An In-Depth Interview With MATTHEW AND GUNNAR NELSON About Their Christmas Shows, New Album With Carnie and Wendy Wilson And More!
Posted On 09 Dec 2016
“This Christmas” is a true family affair for Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, who have teamed up with another pair of platinum, second- (and, in the Nelsons’ case, third-) generation performers in their childhood friends Carnie and Wendy Wilson for a holiday single that celebrates not only their legendary rock fathers – Ricky Nelson and Brian Wilson – but their individual hit-making histories.
The title track from their new album, This Christmas Too, the sequel to last year’s Billboard-charting Top 20 Adult Contemporary and Top 5 Holiday release, the song brings together scions of two of pop music’s royal clans to celebrate the season with an original Nelson track and another round of dates on their successful “Christmas with the Nelsons” tour. The two families grew up together in Southern California, and this collaboration is long overdue.
Commented Gunnar Nelson: “After knowing, admiring, and loving these girls for a lifetime, I’ll never forget the elation I felt the first time we all actually sang together. It just doesn’t get any better than this for me — personally or professionally.”
Added Carnie: “All I can say about the collaboration is that it’s about time!! We are perfect together!!”
“I believe there is the right time and place for everything,” said Wendy. “Singing with the Nelson brothers is nothing but magical.”
Matthew Nelson said: “We have each in our own right, and over 25 years, sold millions of records and performed thousands of concerts worldwide to millions of people — yet never before in my 30-year career has a collaboration excited me more or made more sense on so many different levels. 2+2= Millions. When we are together it is absolute magic. Why haven’t we done this before, and can we please do much more of it in the future?! This just feels right. We belong together.”
Both the Nelson brothers and Wilson sisters experienced chart-topping success from the very start of their careers. Nelson’s “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” from their 1990 multi-platinum debut album, After the Rain, went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, along with the #6 title track and Top 40 hits “More Than Ever” and “Only Time Will Tell.” The Wilson sisters’ Wilson Phillips – with Chynna Phillips, the daughter of the Mamas & the Papas’ John and Michele – scored three #1 singles that same year in “Hold On,” “Release Me” and “You’re in Love,” from their self-titled multi-platinum debut.
Matthew and Gunnar have been combining original songs with performances of “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” their live tribute to the music of their father, and have embarked on the acclaimed “Christmas with the Nelsons” tour again, which started on November 28th in Modesto, CA.
Remaining “Christmas with the Nelsons” Tour Dates:
December 9 — Potawatomi Hotel & Casino – Milwaukee, WI
December 10 — Grand Falls Casino – Larchwood, IA
December 11 — Rhythm City Casino Resort – Davenport, IA
December 12 – Whatley Center for the Performing Arts – Mount Pleasant, TX
December 16 — Renaissance Performing Arts Center – Goodyear, AZ
December 17 — The Ritz Theatre – Tiffin, OH
Learn more about the Nelson brothers and their music in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! Now that 2016 is just about over, what are some words you would use to describe the year? What have been some of the highlights for you and your music? What are you most excited about for 2017?
2016 has been amazing. We performed 86 shows this past year on tour between our NELSON, Ricky Nelson Remembered, and Christmas With The Nelsons shows. We secured a new manager and a new agent- both on completely elevated levels than what we had the year before. In between all of that, we recorded our single This Christmas Featuring Carnie and Wendy Wilson and filmed the video for it… then spent all the time we could setting up the effort and TV and radio. But overall, right now I can’t focus on anything other than promoting this new Christmas album and single with Carnie and Wendy Wilson.
Once we get through that we’re gonna be focusing on some TV work in 2017… a new NELSON record… and perhaps the first of several records that we hope to make with Carnie and Wendy as a ‘double duet’, featuring our takes on the singer-songwriter classics that we all grew up to as kids in SoCal. Of course, we’re going to be doing at least 100 tour dates next year. All pretty exciting stuff.
You just released a new Christmas single with Carnie and Wendy Wilson called “This Christmas.” How did this pairing come to be? What was it like working with them? Is this a collaboration that you’ve been wanting for a long time?
