As masters of their craft go, Rory Nellis takes some beating. The Belfast-based singer-songwriter’s output has spanned harmonic-laden alt-pop, slow-burning folk and far beyond on its way to become something uniquely vital. With his third album, Written and Underlined, he underscores his status as easily one of the country's most versatile and visionary musical voices.
Arriving four years after his acclaimed second album, There Are Enough Songs in the World, the album is a triumph of candour and colour. Teaming up once more with producer/musician, Phil d’Alton, Nellis spans the full spectrum of his sound. From its Americana-tinged title track, to its Grandaddy-conjuring lead single 'Strange Behaviour', his craft feels elevated and inspired, reaching new peaks that will come further to life on Nellis’s return to the stage.
Honing in on the majesty of the everyday, while musing on perseverance, solidarity and everything in between with finesse, the album is a feature-length statement of intent. While it was recorded during lockdown, it's as much a reflection of Nellis’s ever-growing obsession with the art and process of songwriting than anything else. Backed by d'Alton, as well as Herb Magee, Stephen Leacock, Eilís Phillips and Dan Skinner, here, synths and an Omnichord nestle alongside lap-steel, harmonica, guitar and beyond.
Aside from Wilco and Tom Petty, and more modern artists such as Christian Lee Hutson and Phoebe Bridgers ("The depth, melody, incredible vivid imagery in her lyrics - it doesn’t get any better,” says Nellis) the album also bears the imprint of a new obsession: the sound & songwriting of Laurel Canyon in the late 60s-early 70s.
“There are loads of great songwriters from that scene that I’ve loved and been fascinated by for many years already,” says Nellis. “But I’ve been trying to learn more about that time and listen to as much music as I can find from around there and then. People like Neil Young, Carole King and Joni Mitchell have always been close to my heart but I’ve found loads of others such as Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash that have really interested me while writing this record.”
As we collectively emerge, at least a little, from a drawn-out period of worldly strife, Written & Underlined feels like something of a lifeline rendered in song. Perhaps above all else, it doubles as an expansive, earworming and fully-meant reminder that one doesn't need to seek enlightenment in tough times. Indeed, getting by, pushing forward and savouring the simple things in life is - in its own way - akin to bliss.
“In some of the tunes I’m trying to say that we should be grounded and respectful, of others and ourselves,” says Nellis. “But the last thing I’d want is to come across as preachy. A lot of the time I’m aiming this advice or counselling at myself, or even just trying to communicate things that have helped me be as happy as I can be.”