Travelling troubador Nels comes back to the Highlands
LIVING on the California coast, singer-songwriter Nels Andrews can start his day with a spot of surfing before enjoying the sunshine of the Golden State.
But he is still happy to give all that up to return to the milder climes of Caledonia, despite his last travels in the Highlands being an ancient VW camper van with no heater.
"It’s the landscape and the people that draw me back," he explained.
"You guys have a pretty good spot up there."
Andrews, who was born in Oakland, California, should have plenty to compare us to. Travel is not just a key inspiration of his music, but he also states that he wants to take his listeners on a journey of their own.
"My goal is to paint these little dreamscapes that I sort of walk through. If someone at the end of the show or the end of the record we feel like we’ve been on a little journey together, then I’ve done my job," he said.
"I’ve always been itinerant — even before I got into songwriting. I’ve lived all over the United States so it’s turned out that every time I’ve made a record, I’ve taken in little pieces of that landscape.
"My first record was in New Mexico, then I was in New York. Now I’ve been gathering all these California stories which I’m about to test out — on you guys!"
Inevitably over the course of these travels, Andrews’ music has changed.
"When I first set up, I was interested in a lot of detail and how the verses fit together," he said.
"When I first started out, music was very personal and something I did on my own. That’s changed through playing these little clubs where you can look people in the eye. I like it when people sing along now,"
His career had an early boost when he won the songwriting contest at the annual Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, following such past winners as Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Slaid Cleaves.
"I was just starting out and for me that was an affirmation: keep going," he said.
The most recent examples of Andrews’s songwriting are to be found on his album Scrimshaw — his "New York album" and one that came four years after second release Off Track Betting.
"I’d been travelling pretty solidly, but we had a son and I decided to take time off and settled in New York for a while and worked as a chauffeur," he explained.
"I’d read Moby Dick and with whalers scrimshaw was this really intricate carving they would do on bone between voyages. That was definitely the downtime for me in between the hunt, so to speak. I had a really long time to obsess over these songs. Usually I would set a couple of weeks aside and write a record. This was different. I had the beautiful gift of time to work on them.
"The great thing about New York is that any emotional idea you have, you can see it unfolding in front of you. You will see a fist fight and you will see heartbreak all going down in public because everything happens in the streets in New York."
On these trips around New York, Andrews would often be accompanied by his young son and would sing to him as they wandered about the city.
However, there was one time Andrews was stumped by his son’s musical request.
"He wanted to sing the song about the ants," Andrews recalled.
"What song about the ants? — ‘The ants all, my friend, are blowing in the wind’."
• Nels Andrews will be performing at IG:LU artspace at 19 Church Street, Inverness, on Wednesday 21st May from 8pm.