Plucking the Juiciest Apple from the Tree
Plucking the Juiciest Apple from the Tree
A Q&A with Dwight Ritcher & Nicole Nelson
By Geoff Gehman
Dwight Richter and Nicole Nelson are relatively young musicians with relatively old souls–and soles. A couple onstage and off, they live in a former shoe factory in Burlington, Vt., his old college town. She jokingly sends emails from her shoe phone, a formerly futuristic contraption she shares with secret agent Maxwell Smart.
They perform classic idioms—soul, R&B, gospel, jazz—with the suave passion and sassy precision of such classic heroes as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Like Louis & Ella, Dwight & Nicole are strikingly stylish. He wears hip hats, sings with edgy elegance, and plays leanly and meanly on a V-shaped guitar seemingly invented for the Jetsons band. She flaunts flashy necklaces, shakes a lion’s mane of curls, and burns down the house with a lustrous, cavernous voice that torched “The Voice,” the TV talent show. After hearing her spiraling, soaring take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” judge CeeLo Green compared her vocal chops to “a mother’s love.”
Dwight & Nicole will spread parental affection during their June 29 debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. They’ll sample tracks from their new album, “Electric Lights,” produced by their new teammate, Joel Hamilton, who engineered and played keyboards on “Apache,” a 2016 CD from Aaron Neville, another dyed-in-the-wool, tuned-in old soul. Below, in a conversation from their shoe-factory home, they discuss other musical mentors, the fine line between feeling and thinking, and a blessing from Levon Helm, yet another old soul, that made Nicole’s dad proud.
Geoff: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely, positively turned your world upside down and inside out?
Nicole: My mom used to sing “Scarlet Ribbons” to me as a toddler; it’s the sort of song that moms sing to their babies to make them go to sleep. It still makes me cry; it still goes into my soul.
Dwight: Mine would be “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” It’s like “When the Saints Go Marching In”: same structure, same feeling. My grandfather had a big band and he would play “Bill Bailey” on stride piano at family parties while yours truly backed him up on kitchen spoons on a giant yellow phone book.
Geoff: What was the first song that made you realize you wanted to make music your calling?
Nicole: For me it was Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” I also loved a bunch of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong songs, especially “Summertime.” And the day I first heard Mary J. Blige I got so excited.
Dwight: For me it would have to be a B.B. King tune—“Outside Help” or “Three O’Clock Blues.” I played piano and sang it at a talent show in high school. B.B. King helped me find an outlet to express my excessive feelings; man, that guy found a way to do it.
Nicole: Oh my god, when I got older it was Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who got under my skin. I discovered Jimi through my dad. At the time he told me: “This is the music you’ll be listening to” while I was listening to my Cyndi Lauper. I still love Cyndi Lauper but I have to admit my dad was right; I had to eat humble pie.
Dwight: I was a big Cyndi Lauper fan, too. I also liked Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson and Sheena Easton and Run-D.M.C. I don’t want to date myself, but I had one of their vinyl records.
Geoff: Dwight, how did you come to play the Gibson Flying V after a fair amount of time as a drummer?
Dwight: It’s a very comfortable fit for me; it’s an unusual guitar for an unusual guitarist. I can’t play with a pick and when I began teaching myself to play a V, I found it was easy to play rhythm with my hand. The V doesn’t have any controls where my hand goes, so I can make as much mess with the rhythm of my hand and not hit anything. I already hold the guitar awkwardly high, so I don’t need any more mess. I play three Vs and it’s really the only guitar for me; I have no interest in buying any other guitars.
Geoff: Nicole, how did you come to play electric bass after much time spent on piano, violin and guitar?
Nicole: I came to the electric bass two years ago. My friend Tom Buckley lent me a Hagstrom reissue and I fell so in love with it, I wouldn’t let him have it back. It has such great tone and feeling and depth and personality. I love that I can get it to sound like an upright.
I actually fell in love with the bass when I was in the school orchestra. I was such an orchestra geek. I still love classical music—Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Pachelbel’s Canon. They gave the bass to the tall boy, so I played violin for a year and fell in love with violin. I broke my leg and while I was healing I practiced and practiced by myself. By the time I let anybody hear me in the house, I was pretty good.
Geoff: What do you do on the new album, “Electric Lights,” that you had never done? What places did you visit that you didn’t expect to visit?
Dwight: This was our first record with our drummer, Ezra Oklan. I started out as a drummer and Nicole had enjoyed performing with Ezra, so I had a feeling we’d all have a nice rapport. My intuition turned out to be right; we felt like an instant family almost.
Nicole: We had a musical bond that felt very old right away. It all happened in a week and it felt like we had been recording together for years.
Dwight: We were dealing with fleshed-out songs, but the interpretations were created on the spot. And that’s something we had never tried before. It was like the way they did it at Motown, where someone throws a lead sheet and you just make music. It felt like we had been recording, and touring, together for 20 years. We trusted each other that quickly, that deeply.
Geoff: Producer Joel Hamilton was another new teammate. What new tips did he give you? Did he lead you to any revelations, any epiphanies?
Dwight: Joel gave us a new environment that was really comfortable. He instilled confidence in us from day one. We didn’t ask him for a sound for the guitar; we just let him get these great sounds from the great equipment—the amps, the mikes–he has in his studio. Other producers will tell you something vague like: “Play the color purple.” Joel would say something like: “Sing this song as if it’s the first time you’re singing it to somebody.” That’s more specific, more solid.
Nicole: Joel’s ability to communicate is unparalleled. At one point he told me to sing as if I’m singing to my dying grandmother, three inches away. That’s a really heartfelt, delicate, beautiful way to work
Dwight: Another thing he said was: Play as if you’re playing the piano at four o’clock in the morning,.when you’ve been drunk since midnight and you’re loose but not sloppy. Those images really kept us moving and not focusing too long on the thinking part. The thinking part is not part of making music. There’s very little thinking on this record [laughs]. That’s intentional, and that’s good.
