When Jessie Baylin takes the stage, she peers into the audience with a twinkle in her eye. It’s apparent there’s no place the Nashville-based singer-songwriter would rather be than pouring out her emotions on stage. It’s been four years since Baylin has performed in Los Angeles, the town that launched her career through residencies at The Mint and Hotel Cafe. Baylin returned to the Troubadour last week to play for an eager audience, which included Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Branch, Bette Midler, and her husband, (Kings of Leon drummer) Nathan Followill.
Prior to the show, we sat down with Baylin to discuss how she used her inheritance from her grandmother to record her recent independent release, Little Spark. She cheerfully greeted us and exclaimed that our interview location, the front bar of the Troubadour, was where “Joni Mitchell used to hang out.” Baylin explained that as a child she was notorious for making mixed tapes for her friends, which included tracks by her musical idols (Dusty Springfield, Barbara Streisand, Nina Simone…). She told us how she met her husband in line for the bathroom at Bonnaroo and explained that although she misses LA, the simpler life in Nashville is conducive to her artistic soul.
You haven’t performed in LA in a while. What have you been up to?
I’ve been making a record and crafting these songs and just waiting for the right moment. I felt like when I came back, I would have to play here [Troubadour] so I wanted to have it be an event. The record’s out now and it’s a celebration!
And you put it out independently?
I did and it’s actually been the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my career. It’s just really freeing and it’s nice to know what’s going on and to have that control. I really needed that in myself and I invested in this album with my own finances – pretty much every little bit that I had left – so that was a good risk to take.
I read that you actually used some of your grandmother’s inheritance for the album…
Yeah, all of it. I think she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Every time I called her she would be like, “How are we gonna make this happen kid?” I would say, “We’re working on it.” She was a wonderful, sassy little woman so this is a really nice way to honor her. She appreciated art and music and loved watching me perform. Actually right before she got Leukemia, she came on the road with me and ended up seeing like four dates on this tour. I was opening up for someone and she came to Florida for two shows and she came to New York and Philly and Boston and just had a ball. She loved it. She’d drink her sherry backstage with me and tell stories to anyone that would listen.
Not many grandmas are going on the road with people. That’s pretty amazing!
She was a unique grandmother. Most grandma’s are up at like 5am; she went to bed around 2 or 3am and slept till at least 10 or 11 in the morning. I’d be like the little kid. I’d spend the night and be like, “Grandma. I’m hungry! I want eggs. Come on!” She was like the ultimate rock star.
You relocated to Nashville with your husband. Do you feel like you’re more at home in the music scene there or do you miss LA?
Nashville’s been really good to me – really really responsive and it’s been a really wonderful place for me to harvest who I want to be as an artist. That’s super exciting to me – just sort of having the time. Really, there’s nothing else to do in Nashville than sit and write and cook and do my thing. It’s really simple there. There’s not much to do. There’s not a lot of culture. There are beautiful parks and walks but for the most part it’s a simpler life that I can appreciate. I’m out in LA now for two weeks and everyday I’m like, “We’re going to the Getty. We’re doing all this stuff.” And I love that but in a way, it’s distracting all the time when that is accessible to you. In Nashville, it’s like my only job for today is to write a really good poem – maybe it will be mediocre and maybe it will be great and I’ll feel good that I tried. Then I’ll make lunch and then I’ll take a walk and that will be enough.
What made you decide to have Scarlett Johansson produce your video for “Hurry Hurry?”
We were old friends and we were drinking wine and I played her some new songs and she was like, “That’s it. This week we’re gonna cut a video. Adam Kimmel is going to do the cinematography. It’s done.” And I’m like, “Really? You wanna do this?” And she’s like, “Yes. We’re doing this.” I think she’s gonna be an amazing director and she already is and she’s going to continue to do some beautiful things from behind the lens. I’m excited for her and I’m happy to have been a part of her early directorial life.
Is it true that you did many of the songs on Little Spark in one take?
