He didn’t record his debut album in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods, and he’s not in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. In fact, he’s only 18, a high school senior about to graduate from Minnetonka High. But after a few spins through his debut full-length, Still Here, which was recorded alone in his basement over the course of a few years, it’s hard to listen to John Mark Nelson’s harrowing and deeply personal folk music without thinking about that other Midwest musician who found a new voice on his solo debut.
“It’s hard to escape, living in the Midwest, having a small beard,” Nelson cracks, responding to whether he garners a lot of comparisons to Bon Iver. “It’s a flattering connection, but hopefully it’s never something people focus on too much. Everyone likes to be their own thing.”
But of course. The Bon Iver thread can be useful when considering how to contextualize the sparse electric guitar, folded lines of subdued vocal harmonies, and subliminal creaking and shifting noises that lace together Still Here, which often forgoes a direct vocal delivery all together in favor of a multi-layered, intricately woven sense of atmosphere. But it only takes a listener so far, and soon becomes entirely useless. Nelson is just at the beginning of his journey as a songwriter, and his album seems less a timestamp of a particular time and mood than it does a bold, blazing signal of what’s still to come from this promising young composer.
John Mark grew up in a very musical household, his father a piano player and music minister at a local church and his mother a singer, and was homeschooled in an environment that, as he describes it, had an instrument lurking around every corner.
“I started playing the guitar when I was about 12 years old,” he says. “There was one in some dusty closet laying around the house and I tried to make it sound tolerable to the ears. And as soon as I developed some comfort with the guitar I started to write songs.” A couple years later he took up drums, too, all the while recording snippets of songs and melodies on his computer. “Who knows what’s sitting on all the hard drives and memory cards in our house,” he says, laughing. “I never shared anything with anybody until just a couple years ago — just really recently is when I started to have the idea of, well, maybe I could show people what I work on in all my free time, because no one really knows.”
“It’s very new and very sort of uncomfortable, and I’m still getting used to that,” he continues, hugging his arms tightly around his torso. “It’s really difficult, actually. It’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s kind of a personal thing, and so sharing it was sort of a whole new idea that I’d never thought about, and once I did start doing that people were just like, ‘Oh, you have to share more. What else do you work on?’ And so I started writing more and now it’s just kind of something I do,” he shrugs. “I write songs and people like to listen to them. I hope.”
Nelson transferred to Minnetonka High as a sophomore so he could study with other budding musicians and participate in the school’s various bands, and next year he’ll attend McNally Smith to study drum performance, which he says is his true passion. But even in his most earnest and abashed moments Nelson realizes that his talent for songwriting should be nurtured and nourished — especially since he knows people have started to pay attention.
“Now that’s an element that I’m actually thinking about when making music, where I never thought about people listening to it [before],” he says. “And now I’ll think about really strange details — like when I’m recording a song, instead of recording whatever I would have recorded previously, I might think about, well, how many instruments is this going to take if I were going to play it on stage? Is this even realistic to have 18 vocal layers? You’d need a small choir to play the shows.”
Nelson has also started adding more of a rhythmic structure to his songs, something he says he’s surprised was all but absent on his free-flowing debut, considering his strength as a drummer. “For the next thing I’m thinking more traditional instruments,” he says. “More rhythm, more up-tempo songs, a different feel — a more lively feel, I would say.”
His new single, “What Did I Find?,” already demonstrates this new pop-oriented mindset. Whereas the tracks on Still Here are introspective and somber, the new song rings forth with a spirit of optimism. Even his lyrics indicate his shift away from a one-man project and toward songs that could be played by a live band: “These 400 days I lived with myself are over at last, I’ve come down from the shelf,” the song begins, later instructing, “Don’t sit in your sorrows / Cling to yourself / You can’t really be you until your everyone else!”
Though he’s only played one show to date with a full band (at a CD-release show back in December), Nelson says he’s excited to translate his new songs to the stage and plans to perform them in a six-piece group this summer, hopefully with another full-length under his belt.
“There’s only really a certain point you can grow to as a musician playing by yourself in your basement surrounded by your instruments and computers,” he says. “There has to be a social element to music, too, and learning from other people… So much lives up in my head that it’s hard to get that out in words. And so my good good friends really understand the sounds I’m looking for, the textures I’m looking for, and are able to accomplish that on their various instruments. I’m very fortunate in that aspect.”
As for his inspiration moving forward? Nelson smiles secretively and says his influences are broad, yet simple: “Every song I’ve ever heard and every person I’ve ever met.”