy was taking a dive, I moved from building homes to starting my own little handyman service. I did that for about a year when the business went from handyman work to full scale remodels. Currently, I run a General Contracting business under my own name in which I build new homes for people in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It is a very fun job and I get to work with extremely talented people but it will never hold a place in my heart. My heart has always been consumed by what music does to me. All day long, whether I am pouring concrete, banging nails, or painting… I think about new melodies and new hooks that make me feel something. On my breaks, I step away from the noise with my phone and record voice memos of new songs that won’t escape my mind. And finally, when work concludes, I go home to my wife where a cocktail awaits my lips and a guitar anticipates my strum. It is here that I shut the sound of the world off, sing into a studio mic in a hollow room, and I write the songs that have been circling my head all day.
What can you tell us about your experience with music in general? Did you study music at all? Have you always been in bands? When did you write your first song?
Ok, this collection of questions is great. When I was growing up, the exposure I first had to music was laying in the back of my parents suburban and listening to whatever they had on the radio. This made a huge impact on my ears. When I would hear a Christopher Cross song or a song by Dave Mason, my ears would be so stimulated by what these writers were creating with their voices, instruments and most importantly, their melodies. Following these younger years was piano lessons at the age of 10. The piano lessons taught me a lot but nothing that would really stick. The only thing I really remember is asking my teacher if she could teach me “Crazy” by Aerosmith on the piano and her denying me saying “how about we learn ‘Fur Elise'”. I quit my piano lessons that following week and picked up the Bass Guitar. At the time, all I wanted to be was the worlds next Victor Wooten. I would play for hours a day just nailing scales and perfecting techniques that I thought were special. But the day I first picked up an acoustic guitar I was mesmerized by the sound. I was 14 years old and a friend of my Dads had an acoustic that he let me play. When I first felt the vibration of the back of the guitar on my chest, I knew I needed to play this for the rest of my life. Because I grew up in such a large family, we did not have extra money to go out and buy a new instrument at the first sign of admiration. For a few years, my Dad watched me talk about the acoustic guitar and how much I loved what sound it would create. He must have been taking notes all of those years because by the age of 17 I was in a really bad surf accident that made me bedridden for a few months and my Dad bought me an acoustic guitar to pass the time. This was the game changer for me. I would play this guitar from the time I woke up to the time I would go to sleep. My first song was written during the recouperation from the surf accident to a girl I had feeling for…typical.
Can you talk to us about the art of lyric-writing? How connected are the lyrics to the melody (and harmony)? What is your general process like? Are there any songwriters that have influenced your style in particular?
Whenever I write a song, I start with the Acoustic guitar first. Because the sound of it called my name so early in life I rely on it to give me the notes and inspiration that creates a song. Inside of a chord there are usually 3-6 notes on an acoustic that are played that create that particular note. If you play around with a chord progression enough (IE: A-F#m-C#m-Bm-A-E7) you will hear about 32 notes being played because of those chords. Some of the notes are repeats but with a new root note inspiring the chord. I choose from one of these 32 notes where my vocal will start and I use the remainder to make a melody that excites my ears. With lyrics, I start with a theme, something that parallels or opposites the chord progressions movement, Example: lots of minor notes would evoke a sad song. When I have my theme, I rant about in the chord progression until I hear something that works. Ive Attached an example of a song idea rant that became one of my favorites.New Orleans Girl, Studio Version
In my opinion, words have to be plain enough not to be noticed but fresh enough not to lose interest, this choice of words is all opinion also. Lyric writing for one song can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. It all depends on how inspired the story is to me, and how fun the song is to sing. Ive abandoned more than 100 started songs with lyrics and chord progressions due to loss of interest. Someday they may be used again but for now they are in the archives. The artist that inspire me lyrically are Harry Nilsson, Conor O’Brien, and Peter Gabriel. The artist that inspire me melodically are Billy Joel, Rufus Wainwright, and M Ward. The Artists I most want to be like…Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and Damien Rice.
Can you tell us about the studio and equipment you use? Do you have a dream setup for the future?
