Maritime themes buoy up songs born in the cityscapes of New York City
Some people are born to sing; others take their time to discover a voice they are willing to share with the world. Nels Andrews took the slow road to microphone and stage – but it was well worth the wait.
Today the cult American folk troubadour exudes a quiet and comforting confidence as he takes his cache of self-penned songs on the road across the USA and Europe.
His latest solo tour, showcasing his accomplished new maritime-themed album, Scrimshaw, brings him to the Westcountry for the first time later this month.
Nels didn't even try his hand at open mic nights until he was into his early 30s and living in New York City. "Some people can jump straight in when they're in their teens or early 20s and they have the whole world to say. I needed time to gather stories," he explains.
Raised in Albuquerque, he remembers being enthralled by novels and radio drama as a child.
"My grandfather had to have regular kidney dialysis and he collected a whole lot of books on tape and they were handed on to me," he says. "There was lots of pulp stuff from the 1920s and 30s."
Musically he was drawn to lyrical strength, spending quality time with LPs like Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie some Tom Waits and Dick Gaughan records.
"As a pre-teen I listened to a lot of folk music. Later I also got into a lot of textural stuff, too, like 70s Afro pop," he says. "I think songwriting was my first love, but I needed to grow into it.
"Letting myself finish a song was the hardest part; letting go of the inner critic and ego. Maybe that's why it took me so long," he muses.
"I was in my late 20s before I had the confidence to try stuff that might fail."
One of the key things that helped him to progress was a period attending weekly songwriting workshops in New York's Greenwich Village with legendary late folk singer and promoter Jack Hardy, whose informal sessions attracted such luminaries as Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman in earlier years.
"Every Monday we would bring a new song in an unfinished state, and there would be wine and pasta," says Nels. "Having a forum and a deadline was really neat."
Strong tales are what drive Nels creatively and the songs on his latest, third, long player are no exception. Its title refers to the art of carving or incising intricate designs on whalebone or whale ivory practised by sailors on long whaling voyages.
It's a reference born from a semi-obsession he developed as a new parent five years ago.
"I took a break from being on the road and I was working as a chauffeur for this older socialite lady in Manhattan," he recalls.
"But on the days I was home I would strap the little guy on my back and go to places like the Museum of Natural History, where there was this giant whale.
"I'd been writing songs set in the landscapes around New York, and then I became obsessed with whales and ocean-faring stories.
"When I was 17 or 18 I worked on commercial boats, so I already had an interest. And I started reading lots of maritime books and memoirs and the language started seeping into my New York stories.
"In the 1800s, whaling voyages would last three years or longer; several weeks, sometimes months, could pass between whale sightings. This gave the whalers a great deal more free time than other sailors of the day. Manuscripts were penned, and finely crafted stories were told in thin line on bone. I imagine it was the romantics, if forced to sea, who would take to whaling, finding somewhere to occasionally oust their courage between long bouts of contemplation, and rum. They probably also liked the rum," he adds.
As the songs for Scrimshaw took shape, Nels's life moved on again; his wife got a good job at a university in California and the family moved to live at Santa Cruz. He's now more likely to be found surfing the ocean on a day off than trawling the museums.
"I'm soaking it up – it's like a religion here," says Nels, who is hoping to catch some waves – or at least look at the ocean – while he is in the Westcountry.
Nels – accompanied by banjo and mandolin player Brandon Seabrook. – plays The B-Bar, Plymouth (01752 242021) on Thursday, April 18, and No 8 Cafe, Launceston (01566 777369) on Friday, April 19.