Resolutions

Dwight & Nicole [The Resolutions Project]

The Resolutions Project is a collaboration between Hello Burlington, State 14 and Highlight that aims to showcase extraordinary characters and their place in Vermont’s culture.

Resolution:

I see us bringing in more balance. The symbolism of 2020, the balance and symmetry of that, it seems to speak to what I actually do feel about this time. 

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Just three days after the new decade began, we found ourselves in a cozy apartment perched above the waters of Lake Champlain sipping tea with Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson. Having only ever heard the sounds of Dwight & Nicole, and caught glimpses of the American indie-soul band headlining events for Bernie Sanders, we were now inside their home, digging deep into questions about life, family, and art. A rather auspicious way to start 2020, wouldn’t you say?

The acclaimed musicians hail from New Jersey and Brooklyn, and while they continue to play shows all over the country, one thing is very clear, they love coming back home to their nesting place in Burlington, Vermont. 

The following is a snapshot of our conversation from that day—a reflection on the artists’ influences, politics, relationships, and the uniquely American way Dwight & Nicole sang in the New Year. 

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Whereabouts in New Jersey are you from, Dwight?

Dwight: 

West Long Branch. Right by Ashbury Park. As a kid, I grew up playing the bars down there by the track. So that was home. Monmouth Park. My grandfather had a big band so he was playing stride style piano at our family parties. He was my first musical influence and I played drums behind him. We grew up with a lot of that, as well as pop music. A lot of big band. My dad’s boss actually just donated his record collection to Rutgers, which was 20,000 albums. He was a jazz promoter, a jazz producer, so that tradition as well as Count Basie Theatre being from Red Bank, New Jersey, there was like a whole tradition I was part of.

And Nicole, you’re from Brooklyn?

Nicole:

I am. From Midwood. It’s right by Brooklyn College. Ocean Avenue and Avenue I. It was heavily Caribbean and Jewish and just a family kind of place. Lots of houses and schools—cute. Now when we go back and we go to record in Williamsburg it’s definitely really different.

Did you meet in Brooklyn?

Nicole:

We met in Boston, actually.

Dwight:

We were friends, fans of each other’s bands in the Boston blues scene, but we were the ones to kind of do original stuff. We each had a residency on Thursday night, I had one in Central Square and she had one in Faneuil Hall. So we’d go sing, sit in.

Nicole:

There’s a lot of amazing blues artists in Boston, but Dwight’s thing was always different. For me, he was the cream of the crop. It was original, it was just . . . it was special.  Like Al Green mixed with some kind of alien from the future. Like it was—I hope that wasn’t weird.

Dwight:

It sounds good. I’m interested in where this is going.

Nicole:

It was futuristic and blues coming together. You know what I mean? It was his own voice, which is where the alien thing comes from because it was not like anything I’d ever heard. 

Dwight:

Jersey shore stuff. I played drums in pit orchestras for theater too. I have a lot of influences musically. So the blues thing was my roots because that’s where they were sneaking me into clubs—you know, Bar Bombay by the racetrack when I was like 16 years old playing drums with local Jersey heroes.

What brought you to Burlington?

Nicole:

We went back to Brooklyn for four years. You know when you feel a space out and it isn’t right. It wasn’t that anything was wrong necessarily. It just wasn’t nurturing all the right things that we needed to be nurtured. New York was stimulating and I felt super rooted there. We were happy but it was not like a healthy-happy. It was not balanced at all. It was just burning too hot all the time. And we would come visit Dwight’s college friends here in Burlington and I was like, can we not leave this place? It was literally this building.

Dwight:

My friend Jake called me and he’d bought this building from the guy who lives upstairs, Harry. And he was like, you want to change your life? And we’re on the road all the time.  So I’m like, why don’t we go to Burlington?

Nicole:

I was just so happy here and I loved that it was a healthy place because I was unhealthy growing up. Just the food that I was eating and the water I was drinking and my parents… I was sick as a kid. And so as I got into my twenties I was crashing and burning. I was on a quest to heal myself, which was more important to me than music or anything else. I just wanted to feel like a balanced, cohesive being and be an artist. Not just a musician but you know, be able to write, be able to draw, be able to hammer metal things into cool things, you know. Just be a healthy, creative person.

