By the time Jonell Mosser moved to Nashville in the mid-1980s, several local music industry insiders had already marked her for stardom. Word spread through Nashville of a petite, redheaded singer who had burned up Bowling Green, Ky., with her dynamic blend of R&B and rock. Needless to say, she had a similarly incendiary effect on the Nashville club scene.
Over the last dozen years, Mosser has seen early supporters rise to the top suites of record companies, former band members attain national followings, and several peers make the best of lucrative recording contracts. But, despite several invitations to the major-label altar, she has never released an albumnot until last week.
In the past, Mosser had gotten as far as the golden steps; then she was turned away, losing out to the music world’s cold-blooded combination of closed-door politics and dubious taste. In the late ’80s, John Mellencamp’s manager took her under his well-connected wing, landing her a spot on FarmAid, among other things. In the early ’90s, Don Was, one of the hottest producers in pop music, decided he’d record Mosser himself and make her debut album one of the initial releases on his own record label. The record was made, but before it could come out, Was and his parent label, MCA, parted ways.
On July 16, the inevitable finally happened: Mosser released her first album, Around Townes, on Winter Harvest Records. Interestingly enough, this debut effort is a collection of songs all written by Townes Van Zandt; that these recordings weren’t originally intended to be an official release only adds to the irony of this effervescent redhead’s confounding career story. She’ll celebrate the new album with a performance Thursday at the Ace of Clubs.
I met with Mosser recently on a brilliantly sunny afternoon. We discussed her new album and the ups-and-downs of her career thus far. Mosser’s infant boy, Keenan, was smiling from inside a bassinet set up next to the table.
After everything you’ve been through, how does it feel to have a record out?
There’s a Buddhist bell that you ring when you mark a place in time. It feels like that bell has been rung. Now it’s like what Bob Dylan said: “You can’t unring the bell.”
Is it different than what you thought your first record would be?
Very much so. But it’s probably just what it’s supposed to be. Having Townes as my basis was a real kick in the pants. I had to rise to the poetry. It couldn’t just be what I thought sounded good. It had to be what the poetry demanded.... It demanded that every word be coherent, because every word had meaning. At the same time, I was reading them as I sang them, which is good. I didn’t get time to think about them. I just had to sing them right off my gut, truly.
What’s the story behind the recording?
These songs were done two years ago. They were demos for Townes. No one involved thought we were making a record. Jeanene Van Zandt [his wife] had heard through the grapevine that Bonnie Raitt had heard me sing some demos, that she was a fan of mine. Jeanene thought, “Well, Bonnie Raitt needs to hear Townes’ songs. Will you sing them?” I said, “In a heartbeat.” It was so off the cuff.
Would you have done it differently if you knew it was for an album?
Probably, but then I would have messed it up. I’m just not smart about those things. The only thing I’m good at is cutting out everything else when the song is happening. That’s the only thing I’m good at. That doesn’t come from being intelligent; it comes from how it feels to me when I do that. The times I’ve let the song be just what is happening in that moment are the times I’ve felt best in my life.
How did the recordings become a album?
These demo tapes got passed around, I guess. Owsley Manier at Winter Harvest said, “Let’s make this a record.” I said it would have to be redone. A lot of these vocals I’d never even heard. I’d sing it once, and we’d say, it’s a demo, it’s good enough. When I listened to it again, I was surprised I found as much as I did intact. It was me.
It’s not really soul music, and it’s not what you’d call pretty. But not a lot of what you do is conventionally pretty, not in the way some singers are.
I grew up with people telling me, “Sing pretty.” I’d say, “Well, if that’s what the song calls for!” I hope some of my music is beautiful, but, God, I pray I’ve gone beyond pretty.... [She pauses, in thoughtful consternation] Townes’ songs are difficult; they’re off. That is the way people are: We are off; we are odd. We are not in step with one another. He has such a lovely and interesting way of talking about not only pain, but joy in little things, joy in the feeling of pain, even. He’s up there with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but a lot of people haven’t heard him.
You interpret his songs very differently than he does. It took me a while to adjust to the difference.
He had to get used to it too! For him to hear all this so different had to be hard for him. And he was a gentleman about it every time.
You’re known as a soul singer, but you sound more like a hard-rocker on these songs. Your voice has more in common with Steve Marriott of Humble Pie or Chris Cornell from Soundgarden than with Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding.
You’re right, it does. These were demos, and we wanted to pitch them in California and New York. So we tried different feels and took the one that felt best between all of us. Greg Humphrey was the producer, but he was a free spirit and let us be ourselves. Dony Winn, the drummer, had played for years with Robert Palmer. He always chose the thing that wasn’t obvious. And the thing rocked.
You’ve sort of become the Nashville poster girl for
for people who should stand their ground!
Well, yes, and for those who should have had a chance to make a record long before now.
Shoulda, shoulda, shoulda. I can’t live on shoulda, you know?
How have you sustained your spirit all these years?
Because I don’t have to work in a shoe store or sling hamburgers at somebody or work in a mall where you breathe recycled air and don’t get to see the sun. No matter what has happened to me, even when I thought I was going to lose my house, I always had music, and there was always enough. Even though I had to play gigs that weren’t easy, with people talking through it, I was still playing music.
You have battled against what some see as Nashville truisms: One is that aspiring artists shouldn’t play clubs a lot if they want a record deal; the other is that Nashville is not a good live-music town. You play all the time, you have kept a good reputation, and you always draw good crowds.
I’ve always heard those things: “You play too much. You’re overexposed. You’re too accessible. People need to want you. You can’t play clubs, it cheapens you.” No, it doesn’t. I don’t believe that. You can do the same song 1,500 times, and if you love what you’re doing, and you know the song has intrinsic value, no matter how many times you’ve sung it, you can find the flesh of it. There are great live audiences here. You can play live as often and as long as you want. And I always have one new song every time I play. Ask my band. They’ll tell you I wear them out.
When you sing soul music, there are going to be people who say, “She’s not Aretha” or “She’s not Otis.”
Right! And, baby, I’m not Aretha! There’s only one of her, and only one Otis. But the thing they can’t say is that I don’t put all of myself into what I sing. And some people don’t like that. They want their music more subdued, more detached. They want it nice and clean and separated. There is room in this world for that, but that’s not me.
I imagine the most frustrating times were when you got closest to ringing the bellworking with Don Was in Hollywood, playing FarmAid. The big buildup, then nothing.
You’re right. I was pulled up the hill by some force that said, “OK, if this is what you want to do, then you’re coming with me.” I was so ready to be pulled up that hill too. I’d think I was headed for the mountains, but I wouldn’t even get to the foothills.
Has it been tough?
What’s tough? Tough is going into the same place and doing the same thing for 25 years. What is it that Nietzsche says? The spirit is a camel. When you’re a teenager or in your 20s, you look around to see what is most difficult and you want to take it on your back. You want to be a camel. You want to show you’re strong, that you can handle it. To me, there’s a joy in wanting to take on a good kind of burden. And, to me, that’s singing what I want to sing. Bell-ringer Jonell Mosser
Dark; Deep; Brooding;Brilliant; A Measure of The Sin! A tale of how many decide that…
Never Forget the time Avery walked home from The Gulch to deep East Nashville. Before…
Can there be a spinoff where Juliettes ex-husband makes the Local Football Team really good…
Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
death to parking minimums