“My mom likes to tell a story of when I was a toddler,” explains Kiefo Nilsson, the second youngest of the seven children in the family of late pop songwriting legend Harry Nilsson. “I always used to try to change the station on the radio. I always wanted to be a DJ and listen to music and turn on music. My mom will tell that story to people as like, ‘Well, as long as I can remember, he’s always been drawn to music.’ For me, yeah, I’ve been doing music since as long as I can remember.”
Kiefo was just eight years old when his dad passed away from heart failure in January 1994 at age 52. However, a quarter-century after his death, he’s grown into the Nilsson child who has whole heartedly taken on his father’s craft as a working musician in his own right.
“Kiefo is the family musician,” explains Zak Nilsson, the oldest of the seven kids. “He’s the guy keeping the Nilsson oracle alive. He’s playing the music and he’s making all the things happen. He’s the one with the Force, man. I’m really proud of Kiefo and I know for a fact that Harry would be really, really proud of him. That’s why it’s so sad because I wish he was here for this.”
In recent years, Kiefo led a stage show revival of his dad’s 1971 children’s classic The Point! featuring comedians Ron Lynch and Tim Heidecker doing live narration. Meanwhile, over at BandCamp, he is slowly posting his own interpretations of his father’s songs as part of his ongoing Nilsson Sings Nilsson project (check out his outstanding version of the Son of Schmilsson deep cut “Ambush”).
“There’s still songs I haven’t put online yet,” he tells Billboard. “I’ve got close to a full album of music recorded, I guess. And, for me, it was something that I wanted to do, explore the material. I feel like I was searching for something, but in the process of making it, I felt like I kind of found it. And then once I had done it, I didn’t have much sense to feel like I needed to release it necessarily. So I just began to put it out online through BandCamp for almost a year now. That’s cool. But it didn’t seem like something I needed to make a big fuss over.”
This past November, however, Kiefo played a key role in the release of Losst and Founnd, a collection of songs from an album Harry Nilsson had been working on at the time of his death with producer Mark Hudson. With the blessing of Harry’s family, Hudson — a longtime pal of Nilsson going back to the infamous Lost Weekend era with John Lennon — took the demos they had been working on in the early ’90s for what would have been the follow-up to Harry’s last proper studio album, 1980’s Flash Harry.
“Making this album was a dream come true for me,” Hudson writes in an open letter to Harry in the liner notes he penned for Losst and Founnd. “I promised you we would finish it and get it out there one day, and that day has finally come! I can only imagine you flying across the universe, holding it in your hand and shouting, ‘I told you I could do it!'”
For Losst, released on the intrepid Omnivore Recordings imprint, Hudson employed a slew of old pals and acolytes of Harry’s to session on the material, born from rough vocal demos he had been working on at home at the time, including Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Keltner and Klaus Voormann. Yet the most significant addition to this otherworldly studio ensemble is Kiefo, who plays bass on over half of the record. For the Nilsson family, Hudson bringing Kiefo on board for this already special release was made even more significant while connecting the bassist even further to his father’s music, which he had already been delving deeply into in recent years.
“Going back through my dad’s work was something that came about a little later in my life, when I was in my mid-twenties or something and in a headspace to really sit down with it and deeply listen to it all,” Nilsson tells Billboard. “The whole catalog. Prior to that, I was familiar with the music, of course. But listening to these albums with more experienced ears and really thinking about what he was writing. And I really enjoyed that because I found a lot of the records that I hadn’t heard as much of, like Duit On Mon Dei and Sandman, tend to be my favorites.”
“I’m really glad Mark asked Kiefo to do bass because he’s kind of a prodigy,” adds Zak. “He just sorta picked it up in high school and then suddenly became really, really good at it. Having him on bass is not just satisfying because we know how good he is on the bass but it’s satisfying because Harry would have been really happy about it.”
For Zak, who has been valiantly battling cancer this past year, it’s a big point of pride to see his father’s legacy as an artist persevering through the work of his younger brother, not only through the release of Losst and Founnd but all of his efforts in keeping the spirit of Schmilsson alive and well in the 21st century. Especially when you take into consideration how much more ubiquitous the singer’s music has become in recent years, thanks to the use of his songs in acclaimed TV shows like Girls and Russian Doll as well as popular acts like Carly Rae Jepsen and Harry Styles wearing their Nilsson influence in public.
“Family was a huge thing for Harry,” he explains to Billboard. “The reason he wanted to do music and make the money is to have a family and to support them and be a dad the way he wanted to be. And he achieved that completely. He was so happy in his life after he met Una. He was still doing his music, but he loved his family so much. He loved all his kids. He just kept having kids, and he was living the life he wanted to live. At the same time, of course, you had drug addiction issues and alcoholism and all that stuff, but he was happy.”
“Definitely throughout the ’80s he considered himself retired or thinking his career was behind him in music,” adds Kiefo. “I think he felt that way, like, ‘Look, I’ve made a great body of work and now I have a family. So I want to spend more time with raising the family and that’s going to be my priority.’ But they say musicians never retire, right? That’s just who you are. And I think he was always thinking about music and he always wanted to write songs. And when the opportunity to write songs availed him to do it again, he went for it.”
“I am just really happy that this is finally coming out after all these years,” interjects Zak regarding Losst and Founnd. “Harry played some of these songs for me, the rough demo versions, way back in 1993. I was out visiting in L.A. and we went for a ride in his car and he put the tape in and played me a bunch of these songs that are on this album. He’s like, ‘Hey man, I’ve been working on these, what do you think?’ Uh, pretty amazing! I mean, it was new Nilsson music, y’ know?”