John Mark Nelson: I don't want to ever be a dumb songwriter
Photo courtesy of the artist
John Mark Nelson is an unmistakable presence. The local folk-pop confectioner's bright-red beard and stocking cap can cut through fog. Perhaps it's partly the video for his latest single "The Moon and the Stars" that makes this hat a familiar sight. Regardless, his smiling waving, 99-cent-hot-chocolate-in-hand image is already that indelible. After settling into a lounge chair, he jokes about getting his hot beverage at a gas station because he lives out in Excelsior and sometimes ends up places super early.
Last year, Picked to Click 2012 vet Nelson's release show for his album Waiting and Waiting impressively sold out the 7th Street Entry. Now, with 300-plus tickets pre-sold for his show at the Cedar, John Mark is a little worried about turning people away. In our conversation, he tells Gimme Noise a bit more about the show and details what's going on with his latest album.
Gimme Noise: What's the status of the band you're recording and performing with?
John Mark Nelson: I have a solid collective. Meaning I have about two or three people on each instrument that I will always love to work with. This city is really interconnected and everyone knows everyone else and everyone is playing music with everyone else. The unfortunate side of that is, it's really hard to lock down a band because everyone plays in 30 different bands. I could email someone about a gig in the Spring of 2017 and they'll be like "Oh yeah, I'm booked." So I have more of a group of good friends that's always morphing and changing depending on the show. Sometimes it will be a four-piece combo, sometimes it's solo, sometimes it's a ten-piece band.
[For the show Friday] we will have a seven- or eight-piece. No strings, but we will be adding some new instruments. We're going to add a pedal steel and a vibes player. We're trying out a lot of new stuff and debuting a lot of the new songs.
Do you have a pre-show ritual?
I drink too much water, so much so that I have to go to the bathroom like nine times in the last half hour before I go on stage. I get pretty nervous for shows. I'm more of an introverted "sit in my room and write music" kind of guy, so standing in front of people is not my cup of tea, but I try to make it work. So yeah, my pre-show ritual is: get nervous, get on stage, and two to three songs in, start having fun.
So you have another album coming out next year. How's it going? Where are you recording?
It's going really well. We're on first draft mixes. I get to carry it around with me in my car and listen to it and feel self-conscious, kinda anxious, have doubts, and all that good stuff. We did more or less all of it at the Library in Northeast. It's just a great studio; super positive experience. [It was] my first experience in a studio.
How do you feel the new record is different from Waiting and Waiting?
What jumps out to me, since it's my first time not recording on my own, I'm just amazed continually how good it sounds. [laughs] In terms of creatively and sonically, I think it's a little more on the conceptual side. It's a little more sparse than people may have hoped. I just say that because Waiting and Waiting was a pretty buttoned-up album. It was like ten brief, clean pop tunes with folky instrumentation. It's a neat, clean package. This one is a little more patient and subtle.
The general idea behind it, is that when you put the record on, it flows continuously from start to stop rather than track, track, track, very much like Waiting and Waiting. I wanted it to be sort of this sonic statement that ambles in and out. We're doing a vinyl run which I'm really excited about. You just trap them [into listening to the whole album] with a vinyl. I've always kind of thought more in long arcs and story lines as opposed to "Eh. This tunes needs a bridge and this one needs to be upbeat." I like to think more on the overarching themes and motifs.
What are some examples here?
There's a lot of that stuff in the new record. The first tune is a brief lullaby that a child sings. So the first voice you hear on the record isn't even mine. It's starts off with children repeating a song. Then the last track, I'm singing, but as the song progresses, you hear, subtly sneaking in, the piano motif of the very first songs. There's little thing like that throughout the record, and also little pieces that I'm calling vignettes that join the larger works together. That's something that makes me excited and makes me feel like it's a piece of art rather than a bunch of songs. I'm totally open to people's criticisms and opinions. I'm really interested to see what people think of this record. I mean people could really just hate the new record and I'll just disappear into oblivion and live the rest of my life as an accountant. [laughs]
By the way you talk about writing music, do you ever see yourself doing film scoring?
Yeah. Totally. I've actually done a little bit of work with film scoring. I've done stuff for small film festivals. Some of my songs have been used in film. There's an independent filmmaker right now that's using "The Moon and the Stars," the new single, as a motif throughout this film he's making. In the future, I want to get more into it that stuff. I love creating music in general more than I want to pursue being a singer/songwriter. [I'd rather be] more just a music creator and collaborator than like a band leader.
While I'm pursuing [my career] as a singer/songwriter, I'd like to move that more into an educated study of music, go back to school and maybe get into more film scoring, composing and arranging for even orchestras. I very much cherish and appreciate the school side of music. I loved being in high school and being involved in bands because it was a very scholastic type of music. I try to reflect that in my writing, which is why theres glockenspiel and strings and pipe organs. I just love that side of music, I don't want to ever be a dumb songwriter.
Do a lot of your songs get licensed in movies and ads?
I wouldn't say "a lot" but a fair amount. There's been a few things here and there. Since I'm young, I'm not some prestigious person that people all over the world are asking about. We've got some stuff in the works that i'm really excited about. People have reached out with the strangest things. Anywhere from, "I'm making an independent film and I want to use your song" to "Our company is making an employee training video and we want to use your song."
So somewhere in the United States, John Mark Nelson's voice is assisting employees in their job training?
Yeah. I think it's a company in Wisconsin. They used "Home" in a new employee welcome video. I hope it's not the sexual harassment section [laughs]. Hopefully it's only being used for good.
What can we expect to hear at the Cedar on Friday?
We're going to be playing new material, we'll be playing old material in new ways, we'll be playing old material we rarely play and in an instrumentation we've never played before. I think it's a very fresh presentation, so if people are thinking "Yeah I saw him, he kind of does that string and guitar and bells things." I would encourage people to come out and try us out again.
There's going to be some fresh ingredients on the table and maybe a preview of what to come further down the road. Now that we're transitioning into more of an artistic kind of band as opposed to a "pop song" kind of band, I think we're going to get into a little bit of a forecast of that into the show. So if people want to know what the band is going to look like in the next coming year, this night will give you a good look at it. And if you're curious about what I'm going to do next, come down Friday, I'll tell you.
John Mark Nelson. With Simonett & Young and The Ericksons. All Ages, $10/$12, 7 p.m. at the Cedar: Friday, November 8. Presale tickets here.
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