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Banners gained confidence singing in big cathedral

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Toronto-based Michael Joseph Nelson performs as Banners and has new EP called “Banners.” (Courtesy Llam Goslett)

Michael Joseph Nelson, who brings his current project Banners to The City next week, first took the stage as a child, wearing a furry brown costume with horns.

“I was in a nativity play, the school play you do around Christmas, and for some reason the music teacher decided that I was going to be a singing ox. And I don’t know why an ox has to sing, but I was given this song, and it tuned out that I was quite good at singing it,” he says, sighing.

He was so convincing, his school urged him at age 7 to audition for the Liverpool Cathedral Choir, where he remained until he was 15.

When Nelson first walked into the place of worship, he couldn’t believe it was where he would be appearing, six times a week.

“It’s massive, the biggest Anglican church in the world, I think,” he says. “So you had to respect that work that’s gone into the building and make your performance as beautiful as you possibly can, every single time. And when you’re surrounded by music that much, it just becomes hard-wired into you — the love of how harmonies and melodies work, and the love of performing.”

The choir’s average audience was 4,000 strong.

Nelson shudders recalling his most glaring gaffe. At 13, he was spotlighted for a relatively easy hymn solo.

No problem, he thought on the riser. But, he says, “I suddenly realized all these people were watching me, and I started singing on the wrong note, and in the wrong key — a disaster in such a professional choir. But it taught me that you can get it wrong, and the world doesn’t end. That gave me a lot of confidence.”

His strange, peripatetic career eventually took him to Canada, where he met producer Stephen Kozmeniuk and perfected the smooth, R&B-inflected sound on his EP, titled “Banners.” On textured anthems such as “Gold Dust,” “Start a Riot” and “Back When We Had Nothing,” his rich, seasoned rasp sounds almost as if it’s been aging for years in a whiskey cask.

Nelson still stays in touch with his former choirmaster, who remains an important figure in his life, even though nobody in Liverpool has seen him play as Banners yet.

That’s about to change. He says, I’m going to back there in May. And I’ve seen so many of my friends play rubbish gigs growing up that it’s time that they came to see my rubbish gig!”


Where: Social Hall, 1270 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. March 28
Tickets: $15 to $18
Contact: (415) 777-1715, www.axs.com

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