Nell Bryden has recently had her 12th song playlisted by BBC Radio 2 and released her fantastic new album 'Wayfarer'.
We got the chance to chat to the star about her early thoughts on music, how she's progressed and changed throughout the years and much more in an exclusive interview.
When did you realise music was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
I’ve always known I was going to be a musician, from a very early age. I grew up in Brooklyn in a large loft with two artistic parents. I was raised primarily by my father who is a painter and a sculptor. My mother was a classical soprano; she and my father separated when I was 4 and divorced when I was 5. She would take me on tour with her when I was very young, and set me up on a blanket on the side of the stage. She even sang with me in utero at 8 months in Carnegie Hall. So my dad remembers that I was imitating her and singing what sounded like scales in the crib before I could talk.
When I was 7, my mom moved to Massachusetts and I stayed with my dad in New York. Life in Brooklyn until the age of 11 was ideal and I remember it fondly. I studied the cello and thought about being an actress (thank goodness I didn’t pursue this; I’m no good as an actress). When I was 11 the loft we rented was sold by the landlord and turned into medical offices, and we were evicted. I moved to Massachusetts in the country, several states away, to live with my mother. It was an unhappy time for me, and I felt like the kids at school were not “my people” and I was unpopular. I eventually found solace in listening to Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix while driving the country roads in my first car. It wasn’t until then that I really started feeling I could be a singer-songwriter. Janis and Jimi, like they have with so many other angsty teenagers, made me feel like I had friends, I had people that were right in my ear that sounded immediate, and they got what I was going through. ‘Little Wing,’ which I will have played at my funeral, I just had it on repeat one weekend, I couldn’t turn it off.
I took a gap year after high school before university, and travelled to Australia alone with a backpack and a Lonely Planet guidebook and had the time of my life meeting other strangers and “finding myself.” On the advice of some other backpackers I met, I bought a cheap guitar so I could accompany myself on the little acapella “ditties” I was composing. I was terrible at it and the guitar was heavy and unwieldy, but the passion to learn how to play had firmly taken hold.
When I returned to the US, I went to a very academically serious all-girls university in Boston. I led a double life, living off campus, and hanging out at the folk clubs in Boston where I would play the open mics. I recorded my first EP, got the taste for recording, and knew I was doomed because it was all I wanted to ever do with my life. I studied English literature but knew all along that I’d be playing the bars and clubs instead of getting a “normal” office job like all the other graduates.
So I think I’ve always been a musician professionally, whether I was making money at it or not. I had other jobs (waitress, nanny) but they felt so temporary and inconsequential that they hardly made a blip on my consciousness. It was always music first. I never had a fall back plan because I never planned to fall back on anything else.
What are some of your other earliest music-based memories?
I remember my mom having rehearsals with her friends in the Brooklyn loft and the musicians being funny and loud. I remember being taken to classical concerts (I was so bored at the time!), and also listening to classic rock radio with my dad in his studio while he painted.
How best would you describe yourself as an artist?
My dad as an artist/painter was asked to fill out a Q&A one time in a newspaper, and I’ll never forget his responses to these two questions:
Greatest quality: Perseverance
Worst quality: Perseverance
Whether I am like my dad in that regard or not, I certainly aspire to be.
You latest single 'Wayfarer' is released soon, what is it that you love about this track?
Wayfarer means “someone who wanders.” I’ve been a travelling nomad as a touring musician for many years, and have been privileged to see all different parts of the world and collect friends and colleagues in far-flung places. So I wanted something that would have that travelling theme in it.
How was the experience of filming the music video for 'Wayfarer'?
The video director Ron Yeadon is super creative and came up with the whole green screen concept. I knew I wanted it to be travel-related, and show my two home cities London and New York, but I wasn’t sure how to get that across. Then Nikki Woolf, my makeup artist, completed the look with both the gold leaf on my face, and also a kind of tribal white face paint. You can get away with a lot more when you don’t have hair!
Your album of the same name follows the single release, what can you tell us about the creative process behind this record?
I've gotten more into funk and dance influences on the latest album Wayfarer, with the two young East London producers I worked with. Because my life is so upbeat and happy these days (I’ve recently gotten married and I’m expecting a baby), I wanted to come up with a sound that was less cry-in-your-beer country ballad than I’d done before, and more a drive-your-car-with-the-windows-down summer album that you’d want to move to.
How difficult is it to put together a body of new work?
Each album I put out has about 11-13 songs, but there would be about 40 songs I wrote and demoed up in order to get to the final stages of recording. So it’s a long process of coming up with the right mixture of songs, and then figuring out how best to record that sound. For instance for Wayfarer, we recorded a whole up-tempo upbeat album that reflected the emotional direction my life was going in, and then when I got to the end I decided to do all the songs again, but as stripped-back acoustic versions. So it’s a double album.
If you could work with anybody going forward, who would you choose and why?
I met Nile Rodgers when I was part of a documentary about the healing power of music, filmed while I did a tour in Iraq. He is such a gentle and kind person, and I'm privileged to know him. He also has a wicked funk sense, and is the king of rhythm guitar today. We used a lot of his influence on my new album, and I'd love to do a Daft Punk / Pharrell Williams style collaboration with him.
If we are talking acoustic collaborations though, I’d say Robert Plant seems like a guy who's lived the crazy rock and roll lifestyle and has come out the other side intact and still loving music and growing artistically. I love his work recently with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss and alt-country singer Nancy Griffith.
Your tour kicks off in September, what should fans coming to those shows expect?
It's always a joy to take an album sound that's a new direction and try it out with a live band, plus we'll be doing some of the old favourites from previous albums of course. And I'm nearly 6 months pregnant now, and I've already got a baby bump to contend with, so by September/October your guess is as good as mine how it will work! My due date is 27 November. It's certainly making holding the guitar more interesting by the day!
Do you have a definitive aim as a musician?
I think that people that are truly themselves - not these airbrushed, photo-shopped, auto-tuned celebrities that are created by a backstage board-committee - are the most interesting songwriters. My aim, after losing my hair, finding love, becoming a mom, and remaining independent as a businesswoman, is to show people that everything I’ve been through is what makes me who I am, and that being ashamed of who you are is counterproductive. I try to be confident in my own skin, even though like most women there are countless things I would like to change about myself. It’s a life lesson I want to pass on to my daughter; I want her to be accepting of whoever she ends up being too.
Finally, are there any other projects you're currently involved with that you can share some details about?
I will be hosting my own program on Radio 2 on August 25. It’s called 'Nell Bryden’s New York Hour', and I will play music that has to do with my hometown. So many singer-songwriters have passed through the streets of Greenwich village where I live (from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed), and it’s been inspiring to follow in their footsteps in the music haunts they frequented.
Nell Bryden's new album 'Wayfarer' is out Monday, July 28. The single of the same name is to be released on August 4.