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Neilson Hubbard



Mississippi-born, Nashville-based singer/songwriter/producer, Neilson Hubbard seems to have found more than 24 hours in his day. In the past few years, Hubbard has been in high demand as a producer for some of Way Cool Music's favorite artists, including Glen Phillips and Garrison Starr. In between production duties, Hubbard collaborated with Matthew Ryan to form their new band, Strays Don't Sleep, which is making waves in the indie rock world. Check out their unique sound on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien' on June 28th.  

During a recent tour with Josh Rouse, Hubbard spoke with Way Cool Music about juggling his many musical hats, being on the road again, and reminscing about his earliest days in the music business.



Way Cool: 

Tell us a little bit about your background.

Neilson Hubbard:

I’m a Mississippi boy.  I was a big sports guy.  I went to Ole Miss with Garrison Starr and my friend, Clay Jones.  He’s a life-long buddy from grade school.  I remember him growing up.  He works with Dennis Harring who worked with Buddy Guy and did the Modest Mouse record.  He’s Dennis’s right hand man.  That’s our group from Oxford, Mississippi that is still together.

My mom was a singer and she’s still in a band.  They’re called The Flashbacks and they do old songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s.  She’s been in a band for as long as I can remember, so I’ve always been around music.  I remember Paul Simon.  In fact, the first song I can remember is ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.’  I’d sing along with my grandmother.  Of course, I was singing the wrong words, but I think everyone has done that.  I was always a melody guy, so that was what was important to me.  I didn’t really pay attention to the words.  I think I still do that sometimes. 






How did you get involved in music?  Some of it is through your mom, but when did you start playing?


I remember singing and performing from when I was really little.  Sometimes I enjoyed that and sometimes I didn’t.  I’d be in the car and I’d ask, “Where are we going?”  “Oh, you’re going to be in a play; it’s a community thing.”  And I’d say, “OK, that’s cool.  That sounds good.”  It wasn’t always that way, but...

I was always around music because of my mom and I loved it.  I’d do talent shows.  That’s where it started.  When I was in early high school, I got my own guitar because I wanted to start writing my own stuff.  I wasn’t really sure how to do it.  I was hanging out with Clay and Garrison who were great musicians and I started playing in bands and writing and loving singing. 

I went through a period where I was just a singer at first and then started playing a guitar.  I had to learn how to write and play.  It always works in circles.  Now, I hardly play guitar anymore because I’m playing keys and singing or not singing at all when I’m behind the scenes in the studio.

It’s always a journey that circles back on itself.  In a way, this band (Strays Don’t Sleep) is a circle in that I felt that I wasn’t going to be doing much more artistry stuff because I as really enjoying the producing.  I love it and being in the studio.  And then this happened.



How did the band get together?





(Matthew) Ryan called me, I guess it’s been about two years ago.  We originally thought it was going to be a do-it-yourself acoustic CD that we’d sell on the website.  It would be a way to get a little extra money.  After the first song, we knew it was way more.  He found out that I was a Blue Nile fan, and he’s a big Blue Nile fan, and that’s how we really started.  We were the only two Blue Nile fans in Nashville, so we had to get together!   Really quickly we knew that it was more.  We clicked right away.  I don’t know if it made sense on paper because our voices are so different, but in the end it really does help to lift each other up.  And, as Ryan says, it helps tell the whole story.  I feel that sometimes in my solo career, I haven’t been able to do that.  Ryan brings a darkness to it and I bring a lightness.




The CD is packaged with a disc of short films.  How did you decide to do that and how are the films connected to the songs?




Originally, the UK label talked about having more product.  It was actually Ryan’s project.  He said, “Hey, what if we did that and did the surround sound…”  It was a pretty ambitious, lofty goal.  We both have lots of friends who are in film and we both are big lovers of film. Once we started talking about it, we thought it was a great idea to make it more dimensional.  In movies, you see how music helps bring the film to life.  You see a scene and if you take the music out, it’s not scary anymore or it doesn’t make you cry anymore.  We were just wondering if you could reverse the idea.  Not make music videos, but make films.  Most of the films were covered, but then a couple of guys backed out and we didn’t think it would be finished.  So, we ended up directing a few ourselves.  We found a student from Watkins (College in Nashville) who helped us edit.  So, we directed some ourselves, which was wonderful.

