Courtney Jaye has forged quite the career for herself. The Pittsburgh native and Nashville transplant (by way of Atlanta, Athens, Flagstaff, Austin, Southern California and Hawaii) not only just released her fifth album, Love and Forgiveness (read our review here), but runs her own label as well, still finding time to write songs as recently as last night. Jaye took a break from her busy schedule to answer our questions about the new album, her long history of songwriting and the indescribable perfection of Neil Young.
You’ve been recording and performing for awhile, but your star really seems to be on the rise these days. What do you accredit that to?
It’s definitely patience and perseverance, and the ability to keep constantly moving and evolving as an artist… even when you don’t particularly want to. I think timing is also part of it as well. I signed my first record deal almost 10 years ago, and there were so many factors at play, but the truth is – none of it worked because I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready as a vocalist, performer, songwriter, etc. After I finished Love and Forgiveness, I kind of had an “a-ha” moment of realizing that everything I have been through as an artist and in this industry as a whole, has culminated to bring me to this moment, where I feel my strongest, ready for people to finally hear what I have to say. It’s been a long and arduous process, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’ve read that your new album is steeped in rhythms inspired by Levon Helm of The Band. Can you elaborate?
I would say that there is only one song in particular that was influenced by Levon Helm, and that’s the song “One Way Conversation.” It was written originally as a duet, but on this particular day, Thad Cockrell, Julianna Raye and I were sitting in a room and had these three part harmonies going that were very reminiscent of The Band. The song was born out of the intro guitar riff, and we made an acoustic, live GarageBand demo that day. But when I finally went into the studio with Mike Wrucke to make the album.. I walked up to Fred Eltringham (the drummer) and said that my only request was to”Make Levon proud.” The rhythm had to be slightly behind the beat in the intro and on the verses to make room for my lazy vocal delivery and phrasing. And to me, Levon was the king of doing that. He created a lot of space for whoever was singing, and that simplicity had a certain swagger to it that ultimately became his “thing”. But then while the song had to be lazy on the verses, it also really had to kick into high gear on the chorus’. And I think Fred nailed it.
Tell us a bit about your new album.
My new album was written over the course of my first three and a half years in Nashville. Some songs were written in the same time period as the songs on my last record, The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye, which started in 2007. Then a couple were written in 2008-9, but once Exotic Sounds finally was released in January of 2010, I felt like I could actually start thinking about what I wanted to do next. I went back and revisited a bunch of songs that I had kind of put away for a moment, because they didn’t fit in with the vibe of Exotic Sounds.
I put all the live GarageBand demos onto a playlist one day in 2010, and began to listen down from start to finish and realized that they all had a common melodic thread that was binding them together…It wasn’t something that was planned, but once I realized there was a record there, I took the first half of 2010 to finish writing the record with Thad Cockrell, Bryan Cates, and Kristen Hall, and then my producer Mike Wrucke and I headed out to California to record with the band. The players on this record are my dream team – Neal Casal, Greg Leisz, Sebastian Steinberg, Fred Eltringham and Josh Grange. We recorded it live in four days. It was an intense session, but one of the most magical times I have ever had making music.
How would you compare it to your previous album?
My previous album The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye, was a pop/country record, but with a heavy South Pacific or Hawaiian influence that sort of held it together. It also had somewhat of a lo-fi sounding quality to it. I recorded it in Black Mountain, NC with Seth Kauffman, leader of the band Floating Action. It was simply a product of the gear that we had to record on, and the way in which Seth makes records. Seth also played most of the instruments and it took us about 3 weeks to track.
Love and Forgiveness was tracked live in four days out in California, in a proper studio with musicians, and it turned out sonically sounding a bit bigger than Exotic Sounds. Thematically – Exotic Sounds was a break-up record that had a certain angst and sadness to it, while the production kept it playful. On Love and Forgiveness, the angst may still be there in moments, but it feels to me like the songs and their messages show a certain maturity. Meaning, I think I took responsibility for myself for the first time. And even though I went through a painful heartbreak, I was able to see and accept how those moments of sadness and loss have shaped me as a person, as an artist and as a woman…and there is a peace to that. Hence the title of the album.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
My songwriting hero is Neil Young. Hands down.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs when I was 11, and I can assure you, they were NOT good! Hahaha. I wrote my first real song when I was 17 after a friend of mine died in that infamous ValueJet plane crash that happened in the mid-90s. I sang it for my friends after his funeral and I saw how it affected everyone on an emotional level, and it was in that moment that I knew it was something that I had to explore more deeply.
