Ross Neilsen Losing His Musical Restraints

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Two days.

That is how long it took Fredericton guitarist Ross Neilsen to realize how fortunate he is to pursue his muse. After having wrapped up yet another national tour late last year, Neilsen decided to fill some of his time leading up to the Christmas holidays with a seasonal job position.

“I was eternally grateful for the position,” Neilsen says from his Fredericton home, leading up to his performance tonight at Parkindale Hall. “It was finite – I knew it would be only for two weeks, but by the end of the second day, I thought ‘What am I thinking? This whole music business thing is a pretty sweet deal.’”

Just to clarify: Neilsen never contemplated walking away from music altogether. In fact, he would be the first to acknowledge that his years of making records and seemingly ceaseless touring across Canada has seen its fair share of highlights.

He did, however, come to terms with the fact it might be time to take a breather. Neilsen has spent much of the last decade criss-crossing the country. He thought taking a break from music might help instill a greater appreciation for the art.

Before he could kick up his feet, however, Neilsen had booked himself a 50-date Cross-Canada tour.

“I enjoy putting records out and playing live. I just got the feeling that I had been spinning my wheels for the last few years, so it made sense that once I had completed my winter tour, I would take some time off to write and record for my own enjoyment. Finding the joy in making music again became a necessity.”

And so Neilsen hit the Trans-Canada highway. Though he was without his usual amplifier for the earliest shows of the tour, he trudged ahead nonetheless.

It was at a show in Ottawa where things started to turn around for the guitarist.

“Because I only had an acoustic guitar at that point in the tour, the sound guy at the venue I was playing helped me wire the instrument in a way that I was not accustomed to. The sound was so incredibly good that night, I just got completely lost on stage. I just immersed myself in the songs, focused on playing well and telling stories. To this day, I can’t tell you if there was people in the audience or not,” he laughs.

As the tour wore on, Neilsen felt his mojo returning, in the midst of which, he came to the realization that perhaps he had been his own worst enemy in some respects. An important lesson he had picked up during his time at Steve Earle’s songwriting camp the year before came rushing back to him:

“I had this epiphany that I had more or less painted myself into a corner in the musical sense. Rather than feeling as though I had to only write and play blues music, playing became about writing a good song that people could relate to, wherever it happens to fall in the realm of music,” Neilsen says.

“For the first time in a while, I felt as though I didn’t have any constraints around what I was doing. I didn’t feel compelled to only play blues songs. I threw covers of John Prine and the Grateful Dead into my sets. Incidentally, it was the first tour in ages where I felt relaxed. After playing music for the last 10 years, it was as though I had finally figured out that if I focus on playing music to the best of my ability, everything else will look after itself.”

Those worried Neilsen’s next studio record – to be recorded later this year – is going to be a drastic departure from his previous work need not worry. While the blues will continue to play a role in his work, Neilsen says the material he has written thus far has more in common with Neil Young’s landmark Harvest record, or, more currently, Jason Isbell’s equally impressive album Southeastern.

He says that his decision to diversify his sound and strive for excellence was partly inspired by a speech given by Steve Earle at the camp he attended last year.

“What I took away from his speech was that I shouldn’t feel I have to settle as a songwriter for the sake of convenience. If the third line of a song isn’t as fantastic as the opening line, I have to keep working harder until I find the inspiration to make that third line just as great. I don’t want to accept anything less than excellent,” Neilsen says.

“You can sit and wait for inspiration to strike you as a writer, but you also have to be ready to work at it when the time comes.”

What: Ross Neilsen
When: Saturday Apr. 18, 8:00 p.m.
Where: Parkindale Hall, 3434 Route 895, Parkindale
Tickets are $10 and can be reserved by emailing parkindalehall@gmail.com