SIMON NELSON tells Claire Brine about playing guitar with a star from ‘Downton Abbey’
NOT many people can say that they have played in a band with Lady Cora from ‘Downton Abbey’. But Simon Nelson can. Last month, the guitarist completed a tour with the period drama actress Elizabeth McGovern, who heads up the group Sadie and the Hotheads.
‘I met Elizabeth in her pre-“Downton” days,’ says Simon, when I meet him at his home in London. ‘My brother Steve is a guitar teacher and about seven years ago he put an advert in a local paper, offering lessons. Elizabeth got in touch because she wanted to learn to play some Bob Dylan music.
‘When Steve started her lessons, neither of us knew who Elizabeth was. We gathered that she was quite a famous actress, but we are not particularly into films so didn’t recognise her. Steve encouraged her to write some songs and straight away she did. She is very bright and creative, so was able to come up with some really quirky, interesting material.’
After a few songs had been composed, Simon put together a band to back her and record the songs. Since then, Sadie and the Hotheads have been making music. They try to arrange their diaries around Elizabeth’s busy filming schedule.
‘Elizabeth is very open to talking about being in “Downton”,’ says Simon. ‘She was also in a lot of films in the 1980s’ [such as ‘Once upon a Time in America’, with Robert De Niro] ‘and it is funny to hear her mention some of the stars she has worked with. She’s very friendly.’
Simon explains how the band’s name came about: ‘The name Sadie gives Elizabeth a character to slip into, which she likes. The “Hotheads” part is ironic, because none of us is.’
Even before he became a (hypothetical) Hothead, Simon made his living making music. He got into playing guitar in his early teens. He used to go home from school during his lunch break so he could practise. ‘I was very enthusiastic,’ he says. ‘I played with bands in my teens, and when I turned 21 I became a full-time musician. I’ve performed in some beautiful places, such as Bermuda and Australia. I’ve also enjoyed playing for a variety of singers, including Beverley Knight and Alexandra Burke.’
Even after 30 years of playing the guitar, Simon’s enthusiasm for performing remains. He loves the creativity of writing songs and the excitement of gigs. He also enjoys teaching. For 12 years, he has been running ten-week courses at Holy Trinity, Brompton – the church where the Alpha course was born – teaching people how to play in worship.
‘I also play in a worship band at St Barnabas Church in Kensington,’ he says. ‘Doing that helps me to stay grounded in my Christian faith. Playing guitar for worship is completely different from playing in a non-church environment. In a worship band, the musician is giving everything over to God as an act of service, and there is no room for egotism. It’s like tapping into a different headspace.’
Simon became a Christian after he attended an Alpha course some 15 years ago. Before that, he admits, he saw God as an ‘old man with a big beard’. ‘Today, my faith in God brings a focus to my life,’ he says. ‘I see some Christians wearing wristbands with the initials WWJD, which stand for “What would Jesus do?” That’s a good question to think about when facing any situation.’
As Simon continues to explore his faith, he finds that music is key in helping him to understand it. He says it enhances his experience of God.
‘In my mind I can’t separate music from spirituality. I hear some of the old Christian hymns and think they are amazing because the words have so much substance. I also think that the tunes themselves can be touching. If I see people in a church congregation who are clearly in conversation with God, it is great to think that music may have helped to facilitate that.’
As well as playing in church and teaching, Simon hopes for a bright future with Sadie and the Hotheads.
‘At the moment, Elizabeth is filming, so we have to apply the brakes on the band a little bit,’ he says. ‘But when she gets her time off we will be sure to slot some gigs in. Our latest album ‘How Not to Lose Things’ has just been released in Scandinavia, so there are some interesting possibilities opening up for us. It should be an exciting year.’
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