After a weeklong European tour with the Minnetonka High School Orchestra in April, a deeply inspired John Mark Nelson holed up for a three-day weekend to write and record one song. At 2 a.m. Monday he finished the song and immediately posted it to his Bandcamp Web page. Then he went to sleep for a few hours.
By the time he got to school, 89.3 the Current had picked up the song and slotted it for airplay.
"It was just so surreal that something could be conceived, created and wind up on the radio in that short of time," marveled Nelson, 18. "That's when it hit me: I'd better hurry up and make a record."
The song in question, "What Did I Find?," is one of two by Nelson that the Twin Cities' indie tastemaker station has played in recent months. Both are on the album Nelson just completed a few weeks ago. High school graduation obviously kept him from finishing it any sooner. So did the amount of care he invested in the project, which is the most impressive Minnesota-made home recording -- or record made in a parent's home -- since Owl City's debut, and the hottest solitary indie-folk album from our neck of the woods since Bon Iver's first.
Titled "Waiting and Waiting," Nelson's coming-out collection lands this week with an album release party Sunday at 7th Street Entry. It's only the third gig ever by Nelson's new band, which will expand to a 10-piece ensemble with strings for the show (if all 10 musicians can fit on the Entry's tiny stage). The show is looking like a sellout, too, with two other young Current-buoyed bands (Husky and Observer Drift) coming to town as opening acts.
In person, Nelson comes off as polite and clean-cut as Adam Young (aka Owl City), yet hipper and more gregarious -- and bearded -- like Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver). On record, he evokes such strings-accompanied, poppy folk bards as Sufjan Stevens and Beirut's Zach Condon. Local maestro Josh Misner, who leads the Laurels String Quartet and works with Jeremy Messersmith, helped Nelson bring his self-written string arrangements to life, lending the album a big part of its majestic vibe. Friends and siblings also sang backup vocals.
Otherwise, Nelson made the record at home all by his lonesome self. He has been making music that way ever since his early teens, when he was a home-schooled student. The whole family is musical. Dad is the music director at their church.
"I'd finish all my home-school assignments for the day by about 1 p.m., and my parents wouldn't get home until 5 p.m., so there was a lot of time for me to learn how to do this," said Nelson, who didn't enroll at Minnetonka High until sophomore year. He went on to graduate magna cum laude, by the way.
Many of the songs on "Waiting and Waiting" are about trying to get past that lonely-afternoon feeling, and past some romantic heartache that haunted a much rawer and earlier record. You can hear him coming out of his shell after his overseas trip in the slightly jazzy yet serene "What Did I Find?":
Now I've crossed the crushing ocean, now I rolled away the stone.
No more pining, no more guilt, I've learned to be my only home.
Sounding like a seasoned pro at interviews, Nelson said, "I sort of see this record as a slap in the face to loneliness." Predictably, the record is also about coming of age. As he put it, "I'd be arrogant to write as if I knew exactly who I am or what I'm going to be, when I'm only 18, so I sort of embraced those things."
The other song favored by the Current, "Reminisce," could be the next great anthem for high-school commencement. Surrounded by lightly swaying strings, hand claps and a chorus of soft voices, he sings, "All these places so reminiscent of our mistakes and all that should have been done / And in time the veil will be lifted from all I need and all that I won't become."
"That song is by far the hardest one I've ever made," he admitted of the track that could become his calling card. "I had it in my mind exactly how I wanted it to sound, and I just couldn't get there. I tried for weeks and weeks. My sister finally gave me some good advice: 'Just stop working on it for a while and come back to it,' and it worked."
Nelson has a lot of new things to figure out in the coming months. He has long planned on attending McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, but may put that off for a burgeoning career. And if he does go to school, he may opt to change his chosen field of study, which was -- surprise! -- percussion, the same thing he played in the high school orchestra.
"Ever since I was a young kid, I've wanted to be a professional drummer," he explained. "This singer/songwriter thing sort of just landed in my lap."New France connection
France Camp was seemingly living every young rocker's dream six months ago when he rode Howler's tidal wave across the Atlantic and onto the NME magazine cover as the band's bassist. He's officially out of Howler, though, and is now making a go of it with a group that shares his pseudonym and headlines the Turf Club on Saturday (10 p.m., $6).
"My main goal is to always play music for the fun of it, and I'm really having fun now," said the real-life Jay Simonson, 23, who was also a member of Nice Purse with guitarist Ian Nygaard before they both joined Howler. Being on tour in Howler was certainly fun -- "We wound up in a lot of hot tubs together," he quipped -- but Simonson headed for home when his girlfriend (and now bandmate) Max Haraku started suffering seizures. No fun. Howler opted to remain a four-piece, he said, "because they weren't making enough money to pay five musicians."
Simonson/Camp is working on finishing a record. Some of the tracks are now online and they don't fall far from Howler's reverb-heavy garage-surf sound.
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