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Inside Out

I was a middle child. I grew up in Southeast London and I had an older brother who I emulated. He would rescue me if I got stuck up a tree, but otherwise tolerated me at best. I had a younger sister, and that brought out more of the protective side of me.

Photo by Babs Daly.

We were like the Family von Nelson, all five of us in the car going somewhere, singing harmonies, forming little pop groups at holiday camps. I started playing the piano when I was seven and I had a classical training up until age 18, all paid for by the state, which was great because my family wasn’t very well off.

My first real band was called The Spoilsports. We played Gay Pride in Hyde Park in 1980, I wore tiny John Lennon glasses, a leather jacket and a beret – my best revolutionary look. I’d made the decision that I was going to be a musician, and as long as I didn’t starve or freeze, my object wasn’t going to be money.

In 1984 I was having a relationship with the woman who I was also creating music with. We were a duo called The Moonlighters and we were inspired by the electronic music that two people could make, like Erasure or Eurythmics. Our big moment was supporting Bronski Beat at the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners gig, which features in the film Pride.

The relationship and the band came to a dramatic end. At that time my landlord wanted us all out of the house and he was prepared to give us some money to go. So, I had a car, I had two grand and no particular destination in mind. A friend said ‘go to Dublin’, so I set off intending to stay just a few months.

I had the good fortune of arriving into a social group of mostly lesbians, who are still my friends. I was invited to be part of the first lesbian band in Ireland, Major to Minor. We appeared on TV every Sunday on a quiz show called Where In The World. I would write the lyrics of a song about one country for every episode and I tried to put as much queerness into them as I could!

There wasn’t enough money to sustain us as a band, so another member, Maria Walsh and I decided to become a duo. I had an Atari desktop, and software called Cubase, which allowed me to programme drumming, basslines, the whole orchestra. So, we recorded our first album.

We had people come around to dinner to name-storm for the band, and my friend Colleen, picked up the book Maria had cooked from. It fell open at a page with the recipe, Zrazy a lá Nelson. So Zrazy is a Polish meatball dish. We were told that in Moscow it’s also a colloquial term form ‘cool’ or ‘hip’. Another Polish woman told us the name means ‘together with all races’. So, it has gathered meanings as we’ve gone along.

Looking back, I’d call the music we made pop. There was a big jazz influence on the first album, and for the second album we were spending a lot of time in Berlin, so there was some techno in there. We didn’t have an overarching sense of what are we were trying to produce; we just went from song to song.

We’re a good team. We know how to fight and make up pretty quickly. We’ve had five studio albums and one live album, with a big gap between 2004 and our 2015 release The Art of Happy Accidents. We’re still alive and kicking.

Myself and my long-term partner, Deborah, who used to be the editor of GCN, live in Borris, Co. Carlow. We bought a ruined farmhouse on two and a half acres and moved down in 2001. We’ve made orchards, a wildflower meadow and a poly tunnel for growing food, and we have chickens. When I’m not being a musician, I’m working on the land.

Although I’d played with lots of other people over the years, I’d never done my own solo projects. A couple of years ago one of the veteran jazz producers in this country emailed me to say he was organising a festival for piano trios and would I perform? I had never performed in that format before – piano trio being piano, bass and drums. So I did it,with two great musicians, Cormac O’Brien and Dominic Mullen. I decided I would definitely record an album, but then it kind of fell by the wayside.

Last December I was driving to a gig in Kilkenny and Leonard Cohen had just died. I was listening to him on the stereo, looking at the flat landscape, and the quality of the light, and I suddenly knew what the title of an album was: One Day In Winter. I knew too how I would structure it, from pre-dawn to sunrise, to the moon rising over the Blackstairs mountains, which I see on clear nights from our house.

I’m 62 years old and I’m finally calling something under my own name. I trace my reluctance to do that right back to being a child, where I was recognised as talented and smart, but that was used by teachers as a stick to beat other children with. I knew I wasn’t going to have any friends unless I kept my head down and was humble about what I could do, and it’s really played out in my psyche.

Now is the time. If I call something The Carole Nelson Trio, I’m putting my name out there in a milieu where there is a hugely high standard of excellence, which I may not have or ever attain, but I’m absolutely comfortable in what I can do. I think in the past I would have felt the fear of being judged more acutely than I do now.

I’m part of a group called Mindfulness Ireland, which practices in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, who had huge involvement in peace and reconciliation projects in the North of Ireland, in Israel and Palestine. I think meditation brings me more stability, more happiness, more joy in my life and hopefully less ego.

What I understand of the tradition is that your stability should not depend on what people say about you or to you. There has to be some stable core at the centre, which I do feel more fully now than I did before. Maybe it gave me the stability to do this album, and to be in front.

‘One Day In Winter’ by The Carole Nelson Trio is available now, www.carolenelsonmusic.com

This article appears in the 337 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 337 Issue of GCN