Jesse Lynn Madera Reveals the Themes Behind Her Riveting Sophomore Album Speed of Sound Featuring a Duet with Dan Navarro

Americana singer-songwriter Jesse Lynn Madera’s piano-driven music is described as one part Lilith Fair, two parts Laurel Canyon, and a dash of Texas heat. From her birthplace of West Virginia and her Texas teens, to her coming of age in New York City and her current hometown in Los Angeles, her influences can be heard in songs that paint a cross-country emotional road trip of relationship and life. She joined American Songwriter for a discussion about her writing process and what listeners can expect from the new album.

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American Songwriter: Your new album is called Speed of Sound. What is the inspiration behind the title?

Jesse Lynn Madera:  I named the album after my song “Speed of Sound” (track eight). It’s the most intimate song on the project. It’s metaphorical and speaks to the slow-motion unpredictability of the relationship described in the song. Of course, making the title of that particular song the title of the whole album makes a statement. 

This album is about communication and how we impact one another. The things we say, the things we don’t say, our physical, cognitive, and emotional proximity. Communication and miscommunication too, have been a theme in my personal life. I’m not the best at it. I can write my feelings down, and I can sing them, but I’m not great at talking things out. Will I be able to say what needs to be said? I either rush in like the hare or take too long like the tortoise. Lastly, the relationship I based the song on was the jumping-off point for my career. I had so much time to myself because we were so distant that I wrote a ton of songs. I reference that time in the song’s lyrics: Joe, you’re still upstairs, I sit at the piano, singing to old lovers and some girls I used to be.

AS: You’ve mentioned that Speed of Sound explores themes of resilience, empowerment, and vulnerability. How did these themes influence your songwriting process, and which track(s) on the album do you feel most powerfully embody these themes?

JLM: I write from an empowered place, even when I’m writing something a bit self-effacing. To me, on a spiritual level, there is nothing more powerful than shadow work, than saying, “Here I am, this is what I did, this is what I wish I would have done differently, here is how I’m growing from it, here are the things that have made me a fool, and what I’m doing about it.” I think all the tracks have most of those themes. The songs “Speed of Sound,”  “That House,” and “Last Call” embody all three. To me, vulnerability is empowerment is resilience.

AS:  Your music often blends various genres and styles. How would you describe the sonic landscape of Speed of Sound, and were there any specific musical influences that shaped its sound?

JLM:  Yes, it does. Thank you. I listen to everything from ’70s folk to Tejano, bluegrass to classical…I don’t think there’s a genre I don’t get inspiration from. I always have a big grab bag of songs I’ve either completed or started, so putting an album together is just reaching in and arranging them the best I can according to which ones seem to fit in the same world. The world is a diverse place. This world of Speed of Sound is diverse. It reminds me of a patchwork quilt. 

I was born in West Virginia, preceded by at least four generations there, so those roots will always be at the foundation of what I write, somehow. It takes some concentration not to have a little lilt in my voice, for instance. There’s an Americana thread tying these songs together, without a doubt, and I do consider myself an Americana artist with outside influences.

AS:  Collaborations can often add depth and dimension to an album. How did you wind up writing and then singing the duet with Dan Navarro?

JLM: It was a thrill of a lifetime to get to write and sing with Dan Navarro and have him as a producer on this album. Dan and his late partner Eric Lowen wrote “We Belong,” which was my first favorite song ever. That song made me want to sing professionally at the age of 3. So yes, getting to work with Dan in any capacity was no small thing. 

I asked him to write a song with me with one eye open, because I knew how busy he always is, and I was prepared for him to be too busy. When he said yes, I was over the moon–and nervous. I don’t do a whole lot of co-writes. My process is very personal and it takes the time it takes. Sometimes I have great ideas, sometimes terrible ones, sometimes none I want to say out loud. 

Dan went on the road, and the next thing I knew, he’d sent me a phone recording of a guitar progression. Immediately, a story unfolded, and the words displayed themselves. I just sort of caught the idea by the tail and transcribed what was downloading into my mind. That was lucky. The stakes felt high. It would have been quite unfortunate had I sent him back something that made him regret saying yes. But seriously, what a guy he is, and what a lucky gal I am.

AS: Lyrically, your songs seem deeply personal and introspective. Can you share any anecdotes about the songwriting journey for this album and how your personal experiences influenced the lyrical content?

JLM:  I appreciate that, yes I do tend to write true stories. Some are my stories, and some are things I’ve watched unfold, even partially. One of my favorite modern-day poets is Merrit Malloy, and she has a line: “Never tell a story like it wasn’t about you.” I guess that’s how I write. Whether they’re my stories or not, the fact that I’m spending time telling them must mean they’ve plugged into some outlet in me. “Austin” is a story from my wild youth, while “Last Call” is something I imagined to be happening with an older friend of mine in his marriage. “Ten Miles Down” happened. “Sweet Pretender” happened, but not to me. In the case of “That House,” I was writing something so deeply personal I was worried I’d upset some people I love. I did have some adults at different times in my life growing up who were dangerous for me—sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally—and there is a legacy in my family of keeping quiet and carrying on. So as the emotional artist, I am maybe a bit of the black sheep, though I think they are mostly proud. Having the courage to plunge into the unspeakable and embarrassing is what will make me the kind of artist I’d like to listen to. For years, there were places I wouldn’t go in my writing, but my aim is to grow. Also, it’s the light that shoos away the darkness anyway, not more darkness. Honesty really can overpower shame a lot of the time.

AS:  The album cover for Speed of Sound is visually striking. What is the concept behind the artwork?

JLM: Thank you. I work with an artist named Katie Crawford, and she is magical. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, probably among the fairies and gnomes. I was meditating and in a deep state of relaxation when I got a vision for the cover of myself as a Space Mermaid, emerging out of space into water. I told Katie about it, and she didn’t bat an eye. She got right to work. The cover is a visual representation of how all these songs together make me feel. My work has a bit of an otherworldly quality, and I dive deep to rise. The broken chains around my wrists relate to the first single I released off the album, “Unchained,” written by Jude Johnstone. The planet Jupiter is there, which is referring to a line in one of the songs. And the moon… well, the moon is strategically placed (laughs).

AS: How would you describe the album to someone who is about to listen to it?  

JLM: I would say there is probably something on there for everyone. It’s a little Linda Ronstadt, a little Kate Bush, a little Dolly Parton, a little Tori Amos, and above all else, it was made with a ton of love and joy.

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

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