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Linda Nelson




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Where did the idea of “Wilderness” come from on this new record? What was your inspiration?
I had been thinking about going back into the studio to do another record for a while but nothing was really becoming clear to me about what direction to go in. At the time I was reading some exploration, adventure books, some history. One of those was “All Fishermen are Liars” by Linda Greenlaw. I was heading to Maine for a vacation and thought it would be a good read for that trip and it was. I was in the middle of reading the book and I’m on the coast of Maine and somehow I ended up in Alden, the main characters’ living room. It was intense. Through a chain of circumstance and chance I suppose, but it sure got my attention… Everyone kept asking me about Sebastian Jungers’ “The Perfect Storm” because Linda was one of the sword fishermen that went through that. I didn’t know much about any of this since I had not seen the movie or read the book. I avoided that one because I had a lot of drowning dreams when I was a kid and through some tinkering, well I don’t have drowning dreams anymore so I didn’t want to mess with that, but I had read a story by Sebastian Junger called “The Whale Hunters” in “Outside 25”, an anniversary book Outside Magazine put out. So I decided to go back to that. I’ve said this before but it seems to be the best way to describe writing experiences like this- it’s like a fire under your ass. Something about the story and the characters and the way it was written felt musical to me. Jungers’ a gifted writer and he was writing about something that touched me and so I think as an artist I just gave a nod back. I’ve spent some time in the Caribbean, lived there for a bit too, and so the visual was strong. This is where the song “Wilderness (The Whale Hunter)” came from and it all started to open up and unfold to the record I had been wanting to make- I knew this was the title track. This one was gonna drive the bus and I had a focus, which was good, and I started to hone in on some loose parameters. I gathered songs I had that call up wilderness and it turns out there are a lot and I read and listened to stories to help me to find which way to go.

I was struck by the line “quell with a kiss”- it’s clear that your lyrics in the title song refer to more than just the wilderness outside…
A lot of people asked what kind of wilderness I meant when I was working on this record and the beauty of it is, it’s a pretty big word. I love that.… There’s a wilderness of the heart and I feel like I’m singing out to that here a lot. Life gets pretty achy and it can get hard, we get ourselves in over our heads sometimes whether it’s flying cargo planes over the Sahara or swordfishing off the coast of New England, sitting on the couch or climbing Everest, falling in love or out. I just felt pulled to wrap my arms around the desolation that was still standing. But also too, there’s a lot to be celebrated - that good spirit, the kind that drives someone to invent the airplane. That’s wilderness to me. It’s uncharted. So there were a lot of characters around me and I started digging deeper and I found there a new wellspring to sing from. That seems to be what recording is about for me. I’m not good with knobs and the technical stuff, I leave that to the engineer, but more thinking about what a song is trying to say and the new stories that come along and add to the wind in the sail of it and really looking to sonically catch all of that. Sometimes it’s visceral and sometimes it’s as simple and clear as a fiddle. A song will tell you what it wants.… It seems like every project becomes a teacher and so this one has been that. It’s like the tree that keeps giving. It’s been quite a ride.

How long have you been writing?
Since I was a little kid. I didn’t even have a guitar yet but I would make up little songs in my head on the way home from school. I’d walk back the dirt road to our house and I would stand at the mailbox till I finished it. I guess I got a guitar when I was about 13 or 14. I took some lessons at a bluegrass shop and learned how to pick the “Wildwood Flower” but that’s about as far as my chops go. It quickly became a way to write songs.

When did you decide to pursue music?
When I was about 12 my older sisters friend Lynn Conner played guitar and sang and wrote songs. They let me tag along to Lynn’s house one day, which was a big deal back then, and we went up to her room and she had all these songs spread out on her bed. Her younger brother had just recently died so there were songs about him... songs about a boyfriend. Real stuff. It’s a vivid memory.... I knew that was what I wanted to do. A couple of years later Lynn passed away and I think somehow that galvanized the whole thing for me. That was a tough one and it was such a sad silence. I learned early that life’s a gift and you should follow what you love. I just opened my hand to the baton.

Who are your influences?
My first record I ever bought was Roberta Flack, “Chapter Two” and I bought it because my older sister talked me into it because of the song “Reverend Lee”. When I got it home and heard that song I thought I was going to get in some kind of trouble! But that ended up being an important record for me. I grew into it - It runs pretty deep. Sam Cooke was another one.... I’m from a family of nine so there was a lot of music flying around the house. Anything from Stevie Wonder, “Songs in the Key of Life” to Graham Nash, “Songs for Beginners” to Yes to Roy Clark. I’ve heard that you’re either a Rolling Stones fan or Beatles but for me it was CSNY. They were the real deal for me. I was also drawn to the records Russ Kunkel and Leland Sclar and David Lindley were on… James Taylor, Ronstadt, all those guys and that wide open sound… Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark blew me away... Joan Armatrading, Bonnie Raitt... amazing… I got real into bluegrass too…

Who inspires you today? Who do you have in your CD player right now?
Lyle Lovetts’ in my stereo. I’m going down to the islands to play and I’m learning new cover songs and “If I Had A Boat” is my favorite song right now. It’s really beautiful. Lately I have been drawn to writers like Shawn Colvin and the work she does with Jon Leventhal—brilliant, Jonatha Brooke. I think Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are exquisite. I love Susana Baca, Anjelique Kidjo…Craig Street is another producer I really admire…

Has recording changed your process?
Alot. Writing songs has always felt like painting to me and recording has been an extension of that. I don’t have a lot of guitar chops and I’m not real interested in the technical side of it all but I’ve been able to find what I need to get the sounds I want to get to tell the stories I want to tell. For the most part I hand pick musicians with a goodness and a vibe and let them have at it. Bring it to the table then guide it in if I need to. I have been so fortunate to have great musicians and producers to work with—John Grant, Billy Kemp, Rob Thorworth—it’s been like a college education working with those guys. Surprisingly, I really love the studio. It kicks my ass every time though.

