Jonathan Nelson On Songwriting: “When It’s Flowing, It’s Just Flowing”

Jonathan Nelson-FEARLESS album coverBy Bob Marovich

On March 18, the Stellar Award-winning singer-songwriter Jonathan Nelson released Fearless (Light Records / eOne Music), a live recording that JGM gave its highest possible rating, five stars, for its ability to “be musically versatile and passionate yet remain firmly rooted in the atmospheric and hypnotic P&W technique.”

Nelson spoke to JGM about how his songwriting process contributed to the creation of Fearless.

“My songwriting process is ‘when it comes,’” Nelson said. “I could be in a car–and a lot of times songs come to me in the car because I’m alone–or in meditation time, and I pull out the voice memo on my phone and I just start singing. There are other times songs come to me on an airplane, and I start typing into my iPad, and sometimes I whisper into my voice memo, because I don’t want anybody to think I’m a nutcase! Or I can be taking a shower. When the song faucet’s off, it’s off. When it’s flowing, it’s just flowing.”

His songwriting helps fuel the recording process. “I start with what comes through inspiration as I write the songs, and I build on top of that. ‘My Hope’ was one of the first songs I came up with. ‘I Believe’ was the second song, and then the rest of the songs just started coming. When the songs come, they just come.”

About midway through the Fearless recording process, however, Nelson decided to add a couple of favorites to the set list.  One was “Everything You Are.” “I had done it years ago, and Jason sang it as well,” he said.  He also fell in love with an African song. “I heard ‘Baba Oh’ from an African worship artist, Sonnie Badu, who I had recorded with. I said, ‘Sonnie, this song is so special, I have to record it on my CD.’”

Although Nelson describes his style of sacred music as “a compilation of praise and worship—praise music—that is encouraging, inspiring, and uplifting,” not all of the songs on Fearless are strictly contemporary. For example, “Forever Settled,” which features a driving vocal from Dorinda Clark Cole, is one of the album’s traditional gospel selections.

“I like traditional,” Nelson said, “but I do it as a tribute to my father. He always says, ‘Son, you’ve got to remember the older people.’ My dad is 81. He makes me think about that generation. What causes me to be so broad in my approach is that my dad is 81, my daughter is 9, and my son is 16. So I have millennials in my family and I have the older generation, as well.”

When did Nelson decide to sing gospel music? “I didn’t decide,” he laughed, “It was decided for me! My father is a preacher and he didn’t really ask [brother Jason and me to sing], but we just sang.  That was our thing.”

Along the way, Nelson drew inspiration from the Clark Sisters, Thomas Whitfield, Andrae Crouch, the Hawkins Family, Donald Lawrence, and others.

While balancing his time between a job in corporate America and attending music school, Nelson had the opportunity to sing background for Karen Clark Sheard. This assignment led to an introduction to Ted Winn of Ted and Sheri. Winn, in turn, introduced Nelson to Donald Lawrence. Nelson was a background singer for Lawrence when the latter was in the DC area.

If “music was secondary” to his corporate job, by 2000-2001, Nelson realized “[music] is what I’m supposed to be doing.”  And given those early industry connections, it wasn’t hard for Nelson to gather top-shelf gospel artists to guest spot on Fearless.

“My father always taught me to build bridges, not burn them,” Nelson said, “so throughout my career, I’ve believed in creating great relationships in gospel music with my peers. I’ve been there for people, and when it was time for them to be there for me, no one said, ‘no,’ or ‘let me check my calendar.’ It was really that easy. Da’ T.R.U.T.H., Kim Burrell, Dorinda Clark Cole, Tye Tribbett, my brother Jason, Sonnie Badu, everybody made time in their schedule to support me.”

Including his young niece, Jade Nelson, who is the featured soloist on “Amazing Love.”

“Jade recorded on my last CD, too,” Nelson said, “but this is the first time she was featured all the way. My niece has a great background. She’s coming up as a singer. She played young Nala in The Lion King on Broadway and also in Vegas. She’s now in a performing arts school. For me, having her on the CD was a way to propel her to future desires.”

Does he have advice for Jade? “Some lessons don’t have to be taught, they have to be caught,” Nelson said.  “That’s some of the best advice I can give her. There are some things you have to pay attention to without someone actually saying, ‘Hey, dot this I, cross this T.’ At the end of the day, more things will be caught versus taught. “

Nelson hopes Fearless leaves listeners “inspired, and if they don’t know that Jesus is the God I’m singing about, I hope they will come to know Him and explore a deeper relationship with Christ. I pray that people will open themselves to an unrestricted and unrestrained praise of God. That is my goal. That is my dream.”

But for now, at least, the creative faucet is turned off. “I’m so focused on the success of Fearless, I can’t even think about another album right now,” Nelson said. “But when the faucet is on, it’s on. When the songs come, they come, and I’ll be ready.”

For more information on Jonathan Nelson, visit: www.jonathannelson.us.

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

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