Derik Nelson

By Dani Felt (January 1, 2018)

1. How did you get involved with Glee and what has the experience been like so far?

I found out through a friend that the musicians contractor that hires musicians for various TV shows was holding an audition, I can’t even remember now what it was for… I booked a time slot to play for her, and decided to bring my entire band with me.  We brought all our own gear, PA and everything, and had everything set up and ready to go in just a few minutes. She was impressed with our sound, but even more impressed with our professionalism, preparedness, and camaraderie… She thought that it was so considerate and selfless of me to want to include my band members on an opportunity like that.  I guess that made me stick in her mind, and a few weeks later she called me to tell me they were looking to hire a guitar player for the season finale of season 2 of Glee. She liked working with me, and ended up hiring me again for the season 3 premiere. One of the songs had an awesome guitar solo, and the director, Eric Stoltz, gave me a HUGE feature.  He really liked my attitude and what I brought to the table (no pun intended, I played the guitar solo on top of the cafeteria lunch table), and I wound up becoming a regular in the band for the rest of the season. It’s an amazing experience, and I feel so privileged to be involved. You can’t get much closer to a dream job than playing music on a hit TV show.

2. How has your career changed since being on Glee?

The connections I’ve made have been incredible.  The relationship I have with the musicians contractor is unique, she really looks out for me and has gone above and beyond to help me further my career as an artist and performer.  She has such unconditional love and respect for all of the musicians she hires, and it shows. She genuinely wants to help people succeed. Those kind of connections are rarities, especially in employment situations, and I am SO thankful to have her in my life.  Through her, I’ve had the privilege to connect with some of the people who work on the show, which has led to some amazing opportunities like doing vocal session work for a film score, singing backup vocals for Mary J. Blige, and some other live performance opportunities.  Being on Glee has opened a lot of doors for me, as well as helped expand the fan base for my own original music.

3. Tell me about some moments on the set that are interesting, inspiring, or just plain weird that us, Gleeks, would like to know about? You seem to have so much fun on that show.

We were shooting the Valentine’s Day episode the day of my birthday, and it ended up being a 14+ hour day or something ridiculous like that… At one point later in the evening, they brought out a cake and the cast and crew sang “Happy Birthday.” It made me a little choked up to get recognized by such insanely talented people.  I have such respect for the skill and dedication possessed by the actors, directors, and crew members, and that moment is definitely one of those significant life moments where you have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s real. Not a bad way to spend your birthday! I guess the point of that story was that everyone works really hard, but plays really hard also.  There’s a Glee themed ping pong table near the trailers, we played frisbee out on a high school football field in tuxedos when we were on location for Prom, and I think it was Dianna (Quinn) and Kevin (Artie) that introduced me and some of the other band guys to this really addicting iPad marbles game. So yeah, there’s definitely a lot of fun to be had despite such a demanding production schedule!

4. You have performed musical theatre early in your career, what are your thoughts about kids getting involved in acting in places closer to home? How did you get involved in acting when you were younger?

I grew up doing musical theatre every summer through a community youth theatre organization.  From a very early age, I not only realized my passion for performing, but I developed some foundational self-confidence, leadership, and disciplinary skills that helped me and continue to help me in every aspect of my life.  I think it’s imperative for kids to explore an interest in the arts, be it acting, music, visual arts, or otherwise, simply to benefit from the positive and creative effects it has on a young mind.

5. You’ve went from University of Michigan to USC to help your career, how would you describe your decision and what would you recommend for those who are not in LA but want to be start a music career?

The University of Michigan is a great school, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me.  I told people and told myself that I wanted to pursue a career as a recording engineer. I was too scared to admit that I wanted to write, produce, and perform music for a living, and I ended up taking a very safe route by enrolling in the UM recording arts program.  After my first semester, I realized that the majority of my time was spent stuck inside behind a computer instead of out on stage playing music somewhere, which deep down was what I really wanted to be doing. I had been thinking about moving to LA after college anyway to try to break into the industry, and one day I had the epiphany “why wait?” I started looking at schools in Southern California, discovered USC’s music industry program, and found it to be a perfect fit.  I can’t even begin to tell you all of the incredible opportunities I had at USC… Receiving a songwriting scholarship from Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, putting a band together and selling out clubs on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, being commissioned by the President’s Office to write, produce, and record a graduation anthem to represent the USC graduating Class of 2011, and much more. Had I not taken that risk and taken that chance to transfer, I never would be where I am today.  I am so grateful for the success I’ve had, and owe a lot of that to the decision to transfer to USC. If you’re looking to start a career in music, it certainly helps to be in a huge entertainment mecca like LA, simply for the connections available. However, with the state of the internet today, and the tools available for home recording, marketing, and distribution, there are ways to get your music heard and create a name for yourself from anywhere in the world without having to be in LA, New York, or Nashville.  It just takes a lot of hard work, passion, and fearlessness. It’s kind of like pointing to your goal on a map, and then driving as fast as you can in a straight line with your eyes closed until you get there.

6. You have been writing songs that have appeared on shows such as Felicity etc. What steps did you take to get your music out of your studio and into the hands of television networks?

