There are artists who are independent in the music industry sense, and artists who are independent in mind, spirit and the sheer bloody-mindedness with which they’ve made something of themselves. Nell Bryden fits both descriptions, and has the stories to prove it.
The funny ones, about thinking she was the next Maria Callas for a minute, or sleeping on a promoter’s couch that still bore the outline of the previous itinerant musician. The gritty ones, about 14-hour bus journeys to the next gig. The poignant ones, like witnessing 9/11, sacrificing her romantic life for years to pursue her artistic dream, and watching her hair fall out along the way. And, now, the triumphant ones, like establishing herself as a singer-songwriter of real distinction and finding true love in the process.
The journey from Nell Bryden’s birthplace in Brooklyn to a career-redefining fifth album ‘Wayfarer,’ and a virtual residency on the BBC Radio 2 playlist has been long, rarely without incident, and often rather strange. The key thing, though, is that she made it, like a good wayfarer always does, and her songs are all the richer for it.
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.”
She 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.”
And so it proved for the ambitious young Nell, even if there were to be many forks in the road. “My parents had split up when I was five. They both remarried, my dad to a ballet dancer and stayed in New York and my mum to a classical flute player, so still a totally artistic family.
“But then, when I was 11, my father and I were evicted from our loft in Brooklyn and we moved to a suburban town in Massachusetts, so I could be closer to my mother. I hated leaving Brooklyn. I was young enough to feel like ‘This is not fair’ and old enough to realise, ‘I’m in trouble now, because these are not my people.’”
By seven, she’d moved through violin to piano to cello, playing the latter instrument for a dozen years. “It wasn’t until I was around 18 that I really started feeling I could be a singer,” she says. Nell felt the teenage alienation that everyone assumes is theirs alone, until someone played her Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
“Suddenly I had friends, I had people that were right in my ear that sounded immediate, and they got what I was going through. ‘Little Wing,’ which I will have played at my funeral, I just had it on repeat one weekend, I couldn’t turn it off.”
Nell landed on many different squares, but couldn’t settle on any of them. Discovering Billie Holiday, she flirted with jazz. She qualified for the National Youth Symphony Orchestra in Washington and thought she was going to be a classical artist, but studying the music was never quite her thing. She heard Maria Callas and was convinced for a time that she was going to go to Italy and immerse herself in opera.
“It took me a long time,” she says. “As a songwriter, that’s great, because the more time you put in having fits and starts and figuring out your life and travelling, the more you have to draw on. But as a person trying to be an artist and establish a career, I really didn’t go the easy route at all.”
Taking a gap year after high school, Bryden took herself off to Australia. “I just travelled around, and it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. I realised that these ideas for songs I was writing in my head were some way I could relate to people.”
Returning to the US, she went to college in Boston. “I had this double life where I’d go to my political science class at 8.30 in the morning, with all these uptight cardigan and pearl types, and then at night I would go into the Boston folk scene and play songs on open mic nights, until I was offered gigs.”
She would study for a term at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, where access to the recording facilities made her realise she was very much at home in the controlled atmosphere of a studio. She and her boyfriend of the time started an electronic duo, “like an aggressive version of Everything But The Girl.” They moved to New York, broke up, and then came the delayed trauma of 9/11.
Nell eventually went to Nashville to record what would become her first album, 2003’s ‘Day For Night,’ a self-funded project that she admits was “all over the map. It was a massive flop because I never did anything with it, I didn’t even know how to shop it to labels. I thought, I’ll just make and they’ll find out about it somehow.”
Increasingly disillusioned, she followed a lead that took her on a self-booked tour, initially in Ireland, but then it extended to England, Scotland and Holland. She supported KT Tunstall in the US and the Counting Crows in the UK and Ireland. Around a sophomore album started in a New Orleans about to be ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, she did two tours of Iraq to perform for the Armed Forces.
Word about that tour reached no less a legend than Nile Rodgers, who seized on the idea of music as a unifying force that knows no political boundaries. He teamed up with filmmaker Susan Rockefeller, who made a documentary of Bryden’s second visit to Iraq called ‘Striking A Chord.’
New hope was building, and with it a fresh helping of luck. Nell found a Milton Avery painting in the attic and auctioned it for a sum substantial enough to fund a third album, 2009’s ‘What Does It Take.’ By now, she was building relationships at BBC Radio 2, where Bob Harris and Janice Long became supporters. But during the recording of her next album, the sheer stress of laying herself on the line for so many years would manifest itself in a shocking way.
“I lost my hair in a matter of two weeks, and it was terrifying. I was like the energiser bunny, nothing stopped me in my tracks. That was the first time in 15 years that I had to stop and say ‘Maybe I’m doing too much.’ They know very little about what causes alopecia, but probably the biggest thing is stress. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened, because it made me get off the treadmill and start thinking about myself emotionally.”
The resulting album, ‘Shake The Tree,’ was a new staging post, and not just because its first single. ‘Buildings and Treetops,’ cruised onto the Radio 2 A-list. She decided to go public about her trauma and, ultimately, to perform without a wig, to huge public acceptance and further airplay and acclaim. Gary Barlow heard her singing ‘Sirens,’ Shazam’d it and asked her to open for him on tour, just as other stars from Chris Rea to Duane Eddy had before. Further affirmation of her songwriting pre-eminence arrived when Cher chose to cover ‘Sirens’ on her 2013 album ‘Closer To The Truth.’
So to the future, to ‘Wayfarer,’ and a mood that, as she knows well, is palpably lighter and brighter. “My life has changed so dramatically by falling in love, and having stability, really,” she says. Yet the idea of songs opening doors, building bridges and crossing continents is one that will always be there.
“Music as a passport is a running theme in my life,” she says. “All through my 20s and early 30s, it was a way to get out to the world, to see these other places that I never would have seen without this reason to go there.”