You’ve got some characters on this record .Who is Hatchet Jack?
Hatchet Jack is a character in the movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. Jeremiah finds him froze to a tree up in the Rockies with a note leaving his bear rifle to the first man that finds it. The story goes that he lived in a cave by the Mussel Shell River with a female panther and this story is coming from her. She’s pining for him.

Wasn’t there a reference to Jeremiah Johnson on one of your previous records?
Yeah, there’s a song called “Timpanogos” on my first record “Waterdance” and it’s the name of a mountain out in the Wasatch Mountains that you see in the background of the movie. I think it’s a beautiful film and I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. I’d scan the TV guide on Sunday to see if it was on that week and if it fell on a school day I would fake some illness so I could stay home and watch it. The music in it is pretty terrific and I was just learning how to do hammer ons and on the soundtrack there’s a lot of that gritty acoustic guitar stuff I love. I remember thinking at the end of the movie that I wanted to go there so bad, just like I went out and found a tree to live in when I read “My Side of the Mountain”. Sam Gribley was a hero to me too. I think we’re drawn to things for a reason and I never gave thought as to why I was to this movie, this place, I just was, and from a young age. But enough people have asked me about it and most of the time implying that it was because Redford is this handsome guy. It used to piss me off because they were missing the whole thing. It’s surely part of the soup only because you have to wonder what the response would be if it were an actor that was tough on the eyes as opposed to easy. He’s quite an actor and I think what comes through his character that I’m drawn to is integrity and a quiet reverence... Respect for the mountains he is side by side with on the screen. Not many actors in this one and to me the real scene-stealer is Timpanogos. A while back I ended up out that way for a wedding and I went to the Wasatch Mts. and I’ve been going back ever since, usually solo. There is something in the ground out there that I was supposed to feel. It sure does explain a lot of things... It’s a strong place. As it turns out it’s a good place for me to write.

“Home is an incredibly touching song. Is it really about your family and upbringing? Your tiny kitchen being where you felt the most love” has tremendous impact…and will ring true for a lot of people.
Pretty much, yeah. I grew up on the northern side of Baltimore county in Maryland and we had a lot of fields and barns to play, ponds to swim in. It was a lot of fun and I feel lucky to have that in my blood. This song is really a tribute to my folks and to my Mom and Dad especially. My dad is from Athens, Alabama and my mom is from Memphis, Tennessee. They met at Memphis State and moved to Baltimore in 1957 when my dad got drafted into the NFL to play with the Colts. They ended up having 7 kids and decided to stay in Baltimore when he finished playing ball. This all explains why food and that little kitchen were such a thing for us.... My mom is an amazing cook and we had our own football team .We ate a lot! I’ve noticed that especially in recent years that I hear more and more stories of their home in the south and I really pay attention to that. Also too, I feel my memories taking on a different patina…

What made you decide to put this song on Wilderness?
I had a tough time deciding whether it belonged or not. I usually wait it out and try to be patient if it’s not becoming clear with a song choice. Those decisions can be tough because all these guys have to ride the bus together. There is a beautiful little book called “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and there is a chapter where his plane goes down in the Sahara Desert and he starts dreaming and drifting to the house that he grew up in to the point that he is transported and you along with him if you’re reading it! A bit latter I was reading an article in Alpinist Magazine by Ian Purnell about him and Kenton Cool and John Varco climbing Anna Purna III . It was a good article and it made me laugh which was refreshing after some of the tragedies I had been reading about. I was really scanning the horizon for an answer about this song “Home” when I read about the muscle that it took to summit and how close they were and how they had to so that they could get home to the good stuff and then he goes into something about chocolate cake. I’m a dessert chef so chocolate cake is pretty high up there on the list of things to think about. It’s pretty damn good. I had a piece today actually. It literally felt like he poked his head out of the magazine. Thanks Ian.

I heard you were donating a portion of your proceeds to the environment.
Yeah, I had a recharged awareness of some things and it just seemed right to make part of this project to be about contribution. There is a lot to tend to on the planet, it’s overwhelming and it’s on a lot of different fronts. If you’re sturdy in the mind and sturdy on the ground you should probably do what you can to help people that aren’t. No matter how you chop it, poison water and air is serious and it’s amazing to me how many people could give a flying fuck about what we’re facing here and some of them are in public office. That’s scary to me. And so getting my feet in the dirt feels important right now for a lot of reasons. I don’t think we can under estimate just how much going out and enjoying the day can affect things. If your head pivots just a little.... Appreciation is a powerful thing. There was a fella that wrote into Alpinist about his frustration with climbers saying they should be visiting with there grandma and stop claiming to be environmentalists and how climbing mountains is completely self indulgent and contributes nothing to the betterment of civilization or the environment. If it’s a beautiful day and you are in a bar eating cheetos, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and watching strippers I would say that was a fair statement. I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from reading stories. It restores a sense of wonder and connection and that’s a good thing. I get someone challenging themselves so—my Dad was an athlete, he played a game for a living and he played his ass off and what I learned from him is that it’s good for the soul to do what you love to do and to be that engaged and feel that alive. Hopefully we can strike the balance. Life isn’t supposed to be a sentence. Go fill yourself up and then go back and tell your grandma all about it. Make her smile. There is a domino effect here and I think my hope would be to be a part of that, help someone down out of the tree if they are up in it, hopefully inspire like I’ve been inspired. Stories do that. Songs do that.