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  • Writer's pictureMary Ann

New Music Monday - 10 Questions with Nell & Jim

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

What first sparked your love of music? Was there a particular record you remember?

Jim: My father playing a song by Marty Robbins called "A White Sport Coat" on a new console stereo he and mom had bought around 1964. It had that lush Nashville sound. It was the total sonic experience, I was a little kid it was a WOW! moment for all the audio senses. Nell: My father loved country music and he also loved classical and opera, so we were raised with music playing all the time and of a broad variety. I will always remember being maybe four years old, living in Montgomery, Alabama, and Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass playing on my Dad's reel-to-reel. He must have played it a lot, because I can see the tape rolling, I remember the album cover and I have this memory of a sunny room and the music. You have been receiving some early praise on your new album, Western Sun, from music outlets. That must feel pretty special?

Jim: It is always a real pleasure when people connect with our music and understand what we are saying and doing with our music, it is one of the reasons we do it. Nell: It has been very exciting! The most meaningful part of it for me is when I read something a reviewer has written that I had not really thought of, but that very much strikes me as true.

How long have you wanted to do an album like this?

Jim: I have recorded on hundreds of recordings. I have many recordings with other bands. I don’t really think of this recording as a particular thing I was going after, as much as I view it as a progression of the path in my musical life I am on. In some ways, I know I had some thoughts about what songs would sound like with certain instrumentation, and that is part of what led me and Nell to having an accordion in our band. Once we started working with Rob Reich on accordion, we asked if he would be into trying some synth and piano sounds, thus opening up a wider palette of color to our music. So, while my brain is saying, "This is our music,” it is not necessarily viewing it as a particular album as a whole. Nell: I think one album per year is about right for me. We have been with our band now through three albums of mostly original music and the creative collaboration just gets deeper and deeper. Is there one song in particular you’re most excited about people hearing?

Jim: Wow, that is a hard one to answer. I can’t say that there is one particular song. I feel they are all equal in their intended meaning. I will pick one from a geographic point of view though to help narrow this; I think "Sequoia Gold" is an interesting song if you have an interest in the redwood lumber industry in California and the westward migration during the Gold Rush around 1849. It is a story about a man who heads to California to strike it rich mining or panning for gold. He doesn’t strike it rich and instead ends up working as a lumber-jack logger. Where he is essentially killing himself as well as the trees. Nell: I love that one too! But like any good mother, I love all my children the same. Where does your lyrical content come from, is it mainly personal experience?

Jim: A lot of personal experience for sure, such as in the songs "In My Beautiful Dream" and my family history of "Travelin’ The Road West." Inspiration also comes from books and stories, of which most of the other songs on Western Sun were inspired by. Nell: The songs I primarily wrote lyrics for came from real stories and fascinating people I came across. Who is the bigger foodie?

Jim: Well, Nell and I are vegan, you know how to tell if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Eating vegan is an exploration in eating that is really fun. The main aspect of vegan eating is how great it is in general and how much of our diets are vegan already, you simply leave out one portion of the typical American diet, meat, that's it, leave out meat and meat/animal related products and what you have left is vegan. Super simple really. Beans, nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables, and any of the spices you would use to try to make meat taste good can be used on vegetables. There are so many great books on eating vegan that it is kind of overwhelming, but it is so fun to do. Nell has gotten into some Indian spice cooking and developed her own Chai tea, which is awesome (and she now sells it.) Nell: Yes, I think we are equally mad about food – we love to shop for fresh produce at the local Farmer's Market, love to leaf through the vegan cookbooks, really love cooking together on Sunday afternoons, then love the scents, the colors, the taste and knowing it is super nutritious. We say a blessing before every meal, taking the time to really deeply appreciate all that went into bringing this wonderful food to our table. I can’t imagine you get a lot of time to cook while you are on tour. When out on the road, who gets to pick where you eat?

Jim: There is an app called 'Happy Cow' – it's not only great in the U.S. and Canada, but we have used it in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Ecuador. We have traveled a lot and when you are on the road, it can be hard to get prepared vegan food if you don’t know where to look. The app is great because you type in your location and bingo, you can usually find some amazing places to eat. That said, all grocery markets have about as much vegan food as not, you simply head for the produce section, or the chip aisle. It is hard for folks to imagine that coming from a meat-based diet, because it is really a matter of changing a mindset. Sometimes we have to plan what we are going to eat after a show because all the restaurants and stores are closed. So we might stock up beforehand on foods like hummus, which is high in protein and tastes so great! Maybe add some chips or bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, and you are set, no cooking or heating. Lots of great options while on the road if you know what to look for. Natural food stores are a blessing when on the road, but a lot of towns don’t have them, so sometimes planning does have to be done. That can be a fun and completely enjoyable part of the travel. There is a great cookbook called "The How Not To Die Cookbook" by Michael Greger, M.D. It's an amazing cookbook and website if you are, or know anyone, who suffers from certain diseases, some of those can be cured by food. This guy is a treasure and really worth checking out. What are your top three US cities for food?