Yeah. Pretty much every vocal is one take just because I feel like that initial moment – it’s so alive in you and I’m more in it. Then it becomes work and it shouldn’t. It should feel effortless and it should sound effortless. That’s the kind of records I want to make. Some records don’t have to sound that way but I want this to feel dreamy and intimate and it has to have that freshness and it can’t feel rehearsed so it was not at all.
Do you remember your earliest memory of falling in love with music?
As a kid, my parents always had music on in our home. My dad loved Frank Sinatra and my mom loved Zeppelin and Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler. We had everything; it was kind of all over the place, which was great for me as a kid. My mixed tapes that I made my friends, they were like, ”What the heck is going on here.” Then I remember being in sixth grade and hearing Fiona Apple Tidal and “Sleep to Dream” is the first song on that. My mom brought it home and was like, “I really think you’re going to like this record.” I put it in and my parents had just invested in this nice Bose sound system and I remember I turned both speakers towards my head and I just wanted to be inside that song. I’ve never had that type of experience where I literally wanted to know every layer. That was the first time I was really moved and I thought, “If I ever make music, I want something that feels this big and just surrounds someone like this.”
Have you seen her live before?
I haven’t. I had tickets to two of her shows. One she canceled a tour and the other, I had to go to my friends Bat Mitzvah and she told me that if I went to Fiona’s show that we would not be friends anymore and it turned out a month after that we were never friends and never spoke again. I went to that Bat Mitzvah and missed Fiona’s show. But you know, it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe one day.
Rumor has it that you met Nathan standing in line to use a porta-potty at Bonnaroo? Is that how it went down?
Yeah it was. He saw me from a distance and made his way to me. He was like, “Who’s the blonde?” Everyone was like, “Don’t even go near her man. She’s too good for you.” But he came near me and he hasn’t really left since so it’s a nice thing.
Are you enjoying married life?
I’m really enjoying married life. It’s great. It’s getting better. You know there are always the growing pains in any relationship; it’s complex. There’s moments when you think this is the pit of despair and then there’s others when it’s heaven on earth but I think that in anything there’s highs and lows. It’s good because for my work I can capture some of those moments and dig into that.
You’ve said that certain songs on this record were difficult to write. Is there anything in particular that you can elaborate on?
There’s just certain lines… There’s some pretty obvious songs that were just really tough times but at the same time if I was going to be honest with myself and the listener, I felt like I needed to write about it because it was a crucial moment in my process as a human. If I left that hole out, it wouldn’t feel honest in me. “Joy is Suspicion” is not a happy song but it’s about hope and loving what could be and all of that.
Did you write about your grandma on the album?
Not directly but in many different lines… There’s a few lines, like Little Spark – “I’ve been looking for you in the dark. Give me just a little spark” is about her. There are little moments of my grandmother and a few songs that didn’t make the album that I’d written about loss. It didn’t make any sense to me that you could love that deep and then it vanishes. That just confused the hell out of me for about six months. It’s pretty intense shit and then you dig into it but I realized energy doesn’t die. If I know anything, that is a fact.
Is it hard for you to sing some of your more emotional material live?
Oh no. I like it! I like sharing that part. It’s why I do it. It’s what moves me when I watch someone. I want to feel like they’re exposing themselves emotionally. When it’s genuine – you know… I think my songwriting is pretty simple. It comes off the page of my journal and it’s simple but it’s direct.
Do you and Nathan ever make any music together?
No we’re just supports systems for now. That’s the plan. He is incredibly supportive of this project and the direction and I’m headed in and could not be any more supportive honestly. It’s actually been a relief because you never know how your partner is going to react when you’re taken away from home by something else. It’s just really lovely that he’s grown into a good man and knows how to respect art and what I’m doing and is just now along for the ride.via chinashopmag.com
Singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin may have relocated to Nashville, but she’s still an alt-rock girl at heart—how else to explain the leather pants she’s brought along for her current US tour promoting her new album, Little Spark? The shaggy blonde dug through her suitcase for ELLE.com, sharing her on-the-road essentials and must-visit shopping stops.
What I wore: Helmut Lang leather pants, Raquel Allegra dark gray T-shirt, an old Topshop sheer and sparkle cardigan, Via Spiga shoes, Made Her Think rings, and a little doe quartz necklace.