The more you can get your music in places where people can hear it, the better.  The problem today is that there is such an overly saturated music market… anyone can record a song in their basement and put it on the internet.  I’ll come out and say it, there’s far more bad music out there than there is mediocre music. And there’s far more mediocre music out there than there is GOOD music.  Music that is well written, carefully crafted, performed by exceptional musicians, recorded and produced at the utmost level of quality, and mixed and mastered so that the details, dynamics, and EMOTION of the song are brought to the forefront is becoming harder and harder to find; it’s overshadowed and drowned out by what I’ll refer to as “everything else out there that doesn’t have those qualities.” Therefore, when you DO have a song that you really believe in, you have to work extremely hard to get it heard.  I got lucky and had a great network of people to send my music to. Tim Kobza, my friend, mentor, and collaborator, sent a record we did to some friends of his that happen to work in the licensing business. They heard it and loved it, and ended up getting a bunch of my music placed. It seems like such a simple formula, but it really does come down to a good song and somebody who hears it. I practice writing every day, and I think people can hear the honesty, the dedication, and the passion in my music, and I think that’s what makes it unique.

7. How did you get involved with producing? Tell us about working with artists to help them bring that extra edge to their music.

I realized sometime in college that I had a very specific vision for the music I was writing.  I could hear the arrangement, the colors, and the sounds in my head before a note was ever played.  I was so driven to create an accurate representation of what was in my head that it actually prevented me from collaborating with other people, or playing in a band or anything, until I was 20 or 21… I knew how I wanted it to sound, and didn’t want to stray from that idea.  This power and ability of being able to hear all the pieces of the puzzle, assemble them together in a creative way, and bring a vision to life is essentially the role of a producer as it pertains to music. Once I started gaining some recognition around school for my own music, I had some students begin approaching me about how I could help bring my vision to their music.  

My friend Rozzi Crane was one of the first people I worked with in that capacity.  I produced, recorded, mixed, and even wrote one of the songs for Rozzi’s 6-track self-titled EP.  It was new and exciting to begin shifting my thinking away from my own voice and sound, and start thinking about styles, sounds, and ways to feature and highlight Rozzi’s talents as an artist.  I came away from that project with so much pride and fulfillment, having connected with Rozzi in such a special way to create an awesome record together. She has since become the first artist signed to Adam Levine of Maroon 5’s new record label, 222 Records, and I couldn’t be more proud and excited for her success.  

After doing Rozzi’s album, I went on to produce records for Christine Donaldson (now “Luminaer”), Raquel Rodriguez, Sarah Ames, and also did production and mixing for some videos for other artists including Jayme Dee, Jack Kovacs (lead guitarist in my band), and Aaron Childs.

8. Your album, Songs about Winter features both original and covers, how do you about covering another artist and making it your own? How do you choose a song, tweak it, or go about singing it? (FYI I’m so disappointed that I could not hear “Back to December” cover)

I had the idea to do a winter concept album for a long time.  My friends and family pushed me for years to come out with a Christmas record… I was always so put off by the thought of singing a bunch of overdone christmas carols.  Christmas music constantly toes the line between being sentimental and nostalgic on one side, and being trite and cheesy on the other. Even the beautiful “Chestnuts Roasting,” which is one of my favorite christmas songs, has been done thousands of times in various styles by various artists.  The point is, I wanted to do something original and meaningful, something that evoked the nostalgia and feeling of the season of winter, without being tied to the Christmas holiday specifically.

Sting is one of my musical heroes, and a few years ago he did a holiday album with a winter theme with very traditional and classical “public domain” song selections.  Before I listened to it, I saw on the track listing that “Hounds Of Winter” was one of the songs. I grew up listening to that song… It’s the first track off of “Mercury Falling,” a tremendous album.  My mom used to play it all the time in the living room while she would make dinner, I was about 8 years old… That album, and that song specifically, has a very nostalgic and special connection to me because it reminds me of my mom.  Anyway, I love the original version, and was a little disappointed by the remake. I’m not sure exactly what it was about it that wasn’t particularly striking to me, but I was inspired to do my own cover the way I had expected to hear it–acoustic driven with lush strings, a defining percussive pocket and groove, and beautiful layers of piano and guitar parts.  The fact that the song is about winter, and the lyrics depict such stunning winter imagery made it a perfect cover to feature on my winter album.

The only other cover song on the album is “Sparks” by Coldplay.  That one is a little more difficult to explain, as none of the lyrical content points to anything winter-related.  For some reason, that song has always reminded me of the winter. Something about the spacious and exposed acoustic guitar coupled with the hauntingly simplistic melody over the chorus conjures up images of cold weather and snow in my mind.  It’s a more abstract choice, but I think the arrangement and production makes it fit the concept quite well; it makes sense with the flow of the album.

In my opinion, the most important part of covering someone else’s song is bringing something new and original to the table.  While it is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I don’t think how closely you imitate the original song has anything to do with the quality of the artistic statement you’re trying to make, and flattering the original artist shouldn’t even be part of the equation (if the goal is to present an original creative idea).  What matters to me is finding a way to connect with the song and find new meaning in it that can be expressed in an arrangement, style, or performance choice that provides new life to the song. To say it in less words, whenever I perform another artist’s material, I always strive to find a way to make it my own. Otherwise, what’s the point?  I’m not Sting, I’m not Coldplay. I’m not Katy Perry. If you want to hear their versions of their songs, then go listen to them.