Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Beaver Nelson's Exciting Opportunity
After being named a prodidgy in 1992 by Rolling Stone, Beaver Nelson spent nearly seven years fighting the record industry to put out his first album, The Last Hurrah, in 1998. And when Freedom Records, the record company that released that album, folded, it looked like it might be another seven before Nelson’s beautiful, rough-hewn rock and twang would surface again. But he found a way to release seven albums in nine years, each one of them filled with some of the best American songwriting you’ll find anywhere, on big label or small.
There is a folk rock sensibility to much of what Nelson writes, but he has a knack for fusing that with any number of styles, from punk to reggae. His voice is reedy but sincere and surprisingly versatile, breaking in all the right places with the right amount of grace and bravado.
His latest record, Beaver Nelson’s Exciting Opportunity was just released on Freedom Records, his fourth for the label, which was resurrected in 2003. Written over ten weeks of isolation painting a house in rural Texas, the subject matters are clearly personal and introspective. He contemplates shifting ideas of utopia (“Perfect String”), self-image (“Bad Man”), and faith (“Humility”) with earthy wit and a poet’s eye. “If You Name A Thing It Dies” is at once simple and complicated, a lesson in Zen semantics and discovery. “That song is in halves,” says Nelson in his album notes. “I state two completely opposite statements, and I believe them both to be true.” The album also bears the stamp of longtime Nelson collaborator, guitarist and producer “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb.
When you took the house painting job, did you see it as an opportunity to isolate yourself and write or was it a surprise that the songs came to you?
I hadn't written in a while and had a good idea that if I put myself in that kind of productive isolation I would write some songs. My wife and I had been trying to figure out a way to do that when that job came along.
How did you come to write “If You Name a Thing” and contradict yourself in the song?
"If You Name a Thing It Dies" was written very quickly. Thirty minutes tops. Well before I had written it, I had been ruminating on the importance of internal consistency in poetry. I had previously never made such bold opposite statements in the body of a song. After the first section of the song was written, I knew that this was the time to do that - not because I could, but because the subject matter demanded it. I am drawn to paradox, and find comfort in them.
Each song has its own set of instruments, if not a separate vibe. How do you reconcile those into a coherent album?
I chose to rely on the subject matter and lyrical approach to provide the context for the listener. I think it worked out well. I just can't get behind the notion that variety is a negative. At the same time, we recorded this quickly and with the same players, so to me it doesn't feel jarring, song to song.
Exciting Opportunity seems the flipside of The Last Hurrah, past the sort of deadpan sarcasm that went into the first album into an acceptance of a certain randomness. Is that an accurate description? Is that where you’re at now, looking at your life and career?
Yes, as long as we are talking about things that humans can control. I believe that God has reasons for SOME of what happens. I just have stopped trying to control it or trying to predict it. I have wishes for my life, but so does He. And I think He is smarter.
When you were named a prodigy by Rolling Stone, did you imaging you’d be where you are now?
How could I? I had never faced failure in anything. Looking back, I don't consider any of this as failure, but I would have then.
Was it a conscious decision to leave behind the strings and fiddles on The Last Hurrah to find a news sound?
I guess so, but I really didn't think I was leaving anything behind that I couldn't go back to.
Do you identify with anything resembling the “Texas singer/songwriter” tag? Is that some to embrace? Run from? Seems handy, but could be a hindrance.
That whole thing is tricky to me. I don't know what "Texas singer/songwriter" means anymore. It's different things to different people, so how do you answer that? The wide range of music that has come out of here is staggering. Townes Van Zandt was very important to me, but my stuff doesn't sound anything like his. I have listened to his records constantly for 20 years, and still don't sound like that. It's there in the lyrics, though. To me, the whole thing is that he and many others at different times were approaching writing songs from a place that no one else could get to. That is much more important to me than musical style. I doubt that makes it any clearer for you.
What does Scrappy Judd bring to the music?
It has changed drastically over the years. In that time he has been director, sonic quality control, sympathetic player, partner, translator, and a million other things.
How did you wind up back with Freedom Records?
It was a place where I could simply do what I wanted to do.
Where do you see your career in ten or twelve years?
Career? I just want to be writing as good of songs as I can. Everything else is just a distraction.
Added July 13:
How's this for meta?