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Courtney Jaye | Traveling Light
interview and album reviewphotos: Kevin Westenberg | all images © Island Records 2005 | used with permission
review and interview © Audrey C and Russell W Elliot 2005 | last update: 09 October 2005
Courtney Jaye drew the attention of our editorial staff as summer in the northeast came to an end. We caught up with the now rapidly emerging 27 year old singer songwriter to discuss her background, the making of her debut record and thoughts on the music industry, building on remarks she has made in earlier interviews. While Courtney claims not to be terribly image conscious, the team promoting her material have paid homage to her features as the photos of the stunning singer songwriter presented in this article illustrate. We capture the results of our interview below.
Courtney Jaye's debut album Traveling Light is a well produced offering of twelve pop-oriented alternative singer songwriter tracks. The material blends thoughtful lyrics about relationships, written during the sunset of Jaye's last one. Unlike the plethora of albums in this genre, the material is highly varied. Each song has its own hook regardless of tempo--tender heartfelt ballads and upbeat rockers are equally enjoyable. Traveling Light is certain to delight a broad audience. Our review follows the interview below.
Musical Discoveries: Can you tell us a little bit about your musical background?
Courtney Jaye: My musical background is one of constant change. I grew up in Pittsburgh in an extremely liberal/Bohemian household, recalling the first song I ever heard as The Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever." I had an older brother who turned me on to the classics at the age of 9: Zeppelin, The Police, Santana, The Beatles. I was the only fourth grader in love with Jimmy Page! The only training I ever had was a Whitney Houston tape my grandmother bought me in the 80s.
Once I moved to Georgia for high school, I began to listen to the music that was created in the 60s--The Dead, Janis, The Band, Crosby, Still's, Nash and Neil Young especially, had such a powerful affect on me. I also traveled on weekends and summers, toured in the jam band scene with The Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, and early Dave Matthews. I discovered that scene in high school, and alot of music that was coming out of Athens, Georgia.
Were there any other artistic influences in your youth?
I also discovered The Allman Brothers and music that had a southern quality to it. I traveled to festivals all over the country at a really young age--New Orleans Jazz Fest, Music Midtown in Atlanta, Super Jam in Athens, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Reggae On The River in Humboldt County and the High Sierra Fest. I also went to alot of rainbow gatherings and fell in love with dancing and drum circles and percussion as a whole. There is a tribal quality to it that i feel extremely connected to, so when I graduated high school and moved to Flagstaff, Arizona I began to study percussion and Native American music and drumming. I also got my first band together in Flagstaff when I was 18.
Tell us about your first band.
We were called Mamale, and we were like a bluegrass funk band and it was lots of fun. We wrote our own material and we also did alot of obscure cover songs, everything from "Killing the Blues" by Chris Whitley to "Fogtown" by Michelle Shocked. We were a Friday night bar band in a hippie college town - tons of fun. It was also in Flagstaff where I discovered the music of Ani Difranco and Martin Sexton, two artists who changed my life greatly.
I then moved to Kauai, Hawaii at the age of 19 and studied the rhythyms of the islands and fell in love with traditional Hawaiian music and instruments. After Hawaii, I moved to Athens, Georgia and really began to write my own material, moved to Austin, Texas and that was where I began to showcase for labels.
You were really into the Grateful dead. So what was it that led you to them and inspired such a dedication to their music?
I still love The Dead, and will always love The Dead and everything that their music stood for. I gravitated to the scene in high school, after having a pretty tough childhood, and I found in the scene a community of people who enjoyed the same things as I did--music and traveling--and it was all about that sense of community and giving and sharing and loving and being positive, and to me, that is how The Dead made me feel on the inside at a time when I was confused and quite sad. They helped me heal on so many different levels.
And what led you to depart from that sound and get into pop music? Did you consider working with a progressive band?
I don't think I just said one day "OK, I am done with them and I am going to get into pop music." I think it just natually happened that way. I was doing alot of songwriting, trying to get signed and started to get into pop music when I was writing, and I enjoyed the challenge of writing pop songs and my definition of pop music is not that of the rest of the world. At that time, I considered Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why" a stunning pop song that inspired me. I don't listen to the radio at all anymore, but it was a nice phase to go through as a writer.
Did you do any cover songs along the way? If so, what kind of stuff did you do?
Right now I am playing "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac and "Come Pick Me Up" by Ryan Adams. My first band played alot of rootsy cover songs by Alison Krauss, John Prine, Michelle Shocked, and I think we even did a Clash song once in the form of a bluegrass song.
Have any particular artists that motivated you or inspired you to pursue your current direction?
The artists that have changed my life are The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Ani Difranco, Martin Sexton, and I even went through a huge ween phase.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a musician or did you have other career interests and aspiriations when you were growing up?
I thought at one point I wanted to be an architect but then realized I sucked at math. I then wanted to become an acupuncturist or a hollistic healer and study crystals and gemstones and their healing qualities as well as herbs and Eastern medicine, but I think I always knew singing and creating were what felt the most natural.
How did you sustain yourself in the run up to your solo career?
