Every now and then, in an innocuous building in an industrial part of Anchorage, magic happens. I was very fortunate to be painting at my studio on nights when a band would rehearse down the hall. The band was Nellie Clay & The Lucky Dogs and they were great! I would turn off whatever I was listening to, pour myself a drink and listen to the emerging tracks that would ultimately comprise the newly released CD, Never Did What I Shoulda Done. I knew Clay's voice before we ever met, which ended up being in a friendly vie for the building's shared bathroom. We chatted and I learned that Clay is also a painter, as well as a musician, and that her music has taken front and center in her artistic career.
Clay's musical style falls under the vague and wide umbrella of "Americana." The Americana Music Association describes this genre as " contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band." However, with such a loose definition, it's best just to hear Clay's music, rather than to try to make it fit into a box, no matter how big and vague that box may be.
Never Did What I Shoulda Done was released at the end of October 2015, and as luck would have it, I was passing through Nashville just a few days later so the timing was perfect to reconnect with Clay. She drinks Bourbon. I drink Scotch. But on this occasion, we opted for fruity, pretty drinks with sugary rims, along with crab cakes and great conversation about a million things, but mostly about her music and career.
Never Did What I Shoulda Done is Clay's second CD. Her first effort, Born Too Late, she describes as pre-mature because not only was it low budget, but it was also very early in her career and she feels that her voice, as an instrument, was not where it is now. As a listener, however, one can hear the tones, style and ideas that flourish in Never Did What I Shoulda Done. The first CD holds its own, even though Clay may see it with the same chagrin that many artists view early work-at once vulnerable and foreshadowing.
On Never Did What I Shoulda Done, all the basic tracks were recorded live in Anchorage, but she flew her producer engineer from Brooklyn to work with them. One of Clay's key supporters and collaborators is Tim Easton, a fellow musician who lives in Nashville and plays in Alaska often. Clay met Easton around a campfire at Salmonstock a few years ago. He does some back up vocals on the album and encouraged Clay to move to Nashville; after all, a great album is the best calling card anyone could hope for. The integrity of the album, sound advice, and Clay's feeling that her time in Alaska was done made the move to Nashville a no-brainer. Clay never thought she would leave Alaska, thought she would live in the woods forever, but she "wanted to grow as an artist, to learn from people that were much better than me and collaborate with other people, and to live for experience," she told me. "My Dad died in a tragic car crash unexpectedly three years ago, and especially after that, I wanted to live for experiences. I wanted to have beautiful experiences and opportunities for growth. I want to see what I can do, play new venues, a change of scenery."
Being in a highly competitive and professional environment like Nashville raises the bar for Clay and her fellow musicians. She describes her ongoing experience of adapting to the city and the industry not as struggling, but as scrambling to catch up, quickly making connections and learning the ropes. The level of professionalism in Nashville, she says, "blows my mind."
Originally from Oklahoma, Clay has academic/formal, training as a visual artist. She was working at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis doing art restoration when she decided to visit a friend who had recently moved to Alaska. That visit, and Alaska, changed the trajectory of her life and career, adding a layer of genuine virtuosity to the world of music as we know it in Anchorage. Now the sound of her voice is filling new spaces in Nashville's hopping music scene, and becoming part of something bigger.
She relocated to Nashville about a year ago, after nine formative years in Alaska. Living off the grid provided space and time for Clay to discover music quickly, deeply, and without compromise. Prior to coming to Alaska and intuitively making the leap from visual arts to music, Clay had zero experience as a musician. She is quick to point out that there is no auto-tuning employed in the recording of the album, something that she is very proud of.
Of all the instruments Clay taught herself to play, and continues to practice and perfect, her voice is the most sublime. Like a swig of Black Maple Hill Bourbon, her voice easily delves raspy depths just above the heart and then up into a light and lingering wisp. Her vibrato is slight, hinting of darker times without giving in to them. There is love in this album, so much love, and in so many forms-from her firmly planted feet in Dust Bowl history, in a Woody Guthrie sort of way, to her personal experiences with family relationships, and of course, any love song filled with fun and hope is the cherry on top.
Unlike visual arts, "what I love about music is that you're creating something with other people. I prefer not to play alone," she says. "I like the magic of creating something in time and space with other people. It's the coolest thing on earth. And forcing myself to be in front of people and doing something that is uncomfortable, it forces me to step outside of that box. I can say or sing things that are terribly revealing and personal in a song and to a whole room full of strangers that I could never sit down and tell a friend face-to-face. I can't explain it. It's liberating. I liken painting to a meditation, and music to a bloodletting." We laugh and order another round of pretty drinks.
I asked Clay about her growing number of fans and their desire to know her. She laughs and says she probably has ten. But then she expounds, "They [fans] do want access to you as a human being, as an individual, and I open myself up to that because my writing is personal. But the best way to know me is through my music. You know my music, you know me, period."
Alaskan fans, new and old, will have a chance to hear Nellie play next summer although tour dates have not yet solidified. So, in the meantime, do yourself a favor, pour yourself some bourbon, slip on your headphones, and put on the newly released CD, Never Did What I Shoulda Done. Don't forget the candied lemons.