Matthew and I have been working on putting this collaboration together for the past 25 years! We’ve known the girls for a long long time- ever since we were babies actually- but our schedules never aligned. We’ve always been huge fans of the way the girls sang together… the way they stayed together through all of the highs and lows that life and this crazy business in particular can throw at you. Every year I’d be at Carnie trying to break her down and get her to get in the studio with us- I just had this feeling that if and when we ever made that happen, it would be magical. I was right. I couldn’t be more proud of how it sounds… how it makes you feel. This was always meant to be. It sounds like a modern Mommas and Papas to me. The experience has been incredible… and the results, truly inspiring.
How will your Christmas album, “This Christmas Too” be different or similar to the Holiday album you released last year?
This Christmas Too is a photo negative of the first release of last year (2015’s This Christmas album)… allow me to explain: when we recorded this record we intentionally overcut by double: on last year’s release, half of the record had instrumental versions of these Christmas classics- the other half had vocal versions. This year, This Christmas Too has the songs flipped. What was an instrumental track last year is now the vocal version and vice versa, plus we’ve added two bonus tracks that were not on the first album… as well as the completely new take on our original Christmas hit single ‘This Christmas’ featuring Carnie and Wendy Wilson that’s driving the whole effort. The good news is, if you bought 2015’s This Christmas album, you’re not going to get a single duplicate on This Christmas Too- they’re designed to compliment each other perfectly. This record was always planned as a double album from the second we started recording this project. Part one and part two- no duplications. We actually offer special collectors edition packaging for folks who buy both albums that makes it a proper double album.
Sonically and stylistically, we went out of our way to try to take a fresh approach with all of these Christmas classics. We didn’t want to pull at all from anything that had already been done. What we wanted to do was make a very honest, heartfelt record regardless of the fact that it was Christmas music- we just wanted to make a great album that stood on its own. And how did we decide which approach to take with each song? We let the way each song made us feel in the moment dictate that individual song’s direction. All the songs seemed to take on a life of their own, and they bloomed from there. It’s important to note that we didn’t cut any corners during the process- each song was recorded individually start to finish- meaning that we didn’t just sit down and record all the drum tracks in one day, then come back and play all the bass parts the next day, etc. Every song was approached one at a time as if it was its own musical statement.
I guess the gold standard we tried to aspire to was imagining what it would be like if our heroes in America, The Eagles, or Crosby Stills and Nash were to ever sit down and make a Christmas album. We wanted it to be timeless. Organic instruments. Real musicianship. Real playing and singing. All recorded through our vintage (circa 1972) class A Neve console. So cool. We want you to be able to sit down 30 years from now and put this record on and have it sound every bit as contemporary and fresh as the day it was recorded.
What if anything has surprised you about the music industry these days? What do you think has been your biggest challenge? And what do you think has come really naturally to you both over the years?
Well, it kind of sucks that the ‘industry’ seems to have eaten itself over the past 20 years as far as being able to make a living just from selling your music goes. The record companies got greedy and went too far… the old guard strip-mined their catalogs and set our industry to time out just after they’d pulled their golden parachutes and timed out themselves. The horse had really left the barn when the CD was invented… but of course file sharing was the final nail in the coffin. Of course the artists didn’t come their labels’ rescue at the time- the labels had been screwing over artists BIG TIME ever since there was a recording industry.
Remember, the music business was really founded by profiteers after World War II… these guys were good at hiding (stealing) the money. Too much greed for too long… and now it’s over, as far as monetizing music is concerned. It’s reverted back to what it was when this whole rock and roll joyride stared in the 50’s: singles and live touring. Since I’m a touring artist, I’m A-OK with that… I just feel sorry for the folks who used to be full time professional songwriters (and not live performers) who are now working at Home Depot and writing an occasional song for fun now. The days of mailbox money are over. Ten years ago, we’d give away the live shows in order to sell records. Now we give away the records and singles in order to get folks to come to our live shows. No problem. Adapt and overcome, as always. It’s a Nelson family tradition.
