Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Courtney Jaye: The Cream Interview

Posted By on Tue, May 7, 2013 at 1:21 PM

Nearly a decade ago, Courtney Jaye was signed to Island/Def Jam by arch-mogul L.A. Reid. She did get to release her folk-pop debut album Traveling Light, but she didn’t feel like she was getting to be herself, which was enough to keep her on her guard for a while against anything that smacked of too much commercial polish.

Jaye’s long since become a well-adjusted Nashville fixture, finding kindred co-writers like Thad Cockrell, lending her luminous voice to Jessie Baylin’s latest and appearing in a JEFF the Brotherhood video. Jaye stretched her legs as a singer, songwriter and Hawaii-infatuated producer on 2010’s The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye, which boasted a duet with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and a Zach Galifianakis endorsement. Three years and a convalescence after a car wreck later, she’s releasing her best yet, an irresistibly hooky, unabashedly well-crafted roots-pop album called Love and Forgiveness. She’ll celebrate with a Grimey’s in-store today and a full-blown show Friday night at The Stone Fox (more on that in this week's forthcoming issue of the Scene). Jaye was only too happy to talk with the Cream about everything from her evolved musical philosophy to her Deadhead days.

Exotic Sounds had its hooks, but the ones on Love and Forgiveness are just plain bigger and brighter. You definitely didn’t beat around the bush about pop appeal this time around. Did you have to make peace with the idea of pop music after your unpleasant major label experience in the previous decade?

It wasn’t something I necessarily planned. Obviously my experience with Island [Records] was short-lived. Musically, I got such a taste of what I didn’t want out of a career in such a short span of time. ... When I moved to Nashville in 2007, I moved with the intention of really having no intentions. I just moved to town and I wanted to just explore the possibility of writing songs as a job, Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. I did that for six months. I would just write with anyone, just that when-you-first-move-to-town kinda thing. You meet someone at a coffee shop: “Let’s get together.” I did that for six months, and in that time wrote a lot of songs and really cultivated some relationships creatively with people that I continue to work with to this day. So I think it was about June of that year I realized, “Oh, there’s a record somewhere in all these songs.” Then I made Exotic Sounds. That was my answer to my major label experience. I got to make this really bizarre Hawaiian country-pop record, and that was something that had been haunting me for many years, since I lived in Hawaii.

So it was sort of a palette cleanser for you?

Yeah, exactly. That record just kind of happened. I went to North Carolina to work with Seth Kauffman. I thought we would just, you know, record a couple songs. But I ended up staying for three weeks. It just evolved. It was just something that naturally happened. Once I got that out, I had to go through some more business woes. I signed a deal with Universal Republic that was again short-lived. Then I finally put Exotic Sounds out on my own in 2010. And it was in that moment that I was able to start thinking like, “Oh, I’m free now. I’ve had this record, it’s been made for a few years. I’m free to think about what I want to do next.” I just went back and revisited a bunch of really old Garage Band demos. I put seven or eight songs that I knew that I liked and I knew would see their day, I put them on this playlist and I listened to them from top to bottom, and it just hit me that it was another record. These songs had this common thread to them that hearkened back to songs that I loved from the '70s. I just sat there and was like, “This is crazy! There’s a record here! OK, let me finish writing this record.” So that’s what I did.

So some of the songs on Love and Forgiveness are from the same period of songwriting that led to Exotic Sounds?

Yes. About half of them. They didn’t fit necessarily with the Hawaiian country theme. So I just kind of put them away.

You’ve described Exotic Sounds as being more of a lo-fi thing — not that it was truly lo-fi; it was just a little more of a scruffy, indie approach to capturing an album. This time you enlisted a producer who’s known for working with Miranda Lambert and players who are studio pros. So it seems like you embraced the idea of accentuating your pop songcraft in the studio.

Yeah. That’s a point that I got to, having to reconcile my previous history. My conversations with [producer] Mike Wrucke, it was like, “I want the production of these songs to be what they need and what they deserve.” They’re big songs. I hear them as big songs. I’m done being afraid of that. I think I did get a little gun shy for a minute. Then it was really through this process of making this record that it was like, “No, there is a way to make classic, good records — pop records — where you don’t necessarily have to have somebody telling you what to wear and what to say.” You know? There is a way to do it from a healthy foundation, and that’s what we went for.

I think it’s interesting that that '70s pop approach to recording sounds so warm and rootsy now. I feel like that’s how we’re hearing it, even though the players on a lot of those albums were A list studio session guys. There was a Rolling Stone feature recently about ...

Waddy [Wachtel] and all those guys.

Yep. The Section that was playing on Jackson Browne and James Taylor stuff. At the time, some people described what they were doing as being too mellow and measured. But because of all the processed-sounding pop music that’s been made in since then, that style of production and playing feels really organic and analog now. You know?

Absolutely. ... I give Mike Wrucke a lot of the credit there. ... We made this record, we cut it live. I did my first record live, not my second record. But for some reason, this one, he purposefully framed it so that we had four days to cut all of the instruments live. I had never been in such a situation before. I’ve always had time. I learned a lot in that process through him, in terms of just being in the moment and assembling a cast of characters that, to me, would be the equivalent [of The Section]. Some of the guys on the record were guys that play with Waddy and all those guys all the time. So they’re in the same neck of the woods.

Back to the Hawaiian country concept. It was framed as being a very out-there idea, but on a conceptual level, it doesn’t strike me as being all that outlandish. Hawaiian slide guitar migrated to the United States and evolved into what we know as country steel guitar. And there are contemporary mainstream country acts, like Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown Band, that do that Jimmy Buffett thing of singing about escaping to a sandy beach. Do you identify with any of that lineage?

