A lot of songwriters find themselves being compared to legendary musicians, but unlike others, Chicago native Derek Nelson is trying to avoid stereotypes and bring back a sense of urgency in music.
Your EP release show on October 8th will be your first headlining gig. How long have you been writing music?
I’ve been writing songs for as long as I can remember, even before I could play an instrument. In middle school, I had this old notebook where I would listen to the same old songs, over and over, and copy down the lyrics while they played. Once I started writing my own, that notebook turned into a half dozen, and I keep doing that today. It’s a strange quirk, I guess. I kept all those songs bottled up until my first show, in May of this year. At the same venue, actually.
Would you describe your early experience with writing and performing – and the way you developed as a musician – as formal and academic? Brash and independent? A peculiar mix?
There isn’t much that is formalized about my music. I like it that way. I’ve never taken a lesson, can’t read music, and just generally try to keep it all as organic as possible. It’s all about creating and capturing the moment.
What’s an ideal venue for you – a cramped bar, a captivated intimate theater, a protest rally?
I love anywhere where people simply come to listen to music. My songs can be so quaint and lyrical that it often helps to have a mood of closeness with the audience. To date, my favorite show was when my good friend Patrick Gemkow (Daysleeper) put on a small, intimate apartment concert with free PBR. He called it “The Noble Experiment.” The idea was to take back some of the power from venues and give it to the artists. It was a perfectly honest, genuine night, and I think most people that left had the feeling that it was something that could be built upon. I hope we do.
You’re a folk musician with a Facebook fan page. How do you feel about the way the modern digital age has affected the way your fans can access your music, tour dates, merchandise etc.?
As with anything, there are positives and there are drawbacks. The amount of connectivity is such a great thing; you can hear any music in the world with the click of a mouse. I do worry that it’s taking a little bit of the emphasis away from real, human interaction — mostly, live shows.
Speaking of folk singers in the digital age, one of your top friends on MySpace is Bob Dylan. How do you relate to the music of Bob and other brave and influential songwriters?
It’s not exactly trailblazing territory, I know: a young singer-songwriter who idolizes Dylan. That said, it’s hard to be around me and not know that he is a hero of mine. I have every song he ever wrote. He just had a unique way of telling a specific story and making it relatable and obscure at the same time. Above all else, he had a sincere faith in the intelligence of his listeners, which probably isn’t done enough anymore.
Was streaming the EP in its entirety online an elementary decision for you? It’s becoming more of a common thing to do, but it wasn’t always, and still not all musicians choose to do it.
We went back-and-forth on it a bit, but in the end, we just want as many people to be able to listen to our music as possible.
Like you, Kelsey Wild – who lends vocals on several of your new songs – is another Chicago musician. Yet, it seems like you didn’t know each other very well before recording these songs. How did you get introduced to her music?
While in the studio, the producer and engineer of the record, Mike Hari, had sent me a link to Kelsey’s songs. I was, candidly, floored by them. On a whim, I asked her if she’d like to sing with me. I was surprised and flattered for her to say yes. In the studio, she sounded even better than I could have imagined. She’s got an incredible voice, sure, but more importantly, she has an unbelievable ability to understand the feel of the songs, to make them better.
Could you explain who Pete Falknor is, how long you’ve been collaborating, and describe what his role on the album is?
Pete Falknor is one of my oldest and best friends. It also helps that he’s one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met, whether it be on drums, bass, guitar or anything you put in front of him. He played an irreplaceable role in helping me build out the songs from folk ballads to something more, sometimes larger but always better, and he continues to be a huge help in that way. He knows the songs as well as I do.
In the future, will a Derek Nelson concert involve Pete and Kelsey – or when you perform is it you onstage accompanied only by your guitar and harmonica?
My guess is that we’ll go on a show-by-show basis. For the upcoming release show, Pete and I are being joined by what amounts to a full band: Cathy Starr (The Stoneflys) on violin, Ryan Martin (Oceans) on bass, and Michael James Brooks (Common Shiner) on piano and vocals. We just had a rehearsal for the show last night, actually, and I couldn’t be more excited with how it’s sounding. I may still do some solo shows here and there, we may do some two-or-three piece shows. I like the idea of every show being a little different.
Do you have plans to tour with either The Innocent or Kelsey?
No plans to tour yet.
Is there a decade or era you’d prefer to have been making music in rather than this one?
It’s an interesting question. What was so unique about the 60’s was that the music both reflected and directed a lot of the sentiment of the time. Young people then were characterized by action. It’s sad to say, but I’ve grown up in a generation that is more defined by inaction, by passivity, by apathy. The songs today have lost their sense of urgency. I’m trying to help bring some of that urgency back.