I decided not to go to college and to focus on singing and writing, and I think it took me about five years until I wrote a song that I was truly happy with and can still listen to, to this day.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
Oh goodness. I can remember the first song that I wrote…I think I was 11? I am cringing as I type this… As most songs written by 11 year olds, it was about a boy I had a crush on. Oddly enough, I can still remember the title and chorus, which will forever be locked in the vault of my memory, for no one to hear, it was so bad. But the first song that I can remember actually having a point or a purpose was the song about my friend who died in the plane crash, and that was called “Ray’s Song”.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I actually just started something last night.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Unfortunately, it’s the painful stuff. I’m trying to find a delicate balance of having things to say, while not seeking out and creating heartbreak in my life and in every situation. I have learned that it really is no way to live. I only write when I feel like there is something of value or meaning that is wanting to come up and out. That is just my process. I simply cannot force it. I am not living in a constant state of turmoil these days, but when the turmoil does arise… it’s almost like I have no control over what comes out out of my mouth. It’s gonna come out whether I want it to or not.
How do you go about writing songs?
I usually always start with a melody, and then the words just makes themselves known. I’ll sing some scratch key phrases or a come up with the lyrics to a chorus and then build from there. But melody for me is key. I don’t usually like to dig in with lyrics unless I know that the melody is solid from top to bottom.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Lyrics are usually the most challenging thing for me. I can be very slow when it comes to lyric writing. But when I’m in the flow and the words are pouring out… those days are the best, obviously. But they are few and far between. I usually start writing lyrics while ad-libbing a melody. Words and phrases just kind of take form and I buildfrom there. Or alternately, I will start a song based on one particular idea/phrase/line. Usually it is a chorus lyric idea.
What’s a song on Love and Forgiveness you’re particularly proud of?
I am particularly proud of the song “I Thought About It”, written with Thad Cockrell and Bryan Cates. I love the sentiment of it. I had to reach a point in myself while making this record, of truly making peace with some experiences that I had the year before Love and Forgiveness was recorded. “I Thought About It’ is one of the first songs I have ever sung about a painful ending to a relationship, where I am consciously choosing not to hold on to any residual pain and anger. I’m honestly calling someone out, but also taking responsibility for my own actions. And when it’s all said and done, not placing blame on anyone. It’s about seeing clearly, learning the lesson and moving on. There is a quiet yet powerful wisdom that song exudes, and it always feels really good
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
Oddly enough, a lyric that I love to sing is in the song “New Day”,when I say: “I, used to be a party, a real 24/7”. So much truth and actually a lot of sadness is wrapped up in that simple line. Though it is sung in a sweet and playful manner on the record, it sums up so much about my past that I have only recently made peace with.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It can sometimes be hard for me to balance the business aspect of being a working musician, yet maintaining a creative mind at the same time. I started a record label a couple years ago, and I sure do wish someone would have told me 10 years ago that when I was in my 30’s I was going to need to know how to run a label. I would have prepared myself a little bit more! So I am in the process of learning how to maintain and balance all of those business elements, while also still making time for the creativity. Because obviously, that element is the most important.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I would say a song I wrote with Kristen Hall and Garrison Starr, called “Sweet Ride”. It is on my record The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye.It’s a song about taking a chance and not allowing fear to cripple you from opening up to the possibility of love, even though we all have wounded pasts, in some way or another. I have sang that song for some friends at their weddings, and for someone to want to hear that song on such an important day in their life… well that’s just beautiful to me.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Oh man, I would pretty much lose my mind if I got to sit down with Matt Berninger of The National. And then there’s also Jeff Lynne and Neil Young. But then again, I would be so nervous I’m not even sure I’d be able to think straight. You would definitely find me at the bar having a cocktail before those sessions.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
So many incredible, underrated songwriters in Nashville. Thad Cockrell of the band Leagues is such a talent. Kate York is another supremely gifted artist/writer. Bryan Cates, Skip Matheny of Roman Candle and Winston Yellen of Night Beds are some others as well. And I can’t forget North Carolina native Seth Kauffman of Floating Action. I’m so incredibly happy that Jim James is spreading the gospel and releasing Seth’s music on his label Removador. It’s really, really
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young. Why? Because, it’s just…perfect.