On stage, in the studio or at home, Nell Bryden’s creative spirit never rests. Not even in lockdown. Thus, in May 2020, and now based back in her native New York, the much-loved singer-songwriter returns with the warmly atmospheric new song ‘Amy.’ A great big melodic hug of a tune, it’s also the 20th single of her distinguished career.
To celebrate that landmark, Bryden is planning a singles retrospective for summer release, glancing back at her long succession of hugely popular airplay landmarks. ‘Amy’ is the flagship for that compilation and the latest example of how a composer with such sharp eyes and ears writes about the world around her. In this case, with eerie prescience.
“I wrote ‘Amy’ about a free-spirit fictional person I imagined,” she says, “and about being envious of her because she could go anywhere, do anything and has no inhibitions. Now that I’ve been in lockdown in Manhattan during coronavirus, the song took on new meaning, so I decided to push to release it.”
During an eventful last few months, another staging post arrived in October 2019 in the form of a new publishing deal with BMG Music. It was deserving and renewed recognition of a multi-faceted writer-performer with numerous studio and live albums to her credit, and a reputation among her devoted audience for her impassioned and intimate concerts.
After the 2019 release of her Living Room Sessions album of home performances of fan favourites, Bryden has taken the performance series back with her to New York. She is now on season five of the weekly live events, posting a new clip every Sunday. “It’s basically a way to get my band together in between tours and have fun with my surrogate family,” she says. Not even the inevitable social distancing can dilute that feeling.
The Living Room Sessions album was immediately preceded by the Little Wing EP, in which Nell married her musical and literary skills in a unique new chapter. Fuelled by the gorgeous single ‘Smoke In My Heart,’ it documented an ongoing ambition to express herself not only as a composer and performer of music, but an author. Work continues on a debut novel that will expand on the characters we met on the EP. But in the meantime, the songs stood tall on their own.
The EP was made at Ray Davies’ famed Konk Studios, where Bryden and her touring group, recording directly to two-inch tape, were joined by Tom Jones’ horn section and a string quartet arranged by Richard Ashcroft’s musical director. The songs were mixed by Jay Newland, the 12-time Grammy winner who recorded Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me and Feels Like Home (total worldwide sales between them: some 45 million), and who worked on one of Bryden’s personal favourites, Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit.
Bryden’s literary nous, long evident in her lyrics and characters, goes back to the days when she was growing up in Brooklyn, years before her name was ever on a record. “I had this sense in the back of my mind, from my parents who are very literary people, that there’s something very important about having an intellectual confidence,” she says. “It was a sense that you could follow a love of writing at some point.”
Born as punk was sinking its teeth into the British zeitgeist, and just before Elvis left the building, Nell’s childhood was never less than challenging. “My mum was a classical soprano,” she says. “At eight and a half months, she was singing in Carnegie Hall with me in utero. Then a month after I was born, she was out touring again, taking me with her.
“It was crazy, but she was so committed to her career. It was a hard childhood, because I felt like she wasn’t always committed to being a mother, but she turned out to be a great mum. Now I can understand, as a touring musician, what you have to put into it.”
Nell was raised, at first, in a loft in Brooklyn, also watching her artist and sculptor father’s giant paintings of Coney Island come to life. The tone of her life was already set. “I grew up in this family,” says Nell, “thinking that the arts is a normal thing to do.”
Her parents split when she was five, and she left to live with her mother in smalltown Massachusetts at the age of 11. She discovered Hendrix and Joplin and explored many musical avenues, from jazz to opera, before finding the solo singer-songwriter in herself and starting to record her own work, the epitome of the self-starting independent artist.
A succession of fine albums emerged, as did guest spots touring with KT Tunstall, Counting Crows and, ultimately, Bryden’s own headline status, as BBC Radio 2 playlisted a succession of her singles. Gary Barlow asked her to open for him; Cher covered her song ‘Sirens.’
She went on to become a Radio 2 favourite not only as an artist, but as a presenter. She hosted the popular series Nells’ Angels, spotlighting her favourite female singers, and Nell’s Kitchen, which documented New York’s vibrant and diverse music scenes.
Now, back in Manhattan, the people in Nell Bryden’s songs continue to come to life. “The thing with music is that songs already have a narrative,” she concludes. “I always loved that you could get that distilled sense of a character across, of somebody that really became alive.”