Life & Culture

Nilsson’s Enduring Musical Legacy, As Told By His Son Kiefo

As Nilsson’s first album in 40 years, Losst & Founnd, is released posthumously, Alex Denney speaks to the musician’s son Kiefo about his father’s legacy

When Natasha Lyonne stared disbelievingly into a bathroom mirror, again and again, to the strains of Gotta Get Up in Russian Doll this year, a new generation of Nilsson fans was born.

The hit Netflix show was a Groundhog Day for the Brooklyn hipster set, starring Lyonne as Nadia, an ageing cool kid forced to relive the same night on loop. Explaining why she wanted Nilsson for the character’s needle-drop moment in the mirror, Lyonne praised the “buoyant doomsday quality” of the song, an insistently perky pop number about the horrors of going to work on a hangover. “There was always a kind of ending that was unpleasant that was percolating under the surface of his songs, even at their most upbeat and certainly at their darkest,” she said.

That hidden darkness goes some way to explaining the enduring appeal of Nilsson, whose first album of original songs in 40 years appeared posthumously this month. The late musician is perhaps best remembered for his boozy “lost weekends” with John Lennon in the 70s and his Grammy-winning covers of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, a hit from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, and Badfinger’s tear-jerking ballad Without You.

But Nilsson was a prodigious songwriting talent in his own right, a pop polymath with a three-and-a-half octave tenor and songs that combined the melodic ease of Paul McCartney with the waspish wit of Randy Newman. Born in Brooklyn to Swedish parents, Nilsson moved out to the west coast as a teenager, working as a hired-gun songwriter with the likes of Phil Spector in the mid-60s. He enjoyed brief fame in the early 70s, peaking with the fabulous, fuzzy-round-the-edges FM pop of Nilsson, Schmilsson, but his coke- and booze-fuelled lifestyle caught up with him in the latter part of the decade, a string of flop records putting the skids on his career. In 1980, he stepped away from music completely to campaign for gun control after the death of his friend, John Lennon. Several failed business and artistic ventures followed and, in 1990, he was left penniless after his financial adviser embezzled his earnings.

Four years later, Nilsson died of a heart attack at the age of 52 – a sad end for a musician with more talent than he perhaps always knew what to do with. But listen closely, and Nilsson’s DNA is everywhere in today’s culture, from the pop classicism of Lana Del Rey and the irreverent, lounge-lizard personas of Father John Misty and Mac DeMarco, whose habit of signing off his records with fourth wall-breaking nods to the listener echoes Nilsson’s own. Something about his self-mocking approach feels fundamentally modern: undercutting many of their more ‘serious’ moments with throwaway humour, his records seemed to be having an argument with the pieties of the age, sending up the myth of the singer-songwriter-as-lone-genius that prevailed in the 70s. His promiscuous approach to genre feels oddly of the moment, too, bouncing between styles – calypso, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley pop – with a complete lack of deference to ‘cool’ that feels, from a post-internet vantage point, very cool indeed. (Nilsson’s parents were circus performers; perhaps that goes some way to explaining his irreverence and preference for variety over a single, authentic ‘sound’.) But for all their eccentricity, Nilsson’s best songs – One, Moonbeam, He Needs Me – balance an abiding fondness for absurdist humour with nagging undercurrents of melancholy.

For his son, Kiefo Nilsson, listening to Harry Nilsson’s records is simply a way to feel close to his father. “I made a conscious effort to sit down and go through my dad’s back catalogue,” the musician, who was just eight when his father died, tells Another Man. “It was a way to try and get into his headspace and think about where he was at this time in his life – what he was thinking, what he was feeling. And what I discovered about his writing is it’s very honest; he didn’t leave anything off the table. It’s the closest thing you can get to having a relationship with him, in that respect.”

On Losst & Founnd, the first record of original songs by the late musician since 1980’s Flash Harry, Kiefo went one better, playing bass on the album his dad was working on up until his passing at the age of 52. “I tried to approach it like any other session in a way, just for my own headspace,” says Kiefo of the record, lost in limbo for some 25 years while the right collaborators were found to complete it. “But certainly, listening back in the control room it was like, ‘wow, this is really special, what we’re doing here’. I mean, this is new Nilsson music, so those moments definitely resonated. But I was usually a step removed: I had to take a step back and think, ‘this is really cool.’”

Losst & Founnd might not be Nilsson’s finest moment on record, but it is a ragtag, fitfully brilliant collection that earns its place in his estimable back catalogue (the title nods, in typically sly fashion, to people’s inability to spell his name correctly). On the likes of Woman Oh Woman and Lullaby, a kids’ song about the things that lurk under the bed, it’s a joy to hear him serve notice of his woozy, inimitable talent: “If you knew true devotion,” Nilsson sings on the former, “You’d jump into the ocean, and go straight down, thinking of me.”

“He never lost his love for music,” says Kiefo, who remembers his dad as a quiz-show buff who was “always coming up with new melodies and song ideas”. “They say musicians never really retire, and he was always keeping an ear to what was current, to what his artist friends were doing,” he says. As for his own take on the enduring appeal of his work, Kiefo says that “the simplest answer is that it’s a timeless collection of songs. But another thing is that people feel like they’ve discovered him. Nilsson is not so much a household name, but he’s right under the radar. Sometimes a music lover will find his work and it’s so exciting for them to hear all these great records that maybe they weren’t aware of.”

“People still think I’m a rowdy bum from the 70s who happened to get drunk with John Lennon,” Nilsson complained in an interview just before his death, referring to the drunken scrapes for which he became legendary. Thankfully, now we’ve got Losst & Founnd, a fitting, full-circle moment that brings Nilsson’s story back to the music.

Losst & Founnd is out now.