Part of the 5-piece “Nell and Jim Band” , Californian based musician Nell Robinson is an artist we have yet to feature here at Belles and Gals. With the band’s latest album “Western Sun” due for release on Friday, and Nell having a very interesting story being a later-in-life musician, what better time to tell you a bit more about her journey so far?
Her childhood was pretty nomadic in lifestyle due to her father being in the forces, but her roots lie in rural Alabama where she was born. Nell spent most of her working life in political organized, non-profit management, and fundraising. She was the Chief Philanthropy Office at political rights magazine Mother Jones until she was 46, when she decided to take a risk and pursue what she’d always dreamed of – music and songwriting – but she has continued to combine her love of philanthropy and music by founding Whippoorwill Arts to help support and celebrate roots musicians.
Since deciding to follow her musical dreams she hasn’t let the grass grow under her feet, self releasing albums as a solo artist starting with 2009’s ” Loango ” followed two years later with ” On The Brooklyn Road”, celebrating life in the rural South, and then 2014’s ” The Rose Of No-Man’s Land” which saw her working with some amazing guest musicians including Kris Kristofferson. She has garnered comparisons to greats such as Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline, high praise indeed!
2017 saw the debut album from the afore mentioned Nell and Jim Band. “Let’s Take The Long Way Home” and in its title track you can hear the myriad of musical genres which inspire their music….Nell pays flute as well as providing lead and vocal harmonies, by the way….and since then they have built up a solid following and were due to visit us here in the UK to promote the new album before the inevitable cancellations were announced.
I’m grateful to Nell for taking the time to answer my questions, in particularly for telling me about her experience of the music business as a female artist coming into it later in life .
1. Hello Nell! Can I start as I always do by asking where you are right now, to help paint a picture as any great song does!
I am standing in our basement studio looking out at San Pablo Bay, it is a cloudy day here. Just saw my neighbor go paddleboarding by. He and his wife are doctors and working round the clock right now, I am glad to see him taking some time.
2. Choosing to change career paths in your 40’s is a brave step in my opinion…was music something you knew deep down you’d be pursuing professionally at some point in life?
I never considered it a profession, which is probably what got in the way of following my passion for singing and writing. Being creative was encouraged in my family, everyone writes or sings or makes things, knits, quilts, etc. But it was seen as a hobby and something you indulge in a child. I worked in politics for many years and even that was very mysterious and difficult to explain to folks. Sadly, creating music was something I left behind when I left childhood. Even now I think of it as my life in music. I live with my musical partner, we write and sing and create all the time. Music is woven into my life. In my heart, this is what I have always wanted. I feel so blessed and also committed to our community of creatives.
3. What was it in particular that finally made you take the plunge?
When I was in my mid-forties, I had already been through menopause, my daughter was a teenager and looking away and into her own future. She is my only child and we have been very close and bonded throughout her life, but the teenage years were a struggle; she was fighting for her independence and while I understood and embraced that, I was bereft of the human connection that our relationship had provided me. I was also working in a world that I was tiring of: fundraising, politics, and non-profits. My last “real job” was as the Chief Philanthropy Officer at Mother Jones magazine. I loved the people there and the cause of independent, in-depth, progressive investigative journalism. However, my heart was not in it. So it was time for a natural change, something to capture my heart again. My secret longing was to sing with a band and perform. I am an introvert and performing brought out a part of me that had not seen the light of day for many years. As I explored music and collaborating with musicians, all these disparate parts of me came together. I had not realized quite the extent to which my mothering, my career in fundraising and leadership in causes, my being a wife and partner were compartmentalized. I can say that on this day, just after turning 59 years old, I feel integrated and whole. My daughter has grown up and she is this fabulous woman, she just got her Masters In Psychology, she is smart and independent and generous and funny. So that has come full circle, I relish learning from her now. She has been totally supportive of my music life.
4. I gather you hadn’t performed in public since you were a teenager. How nerve-wracking was it when you first sang in front of an audience again, and did you take any vocal/performance lessons in preparation?
I sang for the first time in public at the old Sweetwater, looking at photos of my sheroes, including Bonnie Raitt. It was an out-of-body experience. The small bar was packed with our friends and families. I took singing lessons from Cary Sheldon in Berkeley and she helped me discover my voice. I remember asking a musician friend, “How do I know when I sound right?” He was so right on when he said, “When you sound like yourself.” Wise words and much-needed at the time. I also found a workshop called Closet Musician’s workshop and participated for a couple of years. The founder, Michael Lamacchia, who is a very community-oriented guy in Marin County, pulled together “bands” from the applicant pool and then coached us for six weeks, then we performed at the Sweetwater. He still runs the workshop but it is called Crossroads now. Look it up!
5. I think it’s safe to say that the music business in particular, and society in general, puts a certain amount of pressure on women when it comes to their appearance. Are you more confident to be yourself and not bow to these pressures and expectations as a younger artist might be, or is this still something that concerns you?
Oh I love that you asked this question. I do feel the pressure. Fortunately my nature is to defy pressure 🙂 I have been like that since I was a kid – it is a good part about being an introvert. Also if someone tells me I can’t do something, I tend to try to prove them wrong. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to look my best, but it’s my best, not someone else’s.
