John Mark Nelson no longer waiting (and waiting) for his music career to begin

Backed by a ten-piece band, John Mark Nelson, far right, performs during a recent opening gig at Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis.
Photo By: Grace Pastoor
Thanks to a boost in airplay for his sophomore album, Minnetonka High School graduate John Mark Nelson is living his music dreams at 18.
Photo By: Submitted
“I am still just a kid who likes to make music."

We all have a friend who is trying to become a rock star.

They drag us to shows, pass out demo CDs and hassle until we like their Facebook fan pages. Of course, their musical ambitions often don’t amount to much, and eventually they have to be content with jamming in their parents’ basements while punching a time clock elsewhere.

Not John Mark Nelson.

He knows how to get where he wants to go.

Thanks to his sophomore album “Waiting and Waiting,” the 18-year-old singer/songwriter from Minneapolis is making a bold impression in the Twin Cities.

Released in August, the album has spawned two popular singles — “Reminisce” and “Rain Comes Down” — on Minnesota Public Radio’s tastemaker station, 89.3 The Current. Nelson said local music director, Jon Schober, discovered his early songs through Bandcamp — an online hosting site for indie artists — and offered to play them on The Current’s “Local Show.”

That was in April, before much of “Waiting and Waiting” had even been written, Nelson said. Once the recent Minnetonka High School graduate began working on new material, the whirlwind that followed changed everything.

When did this new reality sink in?

“I walked out on stage at the CD release show and found that I was looking out at a room full of strangers,” he said.


Nelson began playing the piano when he was five or six but was far from a prodigy. He only became serious about music when he was a teenager.

It also helped that he grew up in “a very musical household.” Nelson’s father was a piano player and music minister, his mother a singer.

Before his songs experienced a surge in popularity, Nelson planned to study drum set performance at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Now, he’s taking a gap year to capitalize on his current — no pun intended — momentum.

“For some people, the idea of not going straight to a university after high school is detrimental. Others think that a gap year can be a good way to focus in on your long-term goals. There isn’t one correct answer. I just needed a breath of air between high school and college,” Nelson said.

(Music) “means everything. It’s how I express ideas and relate to other people. It’s a way for strangers to communicate and experience emotions and feelings together. It’s powerful and important, and something I truly love.”


It shows during his live performances.

On stage, Nelson carries himself with a quiet confidence that could be the by-product of his natural musical talent, sudden popularity, or even his indie folk-rock beard, which is far bushier than that of the average teenager.

Instead of bursting onto the Triple Rock Social Club stage, electric guitar blaring, the spotlight focused on him alone. Accompanied by a ten-piece band — including an upright bass, violin and glockenspiel — Nelson switched between acoustic guitar and accordion, the harmonious blend of instrumentation as much a part of each song as his gentle voice.

It’s a huge part of what makes his indie folk-pop unique. This is a teenager who is sensitive without being cheesy, contemplative without being complicated and humble without being fake.

“I am still just a kid who likes to make music,” he said, citing a support group of family and friends who’ve become “excited and confused together.”

“I hope to continue to make music in the Twin Cities. As far as making a dent, I think that is a long ways off. There are so many incredible musicians that live, and have lived, in this city. My musical journey is much more a work in progress than a finished product. I have a long way to go before any dents are made.”

Still, the gathering storm suggests bigger and better things to come. In October, Nelson finished third in City Pages’ Click to Pick best new bands poll, which is compiled annually with input from the Twin Cities’ major music scenesters. He also contributes the opening Beatles cover, “Day in the Life,” to the Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 4 compilation, out this month.

Even better, his latest single “Rain Comes Down” has (again) earned fans at The Current.

“They have done a ton (to help me),” Nelson said of the station. “They started rotating my music, sponsored my CD release show, invited me and the band to perform in their studio. Everyone at the station has been very supportive and encouraging. I owe them a lot.”


Dave Campbell, a “Local Show” host for The Current, said Nelson’s experience isn’t typical for young musicians.

“There was an ephemeral quality (in his album) rare for young artists,” he said. “Young kids don’t have a refined quality or sound. For being such a young person, it was such a fully realized sound.”

It’s why breaking into The Current’s rotation is such an accomplishment for Nelson. The station receives so many CDs and demos, “you could build a house of jewel cases,” Campbell said. It takes dedicated staff members to find the best Twin Cities’ talent, turning the discovery process into a “game of telephone, where one person hears it and is like, ‘Oh man, you gotta hear it!’”

“We like his art,” Campbell said. “Our job here at the station is to find people’s art we like and then talk about it.”

Campbell also has some advice for teens who, like Nelson, want to succeed at making music.

“You have to learn how to do lots of stuff,” he said. “Learn how to book shows, effectively market whatever you’re working on, learn how to do live sound, play a couple of different instruments and study it. The truth is a lot of successful musicians are very skilled and organized.”

Or more succinctly, make it your “invocation.”

“Don’t stop doing what you love,” Nelson said. “If you pour your whole heart and soul into everything you care about, you are never wasting your time.”