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Making a name for himself

Singer/songwriter John Mark Nelson performs at 7 p.m. Saturday March 8 at the Sheldon Theatre.

His name is just about as American as you can get, but it’s his journey and rise to music fame that set him apart.

If you had asked singer/songwriter John Mark Nelson what he wanted to do with his life two years ago, he said he would have answered, “I want to be a drummer.”

Ask him same the question today and you’d hear a different response.

“I would tell people, first and foremost I am a writer,” he said.

At age 20, the Minneapolis-based musician has blossomed from the stereotypical band kid at Minnetonka High School to a sophisticated songwriter and downright legit recording artist.

Nelson comes to town Saturday March 8 for a must-see performance at the Sheldon Theatre, promoters said.

Drummer to frontman

In some ways it’s no surprise that a kid who grew up in a home where music was a part of life ended up a full-time musician.

By age 10, Nelson said he began mirroring his piano-playing father. First was piano, then, Nelson says, his dad brought home a guitar followed by a bass. Nelson says he continued to play anything he could get his hands on.

“After a few years of that nurturing environment, I realized that A) it was kind of the only thing I was good at and B) was just a very natural thing to dive full time into.”

Throughout high school, Nelson was the self-proclaimed percussion kid – even auditioning and being accepted into the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul for a drum set performance major.

“After that point, I was very convinced drumming and drum set was what I wanted to do,” he explained.

But just as Nelson learned of his acceptance into the highly recognized music school, an odd twist of fate forever changed his beat.

“Simultaneously, I had been doing some songwriting as a hobby of my own and decided to take a risk and throw some stuff out on the Internet.”

That quiet release of his original work was dubbed “Still Here.”

Then one day, as he checked his inbox after school, Nelson came across an out-of-the-blue email from one of the music staff members at local 89.3 The Current, who had stumbled upon his music online. 

“They said they were interested in my writing and would love to hear more from me in the future if I continued,” Nelson said. “It was a huge turning point for me.”

Soon after that email, he was off to Europe on a high school band trip.

“When I got back I was super inspired and wrote about this life changing event,” he said.

He was, in fact, so inspired that his new song was finished the day after returning home. Nelson posted his new tune on Bandcamp – an online music store and platform mainly for independent artists.

The next day, he remembered that email.

“If I were to write something new, I was supposed to send it to The Current,” Nelson recalled. “So I emailed them.”

To his surprise, an immediate response fired back from a member of the radio station saying they already had the tune, loved it and had it scheduled for airplay.

“It was crazy. I had no idea what to think. I had spent the last four years of my life thinking I would be this drum guy,” he explained. “Suddenly, it was like, my work, as a songwriter, is going to be on the radio.”

The song “What Did I Find?” was indeed played on air, prefaced with another one of Nelson’s works from “Still Here.”

He describes the feeling of hearing his compositions over the radio as numbing – “like a chill-down-the-spine thing.”

Looking back, he said it was just one of those pivotal moments when things change dramatically but “feels like the right thing.”

Since then, Nelson has put out a full length album “Waiting and Waiting” – complete with a sold-out CD release party at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis.

What’s rather remarkable and nothing short of impressive about Nelson’s work is the level of musicianship – keeping in mind it is self-written, self-produced and self-recorded.

Behind the music

At its core, Nelson says its pop music. “I don’t think it’s anything ground breaking in terms of structural form, but what brings its special unique flavor is the instrumentation arrangement.”

Think of your typical pop song but with a vibraphone and mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and maybe accordion.

“It’s more of a project to express my love for the many voices that music has to offer and not an outlet for me to write weird complex time signatures and crazy weird structures,” Nelson explained. “I would not call myself a pioneer. I just really love to create and arrange and this is a great outlet for me.”

Tracking for third album “The Moon and Stars” is complete, thanks to a successful online Kickstarter campaign, Nelson said.

“The new record is much more collaborative, even though it came to life the same way the last one did; it just involves more hands and minds.”

At the end of the day, Nelson said he owes his almost overnight success thriving Twin Cities-based music scene. 

“I tell people the story that I got to be a part of is much more of an amazing story about an incredibly supportive music community that we have the privilege to live in and less of a story about me or my songs. It points to the culture and life of the city more than it points to me as an individual.”

Tickets for the show 7 p.m. are $17.50 for adults, $11.50 students. 

Gospel, roots, jazz and country artist Chastity Brown opens the show.

On stage, Nelson will bring his seven-piece band for the concert, but you’ll find him singing with guitar and at times accordion.

For more information about Nelson or to hear his music, check out his website

If you go …

Who: John Mark Nelson, with artist Chastity Brown opening 

When: 7 p.m. Saturday March 8

Where: Sheldon Theatre, 443 W. Third St.

Cost: $17.50 adults, $11.50 students

More info: 651-388-8700 or 800-899-5759 or 

Stacy Bengs-Silverberg

Stacy Bengs has been a photojournalist at the Red Wing Republican Eagle since 2010. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota.

(651) 301-7880