As we age, women become invisible and my women friends and I lament this. But it isn’t inevitable – I see beautiful older women all the time. They have an air of liveliness, of humor, of deep inner beauty and a flare for color and the unusual in their appearance. I started having fun dying my hair as soon as I left working for non-profits. As a fundraiser, I felt that I should not stand out, I wanted to make the causes stand out. That was really unnecessary. I have had brunette hair, red, blond (I am a natural dark blonde) and now it has been deep blue for almost 10 years I think. I had long hair but as I have gotten older, I like the ease of very short hair. The short blue hair brings me such positive attention and smiles, something I did not expect but that I relish. On the other hand, when encountering a mirror, I shudder. I feel young and energetic. Mirrors are not necessarily my friend now though. I had an old friend in Boston years ago who had taped up magazine photos of older and elderly women’s faces on her kitchen wall. They were striking and beautiful, with the deep creases and lines telling stories about the years they had lived and loved and lost. She was middle-aged and now I know what those photos meant to her.
Since I have a daughter – a beautiful woman outside and inside – I want for her to not have the pressures about looks and ageing. She seems pretty well-protected at this point! When she was little, I would always tell her “Look at you beautiful body!” This issue is on my mind… when we came upon a true story from a visit to Italy a few years ago, a story about a world-renowned beauty who lived in the late 19th century, and who veiled herself at age 19 because she did not like the signs of ageing in her face. I wrote her story into a poem and Jim and I put it to music. She built secret passageways to her garden and to the chapel so she would not be seen by anyone, even her servants. The song is titled “Limonaia” (which translates to ‘Lemon Orchard’) on the new album. It is so sad, but she fortunately had love in her life, her American female companion painted her and lived with her. We end the song with imagining their ghosts dancing in the lemon orchard, free. Well this was a very long answer to your question, I guess in short, there is an external message communicated in many insidious ways to women that we must fit a certain unreal unhealthy version of beauty but I refuse to go along with it and arm myself in my own ways, expressing myself through our music and my own quirky fashion and shining my light from the inside out.
6. How about the technical challenges of flute playing which were thrown at you….was that something that came back easily?
I was completely surprised that the basic flute technique came back to me almost immediately. Thank you muscle memory for the embouchure (position of the mouth for creating sound) and the notes and reading music. My tone is good, but I consider myself really mostly a melodic player, there are some good fast tunes I can do like our version of “Banish Misfortune”, Jim Kerwin’s original song on our album titled Bass Fiddle Fanfare.I am nowhere near the skill and talent of other flute players I admire, like Matt Eakle. But the truth is that I don’t aspire to be that flute player – I like playing pretty melodies and fun irish tunes and whatever I feel like.
7. When it comes to songwriting, were you always noting down ideas and inspirations with the view to one day turning them into songs? Had you written a song even in rough format before tackling your first solo project or was that an entirely new undertaking as well?
I have written poetry and short stories since I was a kid. My inner life was very imaginative and I was one of those kids who could happily wander the woods and create scenes all by myself. All of that got put on hold as I pursued my political and non-profit career; at that time, I did sew and quilt and knit. Those and raising my daughter were my creative outlets. It was not until I had begun singing with others in my late 40s that I wondered if I could write a song. I started to keep a notebook and jot down images, little poems, stories. The first song I wrote was about my dad. He was nicknamed ‘Butch’ and I wrote it when he was far down the road in Parkinson’s dementia. We had a troubled relationship, lots of conflict going back to when I was very little. “Butch” was my heart speaking to dad, with compassion for the early years of his life and how sad he was. Laurie Lewis helped me with critique and suggestions on that song, she was very sweet. Then I just thought, well, I guess I can write a song, as long as I like it then I will move forward. I do want to please people, but not enough to change my important decisions – that includes songs. Jim Nunally, my life and musical partner, has been a wonderful writing partner and we have been writing songs for almost 10 years. Often we combine a poem that I write with a melody that Jim writes and then work on it together to craft it. It takes open-mindedness, respect, good communication and patience, mostly to say, “Well…let’s TRY that idea” (even though I am unsure about it). Chris Wadsworth is a really great composer and lyricist and a dear friend who has joined us in a songwriting trio. We are all comfortable enough with each other to make it work and best of all to have fun with it.
8. Are there any particular artists you take inspiration from, as either a writer, performer, or maybe because of their overall attitude to the music business/life in general?
Well, Dolly Parton is a brilliant composer, lyricist, singer-songwriter, musician and beautiful person. I don’t know her but she exudes charm, grace, depth, soul, heart. I am just crazy about her. She has been a wise steward of her own career and image. I grew up listening to her. Her song “Coat of Many Colors” was a favorite in my family. My Mom could really relate to that story. She used to tell me that she didn’t know she was poor until she left home. She had all the riches of a loving family, a home and enough food.
9. Looking to the new Nell and Jim Band album, “Western Sun”, due for release on May 29th, how are you rising to the challenge of promoting new music while not being able to tour?
We are adjusting and experimenting. First we needed to acknowledge that our world had changed and it may not go back to the way it was. We have five tours planned, to Canada and Europe. To say that we are disappointed would be a huge understatement, we had worked hard to land those gigs and festivals and looked forward to meeting new friends and seeing new places. On the other hand, while people are fighting for their lives and essential workers are saving lives at the cost of their own health, we can only truly be grateful that we are well. So what to do with all that creative energy and the desire to connect with people through music? There is nothing that can replace a live performance for the musicians or for the audience, however, we are piloting a virtual variety show in the next couple of weeks, the Nell & Jim Show. We decided to throw ourselves into finding and working with creative animators, videographers and actors to create visuals and videos for our original music. We will have six of those ready from now through August. That has been a fun distraction and we love collaborating with other artists working in different media. We decided to move ahead with the album release and have a wonderful team of folks helping out on radio and press and social media. We are just doing what we can, and trying to let go of the desire to make long-term plans in this new uncertain world.
10. How would you sum up your newfound career in three words?
Joy – Challenge – Connection.
For more information go to nellandjim.com
Interview conducted by Lesley Hastings (twitter.com/lesleyhastings)