I mean, I lived in Hawaii when I was 19 and it was at a time when I was really just starting to write songs. I moved there and fell completely in love with the people and the culture. I like to hear someone else say that, that you understand and get that. That’s awesome, because for me it seemed totally natural. The Hawaiian music that I was hearing, from the '40s and the '30s and even the '20s, it was country music for Hawaii. It was an extension of country, jazz and Western swing, but with different instrumentation. ... It to me seemed like it was something that was extremely natural. It didn’t seem outlandish until I came back from that time and I would start to tell people over the years, “I want to make a Hawaiian country record one day,” and they’d look at me like I had three heads.

I guess they might not have any idea how much of a precedent there is. Plus you don’t often set beach scenes in your songs.

Yeah. I think where I come from with it is a more traditional [place]. My love for it is rooted in the actual traditional Hawaiian country music, as opposed to it being like a lifestyle. To me, that’s what Jimmy Buffett did so brilliantly, is he said, “I’m singing about a lifestyle here, and this is my life. I go down to the beach, I play some songs, I write about drinking drinks and relaxing.” I think where my love of that sort of feel comes from is from the music itself, from an era a long time ago.

Speaking of historical, didn’t you film a video at the Omni Hut? In the video for “Don’t Tell a Girl,” I thought I saw the telltale black lights, fake foliage and tiki heads of the funkiest dry tiki hut and first Polynesian restaurant in Middle Tennessee.

You can imagine my joy when someone informed me that the oldest [Chinese] restaurant in Tennessee is 40 minutes outside of Nashville, and it’s all decorated in authentic Hawaiian. I went down and talked to Polly [Walls], the owner, and she told me all about how her dad shipped everything over. Just the story of it is amazing.

I would imagine they were very hospitable, because the waitresses in Muumuus are always very hospitable.

Oh yeah. It was a lovely experience.

What did it take to get Manuel to be in the video for “Say Oh Say”?

Well, I mean, I’ll answer honestly. It took me going down and seeing him and giving him a hug and smiling at him and asking him directly.

You mean batting your eyelashes a bit?

Uh huh. It’s Manuel, you know. What else do you do? He loves the ladies. I had a pair of pants made by him in 2008 and I would see him around town every once in a while. When the concept came up that we were thinking about having a host for this sort of late-night show, Bob Barker style, his name came up. I said, “I want to go in and see him.” So I went down and asked him directly and he was lovely. He was just like, “Yes, absolutely.” So it was pretty easy. He’s such a ham, too. He loves cameras and attention. I love that about him. That’s part of his appeal, is that he’s got a very big personality.

Your back story adds to your image as a freewheeling, colorful artist, and part of the story is that you’ve lived so many places: Pittsburgh, Georgia, Hawaii, Austin, L.A., here and so on. I was trying to picture your formative years in Georgia. You’ve mentioned that you were into the jam band scene, including The Grateful Dead, during high school. Did you actually follow the band around?

Yes. I just was reminded the other day that when I was 16 or 17, I took my spring break and toured a bunch of Dead shows. That was our spring break, instead of going to Destin or Panama City Beach. I somehow ended up with extremely liberal parents. Looking back on the things that they let me get away with as a teenager, I am now like, “Hell no, my child will not be leaving for three weeks in the summer to follow a band around.” I got to see about 25 shows before Jerry died. So ’94 and ’95 were the years that I saw them.

You’ve been immersed in a lot of different musical scenes.

Yeah. And I think what drew me so much to the Dead was the community of people at the core of it. Towards the end it got a little dark. I loved the idea that music brings people together. I was fascinated to see that people dedicated the better portion of their lives to be a part of this moving community. I’ve always been of the mindset I want to see it all, I want to experience as much as I can in the time that I have. And that just felt like a really natural and pretty awesome way to do that, to see the world while having friendships and being a part of a community and also listening to music that I happened to really love at that time, and I still do today. Once it’s in you, it’s in you. You either love the Dead or you’re not a fan. But I am definitely a lover. There was something about it at that time, being so young and being incredible optimistic, I wanted to explore everything and that was the way I really loved to do it.

You’ve given yourself a lot of space for reinvention over the years, in terms of your sound, how you present yourself and what business framework you have around you. What’s it taken to figure out what works for you?

It’s taken a lot of hardheadedness. It’s taken a lot of time, really, to reach the place that I’ve gotten to in the last year, year-and-a-half. I was actually in a car accident in 2011. It was two weeks after the record was finished, so I was gunning, ready to go: “Let’s go get a deal.” The car accident happened, and I basically was forced to take the whole year off. It was in that time that I started to reassemble my team of people that I’m working with. I realized there’s no reason why an artist shouldn't have control over their career. ... So I kind of came to that epiphany. It took me a while, but I got there and realized I want to do this from an ownership standpoint, and I’ve never had that before. I own Exotic Sounds, but I’ve never given a record a proper roll-out being the owner of the music. Exotic Sounds, I just kind of put out. It didn’t have a proper release. …I wish somebody would’ve told me 10 years ago, “Hey, you’re gonna need to learn how to run a record label when you’re in your 30s.” I would’ve prepared a little bit more, but I’m learning as I go. Luckily, it’s something that I really enjoy. I enjoy all aspects of the process, down to artwork, making videos, talking about marketing. I’m learning that I enjoy it, whereas I didn’t think that I did or that I knew how to do it. So that’s kind of where it’s at right now. I feel like it’s the strongest place from which I’ve ever released a record.

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