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Chase graduate trades legal fees for paying a singer’s dues.

Chase graduate Joseph Nevels performs as JSPH.
photo by Lexie Alley, courtesy of the artist


by Rodney Wilson
Editor, NKU Magazine

The first time sound cut out, JSPH rolled with it, letting his audio operators locate the broken signal and reroute his breakout hit, “Breathe,” back to the speakers. But when it happened a second time, music disappearing with a loud pop, the performer’s head lolled on his shoulders in frustration. Then, signaling his drummer to keep the beat going, JSPH dropped the microphone, raised his voice and belted the chorus unamplified.  

“So baby just breathe,” the singer crooned at top volume. “I want you just to breathe.”

The outdoor concert’s crowd sang along to the familiar refrain, collective voices filling the Covington, Kentucky, alley they’d gathered in to watch the local talent perform. Finally, sound found its way back to the speakers and JSPH finished the song. Salvaged audio fading into the night’s inky darkness, the singer seized a teachable moment from the experience. “Sometimes when things don’t go right,” he said into the mic, “you need to just keep going. You can get through it.”

Occasional performance hiccups aside, things are going very right for Joseph Nevels, 2014 graduate of Chase College of Law and current favorite of none other than pop wunderkind Pharrell Williams (more on that in a bit). Though he’s traded using his Juris Doctorate in the courtroom for performing experimental neo-soul compositions on stage, the entertainer finds plenty of opportunities to leverage his law training in his music career—and Nevels’ plans to extend his knowledge to other artists could be a game-changer for independent musicians. 


“I didn’t realize

that it was a pattern at the time, but I always wanted a karaoke machine or a drum set, a keyboard,” says the soft-spoken singer. “Those were the things I would get super excited about when I was a little kid.”

Nevels started singing at an early age, belting out hymns at Consolidated Second Baptist in Warsaw, Kentucky, where his father, Rev. Michael Nevels, was pastor. “I was the only kid in the adult choir,” he laughs. “Even though I was into it, at the time I was like, ‘Oh, man.’”  

Joseph Nevels, aka JSPH

While music took hold early, athletics was also a driving force in Nevels’ life—but when repeat concussions sidelined his football career during his freshman year at the University of Kentucky, he turned his full attention to academics. “I’m number five of six brothers and sisters,” he says. “College was kind of an expectation, a standard set by all of my older siblings. We, the younger ones, got to learn from seeing what the college experience was like.”

Upon graduation from UK, Nevels was offered a scholarship to Chase, where one of his older brothers had attended, and leapt at the chance to pursue a law degree.

“Law was always something I felt passionate about,” he says. “I was drawn to helping people that may not know what they were allowed to do. I never liked seeing people get taken advantage of by somebody in a place of power.”

Nevels pursued academic excellence in law school but, while at NKU, found himself drifting toward the artistry that drew him to musical expression at an early age. He started scribbling song lyrics in casebooks, dreaming about performing on stage and spending time in the Fine Arts Center just to be around creativity. “The legal world can be super stressful and rigid sometimes,” he says. “To be in there and kind of get in a different element and break away from all that—it was just a great feeling, going in and seeing artwork, hearing beautiful instruments playing.”

He wasn’t about to quit law school to pursue music, but what Nevels felt in the fine arts space wasn’t a passing emotion either—and, soon enough, he’d have to reckon with his creative side.

 

JSPH performs "Breathe" live at WNKU.


Some careers

balance well with after-hours passion projects; the legal profession is not one of them. With long days stacked dawn to dusk with billable client hours, work as a lawyer is often an “all or nothing” endeavor. And with his rediscovered need to sing bubbling over, Nevels wasn’t ready to give his all to working in an office when he knew he had something else to offer the world.

Fresh out of school with a legal degree, Nevels didn’t approach firms looking for work like the majority of his graduating class—instead, he headed to the studio to record the first of an intended trilogy of EPs, “Rest,” released under the vowel-less JSPH moniker. The second, “Rule,” followed shortly, but before he was able to record and release the third (Nevels says it, titled “Abide,” is still in the plans), a song idea that almost escaped him set the artist on the course to success.

JSPH

“I spilled coffee on my MacBook right before I was about to head to L.A. for a business trip,” says Nevels. “My drummer does IT at UC and had an extra MacBook, so I took that with me. I was staying in Koreatown and had this song idea and used his laptop to get a scratch off of it, then I linked up with a guy who came to one of my concerts there to start the initial concept. And I brought it back to finish in northern Kentucky with the main producer that I work with here.”

The song idea grew into “Breathe,” which Nevels released in 2016—and, in doing so, earned himself a high-profile new fan. “I dropped it, and Pharrell picked it up and played it on OTHERtone, his show on Apple Music,” says Nevels. “I was actually at a concert and got a weird tweet notification, then, the next day, I was on his playlist, and I was like, ‘That’s random … but cool.’ From there, momentum just kind of kept going.”

For Nevels, “momentum” means a number of things, foremost the recent accomplishment of hitting one million streams on JSPH’s Spotify channel (a digital benchmark that few independent artists reach), discussions with multiple record labels and significant interest from overseas listeners.  

 

Today, Nevels stays busy

releasing singles, flying to L.A. for film- and TV-placement deals and working with a variety of producers. And while he isn’t about to toss on a Jos. A. Bank suit and head for a courtroom, he’s grateful for the legal training he received at Chase, which he uses to navigate the myriad business dealings associated with his entertainment career.

“Being an independent artist, not that I know everything about the legal side of music, but from contracts to marketing to dealing with labels,” he says, “there’s legal stuff involved in pretty much every aspect of the music industry.”    

And it wasn’t just classroom material that Nevels remembers about the campus—a few NKU professors left impressions on him that he’s carried into his entertainment-industry dealings as well.

“Professor Sharlene Boltz was my contracts professor,” he says. “She was super passionate. Professor Kazee was great, too. Not only did they thoroughly understand the law and were good at teaching it, but they were just good people and really good communicators. People that you liked to be around—that’s really important, no matter what you’re doing.”

Nevels hopes to help other up-and-coming artists in some of the ways his law professors helped him, launching his own company, DreamCoat Entertainment, to assist artists with the business side of their careers.

“It’s basically artist development and helping artists with different things, like marketing and publishing—things I’ve learned how to do over the years,” he says. “A lot of artists might only want to focus on creating, singing or writing, playing music—but as far as the business goes, they don’t want to touch it. And I understand that, but now I know the business side is equally important. And I want to provide that help to other artists.” 

JSPH is nominated for both Artist of the Year and R&B/Soul Artist of the Year in CityBeat's 2017 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.