Continued from Part 1…
In 2012, after the release of The Hunger Games, your mentor, Burgess Jenkins—of Carolina Actors Group—told The Winston-Salem Journal that, "Of every student I've ever had, and I've had quite a few, Ian is the hardest worker, and I will often use him as an example of what a work ethic is." Have you always been disciplined?
Definitely. Especially with acting. When I was a little kid, I got extremely excited about things. But, when I first started acting (I must’ve been 12 or 13), my peers had been at it since they were little kids, so I had to work at it. But yeah, I love working hard. I pride myself on my work ethic. It's probably my favorite thing about myself. I find the world uncertain. The industries that I’ve chosen to be involved with, both (music and acting) are uncertain; but I always count on the fact that I show up for myself every day. I think it's something I learned from parents because they’re so motivated.
Who are some of the artists who inspired you?
So, I’m gonna start with Ben Folds, who was kind of the first music I ever listened to. My oldest brother, Kyle, was a huge fan of Ben Folds; and I remember listening to Rockin' the Suburbs when I was a little kid, and jamming out to “Annie Waits” and “Zak and Sara” and all these songs because I love Ben Folds, who is, in my opinion, a master songwriter. I love the way he tells stories. Like his song, “Brick,” which is probably one of the most tragically magnificently gorgeous songs I've ever heard in my life. I also love his song, “Gracie” (I think it's from his album, Songs for Silverman). But he's a beautiful songwriter. He uses poetry in such an accessible way.
With John Mayer, it's the guitar: He's a great guitarist. Beyond great. John Mayer is—I don't know how to even describe it. I heard his song “Neon” early on when I was writing songs, and I got very inspired by just how magnificent the guitar line was.
But in terms of my greatest inspiration, it’s George Harrison: He's probably my favorite of all time.
Who do you think you sound like as a singer?
I think a lot of the tonal similarities would probably go along the lines of Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, and Maroon 5. What I love about John Mayer is he has such color to his chords. He has such soul in the way he writes his songs. A lot of what Jacob and I make would be considered guitar-centered pop-rock, which I feel is really similar to the Maroon 5 vibe. In terms of the Shawn Mendes comparison, it's probably due to the fact he's closer to my age, and he has a really cool element to his music where there's a ton of soul in what he's singing, and he has this terrific voice, and he's a very good songwriter. I really, really like Shawn Mendes.
Is there anyone you wish you sounded like?
Man, I'm finding my own sound. Honestly, my favorite thing about making music is that I feel like I understand "me" better than I ever have. Acting is a wonderful expression, but there's a lot of people needed to express yourself through acting. Even if you're acting with a friend, like you're just going over to your buddy’s house to read through a scene from a play, you still need to coordinate. But with music… Like yesterday, for instance, I was a little overwhelmed with the election stuff, and I had an instrumental track with a song that's going to be my third single (probably in the spring), and I went into my bedroom where I have a little music studio set up, and I just wailed on this song. And the whole time I was literally asking myself, I was like, "Who am I as an artist?"
Forget being a musician. Forget acting. Forget even being an artist. I think that the most powerful thing about art—the real privilege of it if you're lucky enough to be pursuing something creative—is that every endeavor is a portal. So, every time I step into the recording studio, every single time I step onto a set, I'm just like, "What do I have to say?” I'm trying to figure something out. To tell a story. To elevate some piece of art. And I'm like, "What am I feeling today and how can I bring myself to it?"
So, in terms of who I'd like to sound like, I want to be able to communicate a feeling. I want to be able to communicate a little piece of my soul, and I feel like music and acting are two of the best ways to do that.
What a perfect segue into this next bit, because not only do you act and sing, you're also an accomplished tap dancer.
I don't know how accomplished I am, but I'm pretty good.
So, as someone who acts, sings, and dances; is there one medium with which you identify more than the others?
Not really: I identify with each for different reasons. I feel like the cool thing about acting, in my experience, is that a project comes to you at a specific moment in your life when it offers an experience that you need in order to level up as a person. For instance, the movie I did in the springtime where I wrote my first pop song, a song was written. It was crazy how it came about. But I was put in a scenario where I was isolated in a hotel in Syracuse, and I had a guitar, and I had this specific feeling that being on that set afforded me. Being on that set allowed me to grow as an artist more than just acting, more than just a role. So, I don't think that any of them feel truer than any others. It feels abstract to talk about, but at the same time, I'm not really looking to be understood. I'm not asking people to understand me. I don't need my acting fans to like my music. And I don't even know who my music fans are yet.
Which brings us to authenticity.
I think so. I think there's something where it must feel authentic. And I know there are a lot of actors who make music. But going back to your first observation from Burgess, my acting mentor, I work extremely hard, and that's the one thing I can count on every single day. So, when it comes to things like music, I'm not getting into it because I'm bored or because it’s what actors do (because it seems like a lot of actors just make music at a certain point in their career). It really feels pure. The process of writing songs felt very accessible to me, like a natural extension of myself. And when the quarantine came, it was a true gift because I stayed in Los Angeles by myself and didn't go home to North Carolina. Like so many others, I went weeks without seeing people. And it was just me and my guitar, and I wrote a ton of songs, and I practiced so much.
I guess I should mention that we shot the music video at the beginning of quarantine.
Where was that shot by the way?
We shot it in the Hancock Park area. And we’d been talking about doing this kind of elaborate idea. Then the pandemic happened. I was on the phone with Collin Stark. Collin had shot my first headshots when I came out to LA when I was 17. Then, about a year ago, we started working together, just doing shoots together and really starting to become close friends. And he was going to do the music video for “21st Century Love.”