I brought this outfit on tour because: I think leather pants are just better than jeans onstage; they give the performance a nice attitude and they are also shockingly comfortable. Comfort is key.
My personal style has: A little texture in my day-to-day look, but I do keep it simple with lots of basics and layering. I always wear rings and cuffs from Made Her Think because designer Meredith Kahn is my friend and is one of my fashion idols. Everything she creates is really fresh.
If this outfit were one of my songs, it would be: “The Winds.” The shirt moves beautifully on stage.
I always pack: A leather jacket.
I usually bring: Five to six [outfits]—I like options! I shop for newness in the big cities.
You’d never catch me onstage wearing: Sneakers. Ever.
My pre-tour shopping stop is: AllSaints and Raquel Allegra—both for onstage and offstage looks.
The best on-the-road purchase I ever made was: A brass pendant necklace with a medallion that has a small photo of Prince on it. I bought it in Portland, OR, across from the Jupiter Hotel. I cherish it.
I recently gave Baylin a buzz to see how her hubby and her new hometown are treating her, as well as how ScarJo’s directorial video debut went down.
For starters, how is life in Nashville?
I'm getting used to it. It's a simple, little town, but you know what? It's really nice because it's the first place that I've ever lived that is still figuring itself out. It's still building, there are still good restaurants opening up. Every month I feel like there's something really fresh popping up. In L.A. and New York it's expected and you already have your spots. The city is just kind of figuring out what it is going to be. It's kind of nice to be a part of that scene and I really can't wait for some good restaurants to open up. I go to New York just to eat most of the time. There's not as many restaurants here yet. There are a few that are great, though, like Mad Donna's. I go there for trivia night! 'Cause who doesn't like to get hammered and answer questions?
I want to ask you about the album. You wrote it, but it's inspired by old-school songsmiths like Burt Bacharach. Why?
That felt really natural to me. When I realized that I was writing a new album I was listening to Dusty in Memphis pretty much every day. To me, that is a perfect album and I wanted to make my version of that, something that feels really epic with big arrangements but at the same time it feels like I'm singing just to you. It's this intimate moment you have with the singer and the lyric is just really classic, universal and relatable and just feels really natural, even though there is this big arrangement going on behind it. I did a lot of soul searching. It has been almost four years since my last album came out, and I felt like I needed to take that space because I really had to make this one for me and creative a piece of art that I would want to listen to. And I felt like if I was authentic and honest and not doing anything too weird, that hopefully the fans would come along with me. And so far it's been really good. There's been a couple of people who are like "I miss your really acoustic coffee house thing," but honestly, that never really felt like me. That wasn't me; I'm not really sure how that happened.
So how did living in Nashville affect the sound? Because it doesn't sound particularly country to me.....
No, no. Well there wasn't much to do here except write and listen to music Like I said, it's like I don't really feel obligated. In L.A. I'm always going to dinner and hanging out. In New York it's like my life just feels crazier and there's more options. And there isn't that here so I was able to really check in with myself and every day I would just write in my journal a few times throughout the day and come up with different poetry lines and practice guitar. There is nothing else to do in Nashville except for write songs. I had just moved here so I didn't really have any friends yet.
Did your husband give you pointers?
Yeah, I remember I had just started writing with Thad Cockrell and we were writing "Little Spark" and I was singing the chorus to that song and we had stopped for a minute and Nathan came in the room and whispered in my ear, "You're officially writing your next record." And I was like, coming from him, I already knew it, but it was nice that he knew it as well. It just felt like we were touching on something that was different and special; exactly where I wanted to be, the direction I wanted to be headed in. We haven't worked together or anything. We try to keep that separate, but we appreciate what we are making.
Well obviously the songs are very romantic. Did your marriage inspire you?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I draw from my life and that's been my perspective lately, especially when we were writing this we were just getting married and everything, but yeah, it's definitely where it comes from. And I dig into the past as well. If you've ever had your heart broken it's like once is enough, you can live a lifetime on that. Ya know? You can write a lot of records on one broken heart.
