Updated: Jan 31, 2020
By Joshua Sherman, M.D.
Photography courtesy Dwight Ritcher + Nicole Nelson
Sherman: I’m here with Nicole Nelson and Dwight Ritcher at Old Mill Road Recording in East Arlington, Vermont. Thanks so much for being here. Ladies first. Nicole, where were you born?
Nelson: I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I miss that Brooklyn. It’s gone now.
Sherman: What did you love about it?
Nelson: It’s hard to put into words really. I felt really connected to the land and to an aspect of the people that wasn’t necessarily the outward appearance but this, like, soul feeling. When I was a kid, I used to try to put my finger on what it was. It felt like it was coming out of the sidewalk. It was just this energy of the immigrants coming to New York and, you know, making it. Like the feeling of, “I’m going to take everything that I have and put it into this dream—and we’re going to make it!”
Sherman: The pulse of ambition.
Nelson: I think so, yeah, mixed with something more sparkly. Something about making a big, evolutionary leap. You know, not just financial or fame, but this dream of something bigger.
Sherman: But you moved to Staten Island and then to Upstate New York, correct?
Nelson: My grandparents had property in the Catskills, and my parents moved to Monroe, New York. So, I went to high school in Monroe. Very good school. A little bit lacking in cultural training. Being a bi-racial person from Brooklyn, I started all these cultural groups when I was there.
Sherman: So, let’s talk about that. How has being bi-racial influenced you as an artist and as a human being?
Nelson: Oh, man. Again, hard to put into words. Since I was a kid, I felt this responsibility to be a bridge for people that were, maybe, I don’t want to say small-minded, but maybe not as open-minded as they probably could be. In the end, really, love, kindness, grace, those are the things that matter. And so I think being like a cute little kid—who was fairly talented—I would put on song and dance shows for my family, and everybody would come together. And I was like, “This is some powerful stuff.” You know, you sing and you dance and all the different people are like, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” And they get along—at least until the song was over.
Sherman: That’s a good three minutes.
Nelson: Maybe that three minutes could turn into something else over time, you know?
Sherman: Three minutes can turn into 30 and then … 300!
Nelson: That’s right. Yes!
Sherman: Music really can unite people. [A noise is heard in the background]. I just heard some clinking of your jewelry. Tell me about it.
Nelson: Well, I do make jewelry. It started out as a [personal] need to wear certain stones. I started to get really sensitive, specifically to quartz. When I was in my 20s, I started being, like, “I think I need that on stage with me.” I’m a hyper-sensitive person, and I would just feel like, “I want this citrine in my pocket.” So, I thought, “Maybe I need to get a little baggie and wrap it with wax thread and wear it under my clothes or something,” because I was sticking stones in my bra and they‘d fall out on stage. It really wasn’t the best situation. A family member brought me all of this stuff, like crafting wire and she was like, “Let’s wrap them and make jewelry.” And it turned out, I was really good at it. The first stone I ever wore, I sold after the show to a woman who offered me a crazy amount of money for this hunk of pyrite wrapped in brass wire. And I was like, “This is maybe a thing.” [Showing her jewelry] Right now, this was a gift from my friend, Kristen. I didn’t make it.
Ritcher: The gift from Kristen—she uses it all the time as a percussion instrument.
Nelson: A little tambourine.
Ritcher: Arm cymbals
Nelson: It’s pretty loud. I could take it off, if it’s -
Sherman: No. No problem. I just want our listeners to know what the jangle is. So, let’s go back. Nicole, are either of your parents musical?
Nelson: My mom’s very musical. She played piano in the house and was always singing and dancing in the house. She went to F.I.T. and was very talented with fabric and design. That was her main thing. And my dad was a big lover of music. They would go on dates at jazz clubs in New York, seeing, like, Dizzy Gillespie play. It was one of the only things that they got along about—the love of music—although neither of them really got into the craft of it. I just had it around the house. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t play piano.
Sherman: And when did you discover you had a voice?