Do you feel like your community in Vermont is different than communities you’ve been a part of elsewhere?

Nicole:

Yeah, very much so. It’s like family. It feels like soul-family. I always liken it to a flock of birds that are joining in and finding a formation together. It seems random. It’s obviously not random as far as the way that things actually work. Like attracts like. So we kind of come together and we love each other, even pains-in-the-asses and we’re like mm you make me crazy but I will do anything for you.

Dwight:

There’s a visual artist that lives downstairs named Eric Eickmann who is a fine arts painter. He’s also a woodworker. So we had this month-long tour with Melissa Etheridge and she was really generous with the guarantee and everything. So we bought a 15 passenger van. Of course, we had to take some seats out for the equipment and here comes Eric, saying, Oh, let me design a giant plywood ramp that’ll fit around the vents. Or, Wow, you know, let me come and help you with video work. Suddenly he’s a videographer and went on a tour with us all summer. You know, there are people that, I don’t know, they’re drawing stuff out of us. We’re drawing stuff out of them.

We wouldn’t even be able to do it without a team like that. It’s really about the community here and our experience in Vermont has really been about that. If something’s wrong, everybody’s ready to help out.

You just had this event on New Year’s Eve for Highlight called Sound and Color. I’d love to hear about how that concept came about and the performers you worked with.

Nicole:

Thanks for asking. I love the concept so much and it’s been something that’s been at the forefront of my mind for years. At this time it’s so important to look at what’s good and functional about America. What’s actually good. And to me, being biracial, multiracial—my mom’s from Trinidad and my dad is Norwegian and Irish—I’m like every single race that a human can be. I am that. And growing up in Midwood Brooklyn with multiple cultures on top of each other and just people working through it, building bridges, rather than walls coming up, you know? Because you had to. And so that’s what’s great about America. All of these cultures coming here and creating these beautiful things. 

But for me, the music . . . and the art . . . focusing on that is so important, especially now. You don’t need to speak the same language. You don’t need to be the same age. You find your people through the rhythms and the frequencies. It calls the people together and you find these like soul families through music that maybe have absolutely nothing similar on paper.

And so being American has always felt like a special gift and being biracial always felt like a special thing. I have a purpose and it’s to be a bridge like the way that I was for my family as a kid. A lot of times it was playing piano for everyone, singing, dancing and distracting them with something fun—music, art. Everybody would gather and I’d be like, yeah, we’re a team. We’re all in a team. That’s still in me deeply. That feels so important. 

The idea of the show was the roots of American music. Starting with coming from Africa, drums without even melodies yet. Dancing and drumming up the spirit. And I love starting a show with drums and dancing because everyone in the audience just starts moving. The energy starts coming up, especially in a church. That was amazing. We had Jeh Kulu the drum and dance troupe. I worked with Alex from Signal Kitchen, who I love working with. Alex sent me an NPR story on Mikahely who was famous in Madagascar. He’s amazing. 

Nicole:

We got to jam together at the end and it was like this huge love fest. God, it was so good. So my concept is, the roots being drums and dance and then coming up into melodies that are born in a very natural way. [Mikahely] is not doing memorized sets. He kind of lets what flows. 

Dwight:

It’s beautiful what he does, yeah.

Nicole:

That’s the next level of the evolution—these melodies coming out, like the introduction of more complex sound structures. That begins to build a sound that comes from a place. And then people took their spiritual beliefs and their stories and added them to those melodies to make a point that you’re supposed to remember. Because the power is in the melody and the rhythm and now you’re going to sing about God or sing about creation or sing about human history. And that’s where the Resistance Revival Chorus comes in—taking these melodies, taking rhythms and speaking them into something that people remember and it can change things. 

Just rhythms and melodies. And I love that as an idea to build this tree. Then Dwight and I came out and did our set, just American kids from Brooklyn and Jersey. Not really knowing any of this stuff, but hearing these melodies, hearing these rhythms and growing up with a complete cultural mishmash and then making our own original music out of that. So it was kind of like the flowers on the tree. That was the concept.

That’s beautiful. I love that.

Nicole: 

Thanks. I feel like every New Year’s I want to do something like that.

