A Message Beyond Words
Tim Nelson is sitting at the piano in their home studio in Brisbane, against a backdrop of fairy lights and a translucent-curtained window. “I’ve got my crystals all charged up from the Scorpio full moon,” they say, holding a crowded tray up to the camera.
“My dogs Missy and Evie usually come down when I’m recording too, so there’s a lot of supportive energy," says the Cub Sport singer, songwriter and producer. The studio is downstairs in the home Nelson shares with their husband, Cub Sport keyboard player Sam Netterfield, and it exudes a sense of immediate warmth.
Excluding a handful of songs made on tour in the US, it is where Nelson has written and recorded Like Nirvana, the Australian pop band’s upcoming fourth album, which is an expansion of the textural dream pop sound found in the quieter moments of last year’s Cub Sport. The sparse arrangements and soft electronics are in service of a narrative of personal change – a reassuring sonic environment for Nelson to explore personal challenges with emotional, often cathartic vocals.
Songs like “My Dear (Can I Tell You My Greatest Fears)” – which features Nelson on solo piano with sporadic instrumentation – are so stripped-back and intimate that they’re almost difficult to listen to. “Be Your Man” starts similarly, breaking into a power ballad chorus that sees Nelson question their precarious sense of self, and what that means in the context of a supportive relationship (“Baby I’ve got everything / but I change with the tides”). Their perpetual state of working-through is key to the structure of “Saint”, which loops a vocal sample (“I’m trying to figure out”) over and over again, mirroring internal ruminations.
Nelson’s changing state of mind, which is the album’s key influence, is explicit on single “I Feel Like I Am Changin’”. The song addresses the longing for stability and rest that comes with being away for a long time, while also realising that this longing comes from personal growth (“My head, it used to spin the moment when I'd hit the brakes / felt like I would lose a part of me if I took a break”). It was originally going to be the title track, until Nelson received a stack of paintings from his friend Zac, who was working on merch ideas for the album.
“When he sent them through I was getting goosebumps,” Nelson says of the pictures, somewhere between primitive figurative painting and religious iconography. “Whatever was inspiring me in the creation of the songs, I feel like he was drawing on the same source of inspiration. One of the paintings had the words ‘like nirvana’ – those words felt right for this album. It feels like an ascension to me.” So the album’s title and cover artwork were changed – its changeling nature reframed as somehow spiritually guided.
The album format is suggestive of finality, or at least stability: a secure statement of an artist’s identity, or of their intent. It’s unusual to encounter an album that is defined by its fluidity, that flows in parallel with its creator’s uncertainty, without rushing towards a fixed end point.
It’s even more unusual to encounter such a fluid document after an album that felt so much like a happy ending. Cub Sport was a classic third act of a life-long romance between Nelson and Netterfield, who had been friends and bandmates since they were teenagers. During a rare spell of time apart, they realised they were in love with each other, got together, and both publicly came out. They got married in August 2018, accompanied by their dogs at the altar.
“I wouldn’t say it only focused on the happy parts of my life,” Nelson says of Cub Sport, “but that was around the time of Sam and I getting married and I felt that was what I was ready to share with the world.” The album has moments of fear-damaged elation – “I'm flying high but am I self sabotaging?” Nelson asks himself in “Sometimes” – but the overwhelming mood is of trust and relief; the strength that comes with being seen and accepted by another person, even if it is sometimes scary.
But after the screen faded to black, Nelson found themselves falling short of the high bar of happiness that they had created with the album. Burn-out from years of constant touring caught up with them (“It’s harder to feel grounded when you’re constantly flying all over the world”) bringing about a spell of depression towards the end of 2019. “The last album felt like a happy ending, and I was very caught up in the fact that a lot of people loved that it was a happy ending,” they say of this period.
“Part of me felt disappointed that I was feeling depressed. I had these experiences of coming out and finally being able to be with the person that I love, then getting to release music about it and have it be well received. I thought I should feel so good, but I didn’t – I felt disappointed with myself, like I would be letting down the people who were inspired by my situation.”
>At the end of 2019, the band released a handful of standalone singles – triple A-side 333 and “I Never Cried So Much In My Whole Life” with Australian pop legend Darren Hayes – that continued in the blissful mood of Cub Sport. But Nelson knew that these songs, written in late 2018 and early 2019, didn’t sit right with their changing self. “There was a point when I thought they were the direction of the fourth album. And I was really excited about that because it felt like that was the uplifting happy next part of the story. While they were genuine for the time that I was writing them, it didn’t feel like they represented who I am in 2020.”
This decision led Nelson to an important realisation that “life isn’t this linear journey,” which in turn led them towards an authentic artistic direction for their fourth album. “I didn’t want to stop sending out an uplifting message, but I couldn’t write something that didn’t feel genuine,” they say of the songs that would become Like Nirvana. “It wasn’t the uplifting next part of the story that I would have loved, but I think there are always going to be challenging times in life and I needed to be completely honest, because that is where I feel right as an artist.”
