Singer-songwriter Michael Nelson takes us through his new EP born during the pandemic and forged with the spirit of collaboration
I suppose any song is a time capsule. A little record of where you were physically and emotionally when you wrote it. Songs give you the chance to, in the following years, open up the time capsule. To have a listen and be transported back. I’m really grateful to have that opportunity with this EP because three of these songs were written during the pandemic, when everything was locked down and everything was different. All of them were recorded just after the world opened up, when we were all learning how to be functioning people again. I think in 10 years’ time I’ll look back on these songs and be amazed that they happened at all.
When the pandemic hit, songwriters and musicians (as with many other industries) were faced with the genuine possibility that our livelihoods might be lost. Music as an industry relies so much on collaboration and I’ve always written my songs with people in a room, together. Personally, I find that the most inspiring environment. People all working off one another to make a thing from nothing. Almost everybody I know in music works like that. These songwriting sessions are the lifeblood of the industry. So to suddenly lose that opportunity to be in a room with people was potentially devastating.
Luckily, someone invented Zoom and whilst there are many many (many) challenges to writing over Zoom it basically proved to be a lifeline. I don’t know what would have happened to the songwriting industry without it. So I want to talk about the three songs I wrote during the pandemic because writing them was such a singular experience and one (hopefully) none of us need to do it like that again! So…
IN YOUR UNIVERSE
This was the first song I wrote over Zoom. I think. It’s certainly the first one that got finished and I think it captures something of how new and different everything was at the very start of the pandemic. A step into the unknown. I suppose an opportunity to do things differently.
Zoom writing sessions are very different from in-person ones. Mainly, I think, because you just can’t hear each other very well. You can’t really bounce ideas off one another and you have to be far more methodical. You can’t sing a melody whilst someone else plays the guitar. You can’t really vibe something out like you can in person.
When you’re writing collaboratively over the internet you really need to come in with a much more fleshed-out idea. A solid chord progression, some good melodic hooks and definitely a good lyrical concept. That way the other people in the session are essentially editing with you. The chord progression and vocal melody in the verses was something I came up with in the hour before the Zoom call with my friends Todd Clark, Jason Saenz and Carly Paige.
There are so many love songs that want every inch of somebody. Body and soul. Total devotion. I was interested in the idea that you’re so infatuated with somebody that you’re happy to just be near them, to be around them. Somewhere in their universe. I thought that was a really romantic thought and I’m pretty sure it’s one that I had fairly formed when we started writing. Carly came up with the all-important chorus melody and the repetition of the “somewhere” line which makes it super hooky. One of the massive advantages with Zoom sessions is you can start something, get it into a good place and then, before everyone gets super tired of staring at a screen, stop and maybe pick up tomorrow. The huge advantage here is that you’re then writing on day two with really fresh ears. In fact, you can listen to what you’ve got in the morning. If what you’ve written moves you from a listener’s perspective, you know you’re on to a good thing.
An hour before meeting to finish the song, Todd sent me a quick production he’d done which absolutely nailed what I was hoping the song could sound like. He’d added this post-chorus backing vocal that just goes “oooooh ahhhhhh” but it sounded somehow like falling in love. And I’ve loved this song ever since I heard that bit. Even when we didn’t have a second verse and the chorus wasn’t completely finished, I’ve loved this song and I can’t believe it’s finally out. Three years later.
KEEPS ME GOING
This was another Zoom one. This time with my friends Andrew Austin and Breagh MacKinnon. I’ve found that, with just a few exceptions, the only songs that turned out to be any good that I wrote over Zoom were songs with people that I already knew. My publisher set me up with a lot of writing sessions with incredibly talented writers that I didn’t know.
Generally, the first 45 minutes spent getting to know people and being super enthusiastic before then baring my soul to find something we could write about was just too exhausting. You need to be able to give all your energy towards the song, and the pressure and anxiety of new people took a lot of that energy out of me!
So this one is with my friends. I love writing with Breagh and Andrew. First of all, they’re talented and lovely. And we know each other so well that the silences you need to think of lyrics and stuff never become awkward. Breagh always turns up with an awesome piano chord progression and melodic ideas that it takes a lot of the pressure off me. She did with this one too, so this song came together really quickly.
The concept of somebody that keeps you going, inspires you through thick and thin, is clearly pandemic-inspired. We all had those people that got us through. I think this took two days as well. Andrew made an awesome demo in his house and I sang it in on my SM7 mic later that day. I’m grateful to have had the pandemic writing experience that I did. I think it made me a better songwriter. Particularly because I had a lot of time to concentrate on it and because we all learned that we can do it even in the most trying of circumstances. That gives you confidence and I think confidence in yourself is such a fundamental part of songwriting.
Also, because so many people got in touch to say how much my music was helping them get through, I realised how important it is to make music and to make it generously for other people. That everybody else was having a trauma inflicted on them and that music and songwriting was so important for getting people through. That I had a duty as well as a privilege to try to help people and that’s a motivation that’s really stuck with me.
