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Photo by Mike Hari

Photo by Mike Hari

Almost every song on Richer Soil, the debut LP of Chicago musician Derek Nelson, started as a lullaby for his son. 

“He arrived with many fine qualities, but he was a terrible sleeper. So I kept humming to help him get to sleep, and songs kept coming out,” said Nelson.

It’s fair to say this album has been a long time coming. Nelson grew up outside of Chicago with a mom from Ireland and a dad from the Midwest, and even before he got his first guitar in middle school — a classical acoustic picked up a flea market — he was working on songs.

In his early twenties, Nelson began playing around Chicago clubs, evolving the sound with a band simply called The Musicians. Their work resulted in three EP’s, a series of sold out local shows, and a few festival dates.  His focus then turned to Martin Van Ruin, a critically-acclaimed 7-piece collective. Rock critic Jessica Hopper called their debut “one of the best local indie releases of the year,” and the Chicago Sun-Times said the band was a “new folk rock supergroup” with “inescapable Bob Dylan and Neil Young comparisons.” American Songwriter Magazine named them one of “5 Chicago Songwriters You Need to Hear.”

Which leads us to Richer Soil. After writing “20 or 30” songs for the project, Nelson headed down to Nashville to work with Skylar Wilson, a producer he had long admired for his work with Justin Townes Earle, Andrew Combs, Caitlin Rose, and others. The album was recorded over a few days at Creative Workshop, a historic studio utilized by everyone from Roy Orbison to Leon Russell. The piano on the album is the one from the Johnny Cash Show. In the sessions, Nelson and Wilson were joined by Nashville-based instrumental band Steelism, as well as bassist Michael Rinne, drummer Jon Radford and a host of other musicians (including Lorenzo Molina, Hadley Kennary, Jordan Lehning, and frequent collaborator Sarah Sharpe).

Richer Soil covers a lot of ground, with influences ranging from The Carter Family and Gram Parsons to modern artists like Jenny Lewis and Josh Ritter. The subject matter flows from modern to traditional, covering the difficulties of generational understanding (“Water Run Through”), to love songs and hymns (“Damn Mess,” “Hymn From a Balcony, 2019”), to the hubris of big tech (“The Chosen Ones”). The album finds its foundation in personal narrative songs like “Blackhawk Farms,” where Nelson reflects on trips to the racetrack with his dad. There’s wider ambition too: “Crowded Place” is a 6-minute epic set in 19th century Chicago.

Now 33 and a father of two, after 20 years of making music, Nelson is finally ready for his debut.