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]