Nelson: I started singing before I started speaking. That’s what my parents always said. We’d be in a car and they’d have tunes on and I would start singing along with Ella Fitzgerald and be kind of good for a toddler. They were like, “She’s singing!” And then I would remember songs! Sometimes I didn’t know what I was saying, but I would form the sounds and get the pitch right. So my parents were like, “She’s got some talent,” which saved me in later years.
Sherman: When your parents discovered that you had talent, what did they do with it? What did you do with it?
Nelson: Oh, good question. My dad said, “Oh, that’s cool. She can sing.” And my mom was like, “She’s brilliant. We need to get her lessons. She needs to study opera” (because I was singing fake operas around the house and making up these big song and dance numbers). And my dad would be like, “We can’t afford that. You’re crazy. That’s nuts. No.” And my mom would do it anyway. And then they would fight about it. And I’d be like, “Wow, I’m causing all these problems. Maybe if I put on a little number for them, they’ll be okay?” And so I started using my talent to kind of try to bridge the gaps between them. And perhaps that’s not the healthiest thing in the world. But for me, personally, it became very healthy because as things got more difficult at home, music was a way for me to express myself in a healthy way. And I realized, “This is a language that everyone can speak and it’s a way to heal tense energy. It kind of smooths things out.” So it became like a superpower. I learned about compassion at a young age. How to use kindness and how to use fun things—like singing and dancing—to bring a little bit of light into the world.
Sherman: Are you an only child?
Nelson: No. I had a brother who passed away when he was 15. I was just about to turn 13, and he was, for sure, my best friend and everything. And we would go to the park and hang out and I would show him the songs I wrote. He was so supportive and sweet. And we just would play and hang out and have a good time. So, when he passed away [from complications of asthma] that time was the darkest time, for sure. My parents got way less close to each other and way more into their own dysfunction and personal sadness. And as you can imagine, it was a really hard time. But for me, music (and art in general) and just getting lost in my own little world was, you know, what kept me sane and kept me connected to aspects of myself that I think I would have cut myself off from because of the pain.
Sherman: What was the music you were listening to at that time?
Nelson: I’d say the voice was Whitney Houston. I mean, all I ever did was try to sound like her. Also, I got really into Tori Amos.
Sherman: That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while!
Nelson: I know! I loved her so much, and she was the only one I couldn’t parrot. I could parrot anybody’s voice when I was a kid. I did it for my friends. But she was so unique. Her vibrato and the way she spaced the tremolo in her voice was just outrageous to me. Fiona Apple. Cyndi Lauper. Ella Fitzgerald. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Tori was singing about gut wrenching stuff and I felt I related to that. I dug it. From a writing standpoint, though, I got into Leonard Cohen. I mean, I was into deep lyrics and people that weren’t afraid to be dark with their lyrics. You know, I got into that.
Sherman: And let’s turn the mic to Dwight. Let’s start with some of the same basic questions. Where were you born?
Ritcher: I was born in Long Branch, New Jersey.
Sherman: Was your family was musical?
Ritcher: Yeah. My grandfather had a big band in the 40s and played the Tri-State Area mostly. Played The Cotton Club and a lot of the bigger clubs. And he was a strat-style piano player and a banjo player, so I grew up backing him up [drumming] on the Jersey Yellow Pages with drumsticks and pots and pans, while he played at the family parties. He’d play, “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey?” and “Stardust” and so a lot of these songs were just common to me. I grew up on a lot of the American Songbook and a lot of jazz and big band music. [Count] Basie was from Red Bank, New Jersey, which is the town right over from me. My dad also really loved music. I mean, we were listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra. I’m partial to his records with Basie. [But I was also listening to] Cyndi Lauper, Run DMC, Sheena Easton, it was all very eclectic. And my mom played piano by ear—as well as guitar and ukulele. And she liked a lot of country music. Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. She’d figured the songs out, you know, around the house, sometimes in between doing her chores and things. And then she went through a phase where she liked horn music a lot. Towards the end of her life, she really liked Adele’s new record.
