Recovery Unplugged Treatment Center Let It In: Talking with Songwriter Brendon David Nielson about Music and Recovery

Songwriter Brendon David Nielson on Music and Recovery

When Provo, Utah-based songwriter Brendon David Nielson was just seven years old, he watched on television as the Twin Towers fell after being struck by two airplanes. Instead of crying, cowering in fear or even pondering the type of ideology that could have set such events in motion, he immediately went to his mother and asked what they could do to help. A lifelong musician, herself, his mother suggested writing a song for the victims. The result was a song called “A Message for this Land”, a work that garnered him national recognition and letters of thanks and praise from politicians everywhere, including the President. When your music has this effect on people, it’s hard to tell yourself that you just want to write pop songs for the rest of your life.

Four years later, Brendon was faced with another, much more personal tragedy: the death of his mother from prescription overdose. Since that formative moment over a decade ago, recovery has become a dominant theme in his richly-layered and undeniably universal music, which is largely a blend of electronic and orchestral elements. “Addiction has always been something that’s kind of been a plague in my life,” says Nielson, adding that his mother was the one who taught him piano and actually received a full scholarship for music, which she gave up to raise him.

Once an aspiring DJ and self-proclaimed lover of electronic music, Nielson discusses the trajectory of his career and the somewhat accidental nature of his new project, a musical scoring of the 12-Step Process aptly titled 12 Steps: “I wrote a song called ‘Hope’ when I was writing electronic music. It was after I wrote this song that I realized it was essentially the second step in the 12-Step Program.”

From there, says Nielson, everything fell into place and he started getting more and more support, both in the collaborative and motivational sense. “I’ve been very blessed. Utah, in fact, is a pretty big hub for talent.” Nielson went on to say that he was grateful to work with such talented acts as his good friends and fellow Utah musicians Van Lady Love who helped him write some of the new record. “My goal is to continue to work with people who have had experiences with addiction so they can really put their passion into it. Since it’s mostly instrumental, I really needed to have feeling behind it.”

The fact that 12 Steps, and Nielson’s music in general, is mostly instrumental makes it no less impactful. He has successfully mastered the art of sonic storytelling and his songs are proof that a pitch-shift can be worth 1,000 words or more. He confesses a decidedly different view of music and approach to the songwriting process: “Most people and artists will use music to convey emotion. I think that’s great, but I also think there’s a higher purpose to music. It has the power to bring someone to a higher plane of thought or a different place. It can give them hope, it can cause them to think and it can make statements. For me, music is a language and I like to treat it like that because I think it’s much better than just viewing it as an expressive tool.”

Expanding more on the non-verbal nature of his sound, Nielson says: “I’ve had many critics come up to me and ask me how I can talk about addiction recovery without lyrics. I say ‘just watch and see’. [Music] is a language. Just like body language is a language, music’s a language, too. I sit down and I read through different material about addiction recovery and I talk to people and think about experiences in my own life and say ‘what does this step feel like?’

Nielson goes on to explain how he takes his interpretation of what each step feels like and applies them to the composition and tone of his songs to give them a narrative arc: “What does hope feel like? For me, hope starts out kind of weak. After you’ve just been honest with yourself and realize that you are an addict, hope is kind of that weak part where you admit you’re powerless. And so [the song] ‘Hope’ starts off kind of weak with just a few notes on the piano. Then it starts to build slowly as if to say ‘well maybe there is something to this recovery idea.’ Then there just comes a point where it stops then just hits, and it’s kind of like that rush you experience when you realize you have the ability to change and that you can believe in a better future. Then it ends with the same notes it started with, but in a major key instead of a minor key.”

Though he has managed to shatter expectations just fine with minimal vocals, Nielson fully expects to integrate lyrics wherever and whenever appropriate: “I have a song called ‘Chaos’ coming out with this awesome female vocalist. This is the step before the first step. It’s that chaos of addiction and it’s just kind of the dark [period]. So, there will probably be two or three songs on [the album] with vocals, along with some remixes that have them.” Nielson also confessed that he is toying with the idea of doing an alternate version of 12 Steps with vocals on all of the songs. As a whole, however, Nielson is striving for an experience where listeners can sit down, absorb his music and develop their own story and interpretation without vocals forming their thoughts.

When asked if recovery will be an enduring motif in his music and songwriting, Nielson assures us that he’s in it for the long haul. He discloses that he hopes to transcend the stereotypes that are commonly associated with recovery-themed music: “I feel like there’s such a stigma behind good music with a good purpose. It kind of gets labeled and put into a box. I want to transcend that because of the branding that I have and the kind of music that I’m writing. I want people to say ‘hey this is awesome’ even if they have no idea what it’s about, but I also want it to have deeper meaning.” Nielson has already accomplished his goal, creating pieces that would be just as at-home on any indie, post-rock or EDM record as they are on this soundtrack to recovery.

The innovation and appeal of Neilson’s latest project has garnered him universal support from fans, loved ones and the Utah music community, alike. To support 12 Steps and bring his message to a wider audience, he plans on creating an interactive live experience: “I want to start something new. I want to speak about [addiction] and do kind of an immersive experience where people will not only hear my music, but they’ll see visual representations and lights. I want people to just come sit down and experience it. If they’re addicts, I want them to relate to this journey of recovery, and to give them hope; if it’s someone who’s not addicted, I want to help them understand what it’s like to go through addiction and recovery.”

Over a decade after his mother’s death, Brendon’s family remains firmly behind his creative mission. He describes the exact moment when he felt compelled to commit himself to promoting recovery through music, and the surprising reaction from his loved ones when he dropped out of Brigham Young University to do it. “I felt like I wasn’t fitting in there, and that there was something else that I needed to do. One night I was just lying there and I told myself ‘go do it’. So I dropped out of college and started doing this project.” He admits that he was shocked and inspired at how supportive his family was of his decision, a sentiment that seems to be shared by all in his life. “I have literally never had anyone that I can think of tell me that this wasn’t a good idea. They can all feel it. My dad, who lost his wife, has been supportive and that’s been incredible. My mom’s parents have also been super-supportive. It’s been incredible to see, and a very good indicator of the success of this project.”

When Recovery Unplugged finally got around to asking Nielson to comment on the healing benefits of music in recovery, he offered the following insights: “I think that any truth you can let into your life will make a difference. I believe that music is a way to be able to convey truth. If you allow yourself to really listen to the message, and what’s behind it, it can make a difference in your life. Let it speak to you because it has a purpose.”

12 Steps is due out in June of 2017. Hear “Hope” and “Honesty” now on Nielson’s SoundCloud and pre-order 12 Steps here.

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