In keeping with the theme of the last year, nothing is the norm anymore. Nashville singer songwriter, Nellen Dryden has a collection of new songs and rather than hit us all at once with them, she’s decided to roll them out one single at a time leading up to a vinyl release later this summer. I am excited to learn more about the person behind this rich and thoughtful sounding voice and about her influences and inspirations.
AnaLee: I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon the first song of yours that caught my ear, I think it was, “What The Differences Are”. I went searching for more from you and was happy to learn you had new music planned this year. Since you are a recent discovery for us here at WMOT, can you tell us a little about your background, where you grew up and when you discovered singing?
Nellen: I remember discovering singing at a young age, mostly from watching my father sing in church. He has a soulful voice. I liken it to Steve Winwood. We went to a multi-racial, progressive, church in my hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut, some 45 minutes outside New York City. There was a very rich, musical diversity there, at church and in the city itself. I was very influenced by that, as well as these family house parties at our neighbors home, where country songs were crooned into the wee hours of the morning. It was very communal. Friends bringing over acoustic guitars, whipping out the drumkits, basses, banjos and singing songs of John Prine, Lucinda Williams and The Rolling Stones, sometimes starting in one circle, and another group breaking into another song, and then the whole room joining together and singing in unison. I remember learning to harmonize with other voices during those gatherings, and standing in the church pews.
I went on to do a lot of musical theater in my adolescence. More than anything, I loved the community of it. Wherever you go, musical theater folks are some of the most loving and accepting people, which was really important for a highly sensitive kid like myself, watching her parents go through divorce, going somewhere to feel a sense of belonging and joy. It offered me a safe space to express myself, make friends and let myself discover my voice and singing.
When I went to college, I started to sing jazz and the blues. I sang in a blues band throughout my time there and living in Brooklyn in my early 20’s, while going on auditions and exploring the comedy, theater and acting scene. At some point I started to turn inward, get quiet and find and play songs for myself. I had played my dad’s old Gibson guitar at home growing up, so I started playing again and writing on that instrument. I started to connect to my roots, revealing a bit of an underlying obsession with music and then just decided to pursue it more seriously.
AnaLee: You’ve released five singles so far leading up to your full album, Standstill. The most recent is, “Those Loving Eyes” and we’ve linked to the acoustic version you just released below. Tell us a little about capturing you and your band live and recording straight to tape in East Nashville.
Nellen: I knew I had wanted to record live to tape because I feel more comfortable in that live setting. I had had only a handful of recording experiences before this one, and my insecurities always started to creep in when I had too many opportunities to ‘re-do a take.’ Cutting live is more freeing for me.
I remember flying our producer and friend, Josh Hahn to the session. I got to have some of my favorite players in town, who I had either played with at gigs or admired from afar. We had Jimmy Matt Rowland on piano and Cy Winstanley on acoustic guitar and backgrounds in one room of Studio A. Then we had Jonathan Beam on bass, Jules Belmont on electric guitar and pedal steel and Jon Truman on drums in the other room. And then I was in a vocal booth, sitting on this really comfy cushioned stool I had brought in from my house. We had Drew Carroll engineering, running the board and Josh with him, running the session, speaking to us through our headphones. We had rehearsed one day before at my house and as soon as the session began at Bomb Shelter, we just cooked. Doing only 2-3 takes, sometimes 1, before we heard Josh say, “That was it, that’s the take...okay, what’s next?” We were simmering. Everyone was so humble. I remember being a quiet mix of nerves, excitement and calm, not saying much. I was a bit in awe of the moment. We were there for 3 days and cut 10 songs together. I will never forget it. It is and will always be a huge highlight for me.
AnaLee: Another track that really sticks with me is, “Tullahoma”. I love the nostalgic feel of the song and the video captures that vibe as well.
Nellen: I wrote that song in April, a couple months before the session. It came to me, after a night of very little sleep. I was exhausted from a late night gig, probably at The 5 Spot, where you know, the drinks just keep pouring. I was fantasizing about wanting to drive off somewhere, explore Tennessee and I remembered the town name from the NPR dial announcements in the car (actually from WMOT). ‘What a cool name’ I thought. I recorded a melody phrase into my phone and worked on it for a couple days. Just three chords, poking fun at the country music scene here, poking fun at myself for wanting to do this, and just dying for a road trip and ‘Tullahoma’ was born. Jules, my longtime musical partner, came up with that fun guitar hook, and we cut it in the same session as the others. I believe the take on the record was the 1st or 2nd time through. It has a summery, butt shaking vibe and I’m glad folks dig it as much as I do.
The video I recorded with my friend and local cinematographer Josh Kranich. We ventured out to Gallatin, TN and found this amazing wild flower garden growing out of the concrete in the middle of downtown. We got kind of run off by the community gardener while filming, she didn’t want us stepping on seedlings. We apologized and told her how much I loved the poppies, zinnias and coneflowers. My amateur flower gardening experience did come in handy that day.
AnaLee: How many more tracks are there to come and have you set a date yet for the album? I understand we’ll be able to get it on vinyl sometime this summer?
Nellen: Yes, vinyl is coming this August, which is a first for me. I’m really excited to hear the album on vinyl because it was recorded live to tape, so naturally it’s supposed to take this next form. I’m pretty pumped to hear it that way.
AnaLee: Nellen, it’s been great getting to know you here and I look forward to seeing you and your band in person, hopefully sometime this year!
Nellen: Ana Lee! Thank you so much for finding me. I’m a huge fan and feel honored to be featured on WMOT in this way. I can’t wait to meet in person and play some music soon.