This Friday, John Mark Nelson takes his first shot at headlining First Avenue; the local singer-songwriter will play his biggest album-release show to date. Due out Friday, I’m Not Afraid is the sunny new disc, released by GNDWIRE Records.
I’m Not Afraid is the best thing Nelson’s ever put out. He’s always delivered sophisticated lyrics and arrangements, but this time his writing joins taut cohesion and incredible production. Shouting out his studio team, Nelson tells City Pages, “The audio quality speaks very highly of Matt [Patrick], Jake [Hanson], Brett [Bullion], and Huntley [Miller]. They’re some of the best.”
Another great group of Nelson’s is his live band, the same four people who recorded the album alongside him — drummer Nate Babbs, bassist Ben Kelly, guitarist Steve Bosmons, and keyboardist/vocalist Kara Laudon have real chemistry with Nelson and his writing. Laudon’s vocals, particularly, meld well with the music; they fill the empty spaces in “Holes In Our Skin” and add a sweet quality to “A Hundred Orchards," while "Dream Last Night” succeeds because of its harmonies.
“We recorded the record very much the way we play it,” Nelson says. “We recorded it in four live takes, which gives it the energy it has.”
Nelson’s fourth album is also GNDWIRE Records’ debut on the scene. Mark Gehring (of Periscope Artist Management) and Dave Simonett (of Trampled by Turtles) launched the new label and aim to truly emphasize its artists; it’s pronounced “groundwire,” and I’m Not Afraid is its “pilot project.”
Nelson has released all of his other music independently, but after he shared the I’m Not Afraid demos with his manager, Gehring had a suggestion: GNDWIRE could be Nelson’s “next step,” he said. Nelson agreed. In fact, Nelson has a lot to say about why the upstart label works for him.
“With every record that I put out, I learned a little bit more about the business side and how to promote something or record something. It’s good to know something about all of those fields. But it’s really, really helpful to have experts and specialists that are good at the things you’re not good as good at. I know that my strength is in writing, arranging, and performing, but I know that I’m not the number one guy to call about booking shows or promoting shows. Mark is really good at that kind of stuff.”
As his profile grows, Nelson's life, predictably, has become a bit more hectic. For example, try asking him about his upcoming fall tour dates: “It’s weird. A year ago, I would literally know the answer to every question regarding about my life," he laughs. “We have tons of lines in the water right now.”
Even though it feels a little strange, Nelson’s ability to focus on music and leave most other things to his team is typical in the business. It’s just part of creating a bigger operation, one that runs smoothly and entertains the audience — a lot like I’m Not Afraid.
Back to the release show on Friday: Nelson, like any music fan raised in the Twin Cities, has the utmost respect for First Avenue.
“The artists that have played on that stage and the history that that venue has — it’s a little daunting, but it’s also very exciting," he says. "Whatever the night looks like, no matter how many people come ... I view it as a huge honor and a huge privilege.”
Openers We Are the Willows are “super fun” and “really invest in their music,” Nelson says, having shared bills with the six-piece before. He’s never played with Black Diet, but he recognizes their music’s “fun energy” and looks forward to seeing them.
When asked about his plans for the show, Nelson laughs. “I’ve got a few shenanigans,” he says knowingly. “Just the word ‘shenanigans’ is enough.”
John Mark Nelson
With: We Are the Willows, Black Diet.
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 11.
Where: First Avenue.
Tickets: $12. More info here.