A sign of his youth, John Mark Nelson’s surgery last month to remove some especially troublesome wisdom teeth also might have been an unlikely indicator of his continued good luck. Had it come any later, he may have been forced to put off touring and other promotion of his new album — the flagship release for a new record label started by two Twin Cities music scene power brokers.
“I feel like there’s a lot riding on this one, so the timing could’ve been a lot worse,” said the 21-year-old singer/songwriter, who headlines First Avenue on Friday to promote his third record, “I’m Not Afraid.”
Four years into his full-time music career, Nelson still talks with the soft-spoken, boyish wonder he had at age 17, when he landed the sweet local radio hit “Reminisce” just as he was about to graduate from Minnetonka High School in 2012. Within months, he had earned a national indie buzz and hit the road leading his own band.
“Like being handed a sword with a blindfold on,” is how Nelson describes the years that followed. Meaning: “I still had so much to learn, and plenty of ups and downs to face.”
He admits now he may have gotten a little ahead of himself on his second album, “Sings the Moon,” an admirably ambitious concept record that turned out a bit overcooked and stiff.
“I had this narrative arc for the record and this very specific vision for how I wanted everything to sound,” he recalled, pointing with a laugh to a song that featured 64 recorded tracks layered on top of each other. “It’s hard to re-create that live when you’re performing in Omaha on a $100-a-night budget.”
While still ornate and lushly orchestrated at times, “I’m Not Afraid” is a much simpler, straight-ahead pop/rock record that can stand up better live. In fact, that’s how it was mostly recorded.
Nelson coproduced the album with Haley Bonar/Gramma’s Boyfriend guitarist Jacob Hanson, who also helmed Caroline Smith’s last record. They recorded it at the Library studio in Dinkytown surrounded by stacks of books, which Nelson likened to “a living room instead of a sterile studio.”
“There was a lot more experimenting this time, and a lot more of us capturing in-the-moment performances,” he said.
The new tracks range in style from the bubbly, bright, Sufjan Stevens-like opener “After All I’ve Done” — one of several featuring serene harmony vocals from keyboardist Kara Laudon — to the more manic and darkly throbbing “Broken,” and from the somber, Cole Porter-ish title track to the Talking Heads-lite first single “Dream Last Night.”
Contrasting the album’s title, Nelson described the lyrics as “a lot of self-reflection, self-doubt, fear, vulnerability.”
“It sounds like a cocky and bold title, but when you sit down and listen you’ll know the record is anything but that,” he said. “It’s almost like I need to hear myself say it: ‘I’m not afraid.’ I think anybody who wants to carve a name out for themselves as an artist or musician needs to say that.”
Nelson has good reason to feel more confident about his endeavors, since the new label GNDWIRE (“Ground Wire”) is being launched timed to the release of “I’m Not Afraid.” The imprint was started by Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett and Nelson’s manager, Mark Gehring, also a manager for Bonar and Pert Near Sandstone and producer of the well-received “Minnesota Beatle Project” charity albums.
“If I had to pick two people, they would probably be the two I would trust most to do some heavy lifting for me,” Nelson said.
For his part, Simonett said of Nelson, “He is one of the most creative and musically motivated artists I’ve come across.”
Nelson will have other heavy hitters behind him, too, thanks to GNDWIRE’s partnership deals with large bicoastal companies Thirty Tigers (marketing and distribution) and Sacks & Co. (publicity). He also just signed with the Billions Corp. booking agency and is awaiting word of winter tour dates as an opening act.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Nelson said of his prospects, then harked back on his early start at 17. “I think I’m more ready now to make good on all the good things I’ve been blessed with.”
Two years and one halfway successful crowdsourcing campaign in the making, the new DEMO Music Center in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood hosts its grand opening Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m.
Former First Avenue manager Steve McClellan — who founded DEMO (Diverse Emerging Music Organization) in the early-’00s as a nonprofit arm of the club — and executive director Ozzy Dahlstrom tried to raise money for a bigger center but are happy with the smaller space in a former bottling plant at 3530 E. 28th St. They envision it as an educational facility and resource center for musicians.
“We’d like to think of it as a clubhouse as well as a classroom,” said Dahlstrom. Lessons are already being offered, ranging from $25 ensemble classes to a six-week course. Details at DEMOMN.org. ...
Meanwhile, back at First Avenue: The club’s small, upstairs Record Room dance space will stay shut for a few more months after last month’s emergency ceiling repairs as the staff weighs options for remodeling the space. ... Theory of a Deadman, the Canadian metal band whose set was cut short by the ceiling accident, has very coolly agreed to return to First Ave Nov. 17 for a $10 makeup date. ...
Before heading off to Europe, Low will sneak into Minneapolis to tout its remarkable 11th album, “Ones and Sixes,” on Saturday for a free 4:30 p.m. set at the Electric Fetus’ fourth annual garage sale. Look for our feature about the record at startribune.com/variety. Look for steep markdowns and food and drink all day Saturday at the Fetus, too. ... Harriet Brewing hosts another Cover Me Impressed tribute band fest on Saturday, benefiting the Epilepsy Foundation ($12, 3-8 p.m.). Performers include Trompe Le Monde (as the Pixies), Jailbreak! (Thin Lizzy), Electric Warrior (T. Rex) and Elvis Cooper, which is — what else? — an Elvis Presley/Alice Cooper mash-up.