Like I said, there’s a huge connection between that stuff and art in genera.  If you’re editing something, it all has to have timing and fit together.  All the same rules apply to music.




Now that you have all this going on, how do you juggle all of it?  Playing with Garrison, your studio, Strays…



I don’t know, ask my wife!  I don’t know the answer to that completely.  With this band, we don’t really know what’s going to happen next.  We’re at the beginning of the CD release and the label is working really hard on putting everything together.  So, I can’t say what’s going to happen next with it.  We’re doing Conan on June 28.  We could be doing this until November or next year.  Or, we could wrap up the tour in August and they could say, “Good job,” and move on to the next project.  I have no idea.

It has been kinda scary because I’ve focus so hard on my producing career for such a long time.  I did Glen Phillip’s record (Mr. Lemons) and Garrison’s record (The Sound of You and Me) and now I have to go off and do my own thing again.  I just hope that the producing stuff is still there when I get done with this.  And I think it will be.  I’ve worked hard to be able to pick the projects I want and I’m trying to squeeze in a few producing gigs when I can.

Then I have some solo stuff at the end of the year.




You mentioned both Glen’s and Garrison’s CDs.  What drew you to those projects?  Obviously you’ve known Garrison for a long time, but what made you want to work on her record?




Garrison was a no-brainer since I’ve known her for such a long time.  I’ve seen her in every incarnation over the past few years, from the acoustic to the Geffen record, to the record after that, so I’ve seen all of them.  I’ve seen the good things as well as the things that could be improved on.  The Sound of You and Me was all about opening her up and talking about herself.  I think she has one of the most beautiful voices, but I think a lot of times she’s done the ‘sing loud, sing hard’ thing.  Because her voice is so good, it won’t break up when she sings loud and hard.  But sometimes because of the compression, her voice sounds smaller when she does that.  So, we tried to get her to see it in that way.  She doesn’t have to worry about singing perfectly because she does sing perfectly.  And pitch isn’t an issue, either.  And that’s one of the things that Brad (Jones) brought as well.  He’s a big fan of that openness.

And it was great to work with Brad.  We both immediately were on the same page about the sort of record we wanted to make with her.  And she was ready to do that, too, to make that kind of record.  We put on the best songs without worrying about the number of fast songs versus slow songs.  I was really happy with the end result!  For at least the past five years, this is the record I’ve been wanting to make with her. 

Glen started because we started writing together.  My manager was friends with his A&R guy and he was coming to Nashville and wanted to write together.  I had an idea for a song and we went from there.  He’s such a sweet guy and really easy to get to know.  So, there was none of the chipping away of the ice and getting to know one another.  Of course, I knew him from playing out.  I had opened up for him and met him then.  We tried some stuff out and it ended up that we just clicked.  We ended up with a song in one day, which is sometimes hard to do when someone walks in.  That led to us writing more.  I’d send stuff to him and he’d send it back.  One day I just said, “Hey.  When it comes time to do another record, I’d love to be involved if you’re looking for someone to work with.”  For the style of record he was talking about making, I thought we’d match up really well.  He wanted to make a similar record to what Garrison had done.  Thoughtful, emotive, stripped down, more atmospheric, more of a late night sounding record, if you will.  We just stayed in touch and it ended up happening.  It was pretty exciting!  I was such a huge Toad fan.  To be comping his vocals and hearing his vocals and playing them back, I’d think, “That’s Glen and I’m comping his vocals!”  When I played back his vocals, I’d ask what he thought.  He’s so hard on himself and he’d say, “That one word is out of tune.”  And that was it.  That meant it was good.  He never got excited about his own stuff.  He’d get excited about what other people would do, but he’d just be hard on himself.

He’s just a phenomenal singer.  Such a great voice!  And that’s another thing that we would struggle with.  He’d say, “It’s too raw.  I don’t know.”  I’d try and encourage him that the things he’s probably sheepish about…  All singers are that way.  They all want it to be polished and pristine.  But it’s those warbles and imperfections that make people come to the shows.  That’s what they love.  I didn’t want to take that off the record.  That’s what’s endearing.  That’s what great singing is to me.  It’s not about perfection; it’s about honesty and personality.  He’s got that.