Our biggest career challenge so far was being at ground zero for the single largest paradigm shift in music industry history (and that includes the Death of Disco).. the rise of grunge in 1991. We were on the very label that signed and brought us Nirvana (Geffen/DGC). Through no fault of our own, we went from heroes to zeroes overnight. It took us 20 years of dogged determination to weather that particular storm… and it was really hard at times… but we never quit. All these years later, for guys like me and Matt the current paradigm holds promise and the possibility of a more level playing field. Major labels no longer have the stranglehold on our industry that they once had. We were one of the first major label artists from the 80’s to start their own label. Our label, Stone Canyon Records, currently has 22 full length Nelson albums in its catalog.
Our current Christmas record is our own independent effort on this label. It’s pretty darned impressive that we and SCR scored a legitimate top 20 Billboard hit last year (#17 AC, #4 Holiday)… without the muscle and coffers of a major label. I’m hoping for an even better showing this year, with the edition of an incredible radio promotions team, a wonderful manager (Jonathan Wolfson- Hall and Oates and Loverboy), and the best agent and agency on the planet (Pete Pappalardo of AGI).
Recently, what’s changed the most is that Matthew and I have stepped up and embraced our musical legacy. Just like our father did with his Stone Canyon Band, we’ve realized that there’s a certain sound that we make together that no one else can do- it’s absolutely unique. It pulls from several different influences that surrounded us while we were growing up (California folk, pop, country… all mixed with the rock scene that later became the Sunset Strip thing). Hell- pedal steel guitar is an outlaw instrument in country now… how ironic…and that’s what we grew up with- Tom Brumley (an original Buckaroo) on the pedal steel with the Stone Canyon Band. I love pedal steel on our records. You’re going to hear more of it. George Harrison was our neighbor who always visited our Pop to hear James Burton guitar stories. You’re going to hear his influence in our slide guitar solos. Our toddler-hood was spent going to soundchecks at The Troubador when bands like Poco, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers set the tone. You’re going to hear that double-compressed electric 12 string throughout what we do, making you feel like you’re really catching alligator lizards in the air (no such thing) on Ventura Highway. Our California country sound is more legitimately country than contemporary Nashville is at the moment by far- and it’s OUR birthright- it belongs to us. Our father invented country rock with the SCB- and we’ve been playing this music legitimately since the Dead Sea was just sick. We’re not trying to ‘aim’ things here- this is who we are to our core. We are California country.
The new stuff sounds so unique- California country pop folk rock led by two lead singers. Kind of like Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers with George Harrison guesting on lead guitar, fronted by the Everly Brothers. Trust me- it’s going to make perfect sense for you when you hear it. I’m incredibly excited at how good it’s sounding.
But what has always come naturally to us both over the years? Simple. Two brothers, two voices, two guitars, and a great song. Every single break I’ve ever had go my way in this business has always come from that formula. The biggest gig we ever played was to 66,000 people in Erie PA who came to see just me and Matt play acoustics and sing for them. No one else on the bill… just us. Me and my brother singing and playing together has always come naturally.
You have been making music since 1989 so I am curious to know if your love or reasons for making music have changed throughout the years?
If I were to be 100% honest, my first go-round with success was doomed due to the fact that it was ego driven. I was a young man who’d spent his entire life working his way up in seedy LA clubs… the world’s longest overnight success (we started playing when we were six years old, professionally in the clubs when we were just twelve)… the entire time getting shit from not only our competitors… but from well-meaning friends and family alike. I wanted to show ‘em all. Guess I did. Problem was… when we went #1 on our 22nd birthday and became literally the biggest act on planet earth at that moment, my first thought wasn’t “Isn’t this !@#$% awesome???”- it was “Now what?” Shit. That was a truly terrifying moment for me. I was so focused on the result, that I’d paid no intention to the ride.