Even though Cub Sport represented Nelson working through their difficulties and growing comfortable with who they are, they describe Like Nirvana as “a deeper healing”. The writing and recording process helped them to confront recurring personal issues, and accept a sense of self in flux. “I think that there were things that were there the whole time that took growth and reflection to delve into, shine a light on, and heal from.”
Like Nirvana’s lead single “Confessions” is a distillation of the album’s character, with its internal changes between cowered intimacy and broken euphoria. In a half-spoken outpouring, Nelson divulges well-hidden truths about his frail sense of self (“The truth is I’ve fallen into another trap of who I think I’m meant to be / the truth is I’m still lost”) backed by a one-note riff, drenched in echo. Gradually more instruments join his side, until the cathartic ending, which sounds like the grainy high that comes after offloading to a friend at 4am. “I just wanted to stop doing everything,” Nelson says of the time they wrote the song, “but on the other side of writing it I felt really good. When I listen to it and get to the end section, it feels really euphoric, there’s so much release to it. There’s an intensity that is so satisfying to me. I haven't felt quite like that since writing it.”
“When I’m writing it feels so much easier to say things that are otherwise hard to acknowledge or talk about.”
“Confessions” also sees Nelson – who produces or co-produces all the band’s work – experiment more with vocal effects and manipulative production elements, a development that extends throughout Like Nirvana. “I feel like the production choices are always an extension of the story and energy of the song,” they explain. “I’m guided to try peculiar things.” On “Drive”, they return to experiment with the pitch-shifting formant effect that they used on the 2019 single “Limousine” – winding it up rather than down, so their vocals are higher and lighter.
“To me it represents growth,” they explain. “I go from this naive, sweet-sounding vocal at the start, then I’m singing the same parts in my natural voice – it’s stronger and more intense. I feel like that represents the journey that I’ve had in love: from being this naive 17-year-old, to it feeling natural now.”
This self-assertion still comes with dips in low self-esteem – see the repeated line “I still can’t believe you give a damn about me” – but it feels like it’s bound to be followed up with reassurance. In love, happiness isn’t consistent, but trust should be.
Another song that experiments with vocal effects is “Break Me Down”, the album’s only collaboration, which Nelson made with their close friend Grace Shaw, aka Mallrat, who also appeared on Cub Sport album track “Video”. The song is seven minutes of sensual synth, all anticipation – with Nelson and Shaw’s vocals autotuned and layered like a supernatural chorus. It’s deeply evocative of the blissful, wordless space that lovers occupy.
“We’re both big fans of Kanye West, and the technique that he’s used with autotune and distortion to make vocals sound like guitars,” Nelson explains. “Frank Ocean has done it as well, and they’re two of my favourite artists. We tried it in one take and it felt so emotive. It’s the part of the song that doesn’t have lyrics, but I feel like it sends this message - I don’t even know what it is but it’s something that you feel. It’s a message beyond words.”
Nelson often refers to their songs in this expressive sense, as carriers of as-yet unarticulated truth. They also acknowledge that songwriting is as much a way of telling themself what is going on in their head, as it is about communicating to the listener. Is the process like therapy? “It feels like that. Most of my writing just flows through me in the moment. It’s my way to access what’s in my subconscious, messages that are being sent from my higher self. When I’m writing it feels so much easier to say things that are otherwise hard to acknowledge or talk about.”
Reflecting on songs and living alongside them after they are written and recorded is a further process of understanding – even with songs that were recorded a long time ago. “When I’m continuing to learn more about myself and broadening my perspective I look back on my lyrics and they make sense to me, whereas in the moment a lot of what I’m writing doesn’t. But it always does at some point in my life. I feel like they reveal their true meaning in their own time, when they’re meant to.”
Nelson admits that they are still “learning to understand the intricacies” of Like Nirvana, which is relatively fresh in their consciousness. “I put the final touches on it in January 2020, so it’s a pretty quick turnaround from finishing it to putting it out, compared to previous albums.”
One key element of Nelson’s usual process as a songwriter and performer – playing live – is sadly missing at the moment, but they are excited to eventually bring these new songs into a live setting. Like their records, Cub Sport’s shows are cathartic and emotionally intense, with the palpable performer-audience connection that feels particular to queer artists and their fans. Even at shows in front of several thousand people in Australia, Nelson feels that connection.
Wearing their tour uniform of harnesses, chiffon and leather, they are a striking, sexy stage presence, bending backwards in ecstasy one moment, and singing unaccompanied under a fragile spotlight the next. Nelson finds this combination of vulnerability and audacity personally validating. “So much of [the music] comes from a scared, sad part of myself and there’s something about performing that in front of people who have connected with that. It’s really incredible to take a feeling of weakness and turn that into something so powerful.”
"I feel like that’s a big part of the reason that I'm called to do this with my life: that I can hopefully make other people’s journeys get better.”
Exposing their excavated, unsorted feelings to an audience through performance is a further, necessary aspect of Nelson’s process – even if it is daunting at times. “Touring the last album, there were so many things that I’ve never opened up about before. It was really emotional in a really beautiful way.” An extra level of intimacy comes with playing such confessional music with people they are close to: not only Netterfield, but guitarist Zoe Davis and drummer Dan Puusaari, who are two of Nelson’s best friends. Sometimes it must feel like they are revealing raw inner truths to themself, to an audience, and to their loved ones simultaneously. “I’m a pretty reserved person and I feel like I only open up to my friends if I’ve known them for ages,” they say. “Which makes it weird to be in a situation where I’m telling people everything through these songs. Even in interviews I open up more than I ever would under any other circumstances.”