‘Thank You’ definitely has the ‘real’ feeling to it.  On a slick studio CD, it would be hard to get that feeling, but it’s something you managed to capture.



We did some editing just to make it smaller because it is a little longer, but that’s him singing with the band.  He’d go back and forth on it, “Yea!” then “Nah!”  I was like, “No way, man.  That song is amazing!  It’s perfect!”  But, I understand that it’s probably hard for him to listen to.  It’s like an actor watching their own scene where they’re freaking out and crying.  That’s never easy.  But, the song is believable and real and that’s what we were going for.


We definitely appreciate that you were a fan/listener as well as the producer!  It pays off.

Do you have a favorite track off Mr. Lemons and The Sound of You and Me?




Man!  I really like ‘A Joyful Noise’ on Mr. Lemons.  He came to the studio and said, “I have some new songs, and I want to see…”  I heard that song and I immediately loved it.  But, I also really like how ‘Thank You’ turned out.  It kills me too.  And I really like ‘Everything But You.’ 

The same goes for Garrison’s CD.  I really love the way ‘Pendulum’ and ‘Sing It Like a Victim’ turned out.  There’s something about those songs…  For what I imagined her CD to be like, those songs are it.  But, I also really love the others.



Beyond the Glen and Garrison projects, how to you choose the producing projects you work on?






I’ve been really fortunate.  A lot of it has to do with my solo stuff.  When I moved to Nashville, a lot of people had liked how my records had sounded and my style of music.  So those are the kinds of people who would come to me with a record to make.  I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had to work on something that I haven’t really wanted to do.  That’s lucky. 

I’ve worked on some smaller records that I’m just as happy with.  I did a record with Emily DeLoach and I know that my manager, Chris Moon, is working with her.  She’s just starting out.  We did this record and I enjoyed doing it as much as anything.  It is a beautiful record!  I think her voice has a soul to it that is wonderful.  She’s just a great singer.





What’s left in the music industry for you to tackle?


(Laughing) I’m going to go into management!  No, I’m just kidding.  Really, I’m just happy doing what I’m doing.  I like to work hard and I like to work a lot.  Matthew (Ryan) is the same way.    We did his solo record as well and that should be coming out early next year.  We did it at (my studio) Mr. Lemons in Nashville. 

I’m very happy.  I’m happy to be playing again and to be in a band, and that’s it’s not just me and my acoustic guitar!  And I’m getting paid to do what I love.  I struggled for years, working crappy jobs so I could stay in the music business and now it’s paying off.

WC: Who are some of the other up-and-coming musicians that you’ve been exposed to that we should be on the lookout for?

There’s a guy named Matthew Perryman Jones.  We did that record when we were taking a break from Glen’s.  He’s amazing with a great, beautiful male voice.  He’s pretty rock.  Then there’s Kate York.  That’s another great voice.  She has this haunting voice that you can’t get out of your head.  It’s sad to me that not everyone knows who she is.  I know that not everyone gets heard that should be heard, but it’s sad that she’s been overlooked.  Her phrasing and how she sings…

Amelia White is another one.  I did that record and she’s been doing well at AAA.  I also did the new Michelle Malone record that came out earlier this year.  And Jeremy Lister is another guy I worked with. 

A lot of the babies are growing up!  Not that Jeremy is a baby; he’s one of the most talented musicians I know.  But, I think of them as my kids and it’s great to see them grow up and do well.




Now itís time for seven questions.







What's the worst job you've ever had? 


Selling vacuum cleaners.



What's your favorite movie quote or song lyric?


I know that my favorite move is Apocalypse Now, but that’s not really answering your question.  I think it’s from When Harry Met Sally and he says, “When you realize that you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”



Who would you want to star in the movie of your life? 


Russell Crowe.



What's your favorite TV theme song? 


The Simpsons.



If you were a superhero, what would your name be? 


Dr. Dude.  They call me Dr. Dude from the editing stuff.  I’m not really sure why.



What do you want to be when you grow up? 


I would like to be involved in a think tank so I could think all day.



Finally, why are there so many songs about rainbows? 


Cause that’s what Kermit says, that’s what he thinks.





To find out more information about Neilson Hubbard, visit his website at www.neilsonhubbard.com.