American multi-instrumentalist, music producer, and Pittsburgh Music Hall of Fame inductee Freddie Nelson is best known for his "United States" collaborative record with guitar ace Paul Gilbert in 2008. He has a richer musical background and history than might be gleaned from that brief glance. Since early success with his 1980's band Triple X, Nelson has continually found ways to reinvent himself and contribute to a number of projects.
Freddie now returns as an integral part of Gilbert's "I Can Destroy" album and it's a fantastic return to form. Creative, articulate, and vivacious Nelson discusses how he and music interrelate, his part in music production, his vital role on "I Can Destroy", and his upcoming plans, including a solo album.
How did this all begin, so to speak? Did you have an idea crystallize in your mind as to what you wanted to do when you were young?
Honestly, I remember telling my brother at a very early age that I wanted to be a professional musician. Not a rock star, or someone famous. I just wanted to be able to make my living doing music, and quite frankly, every day my feet hit the floor, I'm still incredibly grateful for being able to do it.
When did working in the music industry go from not being able to quit your 'day job' to being able to take it up as a profession?
It was just a matter of constantly working at it. I worked as a carpenter years ago, so there were many 15 or 16 hour days. I would get up at six, work all day, eat, then - straight off to a gig, until two or three in the morning. I didn't make a dime on a lot of those gigs, but after a while, money just kind of became residual fallout from all the work, and I was able to sustain myself solely from doing music.
How did you get in to producing and engineering? That doesn't happen to everyone who picks up a guitar. Was there an initial spark that set it off?
I guess the spark would have been just wanting to be a better songwriter, and a more rounded musician. Knowledge is power, so I started sitting in on tons of sessions at a local studio, and just sort of watching and listening. They had a lot of solo artists coming in to track without bands, so I sort of became the house band, tracking guitars, bass, keyboards, backing vocals: whatever was needed. After a while, I started getting calls from people to produce their music.
How did you start working with Paul Gilbert again?
If I remember correctly, I sent Paul an email, and said 'hey, let's write some tunes.' He responded that he had to do a solo record, but had asked if I would be interested in playing guitar, and helping out with some arrangements and stuff. They had recorded the last Mr. Big album live in the studio as a band, and he really enjoyed the process, so he wanted to do that with this album. It was just a matter of amassing a killer band to do it. I loved the process also.
When it comes to writing, you seem to work really well with Paul, are things still 'supercharged' between the two of you?
Honestly, it's a rare thing when you can connect with another writer, and have music evolve and expand. Even though "I Can Destroy" was not a Paul Gilbert/Freddie Nelson collaboration, it's still easy to hand things off to one another. Plus, just being around the caliber of musicians that were involved in this project was inspiring.
What did Kevin Shirley bring to the table, production-wise? Both you and Paul have a lot of production experience, so it's interesting that you felt compelled to bring in a third party.
First of all, it takes away a ton of pressure. You only have to think about your playing. I think the less hats you have to put on while recording, the better. Kevin was awesome to work with. He works quickly, which I like, because there is no second guessing. Just by the nature of how this album was recorded, there had to be an outside set of ears that were trusted. He was able to sit, as a "listener", and feel where energy needed to be lifted, or a part needed to be extended. He also created an incredibly comfortable environment with his personality. He has great stories from all the iconic bands that he's produced, and he is also a really funny guy. I think he is one of the greatest rock and roll producers of all time. It was a real pleasure to work with him, and get to know him as a friend.
How ruthlessly do you self-curate? And does that thought process carry through when you're producing another artist?
Honestly, if I have to think about whether or not something is good enough to keep, then it probably isn't. If I'm reaching for a recorder, or a pen and some paper, then I know it's good enough to use. It's more 'reactive' than a 'thought process'. It's the same, whether I'm writing for myself, or producing someone. If I'm listening to someone sing through some lyrics, or play through a riff, my instincts will tell me to say, "whoa, that's your chorus!" instead of my thinking about it.
Is it easier to translate emotions through vocal music or is it more gratifying be a little less accessible and make the listener work for their reward?
I think, in general, the average listener relates to lyrics. Everyone is a shower singer, or sings in their car. If they hear a lyric that can be interpreted about an experience in their life, they develop an immediate connection to it. It's usually the melody in the lyric that you're humming after you hear a song. In the instrumental world, people are looking for the calisthenics. The more "heavy lifting", the better, for the most part. You still have to have the hooks, but I think there is a little more leeway to take the playing over the top.
