My first awareness of Eric Neilson was in 2017, hosting a humble showcase at the Tin Roof (RIP) downtown, called The Corner. I didn’t get to book the artists; I was just a host, but something about Neilson left an indelible mark. He played with a smile, had a genuine confidence and charm, clearly had the guitar skills, and wrote songs with great hooks. I get to work with him every Monday now as a community volunteer for Writers Round San Diego. In writing this article, I am as surprised as any to find that this man is not from San Diego. Astonishingly, despite his appearance and musical body of work and genre, Eric Neilson originally hailed from a small town in New Hampshire. Eric’s journey to San Diego began in 2015, guided by fortuitous military orders. His story intertwines with music, sound engineering, community building, and a commitment to providing platforms for fellow musicians.
Eric’s Navy service played a significant role in shaping his musical endeavors. During his deployment he formed a ship band with a fellow musician—a drummer named Wesley—and upon returning, he delved into recording his first official release, The Hemingway EP. This five-track groovy, island-inspired venture showcased his commitment to music. “I saved up a little nest egg and spent that to work with Chris Town at Capricorn Studio downtown; then I hired Kimo Shim on percussion and Aaron Bowen on guitar and steel.”
Eric’s musical journey includes the release of Medicine Man on his mother’s birthday in July of last year and plans to release more music in the near future. Recorded and mixed by Bereket Kearns at SDSU, Neilson called upon Bowen and Shim once again to lend their talents to his track. The five years between releases showed an obvious evolution in skill and songwriting but with the same charm and groove as when I first saw him perform at The Corner.
So many artists are now releasing singles instead of albums and, inevitably, Neilson has an interesting take on the direction he sees for himself. Leveraging his education and experience, he’s exploring effective content strategies to boost visibility and secure more shows. “Right now the single route is the in thing to do and the most logical thing, but I really like what Theo Katzman did on his most recent record. He had a 10-track record, and he released five singles leading up to the release of the album in a slow drip. I’ve been polling to see what people like, honing and polishing up these songs in order to do something similar.”
A little taste of Eric Nielson
Neilson’s talent doesn’t just extend to performance and musicianship. There’s just no way you have played music in this town and have not had the pleasure of Neilson running sound. I distinctly remember several gigs where I breathed a sigh of relief just seeing that he was assigned to the gig. I knew I was in good hands. His interest in sound engineering traces back to his high school days. At 16, he started working on open mics at his local town, even starting an open mic at his high school during lunch periods. Despite initially pursuing a more “practical” path in college (University of New Haven), financial constraints led him to the Navy, where he gained valuable technical experience. Eric continued volunteering at open mics and radio shows, consistently engaging with the audio world.
DharmaDen, initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic, became a YouTube channel and a popular platform for musicians to share their music, providing listening room experiences and marketing services. It has since evolved from its humble beginnings in Neilson’s living room (with his then-partner Rachel Jay,) through seasons at different locations, including the Template in OB and Henry’s Pub downtown. With a keen eye on future venues, Eric is working on a business plan for curated house shows and a potential living room-style venue in Pacific Beach, bringing his vision closer to reality. DharmaDen has featured incredible local artists such as Lee Coulter, Divina Jasso, and the legendary Lisa Sanders.
I now have the pleasure of working with Neilson weekly at Writers Round San Diego. A hybrid open mic/featured artist showcase presented in a Nashville-style round. An event that started in a bar in Los Angeles by Greg in Good Company, then brought to San Diego by Ben Grace with the same format, the winning combination of camaraderie, community, and talent has made WRSD the most popular and well-attended open mic in San Diego. Upon moving to Portland, Ben and his wife, Karyn, bequeathed the WRSD helm to me and Neilson, recognizing the same willingness and need to foster creative environments in us as they had. Eric’s involvement transitioned from weekly attendee to team member. The collaborative synergy the two of us have fostered in the last six months has been instrumental in keeping that space a community hub—a familiar theme throughout Neilson’s musical journey.
Where does his drive to create spaces for musicians come from?
A special community during freshman year in college planted the seed.
“What started that mentality was one big factor. Freshman year I lived in a music/living learning community. The entire floor consisted of music majors. Every door was always open. There were always jam sessions and I really loved the organic feel of being around a bunch of creative people. They introduced me to a lot of people who influenced my songwriting. I have a drive to replicate the feeling of keeping creative doors open.”
Currently a full-time marketing student at SDSU, Neilson navigates the intricate balance among education; running sound for Moonshine Flats, Sofar Sounds, DharmaDen, Writers Round; and his personal music projects. “It’s been very busy. As I get closer to graduation, I am getting reacquainted with my daily writing habits. The more I journal, the more I write. A goal of mine is to perform more this year and I’m confident that I’ll do it.”
Proving his point, Neilson will be performing at Songwriter Sanctuary’s one-year anniversary (run by Lindsay White and hosted by Jeff Berkley) with Dave Booda and Astra Kelly at the end of January. He has another superstar show planned for the second week in May with serious heavy hitters on the bill including Lee Coulter, Aaron Bowen, Rachel Jay, Stucky Leigh and Jesus Gonzalez.
As Neilson continues to evolve as a musician, sound engineer, and community builder, he stands as a testament to the thriving artistic energy in San Diego, creating spaces where musicians can flourish and network. There is so much excitement around the explosion of music that is turning San Diego into a viable music town—and Neilson is a huge piece of that colorful puzzle. I propose we take a page from his book and seek out where we can open doors for each other in this crazy business of captivating sound.