There are star cutouts on the shutters of her house, and precious, felt taxidermy above the door frames in her living room. Beautiful portraits of her beloved grandparents hang in the hallway, and an art easel and a canvas-in-progress await her return in her bedroom. There are probably ten instruments within sight at any given point in her home, and it seems as though that is where Nellie Clay, the Oklahoma native turned Alaskan, has come—home. Having left her campfire gatherings of Alaska, the birthplace of her musical identity, we shared in the light of our own kind of campfire, a single candlestick in the middle of her dining room table in her newly settled-in home, and she told me pieces of her story.
Nellie had just recently moved to town when I first heard her play a few solo songs at the 5 Spot, a natural performance destination for both the newcomers and dwellers. She had this North Star kind of sparkle in her eye and laughed on the inhale and spoke with this voice that dipped into a rasp before sweeping up again. I’m not sure if I expected her to sound a certain way before she took the stage, but I certainly did not expect what I heard. This husky and hued tone gushed out of her petite frame, and the depth of her voice was made darker by her straightforward folk lyricism. She was storied and scarred but still bright, and she had something more to say.
“I was just convinced that I was no good. It never crossed my mind that this is something that I could do,” Nellie explained a few weeks later, in between sips of whiskey. I wasn’t shocked by this admittance, for it seemed that her voice wasn’t born out of breeding, but more so out of a necessitated release. I was probably wide-eyed as she told me about her past nine years in Alaska, spending many of them without electricity or plumbing, and a few of them in a 6×9 foot plywood shack. Needless to say, that kind of lifestyle is revealing, and most of Nellie’s revelations came when she was gathered around the campfire with her neighbors for their weekly fireside performances. “They had a policy that everyone must participate, and there was an extra mandolin that I tinkered around with, plucking out a few chords. But then, they asked me to sing, and I said I didn’t sing. But I was reminded by my friend Mark, who played the banjo, that we are just out here in the woods, with our neighbors. So they talked me into singing a song, and I did…I closed my eyes and sang. And when it was over, I opened my eyes, and everyone was sitting there, lit up by the light of the campfire, and said ‘you’re a singer.’ It validated me,” she narrated.
“I think I grew up thinking I was not of any value, maybe thinking somewhere, deep down, that I had something worthwhile to contribute. But maybe life had conditioned me to believe otherwise, that I wasn’t capable of doing anything good,” she continued, looking down and then quickly apologized for getting so “heavy.” With this brief detour into what was before the sudden genesis of her sound, these weighted segments seem to strengthen her songwriting. “Basically I know it’s time to write a song because I feel something brewing, right below the surface. And I’m totally distracted in the rest of my life, because I can’t do anything until I get this song out,” Nellie confessed. “Before the words are even there, I’ve got the chords, and I’m hollering out wordless melodies that feel more like a crying out of whatever the emotion is. And then the lyrics come. The words come very easily, because I always just tell the story how it happened, word-for-word…I like to think of my lyrics as plain talk. I never try to dress it up with poetics, or rhyming, or anything too colorful. I try to say it in the plainest, simplest way. Because that’s what I gravitate towards, stuff that sounds so true.”
With some convincing from Tim Easton, a dear friend and musician, and a change in the wind, Nellie left her home in Alaska and came to Nashville, songs and soul in tow. As Tim put it, “if you keep doing this where you are, it will be like the tree that fell in the woods and didn’t make a sound.” So now, Nellie’s making her first sonic drop, Never Did What I Shoulda Done, in Nashville. As we talked more about the album, a marrow extraction of Nellie Clay, I sat inspired by this woman. Nellie talks so candidly about her life, about her heart and her thoughts. She possesses this syntactic fluidity that is speckled by these peculiar intonations, and her charming ability to tell a story so vividly but still so effortlessly translates to her songwriting. Her songs swing on your heartstrings, making the downward tug pull a little harder, and she will get to you in the best of ways. Listening to her trivializes modern worries but heightens your awareness of human concerns. I guess one could say she sounds like she has an old soul, a kind that seeps through her guttural voice. But she’s just got a soul, and one that drips with a soaked sound made so by her deep wades into her very core.
“I shutter to think what would have come of me, what would have come of my life, if I hadn’t sung around the campfire,” she said reverently. I do, too. Have a listen to this Lockeland Springsteen premiere of “Oh Sweet Elizabeth,” and head to the 5 Spot tonight at 7pm to listen to Nellie Clay debut her first album.