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Nilsen trades keys for strings

by: Vern Uyetake, John Nilsen, an internationally famous musician, plays “Silvertime” on his guitar at his home in West Linn. Nilsen will release his latest CD, shown below, on September 12.

Since 1983, John Nilsen has rocked the piano to gain international exposure in the instrumental genre, distributing 13 successful discs and founding his own recording label back in 1987.

His passion began when soft solo piano was 'hip.'

He offered listeners a variety of instrumental blends, combining cello, bagpipes, and a synthesizer to give it a multiplicity that set Nilsen apart.

So to completely depart from the piano and its instrumental accouterments after 23 years, one could presume an event might have substantially altered Nilsen's vision.

For his latest CD, 'John Nilsen and Swimfish,' Nilsen added lyrics for the first time, will debut his first single track, 'Ross Welcome' on his upcoming CD, and has traded his piano for a guitar.

But for Nilsen, the shift was a breeze.

'Sometimes an artist has to blow in the wind and feel where you are led,' he said. '(My music) evolves but it keeps breathing.'

Now Nilsen said his tunes sound more like rock classist Tom Petty and less of the melodious solo pianist George Winston.

'It's a long long road I am on and there's bound to be changes in the scenery,' he said.

Artists like the Beatles and Neil Young that thrilled Nilsen from age 8 were never afraid of change either, he said.

And when he received a letter about his newest CD from Dan Peek, an original member of the band America, it was a huge vote of confidence.

'Major kudos on your CD,' Peek wrote. 'The songwriting hangs together and the tracks flow, carving out a groove as natural as a river carves a canyon.'

On earlier recordings, Nilsen's soft music could have twinkled in the background of a black and white film of lovers bicycling through a countryside.

But his single 'Ross Welcome' starkly contrasts the gaiety with a message of social unrest in the poverty stricken town of Cave Junction.

'When there is an extreme right and left, there is a clash,' he said. '(The residents of Cave Junction) are all great people but there are some that are far less fortuitous than those that are wealthy.'

His message and sound may have changed, but his love for the music has not.

'To be an artist, you have to be a receptical, to take these ideas and translate them into music.'

'I come back to it every time because that's where my soul takes me, to fulfill my quest for living,' he said.

And though he's undertaken a new path, leaving some of his fans with the memories of his piano-playing days, the lifetime of passion that has kept him afloat in the music market will continue to do so.

'I think that I will find that a lot of people will think its great and a lot of people will question why I've done it,' he said.

But, Nilsen said, 'you have to remember where your art starts, I believe that its vital to do what you feel.'

Nilsen said his songs offer a uniqueness he can fall back on, a security he said, that all musicians strive to have.

'It's important to have your own sound, people want to hear who you are,' he said.

And once a musician has that, Nilsen said, even a thousand no's won't stop the groove.

'You've got to believe in the music, 'cause that'll never let you down,' he said.

'John Nilsen and Swimfish' ($13.99) is currently available at Bale's Thriftway. It will be released in selected stores around the Portland metro area on Sept. 12.

Additionally, Nilsen will perform live from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday at the Oregon Grape Nursery, 65 S. Dollar St. in West Linn.

Tickets are $12 and available at Safeway TicketsWest Centers or by calling 503-224-TIXX (8499).