Nels Andrews is a devotee of the journey, of looking out windows and into the spaces between places, or between people, of exploring what is in between your last birthday’s wish and the paint flaking off of your front door. His latest notebookful of observations and extrapolations appear on his upcoming second album, Off Track Betting.
Nels “grew up” all over the country, which he’s crossed more than a few times by now. he sampled college life before being overcome by a growing wanderlust and split – hitch-hiking to Alaska for a season in the fisheries, to South Dakota to plant trees in the Black Hills, before landing in Taos, New Mexico.
While apprenticing as a woodworker, Nels learned how cold the desert can get, drank black velvet in the back of custom lowriders and El Caminos with local youth who poached sheep with bowie knives. He lived alone mostly, in a mud and tire house miles down a fire road. His neighbors were well armed, amphetamine fueled misfits who kept their dogs log chains, and the grown children of elder hippies, whose gurus had all left town years ago. Nels befriended them all, especially with the small town drunks and prophets, who colored his worldview. He took notes, and hummed melodies, sat shyly with his guitar at campfires.
It was during this time, sitting around the campfires late nights on the mesa, that he drew on some courage to start playing the songs that had been growing slowly under the surface of his day-to-day. One such campfire led him to Kerrville Folk Festival, where he came out of nowhere with a homemade tape to win the New Folk songwriting contest, following past New Folk recipients Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. Confidence gained, he resolved to put a band together, and returned, now to Albuquerque to record a proper album.
That first album, Sunday Shoes, released independently in 2005, was deemed by BBC2's legendary DJ Bob Harris as one his “Albums of the Year”. The record went on to win critical praise from the US, UK and Dutch Americana music communities, and has earned him awards from Kerrville, Telluride, Mountain Stage New Song and Falcon Ridge in 2006.
"He has the rare ability to conjure entire vistas and characters in no more that
a couple of lines. His songs are music as landscape, timeless tales that instantly
take root in your mind as though they've been there forever. In fact, if Annie
Proulx wrote songs she would sound like Nels Andrews". Americana UK
This recognition has led him to tour the UK and Europe, as well as the United States, and has seen him on the main stage at festivals in Holland, Glasgow, and Newcastle. Although it was easy to keep humble, as most of this work happened between the construction jobs Nels was working back home in Albuquerque; he did phone interviews with the press in his coveralls during lunch breaks.
"On Sunday Shoes, Nels Andrews proves that he deserves a spot in the ranks
of today's Americana heroes". American Songwriter Magazine
Fast forward to today, and the release Andrew's second record, Off Track Betting, produced by Todd Sickafoose and due to be released February 2008 on Reveal Records. Nels has assembled a band that includes Sickafoose (Ani DiFranco, Erin McKeowen) on bass, Adam Levy (Norah Jones), Wilco keyboardist Michael Jorgensen, drummer Ben Perowsky (Joan as Poilicewoman, John Lurie,vocalists Ana Egge and A J Roach, and an amazing and innovative grouping of other musicians on surprising instruments. The new songs were recorded in Brooklyn at Trout Studios, and now spring from the textures and rhythms of New York City, as seen from the abandoned piers and rooftops as a new form of the red desert dust and sagebrush oceans
“Temple Incense” is a cinematic example of desert atmospherics and organic instrumentation, with banjos, accordions and bells that captures both the sound of the city and the swamp. Angular and slow burning, the sounds of new spaces. “These songs are hymns to that place, when you’re not lost, but you’re not quite there yet, when all you can do is know deep down that the next exit must be yours, ‘….screaming like a blind man at the races….’ ”.
Although the vista has changed, Nels found he could still draw on the inspiration of the mesa, and infused them with the textures and rhythms of New York City, developing new ways to express the spaces he was observing. "Sonically, I learned to push the edges in the exploration of acoustic music with Todd (Sickafoose). He had the vision to help me turn these sketches and storylines into cinematic shorts while keeping the desert places and cityscapes in the sounds. We worked at Trout and recorded most of the tracks live to 2” tape, having the musicians all in one room kept a real organic nature to the record. A leslie speaker spun the electronic farfisa and arp sounds around the room in such a way that you could feel them buzzing and hovering like June bugs and zeppelins. We sculpted out all the parts in real time, often using the first or second take".
With Off Track Betting “we strayed from the traditional folk sound, moving into newer soundscapes to incorporate harp, klezmer banjos, sampled electronics, toy pianos and a glass orchestra. A little distance gives perspective, and we were able to make a new place from the visions and imaginings a person may get when seeing somewhere from far away, maybe what you hope it will look like, when you get there".