The World at His Feet

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

INSIDE THE PINK WOOD-AND-TIN RECORDING STUDIO WITH THE glass roof, Brett Nielsen is perched on a high stool, deftly nudging knobs and levers on his multitrack console. The adjustments are so minute that it seems astonishing that Nielsen is making them with his big toes.

While Nielsen, who was born without arms, enjoys his 10-acre subtropical paradise in Mullumbimby, on Australia's east coast, the bush sounds that surround him are infiltrating American living rooms. Robin Williams and Christian Slater may have provided the voices in Fern Gully, the animated film that has become a top-selling video, but the cooing, rustling and chirping come courtesy of Nielsen.

Nielsen, whose disability is the result of a fetal reaction to thalidomide (an antinausea drug prescribed for pregnant women in some 46 countries in the early '60s, though never approved in the U.S.), began making "enviro-music" albums in Australia four years ago. Fern Gully producers Peter Faiman and Wayne Young "had quite specific things they wanted," Nielsen remembers. "A wompoo pigeon, a catbird, a whipbird and little creatures jumping through the forest." Nielsen, 32, and his wife, Lydia, 40—who remain business partners though they have separated—rented a trailer and drove into the hinterlands. "We went to places these birds were meant to be and hung out until they made some noises," says Nielsen.

At 5, Nielsen starred in an English documentary on thalidomide babies called One of Them Is Brett. "So I got the idea pretty early that I was, you know, a little bit different from the rest," he says. But while he was growing up in Sydney, the youngest son of Peter Nielsen, an engineer, and his wife, Barbara, there was a big emphasis on "ordinariness," Nielsen says. "I was just one of the kids. [My disability] didn't really come up." Not until he went to boarding school did he meet obstacles. "I really wanted to march around with the cadets," Nielsen says. "But you had to hold your gun with both hands. That was it." Piano provided an alternative, and Brett spent Friday afternoons "crashing away" in the music room with all 10 toes. "I've never actually been taught to play," he says. "But I took to it like a duck to water." He left school in 1975 and worked as a radio and TV station engineer before moving to Mullumbimby in 1979.

"I'm more than capable of doing all the daily things—cooking, dressing, eating and drinking," Nielsen says. "I've traveled all around the world by myself." But with the studio a three-minute walk from his house through a grove of fruit trees and the very sounds that make up his music, Nielsen has found his own Fern Gully at home. "I'm settled here for life," he says. "I feel grounded."

ALISON PEARL in Mullumbimby

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