Also, the first track, "Hurry, Hurry" was directed by Scarlett Johansson, so I wanted to ask you what that was like.....
JB: She heard the track and really wanted to help me and direct. She has wanted to direct for a long time. I think she's done a short film as well. But we've known each other since we were girls so it just felt really natural to be in front of her camera. She's super talented and my hair was not supposed to be wet and there wasn't supposed to be any rain. That was just circumstances and we didn't know if we were going to get the shot and we got that one shot where the sun started setting and it was kind of a miracle because it was torrential downpour. I thought I was going to die at one point. It was like December and 40 degrees and the temperature just kept on dropping and I hope I never know cold like that again! But it was truly such a joy to be in front of her camera, so I think she is going to do great things from behind the lens. She was everything you want from your director. She was encouraging, and allowed me to just be myself so she made it really easy and she was great with the crew and everyone. It was really just a pleasure to do it with her.
Is it cool seeing your high school friend become this big movie star?
We had a really good group of friends. Our whole group of friends are all musicians, and actors, and we went to high school at Professional Children's School in New York and we had a really good class, very encouraging for one another. You know, we all wanted each other to do well and pushed each other. It was really good.
So what's up next for you?
We're doing another single. We're deciding what it's going to be still, and I'm doing a West Coast tour, starting in Seattle and then ending in Los Angeles, at The Troubadour, which is so frickin' crazy to me. I'm so excited because that's like, you know, little folk rock church.
Any collaborations with the Kings coming?
I think it's good to keep it separate at this point. He's really busy and I'm building this new brand of music for myself so I think it's better now to just love and support one another and I couldn't do it with out him; without that natural support he gives me.
What about babies?
I've definitely thought about that. Babies are on their way for this band already!
Yeah. Caleb is having one!
I definitely want to have a family without a doubt. I want to know that kind of love, and I'm definitely thinking about it. I'm not afraid to have a little baby bump on stage someday.
But nothing yet?
Nothing yet. I'm definitely not with child.
Do you have any plans for your first wedding anniversary, or have you had it yet already?
Yeah. Well Caleb and Lily got married in May. We got married in November of 2010. Or '09? Crap. What did we do for our anniversary? We're not very good with those anniversaries. They're always like the massive fails. We went to Blackberry Farm for our anniversary and for our honeymoon. That's sort of been our place. We love it. Usually our anniversary involves a lot of eating.
So food is the tie that binds in your relationship.
Food! Yeah basically. We like plan our lives around meals.
Do you cook a lot? Or does he cook?
I cook. He now knows how to make guacamole and how to scramble an egg. It's tackling one tiny task at a time for him. But I do cook regularly.
Southern dishes yet?
JB: Hell no! It is rich and I won't be able to fit in my pants if I start cooking Southern food. But I make a lot of Italian. I'm Italian and my dad is a chef, so he's taught me well. He's taught me how to make really good, clean, delicious food, so I've been spoiled with that one!
A lot's happened to Jessie Baylin since her last album, 2008's Firesight. She fired her manager, walked away from a major-label record deal with Verve, and married a King of Leon. Oh, and she recorded an extraordinary album and EP that both stand favorably alongside the best records from the '60s—or any era.
The album, Little Spark, is a lengthy labor of love for Baylin, who says the goal was simply "to make an album that I would want to listen to." She continues, "I just spent a lot of time soul searching and listening to music and just kind of figuring out who I wanted to be. This was my opportunity to do that. I couldn't wait any longer and fall in a direction any deeper that I didn't want to go. I listened to Dusty in Memphis and I was like, 'I wanna make that, but now.' And make it really big and epic but yet at the same time intimate, because that's what I feel when she's singing those songs."
Little Spark's producer Kevin Augunas suggested they enlist a conspirator in musician Richard Swift, who'd then just broken a finger and was beginning to work more as a producer and arranger. Baylin went up to Swift's home studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon, to work on the demos she'd been carefully honing. Swift took on the role of arranger, playing multiple instruments on each track.
