In the early, worrying days of the pandemic, Rory Nellis delivered at the family’s home in Belfast. His DJ friend Mark was out with a roti, a homemade gift at a time when many shops were closed and feasts were scarce.
There was also a time when direct contact was not allowed, so the best they could do was to manage a few words on the side wall of the house. Rory’s son Jack also shouts to Mark that he is missing from school. It was a rare social interaction in their Ormeu Road lockdown.
Rory Nellis was also writing a song on a deadline. Work was drying up, but he was given a commission from the Tinderbox Theatre. The song was called Video Shop and it looks back to an easier time. It was about an old VHS tape and a rented movie that was familiar and fine.
The very next moment, Mark and Jack appeared in the song’s lyrics and Video Shop tackled some of the fears and tensions of the COVID era. In a later poem, Singer imagined a future time when hugs could be shared again with those who wanted them.
The whole piece of work is a beautiful reminder that we should never take things lightly. Who would have thought we’d feel nostalgic for a rented video cassette someday that wasn’t properly rewound by a previous user? Rory is laughing.
“And then you posted it via the letter box at the front of the shop, in case you were too late…”
Yet the day Rory recorded vocals for the song, he wasn’t laughing at all.
“You can hear it. I was healing myself when we went to record vocals. It’s real. It hit me like a freight train. It all flooded.”
This is a really powerful moment. This impressed even more when Rory approached a guitarist friend named Luke Cyrus Goetz.
The latter was an American who lived in Munich and happily added his part as a remote recording. Luke plays the sweetest, saddest lap steel ever. The tune is now a certified tear-jerker.
Video Shop is an excellent feature on the upcoming Rory album, Written and Underlined. This is his third solo record and is another collection of grace and reflection. The tune is elegant and the words are well chosen.
Yet on the record’s title track, Rory admitted that he had almost given up on his passion.
“I love writing melodies and I will never stop. Tango ku. Just a wish that I have to fulfill at all costs. But four-five years ago, I was thinking that the time has passed to pursue it properly , that I missed my chance. ‘I’m too old, basically’, that’s what I thought.”
He had almost convinced himself that he would turn a business into a hobby. After a decent solo career and his past moments with the band Seven Summits, he was about to fade. He went on to satisfy himself by occasionally uploading tracks to the Bandcamp site.
A trip to Nashville organized by the Belfast-Nashville Songwriters Festival in 2019 changed his mind. Rory plays at the Bluebird Cafe on March 16. The place was packed and he was welcomed into a famous testing ground for the art of song.
“People who hung on to every word of every lyricist that played that day. There were two sessions and a queue outside the door. And then I realized I could do it. I could stand up against these other songwriters and hold my own. There was no reason I couldn’t.
“I had no problem growing up. That was all I had in mind. That was a pivotal moment and I decided I was not too old to give it well. And then being me, I decided that if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it right. So I threw everything into doing it properly. I have a renewed desire to make it my job.”
There’s a sense of mission in Rory’s new record. Produced by his musician friend Philip Watts d’Alton and crowd-funded by the pledges of his fans, the music seemed as though it was a necessary act.
He writes about vulnerability and friends on Strange Behavior. There is a domestic accident at the Small Town Ravelry that looks like it is on loan from Burt Bacharach. And close, be the sea, he sums up the precious nature of our many. “Be the lantern,” he sings. “Lighten the indifference.”
Despite all odds, Rory seems visionary. Extra visionary, perhaps.
Written and Underline will release on January 29. On the same date, Rory will play a launch party at Sunflowers in Belfast, part of the Out to Lunch festival. For details visit www.cqaf.com