I’m going to start talking about Bernie now.

Nicole:

Do it.

You’re in the inner Bernie circle. 

Nicole:

I know. We actually have a photo of all of us. I love him so much. 

Dwight:

He’s just never changed his convictions. 

Nicole:

I grew up hearing about him. He’s from Brooklyn and my dad has always loved him politically. He’d say, those guys from Vermont, they’re lucky. Their guy is THE guy. And I was like this old guy is cool. Since I was a kid, my dad was talking about him. He had me listening to his filibuster and it’s like 12 hours or whatever. He’s always loved Bernie.

What was it like being involved in his first campaign?

Nicole:

We saw that from the inside and it was like this moment. I felt the momentum and I thought, well, maybe some of it is living here and our community is so behind him. But it felt bigger than that.

I don’t even know how they reached out to me to sing . . . . I think it was through The Voice. His campaign manager told me they were a big fan. I called my dad and told him Bernie Sanders is definitely running for president and they want me to sing at his announcement on Waterfront Park. It was originally supposed to be the Star-Spangled Banner and I was like, I don’t want to sing that song. I don’t want to sing about bombs bursting in air anymore. We need to change the channel. Big time. And they were cool. I wanted to do America the Beautiful. But they asked me to do God Bless America. I was like, okay, that’s fine but can we talk about changing the Anthem? 

Dwight:

It was fun going out supporting him and nobody expected it to be that big.

With a national music career and being on the road all the time playing music, is it tough living in a remote place?

Nicole:

You know, it’s tougher to live in New York City for me right now. For example, when we were living in Boston, Dwight was being creative and going into the studio and utilizing that. I, the whole time was thinking, how do I get healthier? That’s the most important thing because if I’m healthy and if I’m resonating at my highest, that’s all I need to worry about in life. 

Dwight:

We had a lot of family stuff in the last couple of years. Pretty hard tragedies to deal with. And so being here, knowing that we can get back and sleep in our own bed and be around nice air. I can walk the dog around the lake. Those things kind of make you feel like . . . .  It also makes you feel uneasy because you can lose yourself in the busy-ness of the city and then you don’t have to really think about what you need to work on as a person. So for me, it was actually also very hard to move here in that way. Because it got quieter.

It made a little bit more peace in my life that way. Now, when we go to the city and get all the great ideas, this can be a place where we boil those down. It’s quiet. 

What do you think was one of the best things that happened in 2019?

Dwight:

This year was kind of like the pinnacle of reassurance of being in a studio with this lady and our drummer and this talented producer and the piano player—the team of folks. It’s a team thing again. It just reinforces that I’m in the right place creatively.

And personally, it’s again teamwork. My mom passed in the last two years and all of our folks have been sick. My pop has Parkinson’s and so Nicole has been unbelievable. Teamwork. [To Nicole] Thank you. It’s been really amazing. Like a challenge that can either drive you apart or pull you together. And so between touring, we’ve been taking care of our families, as everybody is. So you know, that’s been amazing. And you’ve been an amazing teammate with that. 

Any resolutions for 2020?

Nicole:

I see us bringing in more balance. The symbolism of 2020, the balance and symmetry of that. It seems to speak to what I actually do feel about this time. It is a time in our lives where we’re in our forties now. . . .  we’re not little kids. We’re still figuring some things out but we figured out a few things. 

For me, letting go of the idea of what people are thinking about my choices is one of my great joys in life. The letting go of you think I’m nuts because I didn’t sign that deal—I thought you’d be nuts to sign that deal! So bye deal, bye money. I don’t care about that stuff. My integrity is all I have. That’s it. And so money comes and goes and opportunities come and go. And if you follow your integrity and you are able to get quiet enough to know what’s right and true for yourself, you won’t go wrong. That’s all I know for sure. 

Coming through 2019 felt like a portal. All of that pain and suffering is just part of the path that we’re on. That Ram Dass quote: we’re walking each other home. It’s rocky, there are streams, we hurt ourselves, we pick each other up. You find the people that will walk with you and you walk together and then it’s done. And then who knows? But those moments where I’m in a studio and I’m looking at Dwight, and I’m looking at Joel, I’m looking at Ezra and I’m singing and it’s like . . . the clouds part.