Micah Nelson: When It Comes to Willie Nelson’s Youngest Son, expect the unexpected
by Steve Uhler
Micah Nelson has been screwing with everyone’s expectations since before he was even born.
His dad originally wanted to name him Jake — a “cowboy name” — but the still-gestating prodigy had other ideas. “Apparently, when my mother was pregnant with me, she had a dream in which I came to her and said, “Hey, listen. I’m gonna be showing up soon, so I want to let you know ahead of time. My name is Micah. You can call me whatever you want, but that’s my name. Micah. OK, great — see you soon.” Then she woke up and turned to my dad and said, ‘Hey, uh… so his name is Micah, apparently.”
“That wasn’t enough convincing, however. “They settled on Jacob, Jake for short,” he continues. “But then I showed up and said my name is Micah. Only doctors and cops and people at the DMV call me Jacob.”
Anyone expecting Willie Nelson’s youngest son to reflect the spitting image of his iconic father is likely to be simultaneously disappointed and amazed. Flying in the face of preconceptions — ore -re-anything — is a lifelong motif for the 24-year-old musician. his music is as similar to his dad’s as John Cage is to Johnny Cash. Same canvas, wildly different colors. “Micah has never followed the herd in anything he odes,” says his older brother, Lukas. “To follow any formula would limit him, which he knows. He’s as unique as he is creative.”
Even as a toddler, Nelson was messing with people’s heads. “I started playing harmonica in my dad’s band when I was about three,” he recalls. “I thought I was just getting harmonica lessons. I was oblivious to the thousands of people watching. My Aunt Robyn asked me if I was nervous in front of all those people? I said, “If I don’t see them, they can’t see me.’ Eventually I got pretty decent at the harmonica, and my dad would throw me the nod to take a solo or two.”
Like his iconoclastic father, Nelson does things his own way — and he does a lot of things. In addition to being a full-time musician, both with his band, Insects vs Robots, and as a solo artist, he’s an accomplished painter, photographer, filmmaker and animator. Imagine H.R. Giger channeling John Audobon at a seance with David Lynch, and you’ll get some idea of Nelson’s vision.
As a musician, he eschews the formulaic and polished in favor of the ragged, unformed and spontaneous. As such a conduit as a creator, Nelson conjures “found sounds” into complex musical works of astonishing depth, imagery and surprising humor. An intuitive sonic forager, he finds inspiration in serendipitous places: the rhythm drip of a leaky faucet, the arthritic, groan of an old rocking chair, the distant howl of hungry coyotes in the night. “When I was in high school, every morning on Maui I’d wake up to the most psychedelic bird calls right outside my window,” he recalls. “the weirdest riffs. A human couldn’t write those melodies. I had a growing suspicion that all birds were just musical robots flying around with little tape decks built into them with old warped tapes that would loop the strangest, tweekiest sounds.”
So do inanimate objects, “I know a guy named Lewellyn with an old creaky rusty cat,” he continues. “Every time he opens his door it sings the strangest creaky melodies. I”ve ripped his car’s riffs off countless times. Sometimes I see music as this mysterious forest to be explored. Or like archeaology. You never know what treasures and artifacts you might find, but you can’t know unless you start digging.”
Nelson meticulously builds layers of tracks, weaving a tapestry of songs that are often otherworldly. Anyone expecting echoes of his dad’s distinctive voice and mainstream op sensibilities will find Nelson’s oeuvre disorienting. It’s a beguiling mash-up of traditional folk, psychedelia and world beat, peppered with guileless vocals, dissonant chordings and shifting time signatures. It’s musical Chaos Theory.
“A lot of popular music is so safe, so predictable, like it was processed in a factory,” he explains. “You can literally go in and buy it at Target next to the Tupperware. Not that there’s anything wrong with that .. except that a lot of it tends to sound like Tupperware. Some folks want ot make a pop hit that sells deodorant and plays every five minutes at Walgreens and gets them a Super Bowl halftime show. I tend to get bored with that intention. It spooks my horse.” Perhaps the closest he’s ever come to a traditional love song is “Mosquito,” his bizarre ode to the pesky insect.
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