Sherman: Earlier you were telling me that your first instrument was actually the drums.
Ritcher: My grandfather got me a kit. I was probably 16 and started kind of like a little band. Maybe I was 15. And I took some lessons with this guy in Red Bank. And things were going well and he said, “I have a gig.” This was maybe—MAYBE—eight months or a year into lessons. “I have a gig that I can’t do and I want you to fill in for me.” And I don’t think I was very confident about being able to do that, but he thought I could do it. And it turns out it was a gig for community center production of Pirates of Penzance. He gave me the tape of the show. And then I sat in the basement. It must have been July or August, ‘cause I sweated it out and learned the arrangements. I did My Fair Lady. A bunch of different shows. And I learned an awful lot from that.
Sherman: It’s so easy to make fun of or minimize a young person for being in the high school band, but the truth is, that’s where lot of future musicians really get their start and get inspired. Can you tell me about a teacher who either really inspired you or who maybe was a negative mentor, but the experience perhaps gave you the determination to prove them wrong?
Nelson: Oh, yes. Is this one for me?
Sherman: It’s for both of you.
Nelson: Well, my first piano teacher was not a happy lady. I was four, so I was really young [to start taking lessons]. And I played by ear. She was determined to teach structure to all of us little kids. And so, our first ever number was “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” of course. And at the end, I just couldn’t help but add this little flourish. And she was like, “Don’t do that ever again.” And I did it again. And I got fired by my piano teacher! But in the back of my mind, I was like, “That lady’s wrong. You should be able to play with music. It’s supposed to be fun.” So, she was my example of a negative experience with a teacher. My good experience was my violin teacher in junior high school. I played violin for many years, from elementary school through college. But I had a junior high school teacher, Mrs. Fuschetti. She’s probably still at I.S. 61 right now. And she was so passionate. Her parents were both from Italy. And they both played violin and took it very seriously and she whipped us ordinary little kids into like a gorgeous orchestra. We were better than my college orchestra! We were really good. It was a breathtaking thing and it was all because of her passion. She was so passionate. She was hard on us, but in a way that I really responded to. She pushed us to practice. She pushed us to be better, and I would spend hours at home playing. I was obsessed, and I wanted her to be proud of me. But I never learned to read music. I was homeschooled in the sixth grade. I broke my leg pretty badly, so I got assigned violin, and then I was homeschooled the whole year. So, I just kind of practiced along with my parents’ records. And I was really good, so I got first chair right away when I came back in the seventh grade. But I just played by ear entirely. By halfway through the seventh grade, she figured out I wasn’t really reading it.
Ritcher: Yeah, I got caught, too. The conductor said, “Don’t turn the pages with the violins,” because I didn’t know when to turn the page, so I just turned when they did.
Nelson: She could tell you were cheating.
Ritcher: Yeah, she was on to me.
Sherman: Once you started playing gigs (not just in school)—what were some of the lessons you learned?
Nelson: It’s so important to spend enough time with yourself, tapping into what you really love, what makes you feel alive, what makes you feel connected, and what sparks your light and your joy inside. You have to learn to trust yourself, and the only way to learn to trust yourself is to know your self. Figure out what you love, what you don’t love. Try new things! Push yourself out of your comfort zone and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Art is not linear. There’s no mold for anything.
Sherman: And Dwight, what are some of the lessons you learned early on by gigging?
Ritcher: You’ve got to practice a lot. I know that seems pretty straightforward, but if you have that much of a drive for music, you’re going to need it. Honor that drive, you know. Work on your instrument. Work on your singing. Don’t be afraid to be a student, to be obsessed. Honor the curiosity that comes with that drive. And be humble if you’re a “front person.” I’ve been a front person my whole life, singing, playing guitar … I could have the best night singing and playing, but I need the drummer. I need the bass. They need me. I need the roadie that’s loading our gear and the manager. Respect the art of what they do.
Sherman: The two of you met in Boston, correct?
Ritcher and Nelson: We did.
Sherman: So, how did the two of you meet?
Nelson: We were fans of each other’s bands. I saw Dwight open for Otis rush at the House of Blues. I was blown away by Dwight’s band. I just couldn’t believe this kid was writing the songs and had that much charisma and singing like that and playing guitar and just, the band was crushing. I mean, Scott and Jonna Ruta—brothers on horns and, and Warren Grant on the drums, and Greg on the bass and they were all just gelling together. And it’s like etched in my mind as so much cooler than anything else that was happening. No offense to anything else that was happening in the Boston blues scene at that time, but he was doing something really special as far as I could tell, which was unique and his own material. And when I say blues, it was like, based and steeped in blues, but it was definitely more than that. You could hear the influences. I could hear the pop music, and I could hear the jazz influences. All the things that I also loved, he seemed to also love. We had the exact same taste in music. And yeah, you know, he showed up at a jam I was hosting in Quincy, Massachusetts. Someone said, “Dwight Ritcher is here. You should get him up on stage.” And I was like, “Oh, My God! Starstruck!” So I got him up on stage, and he’s slaying—and then we did a slow blues together. And the place was just, like, electric—captivated by our energy and our singing together. We just, like, moved together and everything was just very linked. And he had a girlfriend—and I had a boyfriend … and they were there. At one point, were on stage together and they both, like, left the room. They were like, “You guys have a lot of chemistry.” We did, but at that point, we were like, “No. No. No. We’re friends. He’s like my brother. I would never—I’m not that kind of person.” And plus, he’s a guitar player and a singer with all these dimples and I’m like, he’s a player. I would never date him anyway. But, um, we moved to New York within a month of each other, broke up with our other people, and like picked up and just took off—left our bands and both just ended up in the same place, which is blocks away from where I grew up. And it was just the universe pushing us together. We started doing shows together. I would open for him or he would open for me. And then we could do some songs together. And afterwards, people would be like, “Do you guys have a CD together? Like, do you do shows together?” So, we started doing that and it was easier than bringing his whole band and me bringing my whole band—and we just started booking us together, doing this thing: Dwight & Nicole unplugged.
Sherman: You had regular and successful gigs for a while. Nicole, you then had the opportunity to be on the TV show, The Voice. Tell me about that experience.
Nelson: Well, let me start with how it got started. I feel it was cosmic. I get a little cosmic sometimes. I had already left New York, moved to Vermont, and did not have a TV. I wasn’t interested in reality TV. At some point, I remember friends from high school being like, “Hey, Jermaine’s on The Voice. You should do that show!” Jermaine was this kid that I went to high school with, who ended up on the show The Voice, which I had not heard of. I was busy
making tinctures at home and learning about, you know, health. Kind of just doing my own thing.
Sherman: Being a Vermonter.
Nelson: Getting into Vermont. Getting way into it. Getting into good hiking boots! Well, my cousin was like, “Let’s at least watch him on YouTube”. And so I started watching him. I saw his audition. I was actually at a Super Bowl party with a friend of ours, who had a big screen TV, and I saw a commercial for The Voice—and it was featuring Jermaine during the Super Bowl. And The Voice was going to debut following the Super Bowl, and I was like, “Oh my God, that is huge exposure. This is gonna change his life. I guess it’s not all bad. You know, I started kind of softening around it. And I liked the premise that they weren’t seeing the person. They were listening to their voice. It seemed a little bit less harsh and less phony to me. And so I supported him in that, and I ended up speaking to him, and I spoke to his sister about his experience. More and more people were like, “You should do the show.” And one of my best friends was on anyway, and he won the whole season. And shortly after that, he was on Ellen and Letterman and Leno. And a producer [I knew said], “I have a friend who asked me to reach out to you and see if you would audition for The Voice. And I was like, “Interesting.” But, it just felt cosmic. Jermaine had just won and I looked at my yearbook, and he wrote, “Nicole, I love singing with you. Someday I’m going to make it really big, and I’m going to come back and get you unless you make it big, and then you come back and get me.” So I agreed to do it.
