One of Selkirk College’s own has been nominated for Juno Award.
Contemporary music and technology program alumnus Nils Mikkelsen received the nod from the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Electronic Album of the Year. (He’s up against HUMANS, a duo that includes Nelson-raised Robbie Slade.)
Mikkelsen is thrilled his album A Life Well Lived, a project by AM Static with partner Chris Austman, has been recognized.
“It’s very surreal, just one of those things where even now, it hasn’t even sunk in,” says Mikkelsen. “It’s such a huge honour.”
Soon after the musician learned of his Juno nod, he reached out to his Selkirk College music instructor Gilles Parenteau, sharing his exciting news and paying tribute to his college education and the influence his mentor had on his burgeoning career.
“Every time I sit down to play, the lessons he gave me and his perspective on music still influence me,” Mikkelsen says. “I wouldn’t actually be doing what I am doing without him, at all. The large chunk of my musical perspective comes straight from him.”
Selkirk provides vital formal training
Growing up in Kelowna, Selkirk College was accessible and Mikkelsen heard positive reviews. When the artist arrived in 2008, he had a deep desire to further his musical knowledge.
“For me, I went a long time in my music without any formal training. I was self-taught along the way and when you do that, invariably, there ends up being holes in your knowledge. For me, Selkirk was really good at helping fill in those holes,” he says. “And it was a great excuse to buckle down and practice for two years.”
Mikkelsen also came to the Tenth Street Campus in Nelson with tendonitis in his wrist from relentlessly playing guitar. But his injury proved a blessing as it saw him switching his major to piano.
“Sometimes when you are going and going, you get caught up in your momentum,” he says. “My injury made me really stop and take a step back from music and think about what I wanted to do and really, what I wanted to accomplish.”
Switching his major meant approaching keys teacher Parenteau, who Mikkelsen remembers as an intimidating instructor in the early days. The student was nervous as he approached the world-class musician with deep experience in everything from jazz and rock to classical and R&B.
“He took me into a practice room and said, ‘play something.’ I was terrified, but I played something. And he said ‘okay, you are going to have to practice about three hours a day, just so you know,’” Mikkelsen says.
The student took that challenge on and with time, realized his mentor’s firm approach to instruction came from a deep connection to each student and a desire to see them succeed.
“He really took me under his wing and opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about music. He was very hands-on and personally invested in me and my artistic development,” he says.
Parenteau was thrilled to hear of his student’s nomination and continued passion for music.
“He was a very disciplined student,” says Parenteau. “Our job, as teachers, is to open the spectrum for a student, to open them to music they may never had heard before. It’s not always easy… Nils was fun because he was very open.”
“I hear in his music today that he’s still pushing the genre of music. I’m sure he knew I would like it,” says the instructor.
The road leads to electronic music
“AM Static has grown to incorporate R&B and electronic influences into a vocal and beat-driven pop fantasy,” describes the Juno Awards website featuring the nominee alongside four other contenders for Electronic Album of the Year.
Mikkelsen describes AM Static’s sound as “Boards of Canada meets Michael Jackson.” He co-wrote, recorded, mixed, mastered and produced A Life Well Lived, released early in 2015. The entire album is written on piano and synths.
“It’s the kind of stuff you can listen to on your headphones and totally get submersed,” he says.
After graduation in 2010, Mikkelsen left the Kootenays for the big city with plans to take advantage of Selkirk College’s transfer program to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Other alumni Kiesza and Tom Samulak went there and thrived with the additional education, he says.
Working at Steve’s Music Store in downtown Toronto, Mikkelsen really started getting into recording electronic music, liking the independence of being alone in the studio.
“It became an obsession,” he says. “As soon as I got off work, I would go home and write music until 5 a.m. Sometimes I wouldn’t even take my jacket off. I’d just sit down.”
This pace lasted for a year as he prepared for his audition.
“I did my audition and I got in,” he says. “But, I just didn’t want to go. I just wanted to keep working on my music.”
The west was calling and Mikkelsen made his way to Calgary, a six-song instrumental EP in the bag. It was there he met Austman, a singer and coworker at Long & McQuade. They quickly started collaboration.
“It was awesome. We had a good working chemistry,” he says.
Looking ahead to the Junos, Mikkelson is focused less on winning than what the nod does for an electronic artist just wanting to be heard.
“As soon as you get any recognition from an organization like the Junos it helps to put you a little bit above the noise … It’s a little bit of a head start,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s going to be a substitute for making good music. The music still has to stand for itself.”
The 2016 Juno awards airs live from Calgary on April 3 starting at 4 p.m. Pacific time.