Singer, songwriter, and producer John Mark Nelson has been crafting his introspective, ethereal sound since a young age, releasing four studio albums that reflect his personal, artistic growth and echo the tranquil atmosphere of Midwestern landscapes à la Bon Iver. His latest album, I’m Not Afraid, was released in September 2015 via GNDWIRE Records. After touring the states with Irish indie-rock band Little Green Cars, John Mark Nelson talked with The B-Side for an exclusive interview.
Last month, you opened for Little Green Cars during their San Francisco tour. Have you been to the city before then? How did you like it and what did you do while you were here?
I’ve been to San Francisco once when I was 9 or 10. I love the city, but we didn’t get to do a whole lot – it’s hard when you’re touring, because all the time we usually have is loading and playing a show. We did stop at Marin Headlands before driving into the city for the show though.
What’s the weirdest or funniest experience that’s happened on this tour far, on stage or during your travels?
This isn’t a funny or weird experience, but we took a detour in between Portland and San Fransisco to visit the Shasta National Forest. It seemed like an awesome idea at the time, but we didn’t realize the route toward the forest was the opposite way where we were staying. We ended up getting lost after taking an unmarked side road, and we all lost service on our phones. By that time, the road was pitch-black, there were no other cars or human beings, and were were stranded in a thick forest with winding, steep roads and sharp cliffs. It was pretty terrifying, we thought we were gonna get stranded and one of the members of our band joked that were going to get captured by Sasquatch! Something we thought was going to be fun turned into a very poorly planned adventure, but we ended up finding our way back.
Speaking of Sasquatches, are you excited to perform at Sasquatch! Music Festival? What other festivals have you guys played before?
Haha, perfect segue. Yes! We are playing there for the first time and the lineup is incredible. We played at SXSW in Austin a couple times and we’ve also played Summerfest in Wisconsin. This is definitely one of the high high-profile festivals we’ve done. It’s our big trip for the summer months, so once we’re done with that, we’ll be recovering/recouping in our home state, and we’ll go back on the road in the fall.
Where are you originally from? How has your home town – the people, the history, the environment – shaped you as an artist?
I was born in Southern California but my family moved into a Minneapolis suburb. I grew up southwest of Excelsior. The Midwest landscape and scenery has played a big role in the way I make music and my creative and process. I feel the most at home when I’m near a park, the woods, or a lake and writing. A lot of my writing is about my own life, while the scenery and environment influence the lyrics, tone, and space of my songs.
You’ve come out with four albums since 2011 — how has your songwriting process changed and how has your sound evolved from Still Here (2011) to I’m Not Afraid (2015)?
It’s changed a fair amount. Some of it is unavoidable change. When I put my first record out, I was 17. I released I’m Not Afraid when I was 21. With the amount of life change between 17 and 21, you’re bound to experience an artistic shift. I switched my approach to songwriting at the beginning. I didn’t have a message or procedure or craft, it was something accidental and something I just stumbled into. Now that I’m four years into it, I’ve grown into a more deliberate, scientific approach.
I’ve also had sonic shifts. There has always been different instruments and concepts that will be inspiring from album to album. I don’t ever decide something before an album comes out, but when I sit down to write, I find that an instrument I never used on the last album will be the primary sound on the new record. On Sing The Moon there were a lot of strings, woodwinds, and orchestral sounds that were really inspiring for me. When I sat down to write for I’m Not Afraid, I used more drums and bass to make it more exciting. My sound has definitely changed since Still Here, which was much more sparse and atmospheric.
What does the title I’m Not Afraid come from?
The name has a lot of meaning. It’s a statement that I have no more fear. It’s something I think that’s important for people to say, since fear stops people from doing a lot of things, like loving someone or reaching a dream. Fear can be so powerful and crippling. Rather than being a cocky phrase, it’s more of a phrase that has a lot of power that can cause a lot of change and be a good force for the world.
What message do you want fans to take away when they listen to your album?
The album is a look under a microscope of the events, choices, and mistakes I’ve made in my life. In spite of all that, I’m not afraid to keep going or keep pushing. We all have things that we look back on with regret, but I want to capture the sense that we can acknowledge those moments exist, but keep pushing toward the things that matter the most to us.
Was there a song on your latest album that you had a lot of fun creating or experimenting with?
The songs are “Control” and “That’s What You Do,” which sort of just fell out of the sky a week before the album release. I’d come to the producer that week and he said he was gonna cut some songs and wanted me to write a couple more. Those songs are probably my favorites on the album. The most fun songs are the ones that just fall out of the sky. I think a better word for songwriting is “songwrestling” because coming up with a song can be so difficult and can give you so much trouble that it feels like you’re wresting it to the ground. It can be rewarding, but it’s nice when a song just comes to you.
As an artist with multiple years touring, writing, and publishing your work, what’s the best advice you’ve received about being an recording artist? What advice would you lend to other young artists?
Try to be a sponge and learn a lot and contribute a lot, as well. So many people have been in your place before. Sit down with them to listen to their stories and experiences. Do not let fear stop you from trying. Sometimes people think they have to get it right on the first try, but no one does. We all screw up and write some bad songs. You have to be willing to create, to push, and to give, even if you’re getting nothing back or not getting enough recognition. You just have to keep going.
Do you have any dream collaborations with anyone dead or alive? Don’t limit yourself to just musicians.
One of my favorite artists is Sufjan Stevens. If I could even just play the tiniest role on anything he’s involved in, I would have a heart attack. He’s influenced me so much artistically.
Who are your favorite artists you’ve been listening to recently? What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
An artist I’ve been listening to recently is Blake Mills. He’s been very inspirational to my own craft. He is a songwriter, producer, and great guitar player. Another newer artist is a Swedish singer/songwriter named Amanda Bergman. I’ve been listening to her latest album, Docks, every single day on tour.
I grew up listening to a mix of music. My dad was a classically trained piano player, and so I listened to a lot of piano, orchestra, and jazz. It was more high-brow, fancy, disciplined, and technical. My mom loved pop music like Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, Carol Kane. So I got to listen to a hybrid of fancy, classical music and music for fun and entertainment, which have both influenced my own work.
If you could only take one album with you on a deserted island what would it be?
The Shins – Port of Morrow. It’s probably my favorite record of all time.
What’s your spirit animal?
I dunno, a meerkat? I just connect with it.
Favorite ice cream flavor?
I’m Not Afraid is available now via GNDWIRE Records; stream it below: