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As percussionist and vocalist in Brian Wilson’s band (described by Paul McCartney as “the best touring band in the world”), Nelson Bragg is no stranger to artistic success, audience and critical acclaim, and huge numbers of fans worldwide.
This year, as he prepares to take to the road with the newly reunited Beach Boys, Nelson pauses to take care of a little business of his own – the small matter of his second solo album, ‘We Get What We Want’.
This is Nelson’s second solo album following the success of his 2007 debut, ‘Day into Night’. Here he talks about working with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, writing and performing his own material, his work behind the production desk on Anny Celsi’s 2009 album ‘Tangle-Free World’ and the journey that took him from New Hampshire to the very heart of the Los Angeles music establishment.
PB: Life must be pretty hectic for you just now. You’ve just released a new album and I gather you’re working with the Beach Boys on their fiftieth anniversary album and tour. Which gives you the bigger thrill - being part of a legendary band, or playing your own material?
NB: I love playing music period....though I must say I have only ever played my songs on Anny Celsi’s tours. I am a wee-bit shy about being a lead singer. So, ultimately I enjoy backing-up other people most.
PB: You have become a well-known name in the LA music scene. How did a boy from New Hampshire find himself on the other side of the States?
NB: I was born in New Hampshire but left at about three years of age so I'm actually from the North Shore of Massachusetts. I travelled a lot from state to state for forty years before moving to California in 1999 to try my luck one last time!!
PB: Your first album, ‘Day into Night’, was, I felt, a very personal album. There are some really moving moments on it, great songs like ‘Death of Caroline’ and ‘Return the Love You Take’. Even the opening track, ‘Forever Days’, hints at emotional upheaval. Was it difficult to expose so much of yourself musically?
NB: It was difficult to be exposed to the situations that made me write those songs. The song writing was a great relief for me and I think is for all writers. That said, I think a lot of emotion was released as a result of the song being done, and then you hear it and it can wipe you out but in a very healthy way. Like wow!! I did that in response to that pain...how cool.....I'll have a cry now.
PB: ‘Day into Night’ was a very traditional album in that it had a discernible A side and B side. Was this something you had in mind when you wrote the music, or was it something that came about by accident?
NB: Accidental. A great fortune of luck! The track order or sequence revealed itself with early thematic elements then through the day into dark elements.
Even the song titles followed the path of ‘Day into Night’. I freaked out when I realized what I had done or rather what "IT" had done. The record kicked my ass and owned me in the end. I was a new man as a writer after that....and all without Todd Rundgren's help!!
PB: You toured the UK and Europe last year with Anny Celsi and Duncan Maitland. The shows received very positive reviews. I saw you at two of the shows. How did it feel to be playing smaller, more intimate venues than those you would normally play with the Brian Wilson Band?
NB: The same mostly. A gig is a gig is a gig....but that said, I loved the Gershwin shows very much that I did with Brian. They were truly some of my personal favourite concerts with that band really. And the Anny Celsi tour was incredible because we got to travel in the day and see everything on the way to towns. We toured the Scottish Highlands!! Magic. Absolute magic!
PB: Speaking of Anny Celsi, you produced her album ‘Tangle-Free World’. Is production something that you see yourself doing more of in the future? Does it excite you in the same way as performing?
NB: Yes, I absolutely will be producing singers in the future. Anny's record was my first and certainly not my last. I think I have a knack for it and I really love the obsession it allows me to exercise in the studio.
PB: Your new album, ‘We Get What We Want’, has just been released. What can we expect from it? Is it similar to ‘Day into Night’, or have you taken a new direction with your sound?
NB: If people read this before they hear it I would say that they should expect a very different record with touches of the first record around in some of the tracks. I think my vocals have grown. I think the song styles are more diverse on the new one.
PB: You’ve covered a Brian Wilson track, Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long, for the new album What made you pick that particular track? Did you get any input from Brian before recording it? Has he heard it? What did he think?
NB: I set out to listen to every song ever recorded by the Beach Boys and all the solo stuff all of them ever did. One song of the entire output sang to me: That song! It was perfect for me....written for me to play and record. And I felt like I could improve on it's sentiment musically....on this 25 year old chestnut...to be more mellow with it perhaps.
I did it myself and he has not heard it or knows about it yet......maybe a 70th birthday gift for him this June.
PB: On ‘Day into Night’, you had some great people playing with you. I’m thinking in particular of Nick Walusko, Probyn Gregory, the Stockholm Strings and Mark Fitzell What is the line-up for the new album?
NB: Again, lot's of great players, Nicky, Probyn, Anny Celsi, Evie Sands, Rick Shea, Severo Jornicion, Carl Byron. Look them up and see what they've done. Crazythat they just walk in and lay down magic. But it's LA and there are just geniuses everywhere you turn.
PB: Many people know you as the percussionist for the Brian Wilson band. Taylor Mills tells the story of her audition when Brian asked her to sing the notoriously difficult Beach Boys classic ‘Surf’s Up’. What did you have to do to get the job?
NB: I knew people in high places!!!
PB: You played on the 2004 tour and album of Brian Wilson’s famous “lost” album, ‘SMiLE!’ How did it feel to get involved in a project of that scale?
NB: Amazing, historic, grateful, lucky. Those words come to mind.
PB: The track ‘Mrs O’Leary’s Cow’ from ‘SMiLE!’ won a Grammy. You played pretty much all of the bells and whistles for the track. It must have been pretty rewarding for you to get such recognition. Tell us what it was like when the track won.
NB: I was of course happy for Brian, but sad he did not get best pop vocal or pop record of the year. Those went to Ray Charles and rightfully so...but I think they could have afforded to give Brian one or the other. That said, it's good to be a part of a Grammy winning song but playing virtually the entire intro myself was a trip of a lifetime.
I don't think anyone else wanted to do it so I practiced that intro for almost six months to get it to sound as close to the original as possible. Bottom line though? I was happy for Brian. Just really happy for him. He deserved it.
PB: You’ve been all around the world, both with the Brian Wilson Band and touring your own material. It has always struck me as a dream job. Is it everything people imagine? Did you have a back-up career plan in case music didn’t work out for you?
NB: I worked many different jobs over the years and never stopped playing the drums. I always had to play in bands with people I liked and music I liked. I would move around so much over the years in search of the right place to make good music, to play music I wanted to play. I would get a job where ever that was and just have a good time at night.
I was always suffering a bit with the jobs and the girlfriends, leaving them for a band in some other state or whatever but it was always because I had to go. I had to go and join that band that might do something important. I've left everything many, many times but the last trip....to LA was the one that clicked. I would say it is a dream job and no I had no back-up plan and still don't actually. I could work in a haberdasher or be a fulltime dreamer.
PB: Thank you.
Nelson Bragg’s new album, ‘We Get What We Want’, is now available from his website www.nelsonbragg.com
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