Make Art – Not Commerce

Category: music 690

Ross Neilsen reconnects with his love for music by working less and living more.

Matt Carter | @m_j_c73
ross neilsen
Photo: Matt Carter

Ross Neilsen has a long history of making good career decisions. From hand-picking some of the best in the business to produce his studio albums, to choosing where, when and how often to perform, Neilsen developed a reputation for business sense that nearly parallels his ability to bring a house to its feet.

Since releasing his debut album in 2005, Neilsen has taken his passion for music more places than most musicians could ever hope.   He’s been back and forth across the country eighteen times and has traveled ‘down south’ to the heart of blues country, playing legendary venues and recording with some of the most storied musicians of the genre. But of all that he has experienced and all that he has learned, he’s probably most grateful for his sense of foresight – that intangible guiding force that brought him to where he is today – tending bar at The Snooty Fox and selling other people’s records.

“I realized that I want to make art and not commerce,” said Neilsen as he closes up shop at Secondspin Records, a popular Fredericton record store.  “If I get to a point where I am paying bills again by playing music and I’m comfortable and feeling good, that’s great, but that’s not a need of mine anymore.”

He likens his past few years as a working musician to an epic scene in an epic movie.

“You know that scene in the first Star Wars movie where they’re all stuck in a trash compactor? That’s what I felt like in 2015,” he said.  “I was just reaching into the pile and hoping to pull out something useful that might stop the walls from closing in.  It was a lot of time spent sorting through stuff and realizing what was garbage and what was worth keeping.”

Neilsen realized he had a big decision to make. He could either step back and reevaluate the situation or continue to forge ahead and let the music he loves destroy his will to perform and create.

Having seen it happen to so many others, he had no intention of falling victim to his muse, and if the light at the end of the tunnel seemed out of reach, he had to find a way to make the tunnel shorter.

“I was really dark in 2014,” said Neilsen.  “It was a bad year.  2013 was bad, but 2014 was bad. Once I made efforts to change things, it was like lifting a huge weight off my shoulders.  Now I feel happy again.”

Looking ahead, 2016 is all about spending less time touring, less time rehearsing and more time living. But it’s not easy to shift gears and step aside from a career path that has in many ways become a defining trait.  It not only presents new financial challenges but also a challenge to one’s own sense of identity.  If you’re a musician and you’re not playing music, what are you?

“The big thing was the identity of self, specifically, my identity,” said Neilsen.  “I had to realize that people are going to think of me what they want and I have no control over that, but I needed to know what I was comfortable with about myself.

“It’s been kind of neat bartending again,” he said.  “Sometimes people will come over and ask me what I’m doing there.  I’ll explain that I’m there to take their order and they’ll say something like, ‘But you’re a musician’.  I am still a musician. They don’t take that power away when they give you a bartending apron.”

When he eventually came to the decision that music needed to take a backseat to living and enjoying life, a lot of friends were surprised to learn that he was still working towards developing a sustainable career as musician after all this time.

“I always tell them, ‘don’t look behind that curtain.  You’ll be much happier not learning about the music business’.

“I knew that 2015 was going to be a massive year of change for me,” said Neilsen.  “I saw it coming long before 2015 got there. I knew it was coming and I needed it. Now, everything’s great.  It’s awesome.”

In addition to working regular jobs (and loving it), Neilsen has also found a new creative outlet in radio and podcasting, hosting Killer Tunes for local blues radio station The Wolf as well as his own show The Ross Neilsen Therapy Hour, a program centered on seeking good conversation with artists from all disciplines.

While 2015 brought about numerous changes to his life, he continues to write and create.  That will probably never stop. He recently returned from recording his sixth studio album in Toronto with engineer Ken Friesen (The Tragically Hip), producer Steve Marriner (MonkeyJunk) and musicians Jim Bowskill (Sheepdogs), and Darcy Yates (Bahamas) and a handful of other talented players on the Toronto scene.

Change is good and thankfully Neilsen has no plans to hang up his guitars. He just wants to learn to love them again.  Taking steps to reconnect with what you love is a highly admirable move.  We should all be so motivated.

“Now I want to play music for the right reasons.  I still want to make cool records. If people like them, that’s great. If people don’t, I don’t care.  I will find a way to make a living.”

Ross is currently raising funds to complete his latest recording project.  Check out his GoFundMe campaign, jam packed with great incentives.

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