I love the gear I am currently using, It is far different from what I had when I recorded the last album “This Riders Song”. Henry David Thoreau has a famous quote that says “men have become the tools of their tools”. I have become one of these men. I rely heavily on my tools to create the sounds I hear in my head. Luckily I want to be an acoustic artist that doesn’t mind being raw and gritty, so I don’t have to purchase much or depend heavily on production. To be considerate of the time and interest of you reader, Ill tell you about my current gear rather than what I have used previously. For my DAW I use Logic Pro X running on a Mac Book Pro. My audio interface is an Apogee Quartet(it allows 4 microphones or instruments to be recorded at once on separate tracks). For external hardware signal processing I use a Joe Meek OneQ and TwinQ compressor(This allows me to record live and passionately without peaking or clipping the digital audio that is being read by my computer). The microphones I use are the DPA 4099G for my acoustic guitar( clips on to the acoustics body and allows natural acoustic sound) and a Miktek CV4 tube mic for vocals. This gear has really helped me achieve the sound I have always wanted from a studio. My favorite album of all time is “Nashville Skyline” by Bob Dylan. If you listen to the production on the album, it is simple but beautiful. This is the sound I am trying to achieve. Here are some pics of my gear.
Jeffrey Philip Nelson’s gear
I was really interested to hear about the subject of your first song. Can you elaborate on this and tell us what the evolution of subject-matter has been for you?
The first song I wrote was called “Lately” and it was super lame. I wrote it for a girl on her birthday, I think I was trying to do more than hold her hand and this was the ticket. When I started writing lyrics, I never had a single subject that I wanted to stick to, I have only wanted to write about stories that do not closely relate to me. I feel that there are so many people out there with a good story that want their story to be told. My life is seen through only one set of eyes and the limit to my story has an end. But the world of other people with experience is never ending and a great subject for me to write about. I consider myself a songwriter with documentary influences. When I sit down over a cocktail with a friend who is telling me about the burdens his life holds, I write a song. Or when A news story hits a chord in me, I write a song. A song is a story with either deep symbolism or apparent understanding. I have fun playing with both techniques. Songwriting will always be the drug in my life that calms me down and keeps me centered.
What does the future hold for Jeffrey Philip Nelson? What can we look forward to?
The future will be very special. I know that the songs will only get better and the recordings will only get richer in sound. When I think of the changes, for the better, that the Beatles made from the early 60’s to late, I have favorable hope that this will be my future as well. Obviously the Beatles made huge careers and boatloads of money from their music as well as prestige for being the worlds greatest band. I don’t see this in my future, but I do see music and songwriting marinating in a similar way. In ten years I will go from writing songs like “Love Me Do” to songs like “Across The Universe”. They will be deep, strong and rich in content. The ears that hear my music may be few but the joy the songwriting will bring me will continue to press me to write better, record longer, and create a better product. The thing I most love about acoustic guitar playing and singing is it’s longevity. In 40 years I will be seventy and still writing and recording acoustic music, I may even be playing in coffee shops for people that want to hear a gravely-voiced old man beat away at a set of rusty strings while I blow away at my Harmonica. This kind of music will always have longevity and class. For the short term future, I am working on my 6th studio album and will most likely be finished by February. The inspiration for this album is Spaces. Instead of using really well made reverbs in my computer software, I am going to pick 10 places to make ten songs. The “places” will all have their own sound and tail. When people listen to the record I want them to ask, “how did that song get so much life?”. I will let the creative space I am working in breathe spirit into my songs. It will be a sonic journey from room to room. As a songwriter, I rarely if ever perform. But if I had a future for performing I would be very strict in where those performances took place. I don’t have desire to play music for a huge audience but I have desire to offer the audience attending something sonically beautiful and real. Somewhere indoors and intimate where the acoustic guitar is only mic’d and not played through a fake sounding magnetic pickup. I want the ears of the audience to be stimulated in a way they have not experienced. Thank you for the great questions Chris, I will be sure to always send you and your readers free music from the studio of a guy who is working hard to please his audience.
Find out more about Jeff at jeffreyphilipnelson.com