Freddie Nelson has decided to step out from the background and ‘Shake the Cage’ of the music industry with the long-anticipated release of his debut album. It’s a tour de force of melodic rock songwriting, one that features a diversity of tone and tempo, a master craftsman of the six string, and a level of commitment, dedication and energy infused in every word and every note.
The title, Shake the Cage, was deliberately chosen for the album (coming out July 7) by the Pittsburgh native as he wanted everyone listening to sit up and take notice; proclaiming this was no ordinary rock record.
“What motivated the title was the amazing technology that we have to make music, which is awesome, but there’s a lot of people who I believe use it as a crutch. I mean, it’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that you can get things out there faster, but I think a lot of people do that; they just throw something out there quickly and it maybe has legs for a couple of weeks or a month or so, but there’s no sustainability to it because it is just thrown together for the sake of getting something out there. I want to think of this music lasting in people’s hearts and minds for a year or two – or more – down the road,” Nelson said.
“It just seems to be in vogue right now to smother a track with pitch correction and go in fixing all these little things instead of working on who you are as an artist and honing your craft and trying to come up with strong performances and truly excellent songs. And that’s really what I tried to do with this collection of songs. I just wanted to be honest – I wanted to create an honest body of work that wasn’t contrived and that relied on all these technological shortcuts. If I didn’t capture a good performance I wasn’t going to rely on the technology to fix it. I would sit back and say to myself, ‘okay, I have to go down the emotional wormhole here and dig out that good performance and keep doing that until I get something good.’ I can state matter-of-factly that this album is as honest and real as anything I could ever put out.”
Nelson grew up in a home that loved music and, as the youngest of six boys, had five older brothers from which to draw his musical influences.
“I came well after they did. They all came kind of in succession year after year and then I came about seven years later, so I always had a feeling that I may have been a little bit of a happy accident. But having those older brothers, I got turned onto all this great rock and roll – stuff a lot of other people my age might not have been into like The Beatles, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, all this great music,” he said.
“My one brother Jeff was a bass player in a rock band so I kind of gravitated towards him and I thought he was so cool and wanted to be a part of that. But to be honest with you, I knew I was going to be doing this at a really early age. I remember opening up the album jacket for Deep Purple’s Made in Japan and looking at the pictures of Ritchie Blackmore kneeling down with that Strat out in front of him and a stack of Marshalls behind him. I said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’
“And then there was my dad who was into classical music and we would trade music often. I would play him half an hour of whatever I was into at the time and he would play me half an hour of Sibelius or Liszt or something like that, and I liked it. I wasn’t really interested in doing classical music but I liked it, and years later I realized how huge that was for me and the world that it opened up at such an impressionable age and even how it even focused my production and engineering skills.”
Later, after picking up the guitar and getting serious about his playing and his craft, he soon came to admire the pyrotechnics of Eddie Van Halen, and the crunching, memorable simplicity of the blues-based riffs concocted by AC/DC’s Angus Young. In more recent years Jack White’s eclectic playing and songwriting, as well as his unbridled authenticity and risk taking as an artist has also influenced Nelson’s playing and approach.
He soon became a ‘go to’ player on the Pittsburgh scene and beyond becoming part of a number of bands, as well as becoming an engineer producer and songwriter that folks wanted to collaborate with.
“I am always writing. I am doing different projects with different people all the time. I have written with lots of people and I have a number of songs that I have written for other people’s records. This album came about because I finally got a studio built in my house and I really just wanted to do something on my own time. If I felt like getting up at 2 a.m. and going in and singing or playing I could do that. I actually had about two album’s worth of material ready to go and I just picked and chose what songs I felt worked best together out of that body of work,” he explained.
“And I think it was time. I had been in a number of other bands where I had written a bunch of material but it was put out under a band name and depending on the band, it was in different genres too. I kind of wanted to put a definitive stamp on what I do and make this statement. I wanted to say, ‘this is who I am and this is what I do.’ And I wanted to show some of my diversity as a player and songwriter, especially for a debut album. I wanted to get more of a spectrum of who I am and what I do out there, although I do think it’s still a pretty cohesive collection of songs.”
Melody is at the heart of every song, regardless of whether there is a blues, pop, hard rock or even punk tone to the piece, with the guitar leading the way, followed closely by Nelson’s expressive, gritty four-octave voice, which is emblematic of the album’s lead-off single Hey Doll.
“My whole perception of music and the basis for my starting point for creating music is are you going to walk away humming this song? Are you going to walk away with it in your head? So I go back to the great melody makers like the Beatles and the artists who created songs that have sustained generations and generations and even transcended them, where little kids are hearing the songs and walking away humming them,” Nelson said.
“But I am a guitar player first and foremost. I cut my teeth as a guitar player, and I have made my living as a guitar player for a long period of time before I decided I was going to be a singer as well, so I go back to those greats like Eddie Van Halen and Ritchie Blackmore who were great players, but they also were able to create songs that had melodies you would walk away humming.”
And as for practicing his songwriting craft, Nelson said he is ‘on’ 24/7.
“I don’t mean this to sound narcissistic or arrogant, but I honestly do have a guitar sitting in every room and I have this internal radio going on in my head all the time and song ideas come to me in a lot of different ways. I either get a melody idea for a chorus or I will get a riff idea in my head and I will just throw that down and record it. I have watched an interaction between a guy and a girl for 30 seconds while sitting at a red light and I went back and immediately wrote a song about it,” he said.
“Inspiration can come from any place, and that’s something I realized years ago. When I was drinking a lot, I used to think you had to be f***ed up to a certain degree just to get into the headspace where all this amazing music would just flow through you. And, to be fair, I am sure that happens at times, but since I have been in this paradigm shift in my life where I have been doing a lot of meditation and things like that, and cleaned up my act, I see that you can still get to those places once you align yourself.”
While he may have been flying under the radar of the masses of music fans, Nelson had long had the respect of his peers within the music industry, particularly other musicians. A number of years ago he caught the ear of Paul Gilbert, a co-founder of the well-respected and highly successful international recording and touring act Mr. Big and the two collaborated on a number of projects, including an album together called United States in 2008.
“He somehow located a CD from an old band of mine and he just called me up on the phone one day. I was walking out of a grocery store and I looked and saw that I had a message on my phone and listened to it. And it was, ‘hello Freddie Nelson, this is Paul Gilbert, I wondered if you wanted to write some songs together.’ And literally that was the whole message. I thought someone was joking with me here, someone was just screwing around,” he said.
“But it was true and we got together and it was awesome and we have done a number of projects since. When you work with a guy like that who, honestly in my opinion, is one of the greatest guitarists in the world, you expand, you grow and you have greater adventures in the studio as a songwriter and touring. So that partnership created a lot of opportunity for me and even aside from that it’s just been a lot of fun working with him. He’s an awesome human and the music has spawned a really cool friendship.”
Through his previous bands, and also with Paul Gilbert, Nelson has had the chance to tour many countries throughout the world. For this solo album, he is hoping to hit the road soon. He has a record deal for Shake the Cage in Japan and other part of Asia and will be heading to those markets later in the year. American dates are also in the works, and Nelson said he would like to get up to Canada as well.
“I would love to play up there. I love Canada and I know they love their rock and roll. I just want to play and keep making music for as long as I can. I am so grateful that I can do this. My feet hit the floor every day and I am so thankful that I can make my living as a professional musician and that there are people will to pay me to do this and pay their hard earned money for my music. So I am appreciative of it, I really am. And that feeling, that gratitude is never going to go away.”
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.
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