Raw emotion, cello-driven indie rock on new album from Portland’s Rural Ghosts

According to Erik Neilson, if you’d told him a few years ago ago that in October 2013 he’d be running his own record label and releasing a full-length album, “City of Elms,” from his indie rock band, Rural Ghosts, he’d have told you that you needed your head examined.

“Surreal isn’t even the word,” said Neilson, whose Portland-based label, Lorem Ipsum Recordings, has released music from local and national acts like Starlight Cicada, For Morning and Young Readers. “To hear this music – some of which I wrote while in a rather distraught state – fully realized by people I not only cherish as friends but also as benchmark players is something that I could never have dreamed of when the project first began.”

Neilson, a southern Maine native, began writing songs in earnest while in college in Vermont, straying more towards the alt-country side of things. He returned to Maine and by 2009 had begun writing more musically and lyrically complex songs under the Rural Ghosts moniker, initially as a kind of bedroom recording project.

“As a general whole, my lyrics are very much based upon personal experience and my own struggles in life,” said Neilson. “The concept of Rural Ghosts started with the song that bears the same name… the song itself centers around my own issues relating to anxiety disorder. It’s the idea of feeling as if there’s always something at your heels, not only following you from place to place but trying its best to keep you from succeeding and being your true self.”

He released a solo EP in March 2012, but shortly thereafter met the musician he describes as his “soul brother,” cellist Devon Colella, who would change his sound in a big way.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with someone who understands me and the way I write like he does,” said Neilson. “We performed as a duo for a period of time until Rob Mitchell joined the band on drums, which brought us to an entirely new level and aided in the transition to what I consider to be a full-blown rock band at this point.”

Though Mitchell has since left the band, Brendan Tompkins replaced him on drums and Oliver Waterman began playing bass. The songs on “City of Elms,” which came out on Oct. 1, straddle a line between the delicate, slow-burning folk rock of the Microphones, the intensity of Joy Division, and the dark, emotionally fraught, country-influenced rock of bands like like Murder By Death or 16 Horsepower. Colella’s cello playing adds an earthy, dramatic depth to music that’s otherwise quite raw and, at times, unhinged.

At the same time that Neilson and his bandmates were developing Rural Ghosts’ sound, Neilson was also developing Lorem Ipsum Recordings, the record label that he started in March 2012.

“While the label was originally a vehicle for releasing my own material, it didn’t take long at all before I realized how much other incredible music was being made in and around the Portland area,” said Neilson. “I suppose when I started hearing what was being made but not being promoted or released in the area, I felt as if I had to do something about it.”

Lorem Ipsum Recordings has released 12 albums thus far, including three sampler discs featuring a variety of songs from its artists. All albums are available to download or stream online at the Lorem Ipsum Bandcamp page, as is “City of Elms.” Rural Ghosts’ next show is set for Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Asylum in Portland, with Boston’s Air Traffic Controller.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.