Recently, Taylor and I sat down with Nelson Jancaterino, the front-man for the folk act The Last Thing You Remember. Nelson is an incredibly friendly, thoughtful man and with a sort of self-deprecating, but jovial sense of humor he kept us both listening for hours, even before and after the interview. His music is catchy, but meaningful; it’s sometimes simple, but he tackles complex issues in a succinct and oddly whimsical way, particularly his song “Hey Mr. Officer” (video below). We talked a great deal about music and activism and what it’s like to be a folk singer-songwriter, some of which is included in part one of our interview below. We hope you enjoy reading Nelson’s words as much as we enjoyed listening to them and keep an eye out for the next part!
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, but the original message of Nelson’s words is alive and well.
Taylor: Tell us about yourself.
Nelson: My name is Nelson Jancaterino, 27 years old, college graduate, millennial, folk singer, living in Montgomery, AL and just trying to get by in this boring hell-scape of a town.
“I guess that’s what I’m trying to do, make people feel uncomfortable.”
T: Tell us about your music, who influenced you?
N: Gordon Lightfoot, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Woody Guthrie all influenced how I write. Just listening to those guys and how they had so much to say, and trying to emulate them because I feel this is definitely a time where folk music is…well, like Woody Guthrie said, folk singers are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do, make people feel uncomfortable. With politically charged music, the point is to make people feel uncomfortable and to get a point across, to send a message that times are bad and they need to be changing as Bob Dylan would say.
T: You’ve mentioned to me before that your dad plays as well?
N: Yeah, he’s classically trained to play guitar. Not really a lot of singing, but I definitely heard a lot of guitar playing growing up.
T: Were you pushed in that direction as a kid?
N: Not really, my parents didn’t really push me in any direction when it came to music. It kinda just happened, I guess. One might say it’s genetic, but my mom wasn’t really musical at all. Dad’s side of the family is.
T: At least you had exposure to it.
N: Yeah, definitely exposed to music at an early age.
Jason: How young were you, when you started playing?
N: When I started playing…so, I started seriously in band in middle school, where I played clarinet and saxophone. I also played in high school band. I was a drum major. I played bass when I was about 14, picked up acoustic guitar when I was about 17, so I’ve probably been doing guitar for about 10 years. I never took lessons, I just taught myself. I grabbed my dad’s guitar one day and was like, “I’m gonna learn how to play”
T: Do you play guitar by ear or do you read music?
N: I know the chords and I know the notes, but obviously being in concert band I know a little bit of music theory, but having never formally trained in theory or guitar, I’m probably like a lot of singer-songwriters in that I just did my own thing and came about it in my own way. It’s funny because Adam Powell, the guy that I play with, I’ll show him a song and he’s just like…he’s classically trained, and he was a classic guitar teacher and he’s trained in theory and how you’re supposed to do things and now I show him a song I wrote and he’s like, “that’s not supposed to work, but somehow it does”
T: Right, it’s like his brain…*makes hand motions*
N: Yeah, his brain just like doesn’t know how to comprehend it the same way or doesn’t process it the same way.
T: Are you involved in any projects other than the album?
N: Other than just focusing on The Last Thing You Remember as a folk act, I have this fun pop punk side project that I’m doing with some of my friends, but other than that it’s really just focusing on this EP and building up more songs, writing, and trying to find my sound (air quotes from Nelson on this), I guess. Just building a repertoire of stuff to play. A lot of places, they want you to play covers, but I don’t want to be a cover artist. I can’t stand going to the same places and hearing the same songs. Someone playing Wagon Wheel for the 1000th time (this is where Taylor and I chant for Wagon Wheel). There’s only so many ways you can play Wonder Wall and Wagon Wheel. I just get absolutely sick of it.
I’m trying to find a balance between covers that I want to do and being able to play different places and playing originals. So, I’m really focusing on original work and doing covers I want to do from artists that I like. This way, I can say “hey, I play covers!” But then when I play them they’ll ask, “Oh, who wrote that?” So, I’m like oh this is Justin Townes Earle or Tyler Childers or Jason Isbell. I’ll also throw some of my own stuff in there and ask them which ones they liked and if they like my original song, great, and if they say someone else then at least I turned them on to an artist who I think they should listen to.
“I’m just thinking in my head that this is it, I’m gonna be a martyr for the cause.”
T: You perform a lot of your own music live now, how does it go when you play your more controversial songs?
N: I do, yeah. I try to scan the crowd and the audience before I play and figure out if someone is going to give me trouble. So, if I see a dude wearing a shirt with an eagle on it or an American flag hat on, I’m probably not gonna play “Hey Mr. Officer” tonight. And sometimes I just throw caution to the wind. I was playing a show downtown Montgomery and they had police security. The lady putting it on wanted me to play my originals, and I’m like alright, I’ll play ”Hey Mr. Officer”. All the sudden the police are turning around looking at me (the opening lyrics are “Hey Mr. officer”). One walked behind the stage and I’m just thinking in my head that this is it, I’m gonna be a martyr for the cause. This is how I get taken out. But it didn’t, I actually had one of the officers come up after and he was like, “Yeah, I liked your song and those cops who do horrible things give us a bad name and I understand.”
T: I think a lot of that goes on, where people see a problem in their own group and don’t really openly discuss it.
N: Yeah, a lot of the time when I play “Smile In Dixie” or “Hey Mr. Officer”, afterwards, the crowd just sort of slow claps unenthusiastically and asks me to play wagon wheel again.
Taylor and Jason chant Wagon Wheel.
N: (trying not to laugh, impersonating an audience member) Yeah, play some apolitical stuff that we actually wanna hear, no one wants to hear this music! And I’m like…great, thanks.
T: Has anybody ever called you out?
N: Online, yeah, because people are keyboard warriors, but no one has ever come up to me in person and been like I hate you for that, why did you do this?!
T: As an artist how do you feel that your music, especially the more politically charged music, how does it affect people? Have you gotten a lot of discussion about your music?
N: I think the craziest response that I have gotten besides people just like…awkwardly looking away, happened recently in Savannah, GA at a house show. I had people come up to me after and thank me for my music and say thank you for being this voice and doing a good thing. When I first felt confident playing and singing, I was at a summer camp I worked at and I had a group of friends sitting outside on a porch and I asked them if I could play one of my originals and I played “Hey Mr. Officer”. My friend Venora, she started crying hysterically afterwards into the shoulder of one of our friends and it was like, oh god, what have I done? She sobbingly thanked me and said the verse about Tamir Rice really got to her and she just broke down. I felt bad that I made a friend cry, but it felt good that my music made someone feel that much emotion.
T: I wholeheartedly understand what you mean.
N: Someone on reddit was like, yeah man that Tamir Rice verse just got to me. After that downtown Montgomery show I mentioned earlier, I had an African American woman come up to me and she said she had a son Tamir Rice’s age and that verse just makes everyone stop and think about how this cop just shot this 12-year-old kid. This is…it’s just, what the hell is going on here, ya know?
Nelson’s latest EP, When Life Gives You Lemons is available on Bandcamp. If you’d rather see it all live, The Last Thing You Remember has a show at the Goat Haus Biergarten in Montgomery, AL on 1/27. You can also follow The Last Thing You Remember on Facebook.
Don’t forget to keep an eye out for part two of this interview and more interviews to come in the future! We are also planning a video series soon, so stay tuned.