I've heard that one of the songs on "I Can Destroy" sounds like a song on one of Paul's earlier albums. When you're working with someone, is it really as simple as bringing up your opinion on an old song you like and finding ways to work it differently together?
Art inspires art... so I think oftentimes, just putting yourself into a certain emotional place by listening to something, or witnessing something, will lead you into a creative place. When I was a kid, I always wondered why bands would go to an island to write or record. New energy opens up different worlds of creativity. What I realized, as a songwriter, is it doesn't necessarily have to be an island, but a change of environment can open pathways for dormant creative juices to flow. I read an interview with Eckhart Tolle, where he talked about writing The Power Of Now. He said he was living in London, woke up one morning, and knew he had to go to San Francisco. He didn't know why, but he knew he had to go. So he flew to Vancouver, and took a bus to California. When he arrived, he managed to get a small room to live in, and simply asked the question, 'why am I here?' All of a sudden, a stream of creativity started passing through him, which ultimately became the book The Power Of Now, which was waiting to be born. I think music can happen in a similar fashion.
Where are some spots we can hear you on "I Can Destroy", but we wouldn't guess it was you?
I did play a ton of slide guitar on this album, which was a lot of fun. Playing the three part guitar harmony stuff live between Paul, Tony, and myself was awesome too. This process was a little different in a number of ways, from the way it came together, to how it was recorded. This was Paul's solo album, so he came in with the songs, and then the band kind of developed them. I did write one song for the album, called "Gonna Make You Love Me".
What aesthetic can a dedicated live room bring to a recording? Are bedroom recordings at a disadvantage these days?
Environment can definitely contribute to (or take away from) a recording, but I think at the end of the day if something sounds good, it doesn't matter how you get there. I'm a live amp guy, so I like the feel of a Marshall amp blasting back at me. I'm pretty happy with the guitar sounds I get in my home studio, and my amp is just shoved in a closet. I do spend a lot of time on mic placement, to find the sweet spot on the speaker.
With the possibility of a tour looming, what's your take on people using their phones or cameras to film full sets?
Well, media keeps evolving, so I'm sure before long, iPhone videos will look like they came from a twenty thousand dollar camera. I'm not really sure why anyone would fear it, unless they suck live. It doesn't help the sales of a live DVD, but it's just the nature of technology. I'm sure there are pissed off cab drivers since Uber came into existence, but we have to keep moving forward.
In your opinion, how do artists 'stand out' these days? Are there any game-changing factors that should now be considered?
I'm not sure. There was a time when sitting in your room and practicing for eight hours a day would hopefully have a payoff, if you got good enough. With all the reality shows and music contests out there, I think people see it as a fast track. They think getting on "American Idol" means they're good, when actually the average listener is willing to settle for mediocrity. Nothing will ever replace hard work, and always striving to get better. The cream usually rises to the top, so someone will notice you somewhere.
How did "Gonna Make You Love Me" come together? How did you convince Paul to put it on his album, versus let you keep it for your solo album?
I specifically wrote that for his album. He said he wanted to do a blues record, so I just sort of pushed the gears in that direction. I don't think it would have worked on my album, simply because the collection of songs have a different feel.
The music business climate is rapidly evolving, is there any anxiety, or just plain excitement, moving forward?
Everything is changing so I would say it's more exciting. Things are very unpredictable at the moment, which I kinda like. The worst thing that could happen to any artist is to be complacent, so where there is change, there is opportunity.
There's been talk about a solo album, what can you tell us about that?
Indeed! I finally have the ability to record in my house so I'm not at the mercy of other peoples schedules (studio owners, engineers, etc.). I'm tracking everything at home, with the exception of drums. I have a little electronic Yamaha kit that I use to get the idea down, and then I send the tune to the beast that is known as Thomas Lang, and he provides killer grooves and monstrous fills. I also have Nina Sainato, who is a world class classical pianist, playing on a track. Other than that, I wrote, played, and sang everything else on the album, so I had to wear a lot of different musical hats!
What's the next big thing on your horizon, so to speak, music-wise?
Still finishing up my album, then some touring. Stuff is always happening!
In parting, do songs still work their way through you all the time?
Music passes through me nonstop, but it is truly a blessing. I knew my life path at about six years old. I'm thankful every day to be able to do this for a living. Music connects us to each other on a level that we will never be able to understand in this dimension... I'm thankful to be one of the facilitators of it.
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