Interview: Nell Bryden

Impact meets Nell Bryden, the native New Yorker who has embarked on a fascinating career. From professional highs, such as Cher covering a song and touring with various artists including Jools Holland and Gary Barlow, to the personal heartache of losing her hair and witnessing 9/11, it’s not been an easy journey. Here, she tells Impact about her time in Iraq, the inspiration behind her new sound and how valuable getting a degree was to her.

Firstly, I love the new single, Wayfarer, it’s such an upbeat, catchy song. Do you feel that the uplifting mood of your new album is inspired by your personal life?

Definitely, because on my first album I was doing mostly ‘cry-in-your-beer’, unrequited love songs and I think that’s probably just where I was in my life at that point. Then the second album was still kinds of things like that, really heavy, lyrical material, and then I met my husband and I completely fell in love and just had this whirlwind romance in life and I got married and I’m expecting a baby now too. It’s really exciting and you can’t really go through all of that without, as a musician and a songwriter, having that reflected in your music. On Wayfarer it’s a lot of different influences that suggest summer to me a bit more, driving in your car with the windows down, rather than this dark, rootsy stuff that I was doing previously, so I think that that was what I was going for.

Your parents were both artists, do you think that growing up in that creative environment inspired you to pursue music?

Yeah. My mum was singing with me when she was eight and a half months pregnant at Carnegie Hall in New York City and then as soon as I was born she was taking me out on tour with her. I went everywhere with her on these tours and eventually when I was a little older she would just put me on a blanket at the side of the stage.

I’m really happy that I went to university and got a degree in English because that made me feel like a more rounded person.

When I started school I stayed home with my dad who was an artist so I think that normalised being an artist, whereas a lot of people have this like scary thought that ‘I couldn’t possibly be an artist, it’s too crazy and that lifestyle is too bizarre’. I was really lucky that I had parents that knew that it was possible, but having said that it hasn’t been an easy life. I’m so glad that I’ve done it and I’m just thrilled that I’ve had all these adventures and I’ve gotten to travel everywhere.

I’m really happy that I went to university and got a degree in English because that, for me, kind of made me feel like a more rounded person with a sense of literature and the world, rather than a lot of my friends who were musicians who never went to uni. They just focused only on music and I think sometimes they regret it because they feel like they don’t have a more rounded sense of the world that you can have, so it’s lucky that my parents pushed me academically too.


Did doing an English degree help with your song writing as well?

Yeah, 100 percent because so much of song writing is narrative based and you really don’t want to be the sort of person that’s just turning your journals into songs, because those can make for really cathartic experiences but really lousy songs. You kind of have to think more ‘what is the character here? What is the story that I’m trying to get across?’, whether it’s about me or my husband or someone random that I met in a city somewhere, or even someone made up that’s a character. It’s a very narrative based medium and I think that was really important for me because I love characters and I love how you present them.

You’ve faced a lot of hardships in your life and your song Sirens is about witnessing 9/11, do you feel that writing music helps you to cope with such trauma?

Yes, totally. It’s worth noting that I have been through some pretty traumatic things like 9/11 and losing my hair [Nell suffers from alopecia] and various other things but I’ve had a very blessed life and I feel like I’ve equally had a lot of wonderful things happen to me in my life and a lot of those were because of music.

The only way to get out of bed was for me to pick up a guitar and think ‘I’ve got to make some sort of sense out of this.

It’s definitely balanced for me and when something does happen that is really traumatic or sad, anything from a breakup to global trauma like 9/11, it’s music that always brings me back to being able to put it into words and make sense of it all. Like losing my hair, I worked on that song, Buildings and Treetops, about it. I was kind of hiding under my duvet in my apartment in New York just crying and then the only way to get out of bed was for me to pick up a guitar and think ‘You know what? I’ve got to make some sort of sense out of this’.

How was it performing in Iraq?

That was really inspiring because I felt like I got a chance as a musician to see a side of people that were serving in the military that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see or been open to. I almost didn’t go because I was so against the war and I didn’t want to support everything that was going on over there and of course when you look at what’s going on now in Iraq it just seems like such a complicated thing for us to be involved in and that didn’t really leave us in a very good place afterwards.

They really opened up to me and told me about their families and all these people that they left back home and I got to see a side of them that I didn’t in the media back home.

But what was really great about that tour was it taught me to put the politics aside and only focus on the human aspect of the people that were serving over there. A lot of the men and women that I met were incredibly brave, wonderful people and we had this great connection through music. They really opened up to me and told me about their families and all these people that they left back home and I got to see a side of them that I didn’t in the media back home. In the media in New York we’d only hear about people serving abroad, almost like a politicised pawn, like they were there fighting this war and if you were against the war you were against the whole thing, so it kind of allowed me to separate those two things and just realise that I actually have so much in common with people that I never thought I would have anything in common with and music was the thing that did that.

How was it to have that experience documented by the filmmaker Susan Cohn Rockerfeller?

That was really extraordinary because I wanted people to see that side of it as well and then she came on board. She really wanted to do a documentary and she got Nile Rodgers to be a part of it as well. Nile Rodgers is, of course, one of the greatest guitar players of all time and he was such a sweet guy. And also he is not anyone I would have ever considered would have any ties with the military or would be into something like that, but he was an army brat and he grew up with his father in the military and moved around a lot when he was a kid, so he just had a great respect for people that were over there serving and knowing that they weren’t the ones making these political decisions that we disagree with and that music was this sort of calling that could really help with people’s stress. If nothing else it’s an incredibly stressful situation for everybody involved over there and music is this wonderful release of how to get through that, the same way that it’s cathartic for me to write a song it can be very cathartic for people to go to a live concert and kind of get lost in the music for a bit.

You’ve spoken about your time at Wellesley College in Boston and how you felt like you were leading a double life almost, playing on the folk scene at night and attending classes by day. As Impact is a student magazine, do you have any advice for students on how to juggle multiple projects at the same time?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. The number one thing when you’re in college and that’s so wonderful about university is that it’s the one time in life when no doors are closing, every door is open to you and you have to just grasp every opportunity to try all these different areas of your life that you might otherwise have never tried. For instance, I remember taking an Astronomy class and then taking an English Literature class that was really inspiring. Then I was like, ‘ok, I’m going take a Political Science class’, and that was something else that, to this day, I’m so grateful that I was able to have that phase of opening out your world.

It’s the one time in life when no doors are closing, every door in open to you.

I was so into music. None of the classes that were offered at my university were great music classes necessarily, though I did take a great history of jazz class that I loved. I had to go elsewhere and create my own structure and that was just going to the bars and the clubs and being separate from the university and going off and meeting all these new people that way too, so I guess back to your question, this is the one time in your life when it’s your job to open every door that you possibly can and then after you graduate that’s when you go to graduate school and you start having to get really specific about what you’re studying, or you go into life and you take a job and that gets really specific, and then doors start closing. It’s not a bad thing because it means you get more specific in your life but it’s a different feeling than any other time then at university where your job is just to try as many different things as possible and to get as passionate about as many different interests as you possibly can and that’s so exciting.

Nell is playing at The Maze in Nottingham on 19th October.

Natasha Gregson

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Photo Credits: www.nellbryden.com


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