The band itself is such a marriage of art and life, in the personal nature of the songs and in how they are performed. “It makes the whole thing pretty intense. I’m a Scorpio as well, so I feel like my whole life is pretty intense already!” Nelson laughs. “The way it’s all melded together is our greatest strength and the biggest challenge. There’s times when I do wish it was separate and I could switch off. It’s like being me has become my job, but I get to the end of the working day, and I’ve just got to keep being me. For the most part it’s amazing because I love my life, and I love Sam, Zoe and Dan so much. But it’s hard when it’s so personal.”
One of the major self-revelations that Nelson works through on Like Nirvana relates to their gender. On 3 March, Nelson posted a message on the Cub Sport Instagram page acknowledging their existence outside of the gender binary – breaking away from a system that has caused them discomfort and difficulty throughout their life. Nelson identifies as ‘free’ – “Free to follow my heart, free to flow with the energies inside and around me, free to form my own self not built by others”. In the note, Nelson also shows solidarity with non-binary and gender-free people with less privilege, acknowledging that: “I feel very privileged to be able to connect with and express my whole self without risking my safety, employment status, home etc.”
Knowing their tendency to find meaning in retrospect, has Nelson found traces of their discomfort with the gender binary in earlier songs? “I can definitely recognise that’s something that has weighed on me,” they say. “I’m still making sense of it through writing and listening back to the songs. Throughout my life I’ve felt that I need to be more masculine; I’ve struggled with self-worth and self esteem and feeling confident – especially around men. I still feel more confident around women than men and I’ve been like that my whole life.”
As with their growing confidence with unfixed emotions and non-linear journeys through life, Nelson seems comfortable with their growing self-knowledge about their gender and their gender expression, which is “something that I’m feeling out.” Joy has come with feeling like they no longer have to suppress their femininity, especially in the context of Cub Sport.
“It’s been really exciting doing photoshoots and videos over the last year and exploring more of a gender-free space,” they say. “Wearing more clothing that is designed for women and having my hair and makeup done in a more feminine way, then looking in the mirror and seeing this really beautiful feminine version of myself. It’s incredible. Speaking to a lot of non-binary people, often there’s a feeling of not being in the right body, whereas I’ve never felt like I’m in the wrong body for me. I feel like a man I guess, because that’s what I’ve always known, but I am making an effort to build my own version of who I am that isn’t based on what a man is. It’s something that I’m trying to leave open and figuring out what feels right.”
Nelson addresses these feelings in their lyrics, but also musically – most notably in that pitched-up vocal from “Drive”, which draws on one of Nelson’s other big musical influences. “I remember when I showed the song to some people, one of the responses was that the vocal reminded them of Cocteau Twins,” they explain, also citing the inclusion of the dream pop band’s “Cherry Coloured Funk” on the inspiration playlist for Like Nirvana. “I feel like that’s another part of how this record addresses gender expression and getting comfortable with that – wanting to hear a more feminine version of my voice coming through.”
The affirmation of Nelson’s true, queer self has been a long journey. When the band started out, neither Nelson, nor Netterfield or Davis, were out as gay: “that whole part of ourselves was something we shied away from.” Now, four years on from their debut album This Is Our Vice, they are part of a significant wave of queer pop stars.
Although Nelson acknowledges the responsibility that comes with such a role, they are delighted to be a representative of empowered queer experience. “So much of our music celebrates being queer, and so much of it is inspired by queer love,” they say. “Growing up I didn’t have any positive exposure to that – anything I ever heard about the queer world was in a negative light. So now to be proudly showing that to the world and to see it resonate with people is really cool, and hugely emotional.”
It could be argued that Like Nirvana is inherently queer, because of its embrace of authentic uncertainty: a subversion of the heteronormative ‘happily ever after’ myth. It’s a rare document of queer life after marriage – a dismissal of the still-common assumption that marriage represents the ultimate destination for queer stories and queer rights; a totalising symbol of true equality. Here queer people are allowed to live and grow past the point where our stories would usually end.
With their initial disappointment in the album’s complexities, Nelson was trying to anticipate what they may have needed at a younger age, or what their fans might need now. What is most beneficial, inwardly and outwardly, is the authentic uncertainty – the authentic queerness – that Like Nirvana is naturally steeped in. As well as being personally healing for Nelson, the album is a generous gesture to their fans.
Nelson confirms that although the songs may come from a dark, isolated place, telling the complex truth about their experiences as a queer person is worth it because of this potential for personal and communal empowerment. “I always have people telling me that I’ve articulated their experiences as well,” they reflect. “I like the idea of being able to support other people like me, or help someone make sense of their own experience. I feel like that’s a big part of the reason that I’m called to do this with my life: that I can hopefully make other people’s journeys get better.”