Drew Nelson and the characters of Tilt-A-Whirl
Drew Nelson recently released his Red House debut, Tilt-A-Whirl. A crossroads between Springsteen roots-rock and Nanci Griffith storytelling, the record gives a fresh voice to tough times and resilient characters. We asked him to take some time and answer a few questions so you could get to know bit more about him and the songs from Tilt-A-Whirl.
A lot of your songs are character driven. Is there a specific story that you’re attracted to when writing?
Most of the stories come from me listening in on others’ conversations whether at the local diner or Home Depot or just hanging out. I’m always looking for that gem that someone throws out there (usually take totally out of context). I’m also stealing stuff from the folks around me. Most of these character songs are based on the people I knew growing up or know now.
Once in a while I’ll rip something from the news. The song ‘Dust’ was one of those. I read about a guy who bulldozed the house he had built rather than let the bank take it. It was hard to rhyme ‘bulldozed’ so I had him burn it. Combine that with my love for Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck I used the modern day dust bowl idea.
How do you decide what stories/characters are good for a song and which ones should be left alone?
Sometimes I don’t feel I have much of a choice. There are a few songs I call Ghost Songs. ‘St. Jude’ and ’5th of September’ are two of those. I wrote ‘St. Jude’ with my friend Janni Littlepage in California at one of Brett Perkins songwriting retreats. I woke up singing the first line of that song, “I left my country in 1863″. When Janni and I got together to work on a song it was like this woman just showed up and demanded we write about her. We wrote the entire song in an hour or so. A month or so later Janni did some research and found a woman who left Ireland by herself in 1863 on the ship “Ellanora.” In the song the ship is called “The Ellenore”. I asked her not to look into it anymore.
Tilt-A-Whirl is pretty rockin’ for a “folk” album. Was that intentional or is that just how the songs came out?
Way back in 1999 when I made my very first record there were some rockin’ songs on there. I started bringing that part of me back on my Dusty Road to Beulah Land record with songs like ‘Stranger’ and ‘Waiting for the Sun.’
I know you’re an avid Detroit Tigers fan. If one of the Tigers came to you asking you for one of your songs to play as they walked up to bat, which song would you choose for them?
Probably ‘The Tigers Song’ that I wrote for them when they went to the World Series in 2006. It started out as a blurb for my friend’s sports radio show (The HUGE Show) during the playoffs. Then I reworked the song when they went on to the ALCS (Miggie’s walk off home run!) and Dan Dickerson started playing the song during Tigers radio broadcasts of games. Fox Sports got on board and made a video of my song with the players in it to be played during the next World Series game the Tigers won! Well, we lost the next three in a row and they never used my song.
The silver lining is that I was asked to sing the song at the West Michigan Whitcaps (my hometown Tigers minor league team) and ended up getting to hang out with a bunch of Tigers greats and Jim Leyland himself! My favorite was Tommy Brookens (the Tigers 3 baseman on the world champion ’84 team). I used to pretend I was Tommy Brookens when I played yard ball as a kid.
What are some albums/artists you’re currently into?
Believe it or not I’m more influenced by poets and authors than by other musicians. I love Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, and Jim Harrison. I do love James McMurtry’s songs. He really gets into his subjects’ heads. Peter Mulvey is tremendous. Oh, and Greg Brown. He’s the master.
from the official Red House Records blog–The Blog Cabin