GP Flashback: Bill Nelson, March 2004

November 14, 2011
Surrendering to the commands of pure creative thought is one of the most frightening actions an artist can take. Few, in fact, even consider manifesting and then releasing such naked revelations, opting instead to refine and refashion a piece until the final work is far removed from the emotion that inspired it.

On the other extreme, you have Bill Nelson—a creator who adores releasing works-in-progress, demos, one-take recording projects, and other in-the-moment works. And Nelson doesn’t just tempt creative fate with his formidable guitar and music-composition skills, he’s also an acclaimed painter, multimedia artist, graphic designer, audio producer, video director, writer, and photographer. While it would be inaccurate to declare that Nelson never tweaks and polishes his projects—he’s certainly capable of artistic re-engineering—it’s the initial spark of wonder and emotion that most informs everything he produces.

Here’s another inspiring aspect of this post-modern Renaissance man: Write his name into the search engine of the online All Music Guide ( and be prepared to scroll almost endlessly through his credits. Since his emergence as a folky solo artist in 1971, through his late-’70s guitar hero days with Be Bop Deluxe, to his incarnation of the past 20-odd years as an aural adventurer, Nelson has produced a phenomenal amount of music. He is truly someone who has been blessed with an antenna that constantly finds illumination in all things, and he’s the perfect artist to open our forum on the mysteries of creativity.
You’re extremely prolific. How do you maintain such a high level of inspiration?

There are so many areas that inspiration can come from, and each lesson or discovery can bleed over into my music. Thesethings inspire ways of treating music, and ways of thinking about music. Even esoteric studies—such as the occult, and the Rosicrucian thing I was into for a long time—have helped me understand the way one’s mind works. By understanding that a little bit more, you can better understand the way imagination works, and that there are other possibilities of expressing quite ordinary ideas in unusual ways by looking at them from another angle. It’s a matter of freeing yourself from that trap of being on a set of rails going in one direction—the way you’re “supposed” to go according to whatever culture you’ve grown up in. You must have the audacity and nerve to be able to step outside of that and explore what else is there.

So, for me, inspiration is not purely from musical areas—or even from the point of view of the guitar. Although, in the last few years, guitars have suddenly reared their heads again. I’ve gotten a second wind with the guitar. I listen back to where I started out as a young teenager being excited by the sound of the guitar, and many of my more recent inspirations have been from listening to guitar players who were recording before I was playing. I’ve been buying albums by Les Paul, Kenny Burrell, and Hank Garland, and a lot of Western swing. So I’ve rediscovered that thing that first kicked me into wanting to play guitar, and it really doesn’t have much to do with the ’60s stompbox revolution. It’s a purer kind of sound. I even bought myself a couple of Gretsches this last year, because it’s the sound of those guitars particularly that woke me up to what it was that excited me about guitar playing in the first place.

Can you specify how non-guitar influences might influence your musical direction?

Well, I think there are several levels those kinds of things can work on. One level is that if you enjoy literature and visual arts, those things can spark so many ideas for lyrics. And cinema can spark ideas for development and arrangement. The way you can arrange a piece of music is very similar to editing a film and choosing camera angles and lighting. On a technical level, just being excited by the way a camera moves within a story line can inspire the way sound moves, or how an instrument moves within a musical arrangement. Those visual cues translate to placing a mic to get a sound at a certain distance because you have an atmosphere that is unique to that particular position, or the amount of reverberation you add to a sound.

Your muse has often moved you away from playing the guitar—instead prompting you to utilize samples, keyboards, and the recording studio as the main tools of your creative ideas.

Well, I tend to be stubborn in that when a lot of people jump on whatever the new bandwagon might be, I tend to jump off and look for another direction. And I did the same with guitars. There was a period in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the language of electric guitar was written in stone, and it was very difficult to move outside of it without people becoming completely crazed and angered by what you did because they expected a guitar to sound and behave a certain way. And keyboards suddenly presented me with other opportunities.

So part of your approach is avoiding convention?

You have to! For example, my studio is 24-track digital, and I’ve got all the technology I need. But so does everyone else, and because of that, there’s a certain uniform quality coming out from a lot of musicians that makes things less individual. And, at this time, I’ve found that by going back to some roots things and mixing those in with technology, I can cover a wider range of expression and atmosphere, and, hopefully, come up with something slightly unique.

The issue of individuality is constantly debated by musicians, but I think few of us actually manage to craft something unique.

Perhaps, but every musician still looks for his or her own voice and their own language. Maybe I found that a long time ago—it’s difficult to judge from the inside—but I’m starting to hit a point where I look at what I’ve done, and add it all up to see what equation emerges. My palette is broader than it has ever been, and I’m comfortable enough to move—within one piece of music—through lots of different styles and techniques. And there isn’t that compartmentalization between one part and another. I can draw on all these different periods and influences, and just let them all mix together quite naturally.

Many musicians find it difficult or intimidating to open themselves up to so many creative options.