I sustained myself by being a bartender/cocktail waitress. I worked at an organic juice bar, took photos of tourists at luau's, worked as an assistant to an acupunturist, worked in a salon and all kinds of stuff over the years. I enjoyed working with the acupuncturist the most because I was learning about healing and alternative forms of medicine.
Some people will think it's great to live and work between two locations. How would you contrast the lifestyles of Los Angeles and Kauai?
Well, I figured that LA was the closest I could get to Kauai, so now I split my time between the two. LA is one of those places for me where things just sort of organically happen, and although LA gets a bad rap, I truly love the energy there and I feel it is a haven for me to create in versus Kauai. The energy is totally different. Kauai is my Zen, the place that I go to unwind from the crazy schedule and lifestyle of the mainland, and it is really easy for me to create over there.
On Kauai, I just kind of soak up the lifestlye and move slowly, like wake up in the morning, go for a surf, grab some coffee, or do some yoga. The day pretty much revolves around being outside, and I am usually in bed around 10pm, and when I am in LA anything goes. So I would say that they are both very different but each have an inherent charm and excitement to them. Another thing that helps is that all of my best friends live on Kauai and in LA, and I believe I can live pretty much anywhere in the world as long as the friends that I have in my life are around.
Tell us about the journey that led you to your deal with Island Records and the debut album Traveling Light. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the two alternatives--independent vs major?
Well I am learning all about that now because I have seen what goes on at major labels and I don't like it. It's like I have spent so many years striving to get signed and I am now coming to learn that a major label is not for me. I have had alot of experiences this year with people trying to push me in a direction that is not me and who I am and what I stand for and it has been the hardest year of my life in that respect. It is not worth it to me to have a ton of money backing me and my music if there are people trying to make me be something I am not. I mean, it just doesn't work.
I am 27 years old and although I have a long way to go, I have a pretty strong sense of who I am, and this year I have seen the people that I am working with and for from Island not support me in that way. But at the end of the day, I have stood my ground and I can honestly say that I never sold myself out in order to sell a record, like they would have wanted me to do, so I can still go to sleep at night knowing that.
Island tried to turn me into a pop star and anyone who knows me or spends ten minutes with me knows that I have no interest in being a "diva." I think that word is just stupid and to me, I do this for the act of creating and playing music, not for the designer clothes and the ability to have an excuse to treat the people around me like shit.
They haven't bothered to want to know me as a person and L.A. Reid wanted me to be a pop "diva." He finally realized that I wasn't going to budge, or change--it is just not my world. My world is that of the Bohemian, earth loving, peaceful artist, not the world of Mariah Carey and mansions and yachts and bling or whatever the fuck people call it.
Money is good to have and all, but I have learned that I don't need a ton of it. I am all about living simply and shopping at the local thrift store, and playing music in my bare feet.
What is it like being a young and beautiful female singer these days? What role do you think that "image" plays in how an artist is perceived and received?
Well I think I touched upon the whole image thing earlier. It is fucking tough to be a woman in this world and not be cast off just because of the way you look. Image does not interest me, especially after seeing firsthand how women are looked upon as pieces of meat in this industry. I am who I am, and that is that. Sure I love funky clothes and shopping and getting dressed up, and frankly there is a time and a place for everything. I have no apologies for that. But at the end of the day, it is all about being natural and real and making music.
You are quoted in another online interview that you would consider doing a photoshoot in Playboy. Do you think it would help promote your music?
The whole Playboy thing was referring to the fact that I am a Bohemian, and I have been raised believing that the human body is a beautiful thing and something to celebrate, and that was all that I was trying to say in that article. I have seen some tasteful shots in Playboy before. I ultimately have a different outlook on the whole thing, because I grew up going to Grateful Gead shows and camping with the whole Dead community, where people were nude alot of the time, myself included, and it never was shocking or offensive or distasteful, but rather real and spiritual and something that was honored and respected. But to sell a record? No fucking way.
What do you think sets your sound apart from the bevy of female artists seeking fame in pop music today?
Well what I tried to do on this record was make an organic sounding pop record, not marred by the normal studio "perfection" that is out there today, and that is one thing that people don't realize. All the instruments were tracked live and it is not perfect although there is big production. I would say that my style is earthy, roots-y, and island-y.
I have lived in a lot of really cool places over the years--Kauai and Austin being the places that influenced me the most musically. I have an inherent southern quality as well as a deep connection to the water and music of the islands. I am a huge fan of worldy/exotic music and rhythms and instumentation, and I wanted to honor that on this record, as well as take it one step further on the next.
Please talk to us about some of the songs on your album and cite some favourites for our readers.
"Time For Goodbye" is one of my faves becasue of the groove, and "Love Me" is my fave right now because of the haunting sexiness that it has.
Are there any unreleased tracks being held back for bonus tracks on singles?
Yeah, there is this one song called "Til It Bleeds" that was going to be an unreleased track but now I am just going to wait and put it on the next record because I have been playing it live and seeing the reaction it is having with the fans.
What can you tell us about some of the people that worked with you on the album and the various venues where you wrote and recorded the material?