Then, when the pandemic happened and I decided to stay in LA, we thought it would be cool to go out and shoot as a social-distanced crew; just me and him. And we had an idea to just do a one take, which was inspired by Coldplay's “Yellow” video, which in my opinion is one of the best music videos of all time. You know, the black and white one, on the beach?
So that was the inspiration behind the music video. We went out (the streets were relatively empty), and Collin just let the camera roll. And that's how we captured the prologue, just rolling beforehand, with me tap dancing just because I enjoy tap dancing. Ask anyone I've worked with! I typically will do a little tap dance in between scenes just in my regular shoes just because it's just a part of me. You want to talk about an accomplished tap dancer? Let’s talk about Tony Danza! We worked together on a series called There’s… Johnny! which is on Peacock, right now; and Tony and I would bring our tap shoes to set, and we would tap dance in between scenes. Anyhow, that how the tap dancing worked its way into the music video.
So, you co-directed the video with Collin; and you also edited and produced it?
Yes. Collin was always there, but I edited the prologue, I produced the video, and I oversaw most of the postproduction.
Do you enjoy being behind the camera as well as in front of it? *
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It's all being creative; it's all making stuff. Producing is a different skill than performing. And I feel like something that I've gotten better at is being able to recognize when one hat goes on and the other one comes off because I know how to wear all the hats. But it's a transition to learn when to take one off.
Does your behind-the-camera experience enhance your work as an actor?
Definitely. Especially editing. Editing, you really start to see what a performance needs to do. And, essentially, performance is a color, right? It sounds so pretentious to say, but when I'm editing something, I'm looking to tell a story. And it's not really a matter of… As an actor, you want to feel it. There's this desire to feel what you're doing. But something that I learned after I directed Picture Window, is that it's not a matter of whether the actor feels good about what they're doing, the question is, do they tell the story, right? Did you tell the story?
I learned that from Andrew Bujalski when he was directing an episode of There's... Johnny! One day I didn't feel so good about a scene that I’d done; so, I went up to Andrew, to tell him that I felt like I could have done it better, you know? And he asked me, "Ian, did you tell the story?" When I said I thought I had, he nodded and said, "Moving on then. Did you tell the story? That's your job. Tell the story."
It’s different when you're co-directing something and you're in front of the camera. It's hard to have perspective. But that's why you do so much prep. You always do prep before you go and do a shoot. Once you've got that done, you can trade your producer hat for your performer hat, because your job, once you're on set, is to get it done.
And I've had a lot of experience producing, weirdly enough. Right before the pandemic, I was attached to producing two independent films; but when the pandemic happened, those projects fell apart. Then, I immediately moved on to executive producing a film that I'm attached to, that I'm working on, right now. They're all amazing skills to have, and I'm grateful for the experiences.
So, do you still see yourself, singing and acting say, 10 years from now?
Yeah, I'd love to. You know what, Michael? I just want to be the kind of person I can be proud of. I want to see myself in the mirror and say, "Yeah, I like you." And when I'm making music and when I'm acting, I feel like I'm so in tune with who I am and what I really want to say. It keeps me close to me. I don't get lost in the illusion of thoughts and all that stuff. So, what I like is that all these things are allowing me to grow as a person. And if life is all about growing and expanding and leveling up and understanding yourself better, I see myself making music and acting for the rest of my life, not just for the next 10 years.
Because that's, honestly, man, what I'm about. I just want to keep growing. I want to understand myself better. I don't need to make $100 million to be happy. I just want to keep making stuff and be excited about it and keep growing as a person. Those are my standards. I'm pretty happy, right now, with where I'm at in terms of the direction in which I'm growing.
Don't get me wrong, I have big plans, and I'm excited to execute them. But yeah, music and acting are a means by which I can understand myself better. And I was talking about that with Collin, the other day. We were filming the second music video, and the whole time I was thinking "Who am I as an artist? I don't know yet."
Isn't that crazy? I've been a working actor for 11 years, I've written a lot of songs up till now, and I'm like, "I still don't entirely know my voice." But that's totally okay because I'm still figuring it out. And every song affords me an opportunity to figure out a little more. Like yesterday, I did something vocally I'd never done before. I was recording myself for our next song. And I thought, "All right, you know what? I'm just going to sing. I'm not going to judge. I'm just going to sing what comes out of me right now. What am I keeping back?" And that's what I think is kind of the joy of making music and acting. It wakes you up to a lot of things you didn't know about yourself.
Here’s something I found interesting. IMDB says you were born “in 1994 or 1995,” while Wikipedia says you were born in “1994/1995,” as though there are varying accounts.
I’m 25-years-old and was born on April 10th, 1995. **
Have you noticed that music is one of those things you can start talking about with someone, and before you know it, four hours have gone by?
Dude, that's exactly how music is. When you go back to the mantras and prayers of Buddhism or Hinduism or Judaism, and the languages of these words are very melodic. Mantras are sound: They're vibrations. And so, when you think about it, music is the sound of the universe's Om. Then you have to wonder if the universe extends from its sound, this vibration of Om; then, if that's a vibration and “Layla” by Eric Clapton is a vibration, they must come from the same place. So, I think that's why music is probably the greatest means of bringing people together.
21st Century Love
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Get into it!
[Editor’s Notes: * Last year, Nelson completed work on Picture Window, a short film he wrote, produced, and directed // ** I had to ask Nelson to answer this question twice because we’d both started laughing, and I couldn’t hear his answer the first time.]