Portland musician, composer and recording artist John Nilsen is an artist who follows his muse.
“I’ve put the art first,” he says during a telephone interview. “Not what the industry suggested I put first. There’s a big difference. Most artists will put out what they think will sell, what they think will get them gigs, or what a record label pressures them into. The problem with the music industry is that it’s run by people who don’t know the first thing about music.”
So Nilsen goes his own way. First and foremost is his career as a solo pianist whose performances take him all over the country, sometimes out of the country. When he’s back at his home base, he and folk-rock band Swimfish play regionally, and he independently records his original music for piano and the band on his Magic Wing label.
“I do what I want artistically, and that’s made all the difference. What’s important to me is to have my own sound, to be one-of-a-kind.”
John Nilsen and Swimfish — with Nilsen, Don Woodard and Bob Logue on guitars, bassist Dave Captein and drummer and percussionist Jason Moore — will perform at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, at RoxyAnn Winery, 3285 Hillcrest Road, Medford. Admission is $7. See roxyann.com or call 541-776-2315.
Nilsen makes regular forays into Southern Oregon for summer and holiday solo performances, but this is a first for Swimfish — though the band’s been around for about a decade.
“There’s a few things that keep us from getting out on the road. The biggest is my piano career,” Nilsen says. “I love it. It’s front and center constantly. So when I’m home, it’s great to play with a band that doesn’t have to be touring to satisfy its interests. Swimfish is just more regional. We might get down to the Rogue Valley, play Seattle and Central and Eastern Oregon, basically the Northwest, and quite frankly, that’s just fine.”
Nilsen and Swimfish will perform songs from the group’s 2017 “Local Ocean,” its 2014 “Wild Rose” — a recording that features appearances by Decemberists’ drummer John Moen, bassist Phil Baker of Pink Martini and fiddler Lex Browning — along with the band’s earlier self-titled album.
“We’ll undoubtedly play a half-dozen new ones, songs that are poised to be recorded,” Nilsen says. “The only thing keeping them is the fact that I’m two-thirds of the way through another piano record right now.”
The new piano album will be Nilsen’s 20th, including the three Swimfish records. Calling Nilsen a prolific performer and recording artist might be an understatement.
“It just indicates how long I’ve been around,” he says. “Though calling me prolific is a kinder way of softening the edge.”
What sets Swimfish apart from others is that the band plays only original compositions by Nilsen.
“We’re not interested in being a cover band,” he says. “We’re interested in good music, and for us that happens to be original music. My interest is in writing music.”
That passion for composing dates back to when he was a 10-year-old, and so he’s nurtured it, he says.
“It’s the darndest thing. I never seem to run out of ideas for songs. I can never fully nurture all of the ideas I have. There’s not enough time to get everything written.”
There are some outside influences on Nilsen’s music. Singer and songwriter Neil Young is a big one, Nilsen says.
“Our sound is compared to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Tom Petty, Grateful Dead, even Pink Floyd. I think we’re a little bit like Neil Young and Crazy Horse,” he says.
The band is a welcome reprieve when Nilsen isn’t touring as a piano soloist.
“It’s a completely different vehicle,” he says. “I play pretty hard with piano. As I’ve gotten better and more confident, I’ve tried to finely tune my craft, and I find myself more interested in branching out. I let the art be the guiding force. Even though piano is a solo thing, it can get interesting at times. I don’t just play song after song. I do a lot of improvising, segue from song to song and play medleys. I try to keep it untethered and free-spirited. That is a driving force in my music.
“It’s the same with Swimfish, but it’s different when you’re playing with five guys. You have to let other instruments speak, and that means at times you might have to lay out a little bit. I’ve played with Woody since I was 13. That’s a rare deal. We grew up next door to each other, and we’ve been the closest of friends all our lives. We’ve known Logue since high school. Drummer Mike Snyder’s been playing with us for 20 years, and Captein for four. Pretty cool band. Really fine players.”
Nilsen, drummer Moore and bassist Jeff Leonard play as Nilsen’s piano trio, appearing at wineries in Southern Oregon from the early ’90s to as recently as a few years ago. Moore and local bassist Jeff Addison will be with the band for the RoxyAnn show.
Nilsen was born in Seattle, grew up in Portland and attended Southern Oregon Stage College (now SOU) where he earned a degree in English. He began studying piano at 6, guitar at 12.
Classically trained by his mother, who was a private music instructor for 67 years, Nilsen’s piano originals draw from that fundamental base, but are augmented by the folk and rock music he grew up listening to.
“Ultimately, I branched into jazz, but I’m never going to be a jazz pianist,” he says. “There’s too much folk, classical and rock at the core of my playing. I’ve learned to flirt with jazz, and I like it. It adds another color to the music.
“Music has to change. It has to grow. Man, I have so little interest in being the same player I was 20 years ago. I’d rather push forward and explore and learn. I think that’s what real art is.”
Nilsen sees himself as a lucky guy who’s had a lucky life.
“I believe it, and I’m grateful. That being said, I’ve worked extremely hard, and I like that too. I love the work.”