A self-described “‘Pride whore,’ singer-songwriter Nels plans to rock Dallas
Virtually every musician admits to certain musical influences, whether Mozart, The Beatles or klezmer. But singer and songwriter Nels attributes her style more to situations than to people.
She first studied drums and had a strong sense for reading, writing and playing rhythms. But when she ventured into the guitar, she was constrained by what was available in the marketplace, and looked for lesbian icons for a start.
“I studied Melissa Etheridge, Heart and Pat Benatar because their books were easy to find and their music was great,” she adds. “But my real influences are places and things. It’s not like I listen to one artist and think, “‘That’s what I want to play.’ It comes into me and I bring it back out.”
You can definitely detect Etheridge and Heart in her plaintive, lyrical rock ballads, but perhaps no comparison fits her more than Bon Jovi.
“I love being compared to Bon Jovi he writes amazing hooks that stick in your head and he has a great voice,” she says.
But when asked to define her style without external references, she’s stumped.
“That’s always the question, isn’t it?” she asks rhetorically. “I think of it as rock-pop or pop-rock, but really it’s a music of the moment. You always hear a lot of similarities between what’s going on in pop music with what’s going on in rock, and that infuses into me.”
That difficult-to-pigeonhole quality may be her greatest strength. Nels tries not to worry about where she fits in, instead just writing songs that are meaningful to her.
“So what if it doesn’t fit perfectly into any hole I don’t want it to,” she says. “I like to write, play and sing music that everybody can in some way enjoy. If you like soul music my voice is deep. If you’re into rock there are nice hard chords and guitar rock. Even country music because there are certain aspects of songs that lend itself to that vein.”
Mostly, what that means is, with Nels, what you hear is what you get: her.
“It’s not two producers coming together to write a song for somebody else to sing. I sing my own stuff,” she says. “People ask me sometimes why I don’t go on “‘American Idol.’ But I don’t want my life controlled by a glorified karaoke contest. Kelly Clarkson is a really great singer but started not singing things particularly in her range. If you sing something that’s yours, you’ll write it in the right key for you.”
Although she will occasionally cover other artists mostly when introducing her music to new audiences Nels insists she’ll never record anything but her own songs.
“I’ve got enough to talk about that I can say it on my own,” she says.
Nels is willing to put her money where her mouth is literally. About two years ago, a New York recording label was interested in releasing a song of hers called “Alison.” Their only condition: Take out all references to being in love with a girl. Nels declined.
“I thought it took all the personality out of the song and refused to do it. If you write a song about a particular thing, to worry about politics takes all the air out of it,” she says. As a result, the song never came out.
Nels believes strongly that her songs not compromise her dedication to the gay community to become more commercial by using ambiguous pronouns.
“I don’t write a lot of love songs, but when I do, part of the reason I enjoy playing them is for the community,” she says.
Her song “Persuade” is a prime example. It contains the lyric, “Honey, with a woman like you ” To sing, “Honey, with a person like you” is, she says, “lame. The story I tell before I go into the song is hysterical, so to make the lyric ambiguous, I would totally undercut it.”
Nels approaches her lyrics much like she does her music: Every word is like a note that has to flow logically. If the best word happens to be “baby” or some other ambiguous word, “then that’s what it’s supposed to be,” she says. Just don’t ask her to change it.
Given her out-and-proud approach to her music, it comes as no surprise that Nels not only agreed to return to Dallas for her second concert at Buddies II, but actually requested that it be during Dallas Pride.
“Because of the tour I wasn’t able to go to any Pride events at all this year, and I’m a Pride whore,” she says. “I love it. It’s like Christmas. The only thing I like better is my birthday.”
Originally, she planned her Dallas appearance to cap off her 2006 tour a fitting way to go out with a bang. But Albuquerque begged for one more appearance, making Dallas the penultimate concert. That shouldn’t stop Nels from tearing it up.
“It’s gonna be a crazy show. It was supposed to be our last and is still gonna be our pinnacle. I’m still gonna blow it out. I’m pumped, really psyched.”
Nels performs at Buddies II, 4025 Maple Ave. on Sept. 17 at 5 p.m. Free. 214-526-0887.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 15, 2006.