I’ve learned so much since then… and it’s really served me. Now I strive for musical success for all the right reasons- no ego any more- just passion to make the best music I can make and share it with the world. Music allows me to be a teacher, a healer, a poet, a communicator. It allows me to be a part of the solution, not the problem. Music has brought me all over the world and back many times… and regardless of where I’ve been at the time… no matter how the people it’s put me in front of worshipped or the language they spoke… my music has enabled me to profoundly connect with them. I LOVE making music. I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I’m still excited when I’ve got a concert to play… and I still jump out of bed in the middle of the night and run to my studio when song idea hits me. I’m so grateful to get to do what I do… and thankful to God that He gave me the passion to do it and the skill to express it. On some days, it’s my love for music that’s the ONLY thing that keeps me going. There are far easier ways to make a living than being an analogue artist in a digital world. If i didn’t love it so much, there’s no way that I could do it.
At the end of this month, you will head out on the “Christmas with Nelsons” Tour. What can fans expect from these shows?
CWTN is such a cool show! Simply put, it tells the story of 3 Nelson family Christmases: the first when Ozzie and Harriet were celebrating with kids Ricky and David, the second when Matthew and Gunnar were little kids with our Mom and Pop in the 70’s (when I’m convinced all toys were designed to kill us), and last with our own children today. It’s not just our usual show with a few Christmas songs tacked on at the end- it’s a completely different show dedicated to the songs from our This Christmas (Too) album, with completely different video than our usual show. It truly is a show that many generations of a family can come to and get something wonderful out of. It’ll make you laugh and cry… it’ll make you feel human… above all it’ll make you feel grateful for all you have no matter who you are and what you do. And in the great Nelson family tradition, it’s funny. It’s been building and growing over the past few years. Now we’re booked solid with it from November 28th through Christmas. We’re really excited about it.
Over the years, who have been some of your favorite artists and what bands continue to inspire you and your music? Who would you still love to work with in the future?
I’m a total fanatic of 70’s singer-songwriter music: Orleans, Ambrosia, Seals and Crofts, America, Firefall, Todd Rundgren, Paul Davis, Dan Fogelberg, Andrew Gold, Atlanta Rhythm Section, etc… all the artists and bands from the 70s. I just simply can’t get enough of that music. It not only calms me down, but it keeps me creative as a writer and recording artist. I think that era was a time in music when musicians didn’t have any of the tricks that ‘artists’ rely on too much today. No autotune-no ProTools- no computers or synthesizers. To stand above the crowd of the day you had to have great arrangements guiding great songs, sung by great vocalists and great musicians. Real music. That’s my jam. In the future, I’d actually like to do more music… much more music with Carnie and Wendy. I think we’ve got a great thing going here.
When you aren’t performing, working in the studio, what do you like to do for fun? How do you both unwind from it all?
I’m a father of three children… all girls (YIKES!)- 10, 12, and 16. They’re awesome. I love spending time with them and watching them experience, grow, and learn. If I’m not adventuring with my kids and my wife, I’ll either be in the kitchen working on my ‘chops’ (ugh. sorry)… because I’m an aspiring chef that also does live cooking events. My other passions is acquiring, fixing, flipping (and sometimes keeping) classic muscle cars. My current stable is a numbers matching ’67 Pontiac GTO Convertible and a numbers matching ’71 Chevelle SS 454 4-speed car. Life’s been good to me so far.
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope listeners take away from your songs?
Ultimately, I want my music to make you FEEL GOOD. That’s it. That’s all. So simple. But I come from a long line of entertainers, going back 150 years- all the way to circus performers who emigrated from Scandinavia. And just like the circus, I’ve always felt it’s my job to provide you with an escape from all of your cares and the realities of real life that can tend to drag a person down from time to time. I want my music to be a friend that you turn to when you want a lift. I want you to be able to count on my music the same way I’ve counted on my own hit parade since I was a baby.
I want my music to put some of the color between the lines for you… to make you want to sing along loud and out of key with your hands in the air without giving a damn. Hopefully when you need me, I’ll have the right melody for you- or a particular line from a lyric will hit you in just the right way when you really need it the most. That’s what keeps me going to this day when I’m alone in my studio at 4 in the morning, or driving from one one-horse town to another in the middle of nowhere far from my family when I’m on tour. I’m telling myself that somewhere out there, there’s someone who needs my help in taking just one more step further on the wings of one of my songs.