A progress report with Jeremiah Nelson

A progress report with Jeremiah Nelson

The Madison songwriter said his 2010 was a failure. So how’s 2011 looking?

Jeremiah Nelson feels like his 2010 was an epic failure musically. His band The Achilles Heel called it quits and shelved an album’s worth of material, and Nelson was left with the existential dread of what to do next. With the help his blog Song Whiners Diner, Nelson was able to gather some input on his new work, including some ambient soundscapes that mark quite a departure from his self-professed “alt-country” back catalog, and push forward with a new solo album, Drugs To Make You Sober. The A.V. Club spoke with Nelson recently while he walked his dog about why last year was such a wash and his big plans to make up for it in 2011, detailed in a to-do list on his blog.

The A.V. Club: You said you felt like 2010 was an epic failure for you musically. What is really that bad?

Jeremiah Nelson: Yeah, it totally was. I think a lot of it was how I had been approaching music. Ever since I was 17, I’ve been gigging. It’s really cool to make a living in something like music, but after a while, that stuff can be soul-crushing. I think I just hit a wall recently where I was like, “All right, I can’t continue to do this to myself.” I don’t know, to work really hard on the songs and then have them fall on deaf ears, putting yourself in those kind of situations is demoralizing.

AVC: So last year was a total wash?

JN: Well, 2010 started with my last band imploding and the friendships getting wrecked. Things are all repaired now, but it took me a long time to figure out the direction to go.

AVC: But you obviously found your direction enough to make a pretty ambitious to-do list for 2011. Let’s start with number one:

1. Finish current album before starting other items on list

JN: [Laughs.] Yeah. I think most songwriters deal with this on some level, like by the time you’re halfway through, you’ve already got one foot in the next project, and you’re ready to abandon everything else you’ve ever done. I guess, in that respect, it was good that that actually happened, that I finished it.

2. Do a live acoustic string band record

AVC: What do you mean by a string band?

JN: One of my favorite ways to perform has always been with upright bass, acoustic guitar, fiddle, and vocal harmony. Shawn Drake and I used to play tons of shows that way. It’s really fun, because it’s a band and it’s not deafening. But it’s always been a challenge for me, from a recording standpoint, to do something so stripped down. I think it’s largely a vocal thing, where I don’t like hearing my voice that exposed. Ever since I’ve been recording, I’ve done mega, mega layered things. That’s something I’m still working on—maybe not a string band per se, but something minimal. I think it’s really good to stretch in all directions.

3. Get a live soundscape rig together with Ableton Live + midi foot controller

JN: I’m still working on that. Are you familiar with Yellow Ostrich at all? That stuff is so inspiring to me. I remember hearing, I think it was Alex [Schaaf] and a drummer, they did this thing on the World Café or something on NPR, and I was blown away by how he could do all those loops and then add drums to it. I do a ton of looping, but adding drums to that is tricky, because you’re never completely in time. I know now, from talking to some folks, what [Schaaf] uses, and I believe it’s really similar to Tom Wincek’s set-up with All Tiny Creatures. And so he’s able to use Ableton Live [software] and some midi foot controlling stuff to pull that off. There’s a big learning curve, at least for me, coming from more of a traditional background. It’s less fun initially, but ultimately, I think it can be very rewarding.

AVC: Would your live set-up for your soundscape stuff be just you, or would you incorporate a live band too?

JN: I guess I don’t know. I’m kind of thinking of it in terms of sustainability, to be able to consistently enjoy performing and to be able to improvise. Like, to combine the creative processes that happen in the studio environment with performance. I guess a lot of it comes with getting super burnt-out on playing songs. It bugs me to play the same twice, so the process of promoting a record and playing the same songs night after night, doing that is something I’d have a hard time with.

AVC: Speaking of promoting records, would that have anything to do with number four?

4. Get to Europe

JN: Yeah, I guess it would be cool to use music as a vehicle to do some traveling. I’m getting my head back into writing right now. I think I was just way too close to the last one, doing all the mixing and stuff. But that’s definitely up there on my list, more though just for fun and to travel. That’s one of the huge advantages to doing music, being able to travel a lot. But for me, booking and promo and taking on all that stuff yourself ends up running your life. You have to prioritize what you spend your time on, and for me, writing and experimenting is more rewarding.

AVC: So the bookkeeping end of things drains your energy and hurts the creative process?

JN: Yeah, for me, it’s like a complete toggle switch. Obviously you have to take care of business, but I think everything artist is just wired to handle those different parts of the process better than others. Everybody kind of has their specialty. For me, the non-performing and non-writing stuff, like engineering, recording, co-writing, and collaborating is really fun. I love helping people out. Even promoting other artists is fun. I dig doing that.

AVC: Collaborating with people leads nicely into the next one on your list.

5. Start a new noise/jazz/improv band

JN: Oh, yeah. Yeah! This last recording I did was a pieced-together affair that was primarily solo and it took awhile. I think it would be cool to do something that is way more immediate and captures some spontaneity. Just go into it knowing that’s what I’m going for, and maybe just spend a week on the whole thing—the writing, recording, and whatever mixing and post-production stuff ends up happening.

AVC: Is there anyone in town that you would really love to work on something like that with?

JN: Yeah, I keep meeting more awesome musicians in Madison, it seems like everyday. I was talking to Ben Willis from The Weather Duo about it, and I think we’re going to do some stuff. Another guy that I’ve worked with for a long time, Luke Bassuener, who plays in CONTROL, This Bright Apocalypse, and Asumaya—he and I have done some really fun stuff together, and I love playing with Luke. He’s one of the most positive people in my life.

AVC: Are these guys you would work on number six with?

6. Get awesome at singing harmony

JN: [Laughs.] That’s one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s also one of the most challenging things. I guess just from how I learned to sing, ingesting tons of songwriters. I didn’t sing in church or choirs. So the voice I found for myself is not that of a good supporting role. I love doing it, and I love throwing myself into those situations. I think it comes down to, as a listener, I’m really attracted to things I don’t understand. I guess I understand harmony, but the technique of it is something I’m constantly working on. Like, Sharon Van Etten, listening to her music is so inspiring for harmony. She does some really incredible stuff.

AVC: Are you working with anybody on singing harmony right now?

JN: I’m not, not much. I’ve been hanging out a lot with Jonathan Mayer of Surgeons In Heat, and he’s an incredible vocalist. So I’m kind of picking up stuff from him.

7. Release a new Ep/Soundscape/Experiment every couple months

AVC: The soundscape that’s on the end of your new album, is that in line with what you’re hoping to do down the road?

JN: That was a last-minute addition, but I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on including that. That stuff is really satisfying to do. It took about as long to compose and record as it does to listen to. I’ve just improvised that stuff and then went back to do a few edits. It’s just good for the soul.

AVC: When you get enough of those, will you then be performing them in a live setting?

JN: I’m wondering if I should start another project all together for that stuff. I’ve done the more traditionally informed alt-country stuff, not really intentionally. I’ve spent a lot of time with Blake Thomas, and I’m a huge fan of his. I think that a lot of that stuff rubbed off. But then I think that people who are really into that stuff really hate the droney, sprawled-out, spacey ambient stuff.

AVC: It seems like including that soundscape on the end of your album helps to illustrate how your new solo stuff is moving away from the work you did with The Achilles Heel without completely throwing out that template.

JN: Yeah, I guess I’m glad that the stuff with Achilles Heel didn’t come out, because it was severely lacking in identity. And yeah, that soundscape thing is interesting, because that was a last-minute addition. As I was putting the thing together, I only had seven songs I really felt good about. But that was recorded right before I started mixing the record, so it’s kind of full circle.