John Mark Nelson channels folk-pop sophistication

Taking breaks a little too literally: John Mark Nelson
Jim Larson

The Twin Cites seems to always have a fresh crop of musicians too young to buy beer, but precocious enough to make an impact. While the Plastic Constellations and Howler transformed raucous adolescent energy into turbocharged (and well-received) blasts of rock 'n' roll, the impressively poised John Mark Nelson captivates listeners from the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. Folk-pop this polished usually comes from established veterans — not 2012 Minnetonka High School graduates.

"Reminisce," the sumptuous lead single from Nelson's sophomore album, Waiting and Waiting, is a lavish orchestral folk piece that sounds like the work of a large band in professional recording facilities. Except it isn't. Every note on Nelson's second solo album — apart from its strings — was written, performed, and recorded at his home. The song's expertly wrought lyrics of melancholic regret are delivered via a smooth tenor on a par with Jeff Buckley and Sufjan-Stevens-styled melodic elegance.

"It wasn't some deliberate plan on my part of, 'Let's make a record that sounds like I'm 30,'" jokes Nelson, smiling behind a thin beard masking a decidedly still-boyish face. "All of the songs and arrangements came very naturally. I wasn't trying to sound older and wiser. We recently played an informal graduation party show at a friend's house and there was kind of lukewarm reactions from a lot of my friends, but when I was leaving, all of their parents were coming up to me really excited about the tunes. I'm not sure what to make of that. I don't think that's good or bad. I'm excited to make music that can hopefully reach people of all ages. I'm never trying to make an exclusive product, I want everyone to be able to enjoy it and relate to it."

It's not surprising that Nelson's decidedly mature themes and smooth sounds might resonate more strongly with adults who've already been through the wringer once or twice. A buoyant bildungsroman about letting go of past disappointments and embracing hard-won optimism, Waiting and Waiting abounds with self-affirming triumphant lyrics ("No more pining/No more guilt/I've learned to be my only home").

"As everyone is continually reminding me, I'm very young and therefore still figuring out a lot of things," offers Nelson candidly. "A lot of the uncertainty about my identity and future can be heard on [my first record] Still Here. With Waiting and Waiting I started writing songs about overcoming some of those doubts, and that's ultimately what started happening in my life. The songs gave so much back to me. The record really is sort of a slap in the face to loneliness, to questioning your self-worth. It's about standing up to those dark feelings and speaking into existence a positive alternative. It was very therapeutic to make."

Nelson's personal therapeutic journey is quickly making the leap from private home-recording exercise to public sensation thanks to serious crushing from 89.3 the Current, which has made "Reminisce" a regular playlist staple. Early buzz in advance of Waiting and Waiting's release has been so strong and is building so dizzyingly fast that Nelson has temporarily postponed his plans to start school at the McNally Smith College of Music this fall so he can establish his live show with a new 10-piece band, featuring a string quartet, and "take a minute to actually breathe and think about where my life is going." A typical teenager would likely be starry-eyed, but staying true to his wise-beyond-his-years style, Nelson's feet remain firmly planted on the ground.

"This has been the craziest two months of my entire life," offers Nelson as our afternoon conversation wraps up. "Before, I would print up a record for my mom and dad and my brother and sister, if he was lucky my dog would get one. To suddenly have people sending me emails saying they heard my song on the radio and it meant a lot to them — I'm extremely grateful and humbled by that. It would be completely ignorant and very inappropriate for me to put myself on a pedestal and shout, 'Look at me!' I just feel very lucky for every opportunity and that people continue to reach out and support the music. It feels like a process of people coming alongside me and helping me do what I love."

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