It’s difficult to grasp where my particular impatience comes from. It’s an ongoing search for new kicks and new stimulation. What really excites me is when I’m not necessarily operating from a guitarist’s template of technique and licks. It’s being thrown into a space that needs a different kind of head on the shoulders to explore it, rather than a guitarist’s head. First and foremost, it starts from the point of view of art—and I know that’s an overblown word—where you think about things as being a creation of some kind. It doesn’t matter necessarily that they’re musical, just that there’s some kind of vision—a dream of something brought into the world that’s interesting to me first, and, hopefully, to other people. And then I look at the tools I have in front of me. And some of those tools are guitars, some are keyboards, some are percussion instruments, and some are recording instruments. I’ve got a video editing setup at home now, so video has become another angle. All of those things can make a whole variety of expressions.

With so many avenues for creation at your disposal, how do you focus your energy into a singular artistic statement?

It’s hard at times, because I have a history. What I’m keen to do is keep things fresh, but I’ll think to myself, “Well, where do I start?” And you can deliberate forever, but you just have to jump in. For example, I recently did a show where a grand piano was onstage. I hadn’t prepared anything for piano, and I hadn’t played an acoustic piano for a long time, but I said to the sound guy, “Put two mics on this, and I’ll use it somewhere in the set.” When I got to a particular point, I improvised two loops with a looper and a delay pedal, and then I walked over to the piano, sat down, and played. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew something would emerge.

It’s like throwing yourself into a lake, and holding your breath and waiting for the water to float you to the top. It’s a matter of trust. If you think about it too much, you’ll never do anything, because you’ll always see the downside—you’ll think, “Well, that could go wrong, and maybe I’ll make a mistake.” But if you’re a musician, you should trust what you are, because, like the water, your musicianship will lift you up. It will save you.

It’s almost a Zen thing: Does a daffodil have to think about being a daffodil? No, it just is. So if you’re a musician, after you’ve put a certain amount of years and practice in, you should have a basic understanding of what your instrument does. At that point, making music is no longer a matter of sitting down and rehearsing chops or anything like that.It’s a matter of trusting the instrument, and trusting your own instincts with it. And, if a mistake happens, then go with it and turn it to your advantage. It’s an adventure.

Here’s another example: For my latest tour, I had a set of prerecorded tracks, which were obviously fixed, but they were non-linear arrangements with odd angles. They weren’t the easiest things to remember, so there were always points where I was never sure what was going to happen next—no matter how many times I worked with the tracks. And so there were times when I suddenly realized I was falling back on licks from somewhere in my history. Sometimes that was good, because they were signature things, and they became something the audience could recognize. But, other times it was bad, because those familiar lines were not where I should have been going. I should have been challenging myself, and moving in a different direction. Those evenings when I surprise myself are happy times. The nights when I fall back on the safety net are the times when I’m a bit pissed off with myself.

What types of stimuli tempt you to play it safe?

Basically, it boils down to the minute I start to think about how the audience might react. Then I’m in trouble. The best performances are completely unselfconscious. They’re where you’re inside the music, and it’s leading you, and you just follow where it goes. There’s no thinking whether it’s right or wrong, or if it’s entertaining people. That’s all out the window. The minute you start to analyze what you’re doing, all kinds of doubts creep in, and you lose the music. The music is no longer this organic, living, breathing thing—it’s something you try to knock into shape with a set of rules you’ve picked up over the years.

It’s dangerous to think too much. The thinking should be done at an early stage in a musician’s career. And then when you get to that stage and just let go, it becomes a blissful experience to play. That’s hard to achieve. No matter how many years you’ve been playing, that moment of being completely one with the music is not so common. It’s not something you can guarantee every time, no matter how you approach it. It’s the magic—the X-factor—that still makes life interesting for everyone who is listening, and everyone who is playing.

Can you consistently put yourself in a place where everything is open and ready to accept the drama of the moment?

Not really. It’s not a technique, you see. If it were, then you’d be able to apply it consistently and create magic. I don’t know what puts me in the right space—the space where things happen—where I’m surprised and entranced by what’s going on, and the thing is playing me, instead of me playing it. Those moments do happen, but how you get there is impossible to plan. All you can do is try to eliminate as much worry and self-criticism as possible.

Also, when you’re playing live, the audience is critically important. If you have that rush of energy from them, and they’re struggling with you to get something from the music, then that puts you in the right space to deliver something wonderful. It’s not a matter of them being passive and saying, “Okay, impress me.” They have to put feedback in there, and that feedback can transform the most nervous and unconfident player into someone who is really awesome.

Given all the many mental, emotional, and technical tools at your disposal, what typifies your main engine of expression?

For me, it’s the simple joy of playing the way a child plays. When you’re a little kid, you don’t think intellectually, but you experience tremendous joy playing with building bricks, household objects—whatever you’re given to play with. As a child, I remember pouring water from one pan to another for ages, just watching that stream go from one vessel to the other was so beautiful. There’s no sort of logical thought process involved other than the simple appreciation of water flowing from one container to the other. And it’s that purity—that simplicity—that often gets lost in the mental process of dealing with music. I think if you can approach music with that purity—a belief that everyone has the potential to produce something astonishing—then you can connect with your creativity on a very fundamental, basic, and deep level.
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