Jaime Wyatt Hangs Emotions on a ‘Neon Cross’

“There’s a lot of feelings right now,” says Jaime Wyatt, referring to the atmosphere around the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps that’s an understatement, but if there is anyone steeped in the understanding of feelings, it’s her.

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Even more so than on Felony Blues— Wyatt’s 2017 EP that caught the attention of critics and country music fans alike despite being released on an indie—her Neon Cross (pre-order//pre-save) album from Americana heavy hitter label New West– opens up the floodgates to emotional states most artists don’t feel comfortable exposing. 

Wyatt, who has been releasing music since 2005, was a veteran of sorts even when she released her previous set. Still, the extensive touring to support Felony Blues with the Old 97’s and others, provided even more experience. She used that to help craft the eleven tracks on the country influenced, singer/songwriter dominated, Neon Cross. “I feel like I understand what people need emotionally in music,” she says. “It has been hundreds of shows of observing people and how they respond. All I’ve ever known about writing is what my body responds to. If I feel a kick in my gut or that I want to cry, then I’m doing the right thing. I see that in other people when I play out live. And then I get to learn from masters like Shooter Jennings (who produced her new set), the Old 97’s and the Turnpike Troubadours.” 

Between those skills and a higher profile from the previous EP, Wyatt approached the new recording differently. “It was a much faster process,” she says. “There was more spontaneity captured because the playing is all live takes. It was one week in the studio (Jennings had a tight schedule) and that’s it. For me, as a perfectionist songwriter, that was a good thing. I work well with deadlines.” So much so that she finished many of the album’s songs just before she recorded the vocal and did basic tracking for the band. That pressure gives the performances on Neon Cross an edgy urgency. Plus, “These players knew me, Shooter knew my strengths, and had listened to my voice a lot on tour.”

One of those musicians was the late guitarist Neal Casal, (who committed suicide soon after these sessions), a key ingredient of the arrangements and sound. He was clearly emotionally conflicted during the recording, something Wyatt picked up on. “He did not tell me that he was suffering but I connected with him in a way where I knew he was an empath. He really connected to some of my heavier songs.” Casal also identified with the anguish evident in Wyatt’s heavier lyrics. “Usually people who understand my suffering have been through it or are in it. So it did make sense later. I felt him emotionally in the music and he was extremely supportive of what I was writing. A lot of these songs on the record come from really dark despair.” 

Casal’s impact on Wyatt’s music was also substantial. “He doesn’t just do barn burner Telecaster stuff. We could have easily done a Buck Owens thing, but he can build a lot of tension with the chord inversions he’ll choose. He’s also got slow bends that are super emotional.” She also loved his rhythm playing. “I’m pretty snobby about the right hand and he had that pocket. Not a lot of lead guitar players have that. He’s a very well rounded and emotive player.”

There’s that word again. Emotive. 

It’s no coincidence that Wyatt chose to start her album with the slow, hauntingly introspective ballad “Sweet Mess.” The song, about a broken relationship, is one of Neon Cross’s most touching and intensely impassioned moments. Certainly it’s an unusual way to entice listeners into the more upbeat indie country and singer/songwriter fare that dominates the disc. “That was Shooter’s idea. I was a little more self-conscious about it,” she explains. “It was a bit rebellious because I can write super catchy songs, but it felt important to put that emotion right on top of the album. It’s a statement. If you can focus and come down for that whole song, then you’re in a great state to receive the rest of the album. You have to have some devotion,” she laughs.

Perhaps the strongest image projected by Wyatt is found in the album’s title (and title track) Neon Cross. She illuminates the concept of it saying “There’s a neon cross above the Hollywood Bowl, the 101, that I see a lot at night. I felt hopeless and condemned for a little while. I’m an addict and I can’t drink or partake in recreational drug use. But I still have a service to the nightlife that is actually holy. It has been a process to find that my talents were for good and I’m not a sinner because I stay out late and perform…and because I’m gay. It was a process to work through to say ‘I’m not a bad person, I just have struggled.’ So neon cross is that polarity between the night life and spirituality.”

She also finds some gloomy yet incisive humor in the Southern rocker “Make Something Out of Me” with the lyrics “If God made the world out of nothing/why can’t he make something out of me?” About it she says “I was trying to poke fun out of being so hopeless. To be an artist of any kind is really difficult. But to be a female singer/songwriter in this day and age has really felt impossible. Who would want to love me for what I really don’t have in a society where we worship materialism? I felt I was doomed to tour endlessly alone, and maybe not get anywhere. Someone tells you to believe in something greater than yourself, that’s great for you but it ain’t going to work for me.”  

The song “Just a Woman,” with guest Jessi Colter (Shooter Jennings’ mom) is arguably the album’s centerpiece. It’s the disc’s most classic country performance as Wyatt wraps her distinctive tough yet tender voice around the chorus of “I’m just a woman, nothing more, nothing less…what do I know?” It was also the hardest one to write and record. “I knew the potential of the phrase and I felt a great responsibility saying ‘I’m just a woman.’ I really wanted it to speak to women and tell a story so I put a lot of pressure on myself. Luckily, the morning we tracked it, I knew what the bridge would be. It was also the hardest (to write and) to sing.” Getting Colter to join for harmonies caps it off. It was Wyatt’s idea and Jennings made that happen. 

Ultimately the success of the finished product was a reflection of both Wyatt and Jennings’ musicianship and professional relationship. Jennings brought the best out of Wyatt’s emotionally bare songs, pushing them past their country roots. “He has a well-trained ear but he goes on instinct and makes decisions by intuition that are right on. He did a really good job of song selection and sequencing.” If Neon Cross feels like a complete work meant to be listened to in order for maximum effectiveness, it’s because of that confluence of vision. 

Wyatt is also fast to compliment Jennings on helping create the fully fleshed out set; one where the whole is greater than each individual track. “He knows how to build an experience with an album,” she concludes. 

Those who begin with the opening “Sweet Mess” and take the album’s journey in order, ending on a riveting waltz version of Dax Riggs’ “Demon Tied to a Chair in My Brain,” will understand how right she is.    

Photo By Magdalena Wosinska

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