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Sunset High graduate to celebrate 18th album at Mississippi Studios

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - John Nilsen, a 1974 Sunset High School graduate, just released his 18th album, 'Wild Rose.' To grow up and become something other than a musician and songwriter, John Nilsen would’ve had to seriously rebel against his parents and their household’s prevailing aesthetic.

Instead, he welcomed his classically trained mother Jean's piano lessons, beginning at age 6.

“I asked her, ‘Can we start now?’" says Nilsen, a 1974 Sunset High School graduate, from the living room of his parents’ West Hills home. “That’s my recollection.”

And mom’s homework assignments went beyond learning major and minor scales.

“As part of our weekly assignment during primary school years, mom said I had to write a song,” Nilsen says. “I remember having to write several songs.”

Since then, the 57-year-old accomplished pianist and guitarist has written hundreds of songs, many of which ended up on the 18 albums he’s recorded since 1983. He released his latest, “Wild Rose,” on his own Magic Wing record label on March 19.

With his band Swimfish, Nilsen will perform tunes from the 10-song collection as well as older nuggets from his deep catalog on Saturday night at 7 at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi St., in Portland.

What: John Nilsen and Swimfish "CD release concerto" for "Wild Rose," his 18th album

Where: Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi St., Portland

When: Saturday, May 11, doors 6:30 p.m., show 7 p.m.

Tickets: $20

Website: mississippistudios.com

Call: 503-288-3895

The melodic, mostly mid-tempo, folk- and country-inflected songs of “Wild Rose” mark only the second time Nilsen’s presented his vocal-and-guitar based material on record. He sees the album as a continuation of the pop-rock approach he introduced on his last album, “John Nilsen and Swimfish,” from 2006 (see accompanying story).

“I’ve only done two vocal records,” he says. “It’s two completely different sides of the music. It’s like, ‘Here’s this piano guy for 16 records. Now there are two with the guitar-vocal guy.’”

That’s not to say the songs on “Wild Rose” mark a drastic stylistic departure for Nilsen himself.

“I’ve been writing guitar songs for decades,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like such a big deal to me because I’ve been doing it for so long. I still do so much of the piano thing. This might be new to a lot of people, but for me it’s not new.”

Street players

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - John Nilsen plays the piano in his parents' home as his sister Cathy Thoma, father Orville and mother Jean look on.Unlike his piano skills, which he learned directly from Jean, Nilsen had to venture beyond his house to learn guitar.

“I was really enthused about starting piano when I was 6,” he recalls. “On the other end, when I was 14, 15, I then wanted out. My mom let me quit. She knew I wanted to learn guitar. She set me up with guitar lessons. I just took a few of 'em. That’s all it took to start it.”

Inspired by the Beatles, Neil Young and the richly impressive roster of Baby Boomer musicians Nilsen heard growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s, Nilsen got the itch early.

Jean Nilsen remembers John and Don Woodward, the next-door-neighbor who became her son’s best friend, getting their moves down in the street.

“His older brother was a very good student. Then came John,” Jean says with a hearty laugh. “You were out in the cul-de-sac at night. (Woodward’s) mother made cardboard guitars. You and Donny would sneak out at night and play your guitars!”

The street posing eventually led to real guitars and a bona fide musical act, Nilsen and Woodward, which started when the boys were in junior high school. The duo played gigs — barbecues, weddings, parties, you name it — around Beaverton and Portland before college choices sent the friends in different directions.

“I really learned a lot from Don,” Nilsen says. “We learned at the same time. We had each other to learn against. I didn’t touch piano for three years.”

After graduating from Southern Oregon University in 1979 with an English degree, Nilsen never lost sight of a career in music.

“I always knew it was what I was going to do,” he says.

It was the style he chose that surprised his family members, says Cathy Thoma, Nilsen’s sister.

“He made some proclamation that he’d chosen his career and it was going to be music,” she says. “We thought it was going to be guitar. He said, ‘No, it’s gonna be piano.’ We were aghast.”

The smell of success

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Class of 1974 Sunset High School graduate John Nilsen plays guitar in the 3-foot by 3-foot area at his parents' West Hills home, where he practiced with his friend, Don Woodward as a teenager. Nilsen just released his new album, 'Wild Rose,' which he'll celebrate with his band, John Nilsen & Swimfish, on Saturday at North Portland's Mississippi Studios.Before his nimble fingers and pen attracted enough attention for music to pay the bills, Nilsen juggled jobs as a school bus driver, ski instructor and landscaper.

In early 1983, a gig in Ashland led to him getting signed to Los Angeles-based Eagle Records, which released “Sea of Inspiration,” his first instrumental album.

“I haven't had a day job since,” he says. “I got lucky. I did three records on Eagle and then started my own record label. It's the smartest move I ever made, from a business point of view.”

Since then, Nilsen's played shows in all 50 U.S. states, Europe, Asia, and “countless gigs” in Beaverton and Portland.

Nilsen's father, Orville, isn't the least bit surprised by his son's do-it-himself success story.

"Many years ago I was remarking to Jean," he says. "I said, 'John is going to bring us a lot of pleasure in life.' I'm glad I realized that so young."

Nilsen, who has an 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, with Lynn, his “dear” wife of 23 years, admits his industrious nature sometimes keeps him from living in the moment.

“I don't stop and reward myself very often,” he says. “I think, 'I need this record to do better.' But you need to stop and smell the roses. Things are good. Very good.

“But you can't sit on your complacency,” he adds. “If you do, you're done.”

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