Place, most often a specific place, is frequently an important contributing factor to the sound of an artist, an album or, in some cases, an entire scene. It’s there in Bowie’s Berlin period, the Seattle scene, Madchester, SoCal punk; even bedroom artists have a sound that’s reflective of their environment. Nive Neilsen might hail from Greenland, and be an Inuk (a Greenland Eskimo) but Feet First is an album borne out of travel, movement, and many different locations.
The creative process was rather nomadic, pieced together over the course of three years, in locations including Belgium, Denmark, England, Greenland, Nashville and North Carolina. The result of this walkabout method to growing and recording the songs is an album that embraces a wealth of sounds, cultures and approaches. Whilst Neilsen’s experience and style is at its spiritual heart, her willingness to embrace musical ideas from around the world gives the album a welcoming and wondrous feel.
In addition to having a wealth of experience from her travels to influence her songs, Neilsen has corralled an impressive range of musicians to contribute to these songs. Howe Gelb appears on Still The Same which was recorded in Arizona; there’s certainly a dusty, desert like feel in evidence, along with the rattlesnake percussion that peppers the song. The horns of Ralph Carney are absolutely unmistakable (as anyone who has heard his work with Tom Waits will attest), brilliantly flavouring every song he appears on. Slip, for example, which is heavily indebted to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ spiky pop, bursts into a New Orleans street party as soon as Carney enters the fray, in a brilliant and uplifting about-turn.
On the songs that are sung in her native tongue, place is clearly important. In the case of Tulugaq however, the feel and story of the song are more down to experience and opportunity. Recorded with 12 year old twin girls who were in foster care in Greenland, the woozy, lurching folk is shot through with a strange sense of sadness, exuberance, joy and anger. If there’s a central conceit to this album, it’s that place and home are important for sound, but experience and emotion are universal things that can be expressed through sound – something that Neilsen does brilliantly.
Detailing the notion of travelling into the unknown, Happy begins with a brass swell of doubt, and slowly unfurls into a celebratory, joyous tune. Neilsen’s vocals call to mind the delicate, wide-eyed approach of Nina Persson’s early Cardigans appearances. It gives her a vulnerability, and a childlike excitement as she makes discoveries far behind the mountains. These same qualities give the folk lament of Grandma Marie a quite beautiful and heartbreaking edge.
This isn’t an album that exists to merely tug at the heartstrings and there’s a gentle quirkiness at work too, which can be found on Space Song as Neilsen goes in search of an intergalactic party. There are a few ramshackle space-like sounds, thanks to the application of pedal-steel and Moog, topped off with a delightfully cutesy vocal. If aliens turned out to be rednecks that whittle on the front porch of their spaceship-cum-shack, this is the song they’d sing. It’s a fun diversion, but one that sits comfortably in a set of songs that is endlessly fascinating, primarily coming from the heart, and not a specific geographic location.