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BACKLOT BACKGROUNDER: Adventures In La La Land With Timothy Nelson

Timothy Nelson

Timothy Nelson hits Live At The Backlot: Up Close And Personal on Wednesday, May 23. Always a man of stories, we revisit here his contribution to ATS in late ’18 about his trip to Los Angeles. This was Part 1, we hope to get to Part 2 on Wednesday – Ed.

‘Who’s that?’ I ask, trying to keep up with the conversation around me, to which I’m told: ‘Oh, I’m basically the reason he got into the film industry!’

It’s roughly 9pm and I join a table of recently acquired friends – all from Perth, all in film – at a restaurant somewhere in Los Angeles. A few days ago, I’d flown in for two weeks of studio sessions, general hobnobbing and a couple of ‘showcases’ (we’ll get to that).

Thanks to some brilliant timing on all our parts, the majority of us at the table are sharing the third floor of a Spanish mansion in Los Feliz, though we are all in town for different reasons: one has just directed a horror movie for a major streaming network, while another is currently in the throes of editing their own film for a major studio. There’s a couple of entrepreneurs in our midst, they’re working on some mysterious project to do with ‘bubbles’ that none of us really understand. Throughout the days they are with us, we take turns quizzing them, trying to decipher what on earth they’re actually doing, but aside from something-to-do-with-360-degree-cameras and the various party-hire gear that continues to arrive at the house by mail, we are generally left scratching our heads. We’ll probably read about them in Forbes magazine one day when they make a fortune.

Of course, it’s only natural that the collective excitement of being here in Hollywood has provided a kind of social helium, imploring us to float above the mere mortals who weren’t amazing enough to, well, spend some money and get on a plane, essentially. Personally, I’m more partial to this kind of wankery when surrounded by my own people (musicians), but I’m enjoying my front row seats to someone else’s game. Perth is small, Perth is tight, Perth is bitchy. Cheque, please!

Many a deadly-cocktail later, I find myself lying wide awake on the couch, eyes pinned to the ceiling, dealing with the consequences of a Colombian handshake I got at the Chateau Marmont a few hours prior. The sounds of love pour down the hall as two of ours continue the party in their own frivolous way, while the rest of the house is out cold, leaving me the sole beneficiary of their one-night-only performance. The bathroom is awkwardly close to that end of the house and, not one to make a splash, I opt for a succession of trips to the garden bed across the road. As I stand there, barefoot in the street, letting go of my alcoholic journey, I look down the hill and pause to take in the view of LA. It’s summer, I’m high as a kite and hey, at least somebody’s getting laid. I sigh to myself and think: ‘Fuck I love this place’.

Morning hits like a brick in the sack. Summer in LA is a beautiful thing, but I’ve done all I can to feel its dark side, and sleeping in direct line of the sunrise through a window with no curtains has topped the list. In a last minute, scatter-brained attempt at decision making, I haul my arse into gear to join two of the housemates in a car that will take us to a breakfast meet with a certain famous musical comedian, also from Perth. I will spend the next hour staring, zombie-like, into a plate of steak & eggs (totally a thing) while the filmies chat with “Perth’s other favourite Tim” (totally not a thing) about the perils of moving to LA and dealing with #majorstudiobullshit. It’s classic meeting talk, but thankfully no anecdotes about airlines come to further inflame my hangover.

With the plates cleared and a minor squabble over who picks up the tab, parting words are lashed around the booth: ‘Okay, do stay in touch, please let me know when suits and I’d love to have you round for dinner’, he offers to the other two. ‘And you…’, he says to me (I haven’t muttered a word the entire time), ‘…just settle down, you!’. As we leave the café I start to mentally prepare myself for the day ahead. This voyeuristic trip through movie world has been grand, but I’ve got work to do, and first cab off the rank is a co-writing session with Mia Dyson.

I journey down the main drag in Los Feliz, past the mural used for the cover of Elliott Smith’s incredible album, Figure 8, and up the hill through the winding streets of Silver Lake. Mia Dyson is a beloved Australian songwriter from Victoria but now resides here. She greets me at the gate of her little home and we head inside where I spy a tiny piano, and copy of our mutual friend Liz Stringer’s album, All The Bridges, on the record player. Earlier in April, I was touring around New South Wales and Victoria with Liz – who if you’re not up to speed, is one of the best songwriters in the country. She was heading to the US around the same time as me and would stay with Mia for a few days, during which a few kind words regarding my own music would be passed on, which somewhat greased the wheels for when I decided one day to reach out to Mia about writing something together.

Co-writes are a funny thing, especially with strangers. A lot of songwriters, like myself, are far more comfortable writing alone. The art of collaboration is something I’ve tried hard for years to be fairly handy at, more so as a self-administered remedy for stubbornness than any particular desire for artistic enlightenment. Over time I’ve stumbled upon all kinds of wonderful ideas as the result of this process, even though at times it can seem like drawing blood from a stone. It’s this strange little dance that all your favourite artists are currently doing behind the scenes. Record labels, management teams and publishing companies everywhere are pairing up singers, writers and producers all over the place in studios, offices, sometimes even entire camps, in the hope that they’ll churn out a big hit song, that can be recorded by either one of the writers or pitched to another artist.

As a writer it’s a great outlet for the thousands of ideas for songs you might have which you will likely never get around to using for yourself. It’s the kind of life I’d love to resent one day, but at the time of writing I’m an unpublished, self-managed artist, so I put myself in these situations. It goes like this: You meet someone for the first time, get some small talk out of the way, then play an awkward game of ‘…so what have you got?’.

Mia finds an idea for a verse recorded on her phone, which in turn gives me an idea for a chorus melody and I start tinkering around with chords on the piano. There’s no pressure to come up with anything either of us have to use on a record, which frees things up a whole lot. I sing melodies with made up words, Mia writes down what actual words they could be. It’s starting to sound like something. A middle eight section appears. We play everything over-and-over again, a new note here, a harmony there. Eventually, we have a pretty damn cool song, in my opinion. There’s an essence of Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty somewhere in there and I’m already imagining how to produce it in the studio. At this point it’s time for high fives. You feel like you’ve kicked a hole in the sky, and can already see the crowd at Coachella singing it back at you… all in a few hours’ work.

I fill the rest of my days in LA with more sessions like this one. Two days are spent with Tony Buchen, a great producer from Australia who has a studio out near Eagle Rock.

To be continued…

Timothy Nelson goes Lve At The Backlot with Bob Gordon on May 23. Full details via

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