Jim: San Francisco, Oakland/Berkeley, most likely because it is easy to find great food in those places and this is our home base. Okay, now we leave the San Francisco Bay area, umm, New York undeniably has great places to eat. This is such a hard question. The reason is wherever you go, you can usually find some fantastic food. Not to mention seeking the food out with an app like Happy Cow. You go to places you wouldn’t typically explore, and you will eat food you may not have imagined before. Nell: Yes to Jim's picks, plus I will add Seattle. There is a chocolate place there that is simply addictive and the most full sensual experience of food! It's called "Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery" I think. Plus lots of good vegan restaurants.

Can you give our readers a little insight on your delicious Banjo Boy Coffee/Nell's Chai and share your favorite chai recipe?

Jim: Banjo Boy Coffee came about from my music travels with banjo player Nick Hornbuckle when I was working in the band the Jaybirds. Nick is a coffee roaster on Vancouver Island in Canada. I came up with the name 'Banjo Boy Coffee' in hopes that Nick would roast and we would sell blends based on the band at our shows. We weren’t able to make that happen. But I kept the name and website url for Banjo Boy Coffee and started playing a Deering six string banjo myself. I found an excellent roaster in Berkeley, California, whose history is steeped in the era of Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks if you know their histories. They offer small batch roasting and I began testing blends and based the blends on my association with banjo’s made by the Deering Banjo Company, hence the Ukulele, Four String, Five String, and Six String Blends. The label of the coffee is a picture of me playing the Deering Six String Solana Six model banjo. All of the blends are my blends of which I spent months blending and tasting. Really unique. Nell: Sure! I got my Chai recipe from Vegan Richa and one of her Indian cookbooks. I get the ingredients from the local Indian grocer. Here it is with props to Richa: When we sell the Chai, we also mention our favorite ways to prepare and drink it. We steep the spices in hot water for up to 12 minutes, then add pea protein beverage in equal measure to the water and warm it all up. That makes a wonderful drink just as is, with spices that can be re-used again if refrigerated after straining it from the liquids. But I also love to add a Turmeric Ginger Tea. That's the BEST! Finally, if you could be sponsored by one food/drink brand (beside your own of course) who would it be and why? Jim: LÄRABAR is a wonderful snack if you are vegan, and their product is an excellent example of what a completely natural dessert snack can be made from with just a few (and sometimes just two) ingredients. I think they are bringing an excellent food combination to the world. Nell: Oh boy! I would choose Justin's Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter cups. Mmm. It is our daily ritual to have a cup of Banjo Boy Coffee in the afternoons, and I have to have one of these peanut butter cups. Jim usually eats dates – we have found a farmer at the Market who brings Barhi dates which truly melt in your mouth.

Photo: Kalie Capadona

About the Band:

Praised by Folk Alley for their “sparkling harmonies, clever songwriting, rapturous and rollicking instrumentals,” Nell & Jim is led vocalist Nell Robinson and Grammy-winning guitarist Jim Nunally; their all-star band is comprised of bass player Jim Kerwin (David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Yo Yo Ma), drummer Alex Aspinall and accordionist player Rob Reich. On Western Sun, set for release on May 29, the two explore the idea of migration, being West Coast musicians with Southern roots, and address/celebrate the bigger ways in which immigration and diversity make our world more interesting & our society better as a whole. 

About Banjo Boy Coffee/Nell's Chai:

The idea for Banjo Boy Coffee came about when flat-picking guitar champion Jim Nunally was spending long hours on the road with master banjo player and coffee roaster Nick Hornbuckle, both coffee lovers always in search of the right cup of joe while on tour. After Deering Banjo Co. gave Jim a six-string banjo to play while on tour with Tony Trischka 4 years ago, the banjo and the coffee really started to percolate. Jim came up with the idea of creating Banjo Boy Coffee and approached Janet Deering to see if her company would like to market the coffee. Janet Deering loved the idea and suggested that Jim develop four blends, one for each of four types of Deering banjo. 

For those who prefer tea, Nell created Nell’s Chai. The chai spice can be added to your favorite tea or added to hot milk. Nell and Jim’s favorite is chai-spiced almond milk with Ginger Turmeric tea. They also sprinkle it on salads and roasted vegetables. A 2 oz bottle makes 12-15 cups of tea. The brewed spice can be refrigerated and re-used. With the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, their coffee and chai have been in demand from friends and they offer monthly subscriptions.


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