Zoom number three. This was written much later than the other two and I’m much more a shell of a human being. I’d done all the lockdowns on my own in Toronto. Months of not seeing anyone or touching anyone. I’d moved back home to Liverpool because I couldn’t really take the isolation anymore and felt pretty hollowed out at that time.
Not being around people, particularly not smelling and touching them does really strange things to you. You lose a sense of yourself as a physical being. I remember feeling like I’d never be attractive to anyone else, like I wasn’t a sexual being anymore. Worthless somehow. I’d also started to get really obsessed with my appearance. Spending hours in front of the mirror really hating what I looked like. I think it’s just a result of feeling like an imposter in an industry of beautiful people, having to do Instagrams and TikToks and Zooms and interviews and doing it on my own.
I wrote this song with my friend SE Berrios and her husband Danny. I wrote a song of mine called Got It In You with SE at a time, when I was really struggling to write songs and hating the process. A different low point I suppose and writing that song with her brought everything back to life. I think that happened with this one too. She’s such a talented writer and has such sensitivity too that I can really bare my soul to her. Danny is a great writer in his own right and they’re great together.
I’d come up with the chord progression and a good chunk of the melodies and we workshopped the concept together. I think SE came up with the title because she’s great like that. SE and Danny are also awesome producers so they made an ace demo once we’d written this one. That’s actually such an important part of all this, these days. You have to make a great demo if you’re going to convince a record label to let you record and then release it!
I love the concept in this song. The idea that you don’t need to be perfect. No one is and in fact, it’s our imperfections that make us us. I can always come back to it if I ever start feeling weird about my own imperfections again. I wrote the other three songs once the lockdowns had been lifted so I was able to get back in the room with people.
I wrote Miles Away with my friend Olly Gorman. He’s a composer and a multi-instrumentalist. Basically a musical genius. I’d advise anyone who wants to have a career as an artist to surround themselves with as many Ollies as they possibly can.
Once the lockdowns lifted everything became much much easier, so Olly and I basically started writing together for the joy of it. Olly had already come up with the Miles Away concept and I’m pretty sure already had the chord progression, the whole thing just needed a bit of putting together, figuring out what we wanted to say and writing a verse that would make the chorus lift once we hit it. Thematically and musically.
I’m pretty sure we wrote this in the morning and then played tennis. I wanted this song to just feel free. To feel liberated in the way that, now the lockdowns had ended, we all were.
I wrote this with musical genius Olly and my friend Kieran Shuddall. He’s the main man in Circa Waves so he knows how to knock up a pop banger. My main memory of writing this was just having a really nice, funny time. It’s such a great privilege to get to work with talented people, to try and mix and match your individual influences and skills and see what happens collectively.
I’d written the chords and vocal melody on the piano so it was originally quite ‘ballady’. Not on purpose, that just sorta happens when you write on the piano! But I wanted it to be a bit more guitar-driven so Kieran was great for that, and also for trying to get the whole thing as ‘poppily’ slim as possible. To take time to make the chorus as to the point as possible and make sure there were enough little hooks in there. We wrote it in a day and then Kieran took it away and made a guitar-y demo for it which was great.
This song is really the start of the next however many years for me. I wrote it with Cam Blackwood, Dave Sneddon and Jack Leonard. All incredible, successful songwriters that I love being around. By the way, it’s so important to do this stuff with people you love. That way you encode the songs with such heart and soul. Somehow you stitch that love into its DNA and I really think it presents itself to the audience when they listen to it.
Since writing this in early 2022, I’ve written absolutely loads with the three of them and, because of them, I’ve got loads of songs that I absolutely love coming out over the next year. If anybody is interested in songwriting as a profession, I would say the first and most important thing to do is collaborate. Collaborative writing is at first very hard to get comfortable with because you’re often opening up emotionally to people that you’ve only just met. But most songwriters are great at making you feel relaxed as the artist and are only interested in helping you get down on a page what’s temporarily stuck in your heart.
At first, it takes a little while to find your people. Not everybody is going to be in tune with what it is that you want to do but when you find them everything opens up. Easy was easy to write, fittingly. Dave has a great intuition for melody and Cam and Jack have great instincts as to what is going to move people. Particularly from a chord progression perspective.
If you enjoy the experience of being around people when you write, there’s far less pressure on the song. When there’s less pressure you ultimately write in a much more liberated way and, in my experience, when you relax you write better music. Cam is genuinely a genius producer so you basically get the best writing demo you’ve ever heard and then, when it comes to recording the song properly he is a total maestro. As he has been with these six songs and with all the songs we’ve got ready for the coming year. I’m really proud of these songs and I hope they provide some comfort and inspiration to people somewhere along the line. They really got me through in the end and I don’t know what I’d have done without them.