Singer, songwriter and musician Jeffrey Philip Nelson was 16 years old and surfing in Redondo Beach when an accident riding the waves knocked out five of his teeth and caused serious facial injuries.
During the three months of recuperation, his father bought him a Canadian-made Larrivee acoustic guitar. His previous encounter with a musical instrument came years earlier when his piano lessons were cut short after his instructor wouldn’t teach him any Aerosmith songs.
“I watched VHS tapes of Dave Mathews, Ben Harper and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, all my favorite musicians at the time, and I learned how to play everything that they played,” said Nelson, who lives in Redondo. “I was always an audible learner. I never learned by sheet music.”
While making a living with a construction business or volunteering for various organizations, Nelson has pursued his ultimate goal of being a full-time musician. He has fully funded his first two albums, which are available on iTunes, and has already written enough material for a third album. But the new album will be recorded only if the next job comes through.
“I don’t ask for money,” Nelson said. “I want to pour what hard work goes in my life into this stuff. So if I don’t make money one year, I’m not going to have music one year. I’ve been interested in labels and getting supported, but I’ve read so many articles on independent artists and what they’ve done. I thought, ‘You know what? I can do this. I managed a construction company, I can manage a music career.’ All the pieces have to fit right.”
Nelson is also trying to get the word out about his music the old-fashioned way, by performing live. Recent gigs include the House of Blues in Anaheim and the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles, where he has been volunteering his time at the rescue mission on Skid Row for more than a year for its Music with a Mission outreach.
“The streets are filled now with people. I had never seen it so packed with homeless,” said Nelson of his last performance at the mission. “I’ll play when they’re eating lunch and you have 1,000 homeless coming through the doors and some of them sing with me, some of them are just bopping and dancing. This is what music is all about. That’s my favorite part of music because they get so into it.”
Nelson has also been involved in church volunteer work over the years. He volunteered every week for 10 years at the Rolling Hills Covenant Church at its student ministries. Also, he is currently offering guitar lessons at El Segundo’s Oceanside Christian Fellowship.
In the past, Nelson was a junior high and high school mentor who would listen to students’ problems, from family to school issues. Part of that volunteer time included leading the worship music with a 300-member student-led band. He would give the students advice on how to be involved in a band setting and how their instrument best fit the ensemble.
“I try as much as I can to do volunteer work,” said Nelson, but it has been difficult over the past year because of his busy schedule. “It’s always been a big part of my life.”
Early in life, though, the music bug really didn’t come alive until that guitar was placed in his hands. Six months after recuperating, when he was still only 17 years old, he began writing after he became “sick of playing other people’s songs.” He graduated from Peninsula High School in 2001 and attended El Camino College, where he spent two years before transferring to Cal State University, Long Beach. He majored in English and thought he was going to be a writer or pastor before he graduated in 2005. Just after graduation, his father asked him to take over his construction company.
Nelson thought “construction was going to be my life,” but he still kept recording music in his bedroom. He never had the desire to be a performing songwriter, but that changed in 2009 when he was managing a job site and contemplated what he was doing there.
“I watched guys go in and out of the project, keeping tabs on them, making sure they weren’t taking long lunch breaks and making sure they were working their maximum hours of the day,” he said. “I was in a sense a babysitter, a construction babysitter … I was thinking, ‘What am I doing with myself sitting here and not going out to use a creative force that was put inside of me at a young age?’ I don’t think I was ever meant to be a manager. I was never meant to run people. It just wasn’t me. My whole thing is to use everything around you, the emotion and the creativity that has been put in your vision and put it on paper, put it into music. Make people know you are thinking. During those last couple of months is when I said I need to write music again.”
Early in 2010, Nelson said when the economy tanked he started his own construction and handyman business, which allowed him flexible hours. He also applied to be a lifeguard in Long Beach, which gave him additional income. In addition to working those two jobs he wrote the songs (inspired by some of his favorite artists like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and the group She & Him) that eventually became his first album, “Could This Be…” The songs were very personal, according to Nelson, quite different from his teenage songwriting efforts.
“The songs were somber, sad,” Nelson said. “I was lost. I was scared. I did not know if I was going to ever make money again. I was like, I’m going to be a starving artist.’”
By the end of last year, Nelson had written his second album, “Badder Times,” which like the first album was an all-Nelson production where he played drums, guitar and the harmonica. The only other musician on the two albums was a slide guitar player who Nelson repaid by doing handyman work for him. “Badder Times” was released in April.
“Because I had to fund the album and I never had any investors, I never had any musicians that would play with me,” Nelson said.
Nelson hopes to release his third album soon and has plans for a Christmas album also. His wife, Kelli, has been very supportive of his music career, but there are others who are not always so encouraging.
“A lot of people, like friends, have said, ‘Get a job, get out and do something that’s real and makes money,’” Nelson said. “It’s people who are surrounding you and encouraging you who can also be the most discouraging. They want you to succeed, but they also don’t want you to be unreal with your dreams. But how does every artist succeed? They continue to do it. They went through all the storms. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Nelson’s music can also be found on www.audiojungle.net, a Web site that allows musicians to sell their material to interested parties who want to use their music for commercial projects. Nelson is currently No. 5 on the Top New Sellers list even though he just joined in September.
More information about Nelson can be found at www.jeffreyphilipnelson.com.