When an extraordinary, deeply soulful and dynamically versatile young talent like Minnesota based singer/songwriter Nolen Sellwood burst onto our indie consciousness, it’s always a biographer’s task to somehow source the inspiration behind the talent.
With Sellwood, it makes even more sense because somehow the young man with the dusky, inviting folk-pop friendly voice, heartfelt lyrics and wildly adventurous production hit John Wright’s studio in 2021 just a few years removed from starting to learn guitar at age 15 (with the help of a high school art teacher). So the promo material tells us that his musical ventures started with Michael Franks and the late Nick Drake’s Pink Moon was a resonant touchstone. At some point, however, we should unshackle the likes of Sellwood from musically likeminded spirits and let him and his compelling artistry carve its own path.
Some of the ten tunes on his stellar debut Otherwise, like the lilting “Sands of Mine,” stay gentle with acoustic strumming all the way through. Yet what’s fascinating on others, like the opener “This Time” and “To Be Saved” is the way the singer starts with a lighthearted sparkly acoustic charm, creating a sweet intimacy before a full electric band subtly jumps in to elevate the vibe and fuel him to take the song to fresh emotional levels. On “To Be Saved,” when he sings, “You were like an angel, but I was not worthy to be saved,” this dramatic backing includes a sweeping orchestral element.
One of the most powerful tunes, the optimistic and infectiously romantic “This is For Someone,” includes a bustling instrumental break featuring a free-flowing violin that takes it into wondrous prog-rock territory. Clearly, his producer Wright is surrounding him with high powered musicians who help knock Sellwood’s obvious artistry out of the park. Another favorite is the harder driving mid-tempo pop/rocker “Eccentric Eyes,” on which Sellwood shows great vulnerability as he tries to figure out what a prospective partner wants and what she hides behind those beautiful eyes.
A good example of the singer’s contrasting styles is the tail end one two punch of the hypnotically grooving title track, a propulsive song of desire, followed by the atmospheric, string-caressed whispery tenderness of “What I Wanted.” The end quote on Sellwood’s sparse bio says it all about his immediate impact and the promise to come: “How an 18-year-old from Prior Lake, Minnesota managed to channel that type of creativity and make it his own is incredible.”