Over the past year or so, talented actor Ian Nelson [his new film, Paper Spiders will be released this Friday, May 07, in select theaters and on VOD platforms] has turned his attentions to musical expression, and the results have been worth hearing. More recently, he has reteamed with Jacob McCaslin, the producer of his debut single—last fall’s “21st Century Love"—for their sophomore release, “Unfinished Conversations”. But whereas the former is a cheery, sunshine-filled bop along the boardwalk, the latter is far more complex, both musically and lyrically.
And while I could just pontificate from my cozy perch on the song’s merits—I do so enjoy the sound of my own voice—I thought it’d be far more interesting for y'all if I queried Nelson and McCaslin about their dynamic, their process, and their music; as well as about what you should keep an ear out for in “Unfinished Conversations” and beyond.
ShulmanSays: How did you and Jacob first connect?
Ian Nelson: I was working with one of my voice teachers: His name is Dave Stroud, and I had taken a few lessons with Dave. And, as an actor, oftentimes you're singing other peoples' songs for, like, audition songs. That's kind of the extent of what you're doing.
Then, during a lesson one day, Dave looked at me and said, "You know you can't keep singing other people's songs for the rest of your life. At some point, you have to write your own." And that's what I did. I made a demo with a buddy of mine, and then I shared it with Dave, who said, "You should meet Jacob."
So, I sent a demo to Jacob. It only had one track, and our plan was to record another demo together, for a song that I doubt will ever see the light of day. And that's how we met.
SS: Jacob, as a producer, what made you keen on producing music with Ian?
Jacob McCaslin: Well, a few things. First was the song. I heard ideas for that seed that he had. Once I get ideas, my OCD triggers on, and I have to go through with it. That's one thing. The other thing is that I really like how Ian thinks about things from the standpoint of an emotional arc, which comes from his process as an actor.
So, when we talk about making a song, the way his mind works is like, "Where is this character? Where did he start? Where did he end?" And I'm a huge film buff as well, so we kind of connected on that front. I like approaching music from an emotional standpoint like that and kind of telling that story. So that was really attractive to me, working with someone who was sensitive to those things.
And then also Ian and I just gel. Acting was his main focus, and music is now coming under the spotlight for him. His excitement towards the music reminded me of when I was starting out in music. So, I'm kind of living vicariously, again, through him.
SS: At this point, we've heard two singles, "21st Century Love" and "Unfinished Conversations". In which genre would you place Ian's music?
JMC: I would say it's like soulful pop. Like funky, soulful pop.
SS: Very spot on.
JMC: All the music we're making together is really catchy. It's got the pop songwriting in it. And then all the music we've kind of been listening to and sharing with each other has been really soulful. So, that's what we're trying to get out with Ian's vocals; something that's very honest and emotional. And Ian's great. Recording his vocals and everything is quite easy.
Usually, when I'm working with new artists or people who are kind of new to recording, they need a lot of coaching in trying to get the emotions to come across. It's kind of like voice acting, in a way, where you kind of have to act with your voice and almost be a little bit over-emotional to really get it across; it doesn't read, usually. And Ian's really great at doing that.
SS: Musically, what do you think are the biggest differences between "21st Century Love" and "Unfinished Conversations"?
JMC: Well, I think "Unfinished Conversations" takes more musical risks. There are some key changes. And yeah, the harmony in that track is pretty complex. And I think it could be challenging, just on that standpoint, but I think it's all packaged together really beautifully, and I think all of those turns and, yeah, all of those little detours in the music are pretty accessible because of how it's produced. But yeah, that's the risk, harmonically.
IAN: Jacob is an absolute genius on the guitar. It's truly one of the great joys, sitting there while we're working through a song and observing him play the same thing about 12 different ways, and just trying to find what works best. It's quite a joy. And—Jacob, tell me if you disagree—but "Unfinished Conversations" feels like a more complex creation. The scope of it is different.
JMC: Yeah. When I was learning guitar, there were all these songs that I knew. A lot of John Mayer songs that you know, and you go and look up the tabs for (or they don't exist yet, because tabs are new—online, at least), and you kind of have to figure it out by ear. I kind of wanted to make a song with Ian, that kind of reminded me of those times, of looking up the guitar part, because that was something that pulled me in. So, starting there was kind of what incepted "Unfinished Conversations".
Also, Ian’s songwriting is just getting so much better every day. I mean, every time he presents me with a new song, I'm more and more excited to work on it. And he's a songwriting machine! He’s already got about 10 songs that we’re considering for an album, and then he's still writing more songs. So, that’s just one more thing that makes working with Ian really exciting.
IAN: I just love writing songs. I feel like it just makes sense. And yeah, it's true. I think it’s the songwriting that's so exciting. I think what I love about the music we're making so far and about the direction we're heading in the future is that there's this tangible growth, which I think is exhilarating. I love the music, so I think it's starting off, and it's setting up the foundation, a really solid beginning. And as a new artist, I think there's nothing else I could ask for.
Come back for Pt 2, wherein Nelson and McCaslin discuss recording during COVID, and the most exciting parts of "Unfinished Conversations"; and watch the new single's beautifully shot music video, directed by Collin Stark and Nelson.
Click HERE to listen
Get into it!