On his first album in four years, Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Beaver Nelson delves deep into his musical past.
When he and longtime producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb began work on Positive, Nelson says their objective in following up 2012’s ambitious Macro/Micro was to “strip the whole thing down” and make a record “with the feel of The Last Hurrah,” his 1998 solo debut.
“Now if you listen to those two records,” Nelson says, “Hurrah and Positive don’t sound a lot alike, but I think they probably feel alike. We left so much space on Positive when we cut the basics. We filled in some of that space with different sounds; Scrappy would put a couple of guitars in there instead of a fiddle or a mandolin.”
Song selection also involved a trip down memory lane: Nelson sifted through his entire catalog for possibilities. That included a period when he says “things really got away from me artistically” — his way of referencing two failed record deals early in his career.
His archival dig, however, was a success. Positive, available now on Freedom Records through CDBaby.com, includes three of his older tunes, along with seven new originals and a cover of the Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul song “Men Without Women.” From his home in Austin, Nelson recently checked in to talk about his family’s impact on career choices, revisiting earlier songs as a 44-year-old and more.
Medleyville.us: From The Last Hurrah to 2004’s Motion, the longest you went between releasing new albums was two years. Since 2007, though, you’ve put out just three albums. What have been the primary reasons for the reduced output?
Beaver Nelson: “Children. A couple of years after your first child, you just can’t understand what you were so busy doing [before]. It just doesn’t even make sense for me. You say to yourself, ‘What was I doing with all that time?’ [Fatherhood] didn’t slow me down immediately in a big way. But then you start being involved in things. And then you start making active choices: ‘If I go through soccer season, that’s my Saturday for the next four or five months.’
“I’ve also had periods in the past few years where I specifically went inactive. In 2007, there was Exciting Opportunity, and then there was [a down period]. It took a long time to make Macro/Micro. That was a tremendous amount of work. I toured it alone, setting that thing up, tearing it down, driving to the next town — every night. I came back from that tour exhausted. And I was a little scared to write for a while because I thought, ‘If this turns into another thing like that, I don’t know if I can do it.’ So I went a year and a half without even thinking about writing.”
Other than taking up quality time, how else has fatherhood shaped the course of your career — specifically in terms of how you write, when you write and what you write about?
Nelson: “That’s hard to put a finger on. I would like to think that I learned some of this without parenthood; I don’t have the intent of insulting anyone who doesn’t have children. But I’m certain that there’s a lot I wouldn’t have figured out.
“For me, I started to make choices that weren’t the ones that I would have expected to make three years earlier — like a gig to take, for one thing. Then there’s ‘OK, I’ve written this song, and I really like it. Do I want that out there on a record?’ You just think in all sorts of ways that you wouldn’t earlier.”
Has fatherhood made you a better or even just a more focused songwriter, given the time you need to devote to your children? Do ideas come to you any differently or faster?
Nelson: “Procedurally, it made me more efficient because I had to be. But artistically, I can’t speak for better. I have no idea if I’m a better writer than I was 20 years ago. I started writing songs 30 years ago, so I know I’m better than I was 30 years ago (laughs).
“I know that at 44 years old, I’m less sure of a lot of things, and I’m more sure of a lot of things. Trying to pin that down in a three-and-a-half-minute thing, it’s a real different affair. The trick is for me, what I’ve always tried to do, is write in such a way that I’m creating something familiar enough to any listener, anyone interested in songs. … I’m trying to write in a way where I’m describing very specifically in each song an idea and how you feel or think about it. I try to write in a way where other people might have the exact same reaction but to a slightly different scenario. I’m inviting the person in, and then I’m describing how I feel, but I leave lots of room for the listener to [attach] whatever is familiar to them.”
Talk about what transpired en route to arriving at a blend of material for Positive that felt cohesive to you.
Nelson: “I had a bunch of different, weird, strange little periods of my writing. When you look at ‘the early output,’ that was me from 26, 27 to around 35. Before 27, the output was crazy — the amount of it. And for a whole host of reasons, those records didn’t come out. … The output was changing as I was trying to get my life back under me from the years 20 to 23, where things really got away from me artistically, I think. It wasn’t a great period for me. I was being pushed and shoved into [musical] ground that I didn’t know how to do very well, so the output just got weaker.
“When Scrappy and I were [going through my material], he had in his mind the record that we could make — the best of what I have that you haven’t heard. So of the 10 originals, we’re only talking about three that I pulled from way back. The rest were written in the last year and a half. ‘Willing & Able’ is one of the [older tunes, from around 1994-95]; it’s not a song I would write now. I didn’t add any lyrics, and I didn’t rewrite them, but I approached the song in a way I hope a 44-year-old would approach it, as opposed to a 23-year-old. I sang it differently, putting inflections in different places to, I think, create different pictures and varying degrees of subtlety.”
How often do those failed record deals cross your mind? And when they do, are you ever thinking, “What if I had done this instead at that time?” — or is it always “That was a blessing in disguise”?
Nelson: “One can’t know whether the lessons I finally learned at 32 would have happened earlier or later if it had gone a different way. I can say that there were long stretches — really, over the last nine years — where I really didn’t think much about that period at all. But in the past 18 months — specifically the past three or four — I’ve had to think about it more because I culled through my old material [for Positive and to make an EP that went to the album’s Kickstarter supporters].
“I loved the people I played with [back then] … but artistically speaking, I’m very glad [those early recordings] didn’t come out. If that’s who I was, that’s not the me I would want people to meet.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Beaver Nelson on tour (schedule subject to change):
• Sept. 16: Strange Brew Lounge Side — Austin, Texas
• Sept. 17: Continental Club — Houston
• Sept. 21: Sweet P’s BBQ & Soul House — Knoxville, Tennessee
• Sept. 23: The Grey Eagle — Asheville, North Carolina
• Sept. 25: Slim’s Downtown — Raleigh, North Carolina
• Sept. 26: IOTA Club & Café — Arlington, Virginia
• Sept. 27: Café Nine — New Haven, Connecticut
• Sept. 28: Rockwood Music Hall — New York
• Oct. 1: Dad’s Hat Distillery — Bristol, Pennsylvania
• Oct. 6: Uncommon Ground — Chicago
Photo by Scott McKenzie