“I try to play as much as I can,” says singer, songwriter, and guitarist Miles Nielsen, who is scheduled to headline on the big stage at DubuqueFest on Friday, May 20, 2011, with his band, the Rusted Hearts. We talked to him before a solo show on March 4 at Monk’s Kaffee Pub in Dubuque, where he delighted a small but intense crowd with his emotionally adept vocals, agile guitar playing, and compelling original tunes.
He drove in for the show from Rockford, Illinois, a city that made the rock and roll spotlight in the late 1970s with the burst to fame of its homegrown band, Cheap Trick. Miles was a toddler when his guitar playing father’s band released their first album, and their musical success became entangled with his childhood.
Yet he didn’t connect the stage antics of his father, Rick Nielsen, with his own future until prompted by a middle school classmate. “One of the guys in the jazz band played some guitar licks and I thought, wow, that was the coolest thing I ever heard.” Picking up the guitar himself around age 13, Miles was onstage playing cover songs by 14.
“The gift of being a front man, a showman, is something that’s in my blood, that comes easy to me,” he says about his musical inheritance. Although he claims that being proficient with his voice and his instrument comes harder for him, you couldn’t tell from the mellow crowd’s pleased reaction to the one-man show at Monk’s.
While finding his musical direction during his teen years, he listened to promotional CDs that his dad had discarded. Captivated by the image on their album cover, he discovered the band Jellyfish with their 1992 pop album, Bellybutton. He confides, “I think I listened to it straight for about a year.” Admiring the genius in songs such as Baby’s Coming Back, Miles thought at the time, “That was it, that was something that was beyond me, and I just started to strive for songwriting.”
By his teens, he was playing covers of songs such as Fly Me Courageous, the title track to a 1990 album by the southern rock group Drivin N Cryin. He met a member of that band, Kevn Kenney, outside a Dallas Mavericks game during a guitar show, followed by meetings with musician Victor Wooten and his brother, Future Man. Meeting these creative individuals in person was to him “a whirlwind experience, and I started to realize that I really wanted to compose music.”
Miles Nielsen is now a proven songwriter with a self-titled album, Miles, released in 2009. He says, “My songs are about going through life and experiencing things that I see and I perceive, things that are real and from the heart.”
Often asked in interviews why he lives in the midwest, he answers that “the seasons shape you as a person. Seasons also shape your writing.” He finds winter, in particular, a good time for song writing. When the band piles into a van to drive treacherous snowy or icy roads to play a show, “Those things end up pouring into your music. You really have to believe in what you’re doing.” The reward comes in the reaction of the people who do show up: “You’re getting real midwestern emotion, and those things end up writing and shaping the music you’re creating.”
For the past couple years, Miles has played bass guitar for Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, whose folksy sound emerges from Appleton, Wisconsin. He traveled with them to the 2010 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, an amazing two-day experience that put him in easy proximity to many superb musicians and songwriters. “At Newport, you’re all considered equal artists,” says Miles, “so you can go onstage and watch everyone. I was sitting 15 feet away from Richie Havens.”
Miles also plays bass guitar with other regional bands, such as Cameron McGill and What Army, from Chicago; Hayward Williams of Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Daniel and the Lion, from Baraboo. And then there’s Cheap Trick. “I just spent the last six weeks playing rhythm guitar for Cheap Trick in a casino.” His dad, Rick Nielsen, has occasionally made a surprise stage appearance when Miles is playing a gig.
The Rusted Hearts
For DubuqueFest, Miles will be appearing with his own band, Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts. Its personnel include Adam Plamann on keyboard, horns, and percussion; Daniel James McMahon on guitar, accordion, and vocals; Micky Rosenquist on drums and percussion; Andrew Scarpaci on bass; and they might be joined by Rodrigo Palma.
“Rusted Hearts was chosen as a name because the image of a rusted heart is very telling of where we’ve all been. It bleeds, but it bleeds a little bit slower and a little creakier, and maybe with a little rust on it.” According to Miles, they share a sense of collaborative teamwork. “The term band rings true to what it is. We work on the stuff together. We make music together.”
What sort of music will Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts be bringing to DubuqueFest? Although they’ll perform a few recognizable covers, concert goers can expect mostly original music. “If you like singing along, I would suggest going to iTunes and buying the record prior to May 20th.”
For people thinking about attending DubuqueFest, he promises, “We really care about our music, we really care about how we perform. This is what we do, this is how we make our living. The fact that we got asked to DubuqueFest is flattering to me. Over the last year and a half, it’s been like a second home to us. They’ve sort of wrapped their arms around us and taken us in. What a great community. Music and art and everything.”