“Shake The Tree” is the latest chapter on that journey.
Nell’s musical education began with childhood cello lessons. Her first dream was to become an opera singer like her mother Jane, a classical soprano who sang at Carnegie Hall. Then she heard Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and never looked back.
Her worldwide adventures began on a gap year in Australia, where she bought a cheap guitar. She began to write and sing songs on travels that took her to a refugee camp in Thailand and, back in the USA, a drop-zone in Arizona where she made daily free-fall jumps.
She paid her dues in the pubs and clubs of Boston while studying for an English Literature degree and, after graduating with honours, polished her songwriting and performing back in New York.
Music became even more of a solace to her in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which she witnessed from her apartment windows in Greenwich Village. Delving into old-time American music, she recorded her debut album in Nashville, tapping into the town’s country heritage for inspiration. “But,” she admits, “I still hadn’t found my voice.”
She would find it in New Orleans, where Nell fell in love with the Big Easy’s musical melting pot – “jazz, blues, folk, country, cajun, zydeco. everything except rock!” – and found further inspiration in the resilience of people rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina.
Next came Europe. From her tiny Greenwich Village apartment, Nell booked herself a month-long tour of Ireland, Scotland and Holland. Arriving in a foreign land with “just a suitcase and my acoustic guitar,” she travelled from gig to gig by bus, sleeping on couches that generations of musicians had used before her. “I played 30 venues and all of them booked me to come back.” So she did – time and again.
Briefly back in America – at SXSW – she ran into a US Army colonel who would change her life once more. He persuaded her to set aside her political doubts to entertain the troops in Iraq – not once but twice. Her first visit resulted in a live album; the second visit was chronicled in the documentary film Striking A Chord, directed by acclaimed documentary maker Susan Rockefeller (of the Rockefeller family).
It would take another slice of extraordinary good fortune to give her career the break it had required. It came when her father Lewis, a renowned landscape painter, discovered a long-forgotten picture he had been given by an artist friend as a christening gift for Nell.
Its painter, Milton Avery, had since died and seen his stock skyrocket, and its sale enabled Nell to finish the album she had begun in New Orleans, with Grammy-winning producer David Kershenbaum at the helm. “What Does It Take,” was released in October 2009. A collection of songs and styles spanning her many years on the road, it set out her signature style: a classic pop sound informed by the rich heritage of American music, with her strong, emotive voice to the fore.
A remarkable six tracks made it on to the BBC Radio 2 playlist in less than two years and Nell’s reputation grew with appearances at events such as Guilfest, Camp Bestival and BBC Proms In The Park alongside her incessant touring.
Only a few months later she began work on what would become “Shake The Tree” at Metrophonic Studios in Surrey, where she met Patrick Mascall, a British guitarist and songwriter who “knew more about America and American music than most Americans.” They bonded immediately over their mutual admiration for Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson, and began to work together.
Teaming up with a co-writer for the first time in her career, Nell found the songs coming thick and fast. Themes of heartbreak and loss worked their way into lyrics informed by Nell’s ongoing struggles with her music career, as well as a stress-related illness that, at one point, threatened her career. “They came out as break-up songs,” she laughs. “Which is probably just as well. I think everyone would rather hear about a broken heart than an expensive legal dispute with a record company!”
Recorded at State of the Ark studio in London, “Shake The Tree” is a self-funded project, released on Nell’s own label 157 Records through a new deal with ADA/Warner Music. With another Grammy-winning producer at the helm, this time Britain’s own Mark Taylor (who made his name with Cher’s “Believe” in 1998 and has since gone on to work with James Morrison and Lady Gaga, among many others), it shows Nell taking a step forward in terms of style, while keeping a classic storytelling structure as the backbone of her songs.
The title came from a conversation with her father when she was at her lowest ebb. “I’ve had this dream since I was five and I’m so passionate about my career, but it seemed to be in the hands of people who didn’t share that passion at all so I was despondent.
“My father reminded me that I’ve never been the sort of person who sits around passively waiting for things to happen – I’m the kind who shakes the tree and makes the apple fall.”
It’s an apt metaphor for the way Nell Bryden has approached her music career from day one: applying a plucky, tireless attitude to everything. And it’s about to bear fruit.
The release of “Shake The Tree” was preceded by the single “Buildings and Treetops”, a soaring anthem about new beginnings, which became a Top 20 Airplay hit and gained widespread radio support. As of Sept 2012, the song was Smooth Radio’s most played song across their network this year.
After a July spent doing various live performances in the UK, including Guilfest, BT London Live in Hyde park for the Olympics, and BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night and with a full live orchestra, Nell returned to radio with her new single “Sirens”, a very personal story about Nell’s experiences during 9/11 in New York.
Nell will tour supporting Jools Holland in December 2012, including a prestigious slot at Royal Albert Hall, and returns in January 2013 for her first UK headlining dates in support of the new album.