Nell Bryden is an American singer-songwriter who was raised in Brooklyn and hit the headlines back in 2011 when she lost all her hair after suffering a stress-induced episode of alopecia. Following the release earlier this year of her fifth studio album, we caught up with the artist to discover a little more about the story behind the woman.
What kind of music influenced you as you were growing up?
"I grew up around mostly classical music because my mother was a soprano and would take me on tours with her. My dad listened to the Doors, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones while he was working in his studio (He’s a painter/sculptor), and I remember loving that.
"I fell in love with Maria Callas when I was a teenager and thought I would be an opera singer but quickly realised I don't have that kind of voice. Then I studied jazz because I was enamored with people like Billie Holiday, but I knew I wanted to write my own songs so it still didn’t feel like my be-all-end-all."
"Meanwhile I was listening to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell, and eventually I picked up a guitar in order to accompany myself on songs I was writing.“
Where did you grow up?
“I grew up in a loft in Brooklyn, then moved to Massachusetts for high school and university. My heart stayed in NYC though and eventually I moved back to Greenwich Village in Manhattan where I stayed for 10 years. My husband and I live in London now.”
Were your parents supportive of your decision to make career in music?
"Yes, definitely, they were both artists themselves, and when they divorced my father remarried a modern dancer and my mother married a flute player. I was very lucky that they were so encouraging; it’s hard enough in the business without the support of your family.”
How did you first get involved in music?
“I can’t remember, apparently my dad said I was singing scales copying my mother before I could talk!”
Do you enjoy the writing process?
"Yes and no. It can be uncomfortable and irregular. I save up little ideas in my phone and sometimes I won’t figure out what to do with them for years. Other songs come out fully formed in a matter of hours. Writing solo is a lot more intense and takes longer than co-writing. But the satisfaction of coming up with something meaningful to yourself is amazing, and then you just hope other people like it too.”
How would you classify your music?
“That’s the million dollar question I’ve never been able to answer. A lot of people have told me I remind them of Annie Lennox. I think that’s a huge compliment, but I certainly have never set out to deliberately sound like her. She’s her own force of nature. I have some folk influences in me too, sometimes using alternate guitar tunings like Joni Mitchell. Ultimately I still feel like I’m stumped when people ask me this.”
Tell me a little about your new album, Bloom?
“It came out of a radio series I did for BBC Radio 2 called Nell’s Angels, that showcased all my favourite female singers, people like Dusty Springfield, Eva Cassidy, Amy Winehouse, and the ones I’ve mentioned above.
“At the time I was writing for my new album, and a lot of the songs reflected my happy settled married life which I started to realise no self-respecting amazing singer that I loved would ever sing. I went back to the drawing board and delved deeper into my past. There’s only one happy love song on there, “Dared the World and Won,” and it’s about my daughter and how much I love being a mother.”
Where did you take your inspirations from?
“Mostly from people I know, places I’ve been, and books I’ve read. I’ve always loved novels. There’s nothing like getting lost in a good book.”
Do you have any tours or gigs lined up in the UK?
"I have a series of shows this spring that I’m calling “In Bloom” because it’s a stripped-back set-up, mostly with just my piano player, so I can talk about the songs and people can hear how they first sounded when written. There’s some festivals over the summer and then a longer, larger tour in the Autumn.”
Do you enjoy performing?
“Yes I always have, it’s how I’ve kept going over the years when I couldn’t find other avenues of reaching people. When I started out touring I couldn’t find a record label or booking agent, so I became my own booking agent and set up shows all around Europe. I ended up playing an average of 250 shows a year! I don’t do that anymore now because I have a family, but I still love it. It keeps me honest and in touch with my audience. Plus it’s really fun.”
How important is social media to your career?
"Incredibly important. I resisted it at first because it’s not my natural inclination to be that public or available. Who really cares if I ate an apple for breakfast? I find the whole selfie culture narcissistic and boring; the Kardashian phenomenon is gross. But then I realised that it’s a fantastic way of me keeping directly in contact with my fans, and for an independent artist like myself that is paramount. People want to know it’s you, and not some big machine or a man in a suit writing them back.”
Is there any artist you would like to perform or write with at the moment?
"I just discovered a guy in Canada called Lief Vollebeck. His songs “Elegy” and “Into the Ether” are amazing. I’d love to do a collaboration with him, like Robert Plant did with Alison Krauss for “Raising Sand.”
Do you think the industry is better balanced towards women in the 21st Century?
"Better balanced yes, but still not equal. Women don’t seem to have the longevity in pop that some of the older rock bands are enjoying. Also, I think there’s still way too much emphasis on how women look rather than their music. The internet helps though because you can take more control of your business and the way you release your songs.”
What are your main interests outside of music?
"I’m working on a novel. It’s early days.”
What is your pet hate?
"That my husband doesn’t put his clothes in the laundry hamper, he just leaves them ON TOP of it.”
What’s your favourite film?
"Chinatown with Jack Nicholson.”
What’s your star sign?
Do you have a favourite food?
"My husband took me to Rome and I had gelato three times a day. I love cooking too, lots of seafood and risottos.”
If you would like more information on Nell Bryden then visit her website here.
George R Vaughan