In the early, anxious days of the pandemic, Rory Nellis took a delivery at the family home in Belfast. His DJ friend Mark was outside with a loaf of bread, a home-baked gift at a time when many of the shops were shut and treats were scarce.
It was also a time when direct contact wasn’t allowed, so the best they could do was to manage a few words over the wall at the side of the house. Rory’s son Jack also shouted to Mark that he was missing school. It was a rare bit of social contact at their Ormeau Road lockdown.
Rory Nellis was also writing a song on a deadline. Work was drying up, but he had been given a commission from Tinderbox Theatre. The song was called Video Shop and it looked back to a seemingly easier time. It was about the whir of an old VHS tape and a hired film that was familiar and fine.
Next moment, Mark and Jack had appeared in the song lyrics and Video Shop took on some of the fears and the stresses of the Covid age. In a later verse, the singer imagined a future time when hugs could be shared again with people who wanted them.
The finished piece of work is a beautiful reminder that we should never take things for granted. Who might have thought that we would some day feel nostalgic for a rented video cassette that hadn’t been rewound properly by the previous user? Rory is laughing.
“And then you posted it through the letter box, at the front of the shop, if you were too late…”
Yet on the day that Rory recorded the vocal for the song, he wasn’t laughing at all.
“You can hear it. I was welling up myself when we went to record the vocal. That’s real. It hit me like a freight train. It all came flooding in.”
It really is a powerful moment. It became even more affecting when Rory contacted a guitarist friend called Luke Cyrus Goetze.
The latter was an American, living in Munich and he gladly added his parts as a remote recording. Luke plays the sweetest, saddest lap steel. The tune is now a certified tear-jerker.
Video Shop is an outstanding feature on the upcoming Rory album, Written and Underlined. This is his third solo record and it’s another collection of grace and reflection. The melodies are elegant and the words are well chosen.
Yet the on title track of the record, Rory admits that he had almost given up on his passion.
“I love writing tunes and I would never stop. I have to. It’s just a desire I have to fulfill all the time. But four or five years ago, I was thinking that the time to push it properly had passed, that I’d missed my chance. ‘I’m too old, basically’, was what I thought.”
He had almost convinced himself that he would turn a vocation into a hobby. He was going to fade out, after a decent solo career and his previous moments with the band Seven Summits. He was just going to content himself with uploading an occasional track on the Bandcamp site.
What changed his mind was a visit to Nashville in 2019, arranged by the Belfast-Nashville Songwriters Festival. Rory played at the Bluebird Café on March 16. The place was packed and he was welcomed at a legendary testing ground for the art of the song.
“People who were just hanging on every word of every songwriter that played that day. There were two sessions and a queue out the door. And I realised then that I could do it. I could stand up against these other songwriters and hold my own. There was no reason why I couldn’t.
“There was no issue with me being older. That was just all in my head. That was an epiphany moment and I decided I wasn’t too old to give it a good go. And then me being me, I decided that if I’m gonna do it, then I’m gonna do it right. So I threw everything into doing it properly. I have a new-found desire to make this my job.”
Rory’s new record has that sense of mission. Produced by his musician friend Philip Watts d’Alton and crowd-funded by the pledges of his admirers, the music sounds like it was an essential task.
He writes about vulnerability and friends on Strange Behaviour. There’s a domestic mishap on Small Town Revelry that sounds like its on loan from Burt Bacharach. And on the closer, Be the Sea, he sums up the precious nature of the our lot. “Be the lantern,” he sings. “Light up the doldrums.”
Against all the odds, Rory is sounding visionary. Xtra-visionary, perhaps.
Written and Underlined is released on January 29. On the same date, Rory will play a launch party at the Sunflower in Belfast, part of the Out To Lunch festival. For details see www.cqaf.com