Michael Nelson, a.k.a. the Wilryans, on the life of a journeyman musician

Gifted singer-songwriter-producer Michael Nelson, a.k.a. the Wilryans, makes great music, skillfully rendered pop-rock like you seldom ever hear it done these days.

Pop, in fact, gets a pretty bad knock. Has for some time what with a shift in best-selling acts leaning more and more heavily on a hard edge. You have to wonder, as an example, whether singer-songwriters John Lennon and Paul McCartney presently would be working day jobs, sitting nights in at open mics. Much as they eventually advanced to creating state-of-the-art rock, they did, after all, break in by writing and recording music for what once upon a time was called the Top 40 Market. Popular music. The kind of stuff Nelson—an ace of 20+ years with production credits on more than 50 albums—cranks out virtually by second nature: every once in awhile he gets a bug to do a new project, like turning on the faucet, simply sits down and gets busy. When he’s got enough material together, he stops writing and starts recording. Just like that. Between projects he doesn’t even think about it. Until it’s time to rustle up some more rhythm.

As with the best pop artists, Nelson’s eclectic in his influences, drawing from all over the musical map to create an inventive, indeed singular sound. With “Gravity of Loneliness,” from Good Everything, he crafts a gorgeous, laid-back ballad, light and tight that you can listen to at drive-time, making things just a bit less miserable when you’re stuck in the car going to or coming from work.

Jeff Victor, keyboardist, who works with Nelson, says, “First and foremost, there's lots of laughter when we're in the studio together. And when there is laughter, the creative channels open up, and magic comes through.” A perfect example is “Tony Orlando” off the new album, Bell Tower. It’s a right mischievous little ditty guaranteed for a good smile. “Some folks pass gas indoors, have to crack open a window/ Not if you got two nostril filters/ Just like Tony Orlando/ I don’t need no yellow ribbon, don’t need an old oak tree/ I just want me a soup strainer underneath my nose you see.”

Nelson reflects, “I have no idea where ‘Tony Orlando’ came from. That one just fell out of my [hat] one day. I don't usually try to write funny songs, but that one just popped out one day when I was strumming the guitar on my couch.” There are writers who’d kill to have a hat like the one this song fell out of. It’s got an easy feel that makes you like the tune right away. Then, of course, once the lyrics fall in, you stop what you’re doing and ask yourself with a grin, “Wait a minute. He just say what I thought he said?”

Off Sun, Moon & Stars, “Firefly” is the sort of beautiful mood music Stephen Bishop used to make. Pick up any of Nelson’s CDs or splurge and get all four (The Hunting Years, Good Everything as Michael Nelson, and Sun, Moon, & Stars, Bell Tower as the Wilryans). Either way, it’s hard to go wrong with this guy. Nelson plays a solo acoustic show as the Wilyrans on August 24, from 8 to 11 p.m. at the 318 Café in Excelsior.  

Promoting the release of Bell Tower, Michael Nelson took a moment on the phone for an interview. For someone of his accomplishments, it was a down-to-earth conversation. No airs, nothing pretentious about him. Just a personable chat.

Congrats on the new album.

Well, thank you, man. I really appreciate it.

How come you didn’t go by your name? Why is it by the Wilryans, whatever they are?

I know. That’s actually the street I live on. I released an album under [my name] and the more popular the Internet got, the more it was hard to promote yourself or track anything—just because Michael Nelson is such a common name. If you Google the Wilryans, unless somebody’s selling a house on my street, you get me.

Let see. Guitar, drums, keys, bass.

Yep. 

A lot of people are lucky they can play one instrument. How’d you come by the ability to play so many?

Started out as a drummer when I was a kid. Just having a basis, having rhythm for a base, helps with all my other instruments. I’m not a master at any instrument, but adequate. And, if [there’s] enough time to record and put things down the way I want them to be, I can sound like I know what I’m doing. Not the kind of cat people hire to play on their albums, except bass once in awhile. One thing led to another. I picked up guitar when I went to college, started writin’ songs. Began playing bass with the Hillcats by default, cause they needed a bass player and they were friends of mine. I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” Started [messing] around with that. Got married and my wife was a piano player. So we had a piano in the house and I played around with that. One of the only things in my life that kinda seems easy to me [is] pickin’ up instruments. Everything else gets a little hard. I can’t organize my sock drawer, but I can learn a new instrument.

You don’t work as a session musician. You’re a hired gun producer, though.

Yeah. I do get hired to produce albums.

How’s that goin’?

It’s okay. I’ve been doin’ it on my own now for about seven years. And stayin’ busy enough to, y’ know, pay the mortgage. Not getting rich. It’s fun. I love working on other people’s music. It’s rewarding when you can make somebody sound a lot better than they ever dreamed they could. You know? Billy Johnson, a couple of his records. He’s from Billy Johnson’s Roadshow. Gosh, who else? Tom Hipps. He’s a Christian guy who’s put out a lot of records here in town. I can’t think, right now. I’ve produced so many records, I’d have to get out my website.

Tonia Hughes sits in on your new CD. How’s it working with her? She’s just got monster singing chops.

Yeah. She’s a pro’s pro. A complete sweetheart to work with. She showed up for two hours and just nailed it. Her son is Cameron Wright, who also sang on the record. He’s just as good as she is.

Bite your tongue.  Nobody’s as good as Hughes.

Well, her son is in the same ballpark. It was awesome. I hope I get to work with her again someday.

How much material did you have to leave out?

This time, I think I wrote 12 songs and cut two of ‘em as I was workin’. The way I usually work is I get an itch to start writing songs about every four or five years. Then they just pour out of me in about two months. When I’ve got 10 to 12 songs, I say, “Okay, I’ve got enough to make an album.” I really don’t do a whole lot of writing in between. Unless I’m being paid to write something. Right now, I don’t feel like writin’ at all. To save my life. Give me a couple years. The dam breaks again. All of a sudden and I gotta write some songs. That’s how it works.

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Dwight Hobbes's picture
Dwight Hobbes

Dwight Hobbes (dwight [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.

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