Sherman: For those who missed season three, what did you sing as your audition song?
Nelson: I sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Sherman: On the first show, I think they introduced you as a “Hippie from Vermont.”
Nelson: They sure did.
Sherman: Who was your coach?
Nelson: Adam Levine.
Sherman: What was some of the really good advice that he gave you?
Nelson: This is a good question, because I loved Adam. Working with him was great. He was very familiar to me. Hardworking, nice guy. However, he is painted in the media—people are jealous, people like to sell magazines, or whatever. He’s a good dude. And he was good to me and kind, and we got along really great. There was one point where I was like, “How do you stay sane?” There’s a circus around him you wouldn’t believe. And he was like, “Well, when you get really, really famous, that either brings out the best in you or the worst in you. You’ll find people being better than they ever thought they could be—and you’ll find people being worse than you ever imagined they would. And sometimes you flip-flop between those two things, you know, from time to time.” And I was like, “Okay, that makes sense.” [Another lesson]: He had just done The Morning Show or Good Morning America or something. And it was like a 5:30am soundcheck. Brutally early. And he just seemed so warm. So I was like, “How do you do that? Did you do not sleep?” He’s like, “Give yourself a few hours to wake up. Do a bunch of jumping jacks, do yoga, get warmed up physically, and then practice your song until you are so sick of that song—just keep doing it again and again and again—to the point where you could do it in your sleep, you know. And then you get up there and maybe you are half asleep. It doesn’t matter. You’ve practiced it. You can nail it even if you are sleeping.” And I thought it was such great advice.
Sherman: Have you used that advice since then?
Sherman: Does it work for you?
Nelson: Yes, it does. Get to your game early. Regardless of how early that gig is, be warm.
Sherman: And Dwight, what did you think about her going on the show?
Ritcher: It was a real thrill to see her out there. My father had had like a big heart surgery and he had valves replaced and he was able to go out for one of the rounds of the show and see her. And, so, that was awesome.
Nelson: It truly was a really fun experience—like music camp. I didn’t have any responsibilities. I just was given a schedule. This day you have off, Nicole. Okay. I’ll go to the gym and the pool. 9am hair and makeup. All right. The van’s going to pick you up out front at nine. I’ll be there. Like, it was just, kind of, easy. Everything was very good with the crew. Everybody was professional. It was really a learning experience in that way.
Ritcher: And she came home with more confidence from it. More confidence, because of the pressure. More confidence, because she had seen production at the [highest] level.
Sherman: That’s awesome. We never really talked about how you ended up in Vermont. Why did you decide to come up to Vermont?
Nelson: Well, this fine man went to the University of Vermont and made really good friends. And when we first started dating, he would bring me here to hang out with his Vermont people. He’s like, “Want to go to Vermont for a weekend?” And I was like, “Yes, I do.” And so we came to Vermont together and spent a weekend and I was like, “I love this place. I love these people. I love the mountains. I love Lake Champlain.” I mean, Burlington was like artsy and small and clean. And everybody was nice. I was just like, “How did you ever leave this place?” So, I started a little campaign to move back there, but then it took five years.
Sherman: And what year was that?
Nelson: Let me think. Let me think. Let me think. Like, 14 years ago-ish.
Ritcher: We’ve been together 15 years, [so she probably started campaigning] 14 years ago. I loved it. I mean, I grew up next to the highway. So, it was really cool to be in Vermont. I love literature, and I studied English. [When the opportunity to move to Vermont presented itself], I ran it by Nicole. She said, “We’ve got to do it!” And it just seemed like the right time. New York—we had done what we had to do there. And it was a beautiful time there, and the hustle that we learned there. But it was time for us to go, and we’ve never looked back since then. The song writers and the artists that we are today—individually and together—is because we were patient with it and kept at it. And we looked at the whole thing as a career, rather than one moment and one opportunity. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves as singers and artists and what we do—and we don’t have regrets for the choices that we made.
