On the Trail with a Tunesmith

I’m so excited for our cyber hike today with musician and songwriter, Tim Nordstrom! A native of Red Lodge, Montana, Tim and his brother Mike make up Montana Tunesmith, beloved around the state for their tight harmonies, acoustic style, and evocative lyrics.  Their debut album Under Yellowstone Skies was featured on National Public Radio. Montana Magazine wrote, “If I had to put one CD in a time capsule to represent Montana, Under Yellowstone Skies would be it.” Their second CD, Life is for the Living, was recorded in Austin, TX by Grammy winning producer Lloyd Maines. In December, Tim self produced the most recent album, Christmas is Calling, which features Grammy winning piano soloist George Winston, and Tim’s thirteen-year old daughter, Abbie. Tim also happens to be my cousin!


Beth:  Hi Tim! Thanks so much for agreeing to this “hike.” Tell us about the trail.

Tim: Thanks for having me along Beth. The trail is one that the Beartooth Recreational Trails Association of Red Lodge has developed for our community. I like to include this trail on my daily runs. I really like the openness of it, and the Montana “big sky” seems that much bigger when running on the West Bench of Red Lodge. My employer allows me one paid day of volunteer work per year, and I always choose to help work on this project as well.

Beth: I remember going to your house when I was little — maybe seven or eight — and you were playing the piano like a miniature Jerry Lee Lewis. My eyeballs about popped out of my head, as I’d never seen a kid play anything more technical than Chopsticks. Then you informed me you’d written that song. . . called “Wild Mustangs” maybe? It’s hard to remember through all the cobwebs. Anyway, tell us about your start in music. Did you study with anyone? Please don’t say it’s genetic, because that just wouldn’t be fair.

Tim:  Well, I’m impressed with your memory because if it was something about wild horses, I don’t even remember anymore. I took one year with a local pianist Lillian Gardner, who played in my grandfather’s dance band. I would manipulate her into showing me how the song that I would be working on for the next week goes, and then I’d play it by ear. So I hate to say it, but yes it’s all genetic. I’ve always been able to hear something and play it. This is great on one hand but quite a hindrance on the other. I think Willy Nelson said it best. “I play the guitar, I am not a guitarist”. If I could read music well, I’d be a pianist and a guitarist. My ear made it too easy.

Beth: You’ve set to music my memories of life in Montana — family, the ranch, the rivers and mountains — and I know I speak for countless others who feel the same way. What’s your songwriting process like? Do you wake up with a tune in your head and then go hunting for the lyrics? Or is it the other way around? Or a little of both?

Tim:  The best, most fun way is when it all floods out while playing the guitar; the melody, the lyrics flow out to make about 50% of the song. The rest takes some refinement and that can take hours, days or weeks. First Snow was written in an hour.

Another fun way is when I write a poem, and then put it to music. The song usually ends up feeling more poetic (duh) but I end up throwing most of those away- I think because it doesn’t start with the music. I think the most important, strongest part of a song that hits your emotional center comes first from the melody and then the chord structure.  Lyrics are last, they tap more into the cognitive side.

I write a lot of songs just humming as I commute to Billings. I write down a lot of ideas on scrap paper that I end up finding all over the house. Then…when the right mood matches up with the right lyrics that I pick up, a song can come pretty quickly. Another method that is really helpful is to pretend that I am another singer songwriter. Start singing in their style, etc. I’ve written a lot of songs this way because it seems to take away the inner critic, which can really stifle your creative process. It’s funny because you’d think the song would sound like the artist you are emulating, but I’ve tested it over and over and nobody ever says, “That sounds like so and so.”

Sometime I like to write a character sketch, sometimes a story song, sometimes write using chord progressions, or other times guitar licks drive the songs direction. I’m sure you figured out by now that there are many ways to skin this songwriting cat, but the MOST important thing is that after it starts to unfold, you have to let IT write itself, when you start to force it, you’ll ruin it nine times out of ten.

Beth:  Tell us about making your most recent album, Christmas is Calling. What was it like recording with your daughter? How’d you manage to snag George Winston?

Tim:  Abbie has a very fun personality, coupled with a confidence that allowed her to get into the studio and not let the fear ruin the experience. She had horrible allergies, which did hinder her performance, but we both felt that the process was worth more than the product anyway and it’s all relative- we weren’t striving for super polished. If she decides to continue in this avocation (or vocation) the product will continue to become more and more polished as you spend more time doing it anyway. So this was a great start for her.

George Winston is about as genuine and caring of a person as you could meet. I heard his piano style as I was listening to one of my demos one day. I looked up his label “Dancing Cat” and asked them if he’d be interested. He then listened to my first disc, “Under Yellowstone Skies” and he said it moved him. Having grown up in Montana, he could relate to this album, which I consider a “concept album”. In the studio it was really wild because I grew up listening to him. I mentioned to him that I really liked the harmonics that he does on the Summer album. He said “great idea”… next thing you know he was leaning halfway into the grand piano and playing at the same time, making some awesome effects tapping, dampening and getting some cool textures. He was like a mad scientist and I was a deer in headlights.

Beth: You and Mike have put a lot of miles on, performing all over the state. What are some of your most memorable gigs?

Tim: For the “cloud nine” experience, it would be playing a couple of performances with the Billings Symphony. You rarely are able to fully realize what you hear in your head (strings, etc.) when writing a song, so this was special. We played a huge gig in a park in Kalispell one time, did not know what to expect, and it was a very large group of developmentally disabled folks. They had so much fun, dancing, coming up on stage, etc.  It was a real feel good concert.

The backdrops have been everything from the top of Big Mountain in Whitefish, to the Yellowstone River outside Chico Hot Springs, to the top of the Beartooth Pass. But THE most memorable? A gig up at Piney Dell (in Red Lodge) that was SUPPOSED to be well marketed with press releases etc. We showed up, there were kegs of beer, BBQ pits, etc. and I thought it was going to be awesome.  But…the only people who showed up were our parents, Uncle Den, Aunt Mel and Gramma K. No joke.

Beth: That’s hysterical! Knowing that crew, they more than made up for the lack of audience. So what are you working on now? And what’s the best way for readers to get their mitts on your music?

Tim:  I’ve been really into alternative rock, Jack White (awesome solo album as well as his White Stripes and Raconteurs), Modest Mouse, etc. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Jack Johnson, but also more Bob Dylan etc. So my music has been a little edgier, but I am still trying to “write about what you know” like Mark Twain advised.  So I’m writing a lot about social justice, empowering people, etc. I’ve been a social worker for twenty years or so, so I have a lot of material to write about! If anyone is interested I’ll be posting new music and old at facebook.com/timmy.nordstrom (I know, someone already had tim.nordstrom!) Just go to Tim’s music store to listen and purchase CDs or individual songs.

Beth: Tim, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I’ll be waiting patiently (NOT) for your next album!


5 thoughts on “On the Trail with a Tunesmith

  1. I’m just sitting here crying and I don’t know why. I guess it’s because I come from a large and loving Finn family that just make me smile–even if we are miles away or don’t know each other well. We still have an amazing bond that started with Selma and Svante. Beth, those Nordstrom boys are pretty amazing, aren’t they??!! Love to you and your family.

    • Thanks for your nice comment, Jamie! It made me laugh that you mentioned Selma and Svante. Mildred used to tease me for naming my kids Sam and Sophie. She said, “What’s wrong with Svante and Selma? Those are perfectly good S names!” Can’t you just hear her? 🙂

  2. I love that I found this. Lillian Gardner is my grandmother, and she was an amazing talent. Happy to hear Tim had some fun with her while growing up.

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