Rachel Nelson gets a little help from her friendsTwo Harbors musician Rachel Nelson will come together with her 3 of Cups bandmates (including Madison singer/songwriter Tracy Comer) this weekend in Duluth. PLUS: A "reprint" of Perrine's last feature on Nelson, which appeared in the Budgeteer in 2008.
Fans of Two Harbors singer/songwriter Rachel Nelson will be in for a treat Sunday afternoon. While they’ll still hear some of her solo standouts, the songs’ll sound a little different.
Why? Joining Nelson on the intimate Unitarian Universalist stage will be Madison singer/songwriter Tracy Jane Comer and Twin Cities percussionist Michael “Stix” Kiley.
Otherwise known as 3 of Cups, this collaborative force has been around for a couple years now, but they’ve been on a bit of a hiatus due to illnesses in Comer’s family.
“The idea of this collaboration is that [Tracy and I] can still do our originals — but we have this band context where we can use some of the other instruments we play to back each other up with,” Nelson told the Budgeteer.
Now, you may find yourself asking: Why on Earth would a Northland musician willingly choose to work with a fellow singer/songwriter who lives 358 miles away (not to mention the triangular distance to their drummer’s house)?
“Singer/songwriters come a dime a dozen,” Nelson began, explaining that she heard something in Comer that completely mesmerized her.
Funny thing about that first connection is that it happened much farther away than little ol’ Madison — it happened all the way up in Montreal, at a Folk Alliance gathering.
“They have something called guerrilla showcases in the hotel rooms at night after the regular [performer] showcases,” Nelson said of her first encounter with Comer’s output. “I was walking along in the hotel … and I heard this amazing guitar playing. I just stopped and went in the room — it was a round-robin and, as soon as she was done, I left.”
Her future 3 of Cups bandmate was playing her 2004 composition “Yellow Bike,” which is still one of Nelson’s favorites. (Needless to say, it’s one she and Comer regularly play together.)
“She just had a beautiful voice, a beautiful finger-style guitar technique … and it turns out she plays pretty much everything else too,” Nelson added.
As someone who hadn’t played with other musicians in some time, something clicked for Nelson when she heard her play — it was an “a-ha” moment of sorts: She could see herself playing with Comer.
As luck would have it, Comer invited Nelson over to Madison (she lived in Red Wing before relocating to Two Harbors) to open for her shortly after the Great White North run-in.
“We decided that, just for fun, we’d back each other up on our stuff,” Nelson said. “She came out during the opening set and backed me up, and I backed her up on her set. That was kind of the germ of the (3 of Cups) idea.”
Eventually the two women enlisted Kiley on drums, and occasionally Mad Town folkie Tret Fure guests at their shows as well.
While expanding the scope of their respective solo creations seems to be a formula that’s working for 3 of Cups’ chief songwriters, Nelson believes the collaboration could prove to be even more fruitful.
“We want to have some sort of working retreat — in person,” she said. “I think it would be a marriage made in heaven to write together, but we haven’t really come out and said that yet.”
The Two Harbors musician said 3 of Cups becoming more of a group (as in doing more than backing each other up) would work because she and Comer excel at different things.
“She’s really, really good harmonically … and I’m really good with melody,” Nelson said. “And we both like to write lyrics, so that would be really interesting to collaborate.”
The trio 3 of Cups will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 7, at Unitarian Universalist Church, 835 W. College St. Cost is $10. See www.3ofcups.info.
One-Woman Cabaret Comes to Play Ground
This article, also written by Matthew R. Perrine, originally appeared in the Budgeteer March 30, 2008.
“It’s kind of an experiment in storytelling — through stories and songs both — movement and music, and putting it all into one package,” says Two Harbors resident Rachel Nelson, explaining her latest project, “Living the Questions.”
It’s a one-woman cabaret of original music, storytelling, dramatic performance and spoken word — not your ordinary, everyday production. It will be showcased next at the Play Ground in downtown Duluth. (It debuted last Tuesday at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.)
Its foundation is — hence the title — an opening monologue of weighted questions, such as: Whose mess is this anyway? What can I do? Where does he get his power? Can you hear me? Do I have a voice?
“That’s kind of a big thread through it,” Nelson said of that last question — in which the St. Louis Park, Minn.-raised artist wonders aloud if she does, indeed, have a voice. “… We tried to distill the questions that we examine in the scenes or songs into real kind of colloquial cliché kind of questions.”
Another aspect of the show Nelson is excited about is that it incorporates the photography of an old friend, Chante Wolf, whose works focuses heavily on “folks at peace demonstrations.”
“Part of her project is to show the great diversity,” Nelson said of her friend’s work. “They’re not just a lot of wild-eyed radicals; there are grandmothers, there are wonderful, young, very clear-eyed college students, there are professionals … it’s just a very diverse group.”
To incorporate Wolf’s images, Nelson’s director, a videographer, spliced them together for between-scene sequences.
The art of it
From St. Louis Park, Nelson shipped off to Seattle for college. After earning an English degree there, she moved up into the mountains of North Carolina, where she realized she could get more money doing music than anything with her degree.
“I always swore I’d never be a musician because both of my parents are [Laughs] and, then, look,” Nelson announces jovially. “I count myself lucky because I’ve been in a lot of bands throughout the years and usually my bandmates will have families that say, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’ — while my parents were like, ‘When’s your next performance?’
“Even though I do a different kind of music than they do, they’ve been tremendously supportive. It’s been one real lucky star in my life.”
While she was happy just being a musician, Nelson soon set her sights on songwriting and, shortly after that, she moved into theater music.
“And I was good at that, so I was good at what you might call a Noh musician,” Nelson said of her experience with the historic form of Japanese theater, in which she would be the intermediary between the audience and the action onstage. “So then I got this notion: Why couldn’t I be the Noh musician and the performer at the same time?”
Enter the one-woman cabaret show. After five years with master physical acting teacher Kari Margolis, Nelson was ready to go.
She first started experimenting with putting all these separate elements together in 2000, and hasn’t really looked back since.