Sherman: That’s the goal, right? No regrets. Let’s talk a little bit more about your life in Vermont. You live in this really cool old shoe factory, right?
Nelson: Sure, do.
Sherman: Ok. And you’re playing a lot of gigs and you’re working on your next album. Tell me about it.
Nelson: Okay, so the most recent thing is actually an E.P. and it’s with me playing bass and Dwight playing guitar and both of us singing lead. And we have a drummer, so we have like a power trio thing going on. We are in the middle of recording actually—finishing recording our first full-length album as the trio with Joel Hamilton. He did the E.P. with us.
Sherman: Joel Hamilton is a big deal. Who are some of the artists he has produced?
Ritcher: Black Keys. Aaron Neville.
Nelson: The Meters. Yoko Ono.
Ritcher: Pretty Lights.
Nelson: Pretty Lights. They are huge right now. Joel’s a great guy, and he’s brilliant.
Ritcher: He believes in us and we have a lot of fun making music together. And we’ve got a cool van now, thanks to Melissa Etheridge. She invited us on a music cruise.
Sherman: You’ve also opened for Norah Jones, correct?
Ritcher: She’s a great example of somebody that will be stage left every night. If the show is at nine, she is there at 8:57. Every night. She has the flu, [she is still there at] 8:57. She’s always on time before her set starts.
Sherman: And where do you think you’re going to next? Nicole, you are all about the Comsos. What do you see in the stars?
Nelson: I love this question! … Definitely more studio time.
Sherman: I see that in your future.
Nelson: I don’t like being on the computer. I don’t like screens. I guess I have to develop an Instagram presence.
Sherman: And Dwight, what do you see in the stars?
Ritcher: Definitely some more touring. Definitely a lot more studio work. I’m excited about music. And so the more music I can play, the more excited I’ll be.
Sherman: We’ve really focused a lot on your biography, but we really didn’t talk about your process. You told me that you’ve got hundreds of songs that you’ve written. What usually inspires you to write a song? Do you start with the words? Do you hear the music? Do you collaborate together or write individually? Talk about the actual process of building a song.
Ritcher: So the start of the song could be a lot of different things. It could be a melody first. It could be trying to explore an answer to a question that I can’t figure out on my own. There are so many different things that inspire me to write songs. My phone—that’s my go to. I have all my musical ideas on that. And then I stick that on the computer, but I approach songs a lot of different ways. After a while, you get this sense that you’re onto something, because you can follow the action. The excitement of it. If you still feel the excitement as you’re drafting things you start to see it. The vision becomes clearer to me.
Sherman: Nicole, is your process similar to Dwight’s?
Nelson: No, very different. So, it’s the opposite of Dwight’s. He is prolific. He’s writing all the time. I will have, like, a moment where a song falls into my body and then I write it. And it’s almost done. It’s really like that. Once a month at the most—usually less. It depends on what I’ve got going on. If I have some free time, they start coming in. They start flowing in. But when I’m hectic, it happens like once every three months, even sometimes only two or three times a year where I’ll get a download of a song. I don’t always have all the lyrics right away, but sometimes I do. And I’ll hear the drums. And I’ll hear the bass. And I’ll hear piano parts. I’ll hear background vocals. And it just starts kind of growing into this thing, and it hits me, and I have to stop what I’m doing or pull the car over. And I’ll sing the bass part. And then I’ll do like a drum track. And then I’ll do a vocal track. And if I put those things all together, it’s a song. And then I bring it to Dwight, and I’m like, “I have this idea.” And normally, he’s like, “That’s fantastic!” Usually if I bring it to him, I know it’s good. I won’t bring him something that’s not that good. I don’t have lots of songs and lots of parts of songs and riffs and stuff. I just have these little “song babies” that are born, mostly-done.
Ritcher: And writing together is fun. Like, when we get a chance to jam, we jam!
Nelson: I see more of that in our future!
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