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Collapsing Stars' Justin Wayne Nelson on how he overcame 'artistic paralysis' to create '2012'

Collapsing Stars

Collapsing Stars Justin Wayne Nelson

Justin Wayne Nelson discovered the allure of performing onstage at age two when his father roped him into singing a song with his country-western band. “Apparently, I refused to give up the microphone,” Nelson says. “I didn’t really choose to go into music. It chose me.”

That experience in the spotlight segued into piano lessons around age six and playing guitar in his teens. Nelson debuted with a Nirvana cover band in high school, followed by a string of other musical projects during his 20s. In 2013, he swapped a dead-end job for a part-time, remote web marketing director position. The singer-songwriter and guitarist sold his Honda Civic, bought a minivan, and recruited drummer Mike Langhoff to tour with him as Local Rhythm. They recorded a live EP at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles and performed for an audience of 120,000 at Redbull Crashed Ice in St. Paul last year.

The band reconfigured itself as the bluesy-Americana trio Collapsing Stars, and Nelson, Langhoff, and bassist Adam Heaney will celebrate their first full-length release, 2012, on Saturday.

City Pages: Why 2012 for the album title?

Justin Wayne Nelson: I wrote the first verse of the title track on December 20, 2012. It was the evening before what some people were calling "the Mayan Apocalypse." It kind of piqued my curiosity so I wrote a song about it. I wrote the first half on December 20 and I woke up the next morning and I was still breathing. There was no fire and brimstone, no horsemen, everything was fine. There was no cataclysmic event that brought the world to an end, but I started thinking about the countless existential threats – whether it’s climate change, resource scarcity, overpopulation – that could have a similar effect over a longer time scale. These themes inspired the material for the rest of the song, along with several others forming the body of work that we call 2012.

CP: You’ve said you didn’t just have writer’s block while working on this album, you had “artist paralysis.” What does that look like for you?

JWN: For most of my creative life, music has just been fun and something that comes fairly easily to me. At some point, that stopped being the case. I can always write guitar riffs and compose music, but for whatever reason, the lyrical content that I was coming up with for this record I didn’t think was very good. I didn’t know how to explain it. A year went by without making any progress on the lyric-writing. It got to the point where I thought, “I need some help.”

My friend Jillian Rae runs this music school called Music Lab and Jeremy Messersmith teaches out of that school. She ended up putting us in contact. I ended up meeting with Jeremy. He gave me word exercises and showed me his creative process. It helped a lot. I was able to break out of my artistic funk. What’s cool about that was a lot of the information he was relaying was stuff that he had learned from Dan Wilson. Without that intervention, I’m not sure if I would have gotten this album done.

CP: Do you think that kind of generosity is representative of the Twin Cities music scene? Or was this an exception?

JWN: I’ll go back to my friend Jillian Rae. She is extremely generous with her time. She says she will meet with anybody. There are definitely people in the Minnesota music scene that will do that. If you ask politely or approach them at a show, I think they would be more likely than not to hear you out and give you any advice they can. I want to pay it forward and help people. I would also be happy to be generous with my time and coach or have a beer with somebody and just let them pick my brain about tour booking or PR.

CP: What are your bandmates like, personality-wise?

JWN: Mike is definitely the social butterfly. The night that we leave for tour, I never sleep because I’m so excited. Our first show, we’ll play late, get done around midnight and hang out for a while, but I’m just beat that first night. Usually Mike will be the ambassador for the band. He will hang out if we meet people, he’ll go back to house parties. That’s really how you build these friendships and these networks in these different cities.

We have a bass player who is a childhood friend of mine I’ve been playing in bands with since we were 16 years old. He’s also very social and business-like. He’s good at shaking hands and meeting owners of venues.

CP: After your release show, you’re taking off on a West Coast tour. What are you looking forward to and/or dreading about going on tour?

JWN: I love touring. It’s the best road trip combined with doing something that you love. I get to travel around the country and meet cool people and try new food and we hike a bunch. On top of it, we get to go play music for people. I love it; I know some bands don’t. It can be a grind for people that are playing every night and sleeping on floors. We have some areas out West where we can stay for a week so we have time to explore. It hasn’t always been great. We were avalanched on in Colorado a couple of years ago while driving through the mountains. We got a gun pulled on us in Tucson during our last tour over some minor road rage incident. Overwhelmingly, we’ve had great experiences and met great people.

I don’t know if this ties in, but I’ve been working really hard to get everything in order to make sure we have a good release party and tour. Last Wednesday, I was exhausted and I passed out around 10 p.m. I woke up around 3 a.m. and I looked at my phone, my eyes half-open, and there’s a message from Dan Wilson: “The album sounds great and I love the artwork, too.” Is this a dream? I guess Dan Wilson likes our album. That’s pretty cool.

Collapsing Stars
With: The Bad Man, Hayden Fox
Where: 331 Club
When: 11 p.m., Sat. Aug. 5
Tickets: Free; more info here