Few have trod a more divine intervention musical path than John Mark Nelson. The previously well-known local Minnesota artist had a knack for working on other people’s music, yet his own voice was one that couldn’t wait to be heard.
Nelson was finding new avenues of creativity as a producer and engineer among his circle of musician friends and peers in the midwest. Word of his skill and inventiveness as a collaborator in the studio spread, eventually leading to Jeremy Messersmith singing his praises to none other than Dan Wilson. Known to many for his band Semisonic’s ubiquitous hit “Closing Time”, but more recently as a Grammy-winning producer and songwriter for artists including Adele, Mitski, Leon Bridges, and among many others Taylor Swift. It was an opportunity to work with Wilson at his production studio in Los Angeles that found Nelson and his wife uprooting themselves for the 2000 mile drive from the Twin Cities to Los Angeles.
As a result the Hideaway EP, blossomed which showcases Nelson’s knack for cinematic luster and luminescent sounds reminiscent of EELS, Father John Misty, and Mount Eerie. The songs on the Hideaway EP were equally inspired by and conceived within the competing forces of isolated pandemic living and his experience working at one of the most currently relevant production studios in the world. Lyrically, allusions are made to the intimacy and comfortable safety of the one-room apartment he and his wife shared when they first landed out west and were subsequently forced to withdraw from everything.
Glide is premiering the live cut of “Perfect Strangers” featuring Sofia Mills, showcasing Nelson’s dynamic arranging skills on this maternally warm song that fabricates imagery and longing. With top-notch studio and songwriting chops, Nelson is on the path to becoming a career indie artist, one that will surely find his name on many a festival billing soon. Read on below the track for some more insightful candor into the artistry of John Mark Nelson.
You recently released two ambient albums prior to the release of your forthcoming album. As a singer-songwriter – most can’t get away from lyrics and melody – what brought you to get into that realm and how did it help your newest music on the Hideaway EP?
Ambient music is one of the main types of music I listen to for enjoyment. Because I spend all day every day working on my own songs or producing other artists’ tracks, ambient music feels like a respite from the formulaic nature of those types of songs. I am always craving more space and peace, and ambient music helps facilitate that. I sort of stumbled into making my ambient albums because I start most days by sitting at my piano and just playing unplanned, unorganized sounds – kind of like musical journaling. Eventually, I had the idea to record that process daily for two weeks. Those recordings became Sign One and Signa Two. I believe that everything I work on and listen to somehow finds it’s way into my music. While Hideaway and the Signa recordings might feel stylistically disparate, I think you can hear some of the ambient qualities creep up in the back of songs like Don’t Look Back and Perfect Stranger. It’s also the same piano being played on Hideaway and Signa, so I think that gives them a special relationship.
Many artists used the pandemic as a way to become creative, up to a point that almost all new music in the last 18 months has been inspired by it. How did you use these series of events to allow yourself to become original within a crowded landscape of live streams and lockdown sessions?
When the pandemic hit, I was working full-time for Dan Wilson in his recording studio. Those initial lockdown months gave me some additional creative time because I no longer had a Los Angeles commute. I was still able to work for Dan remotely, but had a couple more free hours each day. While Hideaway was made primarily during the pandemic, it doesn’t feel particularly inspired by the pandemic. My world did get really small, being in lockdown in a tiny apartment in LA with just my wife Sarah. But rather the looking primarily outward and processing the events in the world, I think the pandemic gave me the rare gift of looking inward and constructing a collection of songs about the things right in front of me. It’s a record of gratitude – about love, survival, provision, and a chance to constantly grow and change.
Being from Minnesota, what does that northern part of the U.S do to give your voice as an artist, and what venues or artists most helped get you the confidence you needed to record?
I feel really lucky to have started my musical journey in Minnesota. There is a fantastic and inspiring collection of artists there who, from a young age, instilled in me the idea that a life in music was possible. We also had the good fortune of having a radio station that elevated local music, and a huge array of small and large venues to grow into. One of the people that inspired me the most in the early stages of my life in music was Jeremy Messersmith – an incredible songwriter and performer. Seeing his shows and watching his career grow in Minnesota and around the country gave me the courage to try to carve out my own path in music. Even though I’m in LA now, I still see my origin story in the North as a huge part of who I am.
You worked with Dan Wilson of Semisonic and helped record other artists there. Can you share with us the moment or series of events that gave you the flicker to start doing this again on your own and be the musician that plays vs records?
Dan is an incredible teacher. Every single day I learned about 45 things that I didn’t know. I thought the learning would taper off after a while but it actually kept expanding. I was learning so many things about the craft of writing and producing music that I couldn’t wait to get home from the studio and try things out on my own songs. Eventually, my dream to-do list for my own music became so large that there wasn’t any way for me to continue working full time for Dan and accomplish those things. I was working from about 7am to 11am on my own songs, then driving to the studio and working Noon to 7pm at Dan’s, then coming home and working on my own music again. It wasn’t super sustainable. But I learned more and made more in that period than possibly any other in my life. I am so grateful for that time.
What artists would you most like to collaborate with and see a musical kinship with?
There are so many! A few people come to mind especially when I think of some of the first people that made me want to make my own music.
Sufjan Stevens. Justin Vernon. Laura Mvula.