I worked with songwriters like Gary Louris of The Jayhawkas, one of my favorite bands ever, so that was like a dream come true for me, and he is actually going to be producing my next record, as well as Matthew Sweet, Nina Gordon, Kristen Hall and Butch Walker. I chose Peter Collins because of his work with the Indigo Girls, and because he understood my vision for the record. The musicians we chose were Rusty Anderson, who plays with Paul McCartney, Dan Petty, the finest acoustic and ukelele player around, and Jerry Marotta, an amazing drummer I knew from the Indigo records as well.
I chose Trina Shoemaker to engineer the first part of the record, the basic tracks, and then when we went to Hawaii to do vocals. Clif Norell came in and took over cuz Trina was 8 months pregnant and couldn't travel that far. We recorded the basics in Nashville at East Iris Studios, and did vocal overdubs in Kamuela, Hawaii, on the Big Island, as well as other instrument overdubs in LA at Henson Studios. All of the basics were recorded live and alot of the vocals that we ended up keeping were from the live sessions. The whole record took about five weeks, it went really quick and smooth and it was all in all an amazing process.
So what's it like for you performing live in front of an audience? How does the audience respond to your on-stage persona? Are there any particular gigs that stand out in your mind--and why?
Performing is my favorite part, and lately it has mostly been acoustic gigs, just me and my guitar, and there is so much power and energy in having just two instruments, there is nothing that can be hidden. It is raw, and most people tell me they like the record, but the love me when I play acoustic, so I take that as the most supreme compliment. It is all about being real on stage and whatever mood I am in, I take the audience there with me. I can't fake my moods anymore. If I am sad, it will show--if I am bursting with energy, it will show, but I think being honest with a crowd is the most important thing.
How do you feel about relationships and their impact on the creative process? There's the good and the bad, the highs and the lows and the healing process.
Yeah, well it seems to me like relationships have so much to do with my creative process, because my record pretty much revolves around a particular break-up that I went through. I was engaged to be married and broke up months before I got signed and made the record, so that was where I was at at that time. I couldn't pretend that I was somewhere else. It sucked, but to see how much I have grown from it and to see where my songs are now, is pretty awesome.
I am in my anti-relationship phase right now, going inward and asking the questions and figuring things out on the inside, before I let another person in to see those parts of me again. I am also coming into and finding alot of power in being alone right now. There are moments that are so lonely and then there are others that are so magnificent. I firmly believe that with everything that I am going through right now in my career, it is not the time for a relationship, but I manage to still find trouble at every turn.
I believe they call this my "Saturn return" phase, when the shit hits the fan internally, and that is exactly what is going on right now. I am questioning sooooo much right now, about who I am, my family, men, God, politics, and religion--all of it is coming to the surface and the only outlet for me is writing songs and having a good therapist!
Singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye's debut album, Traveling Light (Island Records (USA), B004525-02, 2005) embodies all the surprising and enthralling qualities of pop music. Jaye writes recognizably real-life stories from the inside out--stories that anybody who's ever been young and in love will relate to--and she delivers them in a beguilingly, natural voice. Her album is a collection of highly intriguing songs that merge lyrics with a distinct point of view with music full of evolved melodies and killer pop hooks.
Working with producer Peter Collins (Indigo Girls, Jewel, Elton John) and a studio band of handpicked musicians, including drummer Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, John Mayer) and guitarist Rusty Anderson (Ednaswap, Paul McCartney), Jaye fearlessly swings for the fences throughout her first at-bat, and she consistently connects. This young artist is stepping up to the plate with a fistful of memorable songs she's fashioned with, among others, Matthew Sweet, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, Butch Walker, and former Veruca Salt co-leader Nina Gordon, all skilled songsmiths who share her belief in the enduring expressive potential of the verse, chorus and bridge.
"Can't Behave" is an upbeat, hand clapping, rant about a boyfriend who is not quite worth the trouble. Co-written with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, it sounds like a modern mix of Steeler's Wheel and early Sheryl Crowe. "Lose My Head", the opening track, is a signer songwriter working the Kelly Clarkson vein of pop with a chorus is reminiscent of vintage 60s girl group melodies and harmonies. Everyone will adore Courtney's voice.
"Permanent" is a moving song about a failing relationship, the doubts about the permanence of love that ensue and the realization that change is the only constant. The recording is an acoustic rock blockbuster with a guitar lead that rips at the emotional threads of the song in a manner reminiscent of John Lennon in his Plastic Ono phase. "Mental" is a beautiful ballad about self realization, namely that an idealic relationship comes a cost: ones identity can be lost in the bliss. The last song on the album, "Love Me," co-written with Matthew Sweet, is an affirmation of love, despite the turmoil chronicled throughout the album.
There was a time not too long ago that relevant and influential female singer songwriters were very successful at commercial radio--Sheryl Crowe, Traci Chapman, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, Melissa Ethridge and Shawn Colvin are examples that come to mind. Their prominence was symbolized by the success of the Lilith Fair tours in the late 90s. Then the industry turned to male hard rock bands and young female pop performers (Britney, Christina, Natalie, etc.). Now, it seems the sun is shining on a new generation of female singer songwriters. One gets the sense that Courtney Jaye has arrived and is not going away.
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