"Wild Rose," John Nilsen's collection of new tunes on his independent Magic Wing Music label, is not so much a departure from his work as a pianist as it is a new sound largely featuring his guitar and vocals.
"There's plenty of piano on the new album," says the Portland-based songwriter. "What sets 'Wild Rose' apart from my other recordings is that each of its 10 tracks are recorded with a different band."
That means there's plenty of star power among the session musicians contributing to "Wild Rose." Look for appearances by bassist Damian Erskine, acoustic guitarist Don Woodward, pedal-steel guitarist Bryan Daste, drummer John Moen (The Decemberists), electric guitarist Tim Ellis, violinist Lex Browning (Lex Browning Band) and more.
"Once I knew what I wanted to do with the album, I made certain to get some of the best players around Portland," Nilsen says. "I've played with most of these musicians throughout my career. It's a circle of players that is still standing. They stand out on the album because they've been able to remain working as professional, full-time musicians for decades.
"When you think about the album's title and what it means, 'Wild Rose' speaks to the fact that I'm utilizing all of these great players from the City of Roses. Whether it's me or any of the other musicians on the record, we're all a bit wild from not getting day jobs — well, not as wild as we were 30 years ago."
Nilsen's annual holiday concerts in the Rogue Valley remain dedicated to his solo, piano arrangements of classic Christmas carols, original compositions and some musical surprises. The first show is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Upper Rogue United Methodist Church, 18977 Highway 62, Shady Cove. Admission is free.
Nilsen then will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the Newman United Methodist Church, 132 N.E. B St., Grants Pass. Tickets will cost $10 at the door.
The final concert will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20, at the First United Methodist Church, 175 N. Main St., Ashland. Tickets to the Ashland show will cost $15 at the door.
"As a songwriter, it's important to me that I feel I'm moving forward as an artist," Nilsen says. "I can do pretty piano records again and again, but I have to pay attention to what's tugging at me on the inside."
There are more than one or two notable tracks on "Wild Rose." The opening ballad, "Aberdeen," is a slightly Tom Petty-flavored tribute to Kurt Cobain.
"I wrote that song in an Aberdeen motel in about five minutes," Nilsen says. "It's a dark, little community in Washington state. I guess everyone's always a little depressed there."
Browning's wistful violin and Ellis' Mark Knopfleresque, Fender guitar are standouts on "Due in Memphis."
"We got exactly what we wanted on that ballad," Nilsen says. "I wanted it to sing to the South and slavery before the Civil War."
Ellis and Browning play a lengthy guitar and violin solo, respectively, that is handed back and forth to keep the song moving forward and give it a regional feel.
"The lyric turned out strong as well," Nilsen says. "And the music has a sense of something long and linear, much the way the Mississippi River cuts through the South."
Another track, "Omaha," is a reference to "The Wizard of Oz."
"I love that film," Nilsen says. "There's such a great deal of creativity in every, single minute of the movie. It's always been a point of inspiration for me."
"Sleep Seven Seas" was written for James K. Bowen, who was a professor of literature at Southern Oregon University. The title is taken from a book of Bowen's poems, "Three Seasons on the Feather River."
Nilsen wrote "Right Here Anyway" for his daughter, Jenna.
"She's a great kid," he says. "She's 17, and it's a natural course for kids to pull back from their parents. The song speaks to that — saying I'm always right here."
Nilsen can be called a prolific recording artist. "Wild Rose" is his 18th studio album.
"Writing songs and recording is something that comes naturally to me," he says. "I'm always writing songs. Some never get finished. Some are nurtured along.
"I start with what's inside of me. Music is all about feeling. Without it, nothing gets to the listener. I just try to be as true as I can to some organic process."