Musical Discoveries: Where are you from and how did you get into music?
Jessi Hamilton: I grew up in Raleigh, NC and have lived in the same house my entire life. I’ve always loved music—it’s always been very important to my family. My parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was four and then I started taking voice lessons later on. When I was younger, my dream was to be a Broadway performer. Once I turned 14, though, and started writing my own music, I knew that I wanted to do something in the music industry.
What happened then?
I started working with my producer, Chris Stevens, and recorded some songs with him at a local studio. At that time, I also started working with a local modeling agency and did some jobs for them—mainly promotional work. I left the modeling agency when I turned 18 and contacted my current manager, Bruce Pilato, to see if he would be interested in representing me. My family helped to finance the making of the album so that we could own the record. Then Chris and I recorded most of the album in a studio in Raleigh.
And what was your musical training/education?
I started taking piano lessons when I was four, and voice lessons when I was eight. I always sang in school choirs when I was younger.
Tell us both about the instruments you play and your vocal work please.
I play the piano and know a couple of chords on the guitar—I'm currently working to become more proficient on it. I was classically trained in both piano and voice, but I also have a lot of experience playing and singing pop, rock, Broadway, and some jazz styles.
What kind of music do you find yourself listening to all the time?
I listen to most styles: pop, classic and contemporary rock, R&B, Motown, rap, Broadway, and jazz. And some of my favorite artists include Sting, Peter Gabriel, The Beatles, Aerosmith, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, most Motown artists, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Linda Eder, Alicia Keys, Evanescence, and many more.
Have these preferences influenced the direction of your album?
I know they have to some degree. I really wasn't greatly exposed to many styles of music other than Broadway music until I got into high school. Before then I listened to the radio some, but that was about it. I love the way that artists like Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos play the piano. They have definitely influenced my piano and vocal stylings. I also love the ambiance in the music of Sting and Peter Gabriel and the way that their songs are orchestrated.
Where do you draw inspiration for your music and the lyrical content?
I usually write the music first, which comes to me very easily. I just sit down at my keyboard and start playing. Sometimes a lyrical theme comes to mind when I’m playing the song that I’m working on. Other times, it takes something happening that really leaves an impression on me to inspire me to write lyrics. I also really enjoy photography. It makes you search for beauty in things that you might not otherwise. Taking pictures also can also inspire lyrics.
How would you personally characterize the music on the album?
It's a pop/rock blend with memorable melodies, rich harmonies, ambient textures, and heavy beats.
How did you meet Bruce Pilato and what has the relationship been like since you have been working together?
I met Bruce Pilato after finding his website and emailing him. I sent him a link to a website that I had created for my music which actually didn't work the first time. It was funny—he sent me back this email saying how I shouldn't waste his time with links that don't work because he was a very busy person. It was kind of nasty, but we both laugh about it now. He gets hundreds of these emails every day and it was a fluke that he decided to check me out. I finally sent him the right link and emailed him an MP3 of one of the songs I did with Chris.
He liked the material, we corresponded for a while, and then he had me and my family come up to Rochester to meet with him. We’ve been working together since then. I’ve really enjoyed working with Bruce, who has also been involved in the production and writing of the material. He started out as a music journalist and then he expanded into management.
It's always interesting to hear his ideas concerning the music and the promotion of the music since it's partly coming from the standpoint of a music critic. I travel to Rochester, NY a lot to practice with my band. Bruce and his family usually have me stay at their house, which is extremely nice of them!
Tell us about the making of the album.
I started out working at a studio in downtown Raleigh called Osceola Studios when I was 14. That was where I met Chris. We did an earlier version of "Arms of Love" there and started developing my style at Osceola. Before I started working with Bruce, Chris and I recorded "I Can See The Rain" and "When They Will Sing" in a studio that Chris and his friend Jeff Cobb had set up in Jeff's basement.
We did most of the songs at Chris and Jeff's studio and my family helped to purchase some additional equipment for the studio to make the recordings sound as good as possible. We had some very talented local studio musicians come in to help out on most of the songs. Two of the songs were recorded with my band in Rochester, NY at East End Studios and then mixed back in Raleigh.
I usually came to the table with the basic idea for the songs—chord progression, melody, and some lyrics—and then Chris and Bruce helped me shape the songs into the form that they are in now. It was very interesting to see the metamorphosis that the songs went through in the studio.
Is there anything else to your upstate NY connection?
Bruce lives in Rochester and helped set up a band for me there. We figured that it would be easier to travel to somewhere like New York City to do showcases with the band if they were located in Rochester. I live in Raleigh most of the time, but try to get up to Rochester at least once a month to work with the band and do shows. I've also had the opportunity to work some with Lou Gramm—the lead singer from Foreigner—who also lives in Rochester. I've done some backup work for his next album and Bruce is trying to work it out with Lou's agent for me to open for him on several of Lou's summer tour dates.
Who are some of the other performers and co-writers that have contributed on the album?
