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INTERVIEW WITH LINDA NELSON—DECEMBER 2005
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
Im 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 didnt 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 dont have drowning dreams anymore so I didnt 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. Ive said this before but it seems to be the best
way to describe writing experiences like this- its 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. Ive 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- its 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, its a pretty big word. I love
Theres a wilderness of the heart and I feel like Im 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 its 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, theres a lot to be celebrated - that good spirit, the kind
that drives someone to invent the airplane. Thats wilderness to me. Its
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. Im 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
its visceral and sometimes its 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. Its like the tree that keeps giving. Its
been quite a ride.
How long have you been writing?
Since I was a little kid. I didnt even have a guitar yet but I would
make up little songs in my head on the way home from school. Id 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 thats 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 Lynns 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.
Its 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 lifes 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....
Im 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. Ive heard that youre
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 Mitchells Court and Spark blew me
away... Joan Armatrading, Bonnie Raitt... amazing
I got real into bluegrass
Who inspires you today? Who do you have in your CD player right now?
Lyle Lovetts in my stereo. Im going down to the islands to play and
Im learning new cover songs and If I Had A Boat is my favorite song
right now. Its 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
Has recording changed your process?
Alot. Writing songs has always felt like painting to me and recording
has been an extension of that. I dont have a lot of guitar chops and
Im not real interested in the technical side of it all but Ive 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—its
been like a college education working with those guys. Surprisingly, I
really love the studio. It kicks my ass every time though.
Youve 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. Shes pining for him.
Wasnt there a reference to Jeremiah Johnson on one of your previous
Yeah, theres a song called Timpanogos on my first record Waterdance
and its the name of a mountain out in the Wasatch Mountains that you
see in the background of the movie. I think its a beautiful film and
Ive been watching it since I was a kid. Id 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
theres 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 were 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. Its 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. Hes quite an actor and I think what comes
through his character that Im 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 Ive 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... Its a strong place. As it turns out its 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!
Ive 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 its 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 youre 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. Im a dessert chef so
chocolate cake is pretty high up there on the list of things to think
about. Its 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, its overwhelming and its on a lot of different
fronts. If youre sturdy in the mind and sturdy on the ground you should
probably do what you can to help people that arent. No matter how you
chop it, poison water and air is serious and its amazing to me how many
people could give a flying fuck about what were facing here and some
of them are in public office. Thats scary to me. And so getting my feet
in the dirt feels important right now for a lot of reasons. I dont 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 its 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. Ive gotten a lot of inspiration from reading
stories. It restores a sense of wonder and connection and thats 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 its 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 isnt 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 Ive
been inspired. Stories do that. Songs do that.