This is the fifth installment in our ongoing Label Makers series. Stay tuned for more.
"We want to see queer folks making a ruckus."
Brian Thompson and Kale Edmiston don't run your typical Nashville label — not by a long shot. And that's not just because they're stridently DIY, or because they peddle the sort of blazing, fists-in-the-air punk that's not necessarily in style around these parts. It's because they are driven by a greater purpose than "making it." Where many of Nashville's independent labels are aiming for industry success and acceptance, Nervous Nelly Records has loftier goals.
"As much as possible, [Nervous Nelly is about] letting people know that there are queer people making this kind of music, and that it's nothing new," says Edmiston. "We've always been doing this. We've always been doing things, and letting people know that is a big part of the project."
As they ready their fifth release — the debut LP from Boston's Parasol, a noisy pop-punk outfit that harkens back to the glory days of indie rock — it's clear that the Nervous Nelly crew has the ears to make a difference. Political convictions are all well and good, but a good message can be lost if the music doesn't connect. Luckily, Nervous Nelly's music connects big time, regardless of gender or orientation.
Nervous Nelly releases punk rock that is pure and visceral — punk rock that not only makes you pay attention, but also makes you press play again and again. Nervous Nelly is punk rock for folks who cringed while the scene descended into the dumbed-downed bro-ness of the early Aughts; for the folks who remember when bands like Crimpshrine and Fifteen could make bold, progressive political statements and still write songs that you couldn't shake from your brain no matter how hard you tried; for the folks who remember when hardcore didn't consist solely of tough-guy clichés and casual-athletic fashion.
"You could be gay and play mainstream country music and have a team of 10 people writing your songs, and that wouldn't make it accessible or cool to me, y'know?" says Thompson.
"For me, I want to see a movement that is prioritizing trans-people — especially trans women — that's prioritizing the voices of low-income people and people of color, that really has a political voice," says Edmiston. "It's not about just infighting within some insular little scene."
And in the age of crowd-funding and artists scrounging for change all over the Internet, it's a surprise to see a label taking a bold stance, putting their money where their mouth is and their politics before their pocketbooks. The label's first full-length release, Somethin' ta Tell Ya by Boston's Peeple Watchin', was not only one of the most rousing and anthemic pieces of punk fury I heard in all of 2013, but also a benefit for Black and Pink, an organization that works with the LGBTQ community — "especially trans," notes Edmiston — in our nation's prison system.
"It's a really great organization providing support and making sure that these people in the prison system have a way of communicating with people on the outside," says Edmiston. "[It's about] making sure they're not forgotten. Trans people are hugely over-represented in the prison population."
Thompson and Edmiston are renaissance punks, running the label, booking shows, running a distro for like-minded bands and producing zines like Edmiston's Nashville Transit, a documentary of his experience on the MTA during his first few months of taking testosterone. It's a classic DIY approach, and one that can get lost in the shuffle of commercial culture. "I know there's an audience for what we're doing — I'm just not sure how to reach it all the time," says Thompson. But it's an approach that doesn't lose efficacy just because there's an uphill battle ahead.
"I don't really think it's enough to just be out, but you need to have a multi-level, nuanced political analysis," says Edmiston. "It's just not enough to be like, 'Hey, look! I'm gay!' "
And it's this multilevel, nuanced political analysis that gives the music on Nervous Nelly its heft and weight — these aren't queer anthems manufactured to fit into some commercially codified cultural box. All politics aside, the heart and soul of Nervous Nelly is the struggle for basic humanity and to define oneself without being run roughshod by others — to live without hedging your identity to accommodate small-mindedness in others. It's a struggle that most people, regardless of gender or orientation, can connect with and — if the tunes coming out of Nervous Nelly are any indication — a struggle that can be overcome.
"There needs to be a critical mass of people being really vocal and coming out — being really up-front about their identity and not apologetic," says Edmiston. "That's one thing that we're trying to do with the label, for ourselves and our own identities."