"I really didn't know anything about Jessie when I was asked to work on her record," says Swift. "As soon as I heard the demo for 'Yuma' I was sold, and knew immediately how it should sound. The songs that we recorded at my place had me playing all the instruments with a cast on my left hand. Making Jessie's record gave me hope that I could make records despite permanently losing the use of a digit."
Work continued with Augunas and Swift in LA, and soon Little Spark grew into a record with the scope Baylin was hoping for. They explored the boundaries of the pop-song format via a vintage approach to record-making, hearkening back to an era when pop, rock, soul, and country could all be heard at the same place on the AM dial. Despite its ambition, it feels in no way calculated. "We definitely wanted to make it believable," says Baylin. "I figured if Richard believed me then others would."
Little Spark has been done for over a year, but is just now coming out on the Thirty Tigers label. "All that patience was worth it even if it was painful," Baylin says. While waiting for it to see the light of day, Baylin and Swift got together for five days in November to record an absolutely marvelous EP in Baylin's Nashville living room on four-track cassette. Consisting of covers like Thin Lizzy's "A Song for While I'm Away" and Arthur Russell's "I Couldn't Say It to Your Face," plus Baylin's own "White Noise," the outstanding Pleasure Center—available for free on Baylin's SoundCloud page—is one of the most purely enjoyable recordings in recent memory.
"I think it's an extension of the album," says Baylin, who's currently rehearsing here in Portland with a live band that includes members of Pure Bathing Culture and Vetiver. "I think the next album will be a bridge between Little Spark and that. Just a little more hi-fi."
Little Spark has a timeless quality - without being crassly retro - but
what’s the record that has had the most profound influence on you?
Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis. It is filled with beautiful songs; big, brilliant arrangements and still carries this haunting intimacy through out the album.
Was music a part of your childhood?
I grew up playing piano and the flute. I never practiced but my teachers always said I had a natural ability with melody. I remember being very young and listening to Frank Sinatra on my father’s turntable.
You financed Little Spark with the last chunk of an inheritance from your grandmother, did that make for added pressure?
I was definitely nervous but I also felt like I had no other option. She wanted me to make this album. I was writing it while she was still alive and she loved the songs, they made her cry—in a good way.
Was your grandmother a big music fan?
She absolutely loved music. Her brother Nick was a terrific piano player and she said that when she was a girl she loved to dance around the living room while he played her favorite songs. When I was about 12 I learned to play The Righteous Brothers “Unchained Melody,” one of the most beautiful songs ever written in my opinion. I think my grandmother had me play it 100 times in a row.
What’s your favorite thing about Nashville?
I enjoy having cocktails at the Oak Bar in the basement of the Hermitage Hotel. They make a beautiful Negroni and they also allow the ladies to use the famous art deco men’s restroom. I also love to hike Gainer Ridge at Radnor Lake 2-3 times a week. It’s difficult with a steep incline for the first mile but so rewarding when you reach the top and have a perfect view of downtown Nashville.
Your husband is Nathan Followill drummer for the Kings of Leon, is it true you met him in the port-a-potty line at the Bonnaroo festival?
We met near the port-a potty backstage. I offered him a bite of my strawberry shortcake ice cream stick and we’ve been together ever since.
The Triple Door: Name one song that's on your itunes' "25 Most Played" playlist?
Jessie Baylin: Cocteau Twins "Pearly Dewdrops' Drop"
TD: Name your biggest guilty pleasure, musically?
JB: Sister Act Soundtracks 1 & 2
TD: When you're not playing music, what are you doing?
JB: Honing my cooking skills
TD: What was the first song you ever played/sang?
JB: "Crazy" by Patsy Cline at my 1st Grade Talent Show
TD: What was the best concert you ever attended?
JB: Radiohead at Rock Werchter in Belgium
TD: If you could perform in any city in the world, where would you play?
TD: What's your most embarrassing on stage experience?
JB: My 22nd birthday playing in Los Angeles. I was terribly drunk and was cut off while still on stage.
TD: What inspires you to play music?
JB: I get a rush out of sharing the creative parts of myself with the listener. I love the intimacy of it..
TD: What hidden talents do you have?
JB: Cooking and ping-pong hustler