[At this point drummer Ezra Oklan appeared for a band rehearsal. Handed the phone, he praised Dwight and Nicole as “my new parents. They adopted me. I was a reckless child and they reformed me.”]
Geoff: What’s your favorite trait about each other, as a musician and a person?
Dwight: My favorite thing about Nicole as a musician is her spontaneous, beautiful sense of melody. There is this YouTube clip of us playing one of the new songs, “Further,” and she hits this little run and she does some simple melodic things that are incredibly powerful, that just flow from her inner bits. They’re more powerful than gospelly fluttering stuff because they’re filtered, tasteful, tuneful.
My favorite trait as a person is her strength, which I think she gets from her mother. She has a great, transformative sense of humor. She can get me or one of our friends out of a funk by making us laugh. She can quickly put you in a happy position; she can raise the whole thing up, including the roof. She’s an alchemist, an optimistic alchemist.
Nicole: The thing I love the most about Dwight as a person is the same thing: he can tell a joke at the right time; he can really bring out the light side by bringing out people’s light. The thing I love the most about him as a musician is his energy. I felt it the first day I saw him perform and he still has it. He can make the whole room feel it; it’s a gift. He has a word for it: Shazam!
Q: How do you give other room to breathe, relax and decompress on the road? Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, who played Mauch Chunk last year, told me that they preserve musical and marital harmony by staying in separate rooms, which helps because she craves silence and he craves the noise of news.
Nicole: Dwight will go get coffee and I’ll do yoga. Maybe he’ll go for a bike ride and I’ll do more yoga [laughs].
Dwight: We like to relax together by watching cooking shows and home-improvement shows in hotel rooms, shows like “Chopped” or those house-fixer-upper programs on HGTV. I run in the opposite direction, as fast as I can, from things like yoga I guess you can blame that on my education in Jersey public schools [laughs].
Actually, I think one of my fondest memories is of taking Nicole’s father, who lives in the Catskills, to hear her sing in the J.C. Hopkins Band when they were doing the “Midnight Ramble” at Levon Helm’s place in Woodstock. We became friendly with Levon’s daughter Amy when she performed in Ollabelle; our bands played a lot of the same joints in New York, and we liked to go to each other’s shows. It was a real thrill when Levon came up to us while we were eating popcorn and said: “You know, Mr. Nelson, your daughter has a real wonderful voice; you must be very proud of her.” And to think her dad wanted her to be a scientist more than a singer.
Nicole: I was an honors kid, a science geek. My dad told me: “You shouldn’t do this [music] business because you’re either going to be Whitney Houston or a street peddler.” I asked him: “What do you base this on?” Of course he was wrong—sorry, Dad. What he was really teaching me is that you can be anything you want to be if you really put your heart and soul into it.
Geoff: What was your toughest time in the music trade, where it was a real slog across the bog?
Nicole: For me, the foggiest part of my career was the very beginning when I was in my early 20s. As with almost anything new, you have the shadow of not knowing your direction. You’re asking a lot of questions, trying to figure out who you are. Thankfully, the fog has been clearing ever since then.
Dwight: For me, the hardest part has been growing as an artist while also improving my business acumen. You have to put all of yourself into the art, and you have to put more of yourself into the business. I’m still trying to find a way not to enjoy the business end, but to put more time, and more attention, into it. Although I’ve matured in that area, it’s still not a natural inclination for me. I’m still more about singing and playing guitar and just doing the art.
Geoff: What was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you felt you were gliding across the bog?
Dwight: It was that week we spent in New York recording “Electric Lights” with Joel and Ezra. It was a blur of 10-hour days in this new studio with new people, deciding to just let go and trust yourself, working hard to make it right or perfect, then going home and being fried and getting up the next day and recording from 9 to 7, using up all my juices and then getting refilled every day. It felt like a giant dream, a blur of fun.
Nicole: I agree: that period was just magic
Geoff: What tops your Bucket List?
Nicole: I want to tour Europe. I just feel the need to sing for other people, to get to know other people the way I do in this part of the world.
Dwight: I’d like to play “Saturday Night Live” with Nicole and Ezra. It’s my favorite TV show, one of the last live shows. I used to dream about playing it in high school. I love to watch comics and how they refine their delivery and develop new material. Someone like Sarah Silverman puts an amazing amount of detail into an HBO special. There’s a lot riding on it and somebody in the audience will say something and she’ll ad lib and go far afield. I find that so exciting. In fact, watching comics helps me with my delivery.
Geoff: What tops your Fuck It List?
Dwight: I don’t want to have any fear in my life. I can’t be as good as I can be if I have fears.
Nicole: Learning to let go of the little annoying things. Every single day I open up my Facebook page and see the latest socio-political commentary, a lot of heavy shit about the painful times on this planet. I’m trying to say “fuck you” to the things that drag me down and stand up for the things that bring me up.
Dwight: We find inspiration, and hope, in simple things. I love what Louis Armstrong thought about when he was playing the trumpet. He said he pictures an apple tree and tries to pick the juiciest apple. Those are the kind of things that really get our juices going.
Dwight Ritcher & Nicole Nelson: The Scoop
They met during a 2002 blues jam in Boston.
As a youngster he played drums in pit orchestras with his grandfather, a big-band leader.
Her musical heroes include Billie Holiday, Mavis Staples and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
They’ve shared bills with Chuck Berry, Norah Jones and Maya Angelou.
Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Mack are among his favorite Flying V guitarists.
Last year they performed “This Land Is Your Land” during a rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from their home state of Vermont.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like Dwight & Nicole, he can’t get enough of Ella & Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.