Chris was very involved in collaborating with me musically. Bruce had a lot of involvement with the lyrics of the songs. Chris and I collaborated with one of our friends, Johnny Orr, on the song "I Can See The Rain." Johnny is a very talented singer, songwriter, and guitar player. He is currently in a local band called Astor's Cane. Ghetto Prince, a rapper from Virginia Beach, came to Raleigh for a weekend and recorded the rap on "Turn Off, Shut Down." He's also working with Bruce who recommended that we collaborate on a song. He has some great ideas and does a lot of production for other artists in Virginia Beach.
My dad, Frank Farmer, wrote the lyrics for the last song on the album, "Simple Days." That was the first song that I wrote and recorded. I'm really glad that I got to collaborate with my dad on that song.
While recording the album, I got the opportunity to work with many other musicians, which was a great experience. Ernie Donadelle, a local jazz player, played bass on most of the songs. Jeff Cobb sang backups on "When They Will Sing" and Michelle Gyzen, a talented singer/songwriter in Raleigh, sang backups on "Turn Off, Shut Down" and "Keep The Motor Runnin'." Chris played guitars on most of the songs.
Don Mancuso, a well-known guitarist in Rochester, NY played on "Watching River," "Every Time It Rains," "People In The World," and "Arms of Love." Don is currently playing out with Lou Gramm on his summer tour. Then my band in Rochester played on "People In The World" and "Arms of Love."
What can you say about some of the songs that you co-wrote or wrote yourself?
I wrote "Arms of Love" when I was 16 for my boyfriend on his 18th birthday. We re-recorded this one for the album. It initially had a slow R&B feel. Both "Turn Off, Shut Down" and "Keep The Motor Runnin'" deal with getting away from the daily hassles in life so you can just have fun and enjoy life. "Kiss Goodnight" was written in a similar vein to "Turn Off, Shut Down" and "Keep The Motor Runnin'."
It is about making the most of every moment that you have with someone because you don't know how long they will be around. Songs like "I'll Cry For You," "I Can See The Rain," and "Watching River" are about moving on after the hardships that life brings. While these songs deal with sadness, I tried to incorporate a sense of hope into them as well.
What is the live show like?
The live show features the songs on my album plus some non-orginals, such as the Buffalo Springfield song "For What It's Worth," Randy Newman's "Every Time It Rains," and Al Green's "People in the World." We are currently working on ways to make the show more visually interesting. I think we've already achieved that to some extent.
During most of the songs I'm playing the piano and singing. On some of the more uptempo songs, though, I'm away from the piano which adds a little bit of diversity to the performance. All the members in the band are excellent musicians in their own right and are very entertaining to watch. Depending on what song we are playing, the show can have a lot of intensity or it can be very laid-back.
Who do you perform with?
There is a difference between the studio musicians that I work with and the band—although the band did play on some of the recordings. This is the lineup for the band: Bob Andressi (drums); Brian Eggleston (keyboards); Harry Ford (bass); JD Merkel (guitars); and Cindy Samulski and Dawn Sherman (backup vocals).
Everyone in the band is from Rochester. They all have had lots of experience playing in bands which is really helpful to me since this is the first time that I've played with other musicians. They've all offered a lot of guidance and have been very supportive. I've really enjoyed working with them. I'm also working with another guitarist, JD Merkel, on acoustic shows.
What is the audience reaction like?
The last performance that we did was in Rochester at The Lilac Festival, a yearly event that people from all over the world attend. There were over 2,000 people there while I was performing and I felt really good about the response.
It was really cute—when I started playing some of the more uptempo material, this couple that must have been in their 80s got up in front of the stage and started dancing. They were absolutely adorable!
What do you enjoy most about performing on stage?
I love seeing people's reactions to the songs. That's something that you aren't able to see in the studio. Being able to share my music with people feels great.
What are some of your favourite tracks from the album?
"I’ll Cry For You" is probably my favorite song. It turned out really well and I think it's the strongest song on the album. I also love "Arms of Love" because it has so much personal meaning to me.
What are your plans following the album's release?
Bruce is starting to set up a lot of performances for me and the band. He is also going to start sending out the album to more record labels, college stations, and media. I have been made an offer to get involved with an animated film in Europe, so, we will see what happens there.
How do you think the internet will influence your career?
The internet has already played a big role in getting me exposure. Because of people seeing my website, I've gotten offers to be involved in some different projects and people from all over the world have already heard my music. Streamteam, a company in Rochester, designed my website and they did an amazing job. They used a lot of the pictures that I've done with photographer Scott Hamilton to help develop the visual element online. Having the website (www.jessihamilton.com) has been very helpful.
What are your musical hopes and dreams?
My most realistic goal is that I want to be able to make a living through writing and performing my music and I want to be happy doing it. I would love to get picked up by a major label so my music can reach more people. I want to travel around the world performing. And of course, it would be really cool to win a Grammy! What artist doesn't dream of that?