Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
Good news: Jess Ray is releasing a new album called Parallels & Meridians, and she began with its first single last week. I had the opportunity to talk with her about this record a couple months ago, and I was deeply compelled by the idea behind it—songs that represent lines of communication both horizontal and vertical, between fellow humans and between humanity and God.
If you are familiar with her previous record, Sentimental Creatures, you know that Jess excels at writing songs of vertical communication with God. But the idea of bringing those two trajectories together and witnessing their points of intersection, just like on a globe—that’s something worth geeking out about. And that’s just what we did in the interview below. Read on to watch her perform her first single and learn about how she understands the intertwining of songwriting, community, faith, and the safe haven of the recording studio.
Drew: How did you get into songwriting, music, and then pursuing it as a career?
Jess: Well my dad plays guitar and sings, so in middle school I started learning guitar from him. When he first played “Blackbird” by the Beatles, I knew I had to learn how to play acoustic guitar. I would have him play different chords and I’d write down charts for myself to reference. I probably could have saved myself some trouble by reading a book or something, but I had my own system!
So I was inspired by him to play guitar, and then I started writing a lot of bad songs. I played a lot of events and was given a lot of good opportunities as a beginner. That’s always what has gotten me to where I am: people pouring into me and supporting me. I continued on that path during college and discovered that I love recording—I feel like I’m addicted to it. So that became a big interest for me as well, just shaping songs into their final form in a studio.
The funny thing is that I’ve always wanted to be a professional musician, but it’s only been the last three years or so that I could actually call myself that. It just took that much work on the front end—a good ten years or so—to get to a place where I could really start to see that happen.
Drew: So tell me about this time before it became a profession, before the last three years or so.
Jess: One of the biggest questions I’ve been asking myself over the years is what does it even look like to make music for a living these days? You have more control than ever. But in other ways, I can’t make a ton of money from CDs or from selling actual music. Yet at the same time, I can reach people who care about exactly the type of music I’m making without a label doing it for me. So there’s more accessibility than ever but it’s an entirely different game, as well.
Drew: That’s been the story for several years now, but it feels like every year the content of that story changes so rapidly that the only constant is how much everything is changing. Like, do people even download music anymore?
Jess: Yeah! That change was super recent, wasn’t it? It’s shifting all the time. At a certain point, you just have to decide what you’ll get on board with and stick to it.
Drew: If you’re addicted to the process of recording, what do you love most about it?
Jess: Seeing a song go from its rawest form to its full potential. When I hear someone play a song on acoustic guitar, I love imagining where it can go. And I’m an introverted person, so I’ve learned to make the most out of playing live, but at first I just hated it! I felt so uncomfortable on stage. I’d do okay singing, but speaking behind a microphone has always been weird to me. That’s still the hardest part.
So studio time contrasted sharply with playing out, especially earlier on. The studio meant collaboration with others and working towards an end, but not in a live setting. I play a good amount of instruments in a very mediocre way, so I don’t want to perform live on drums or trumpet or something! But I know enough about these instruments that I can enjoy using them to shape songs in the studio.
Drew: Is the studio more of a safe place to be curious about sounds? You’re not performing—you’re exploring what you can get out of various instruments.
Jess: That’s exactly it. And on this new record I’ve allowed myself to collaborate even more—even if a song isn’t becoming what I thought it would be, I’m trying to let myself go down those unknown roads, trusting my friends and their ideas. Not taking my own ideas too seriously, being more open.
Drew: That’s a huge, vulnerable thing to do.
Jess: In some of my earlier projects, I didn’t know what I wanted my songs to sound like and I didn’t understand what the producer had in mind, either. I wouldn’t be able to define those things, and the result was that I was often unhappy with the outcome.
But the more I know the sounds my friends make and the sounds I’m meant to make, I can loosen up and be less controlling of the music. For me it’s all about being in a safe place with people I can trust and daring to walk down paths I wouldn’t have dared walk down before.
Drew: Was Sentimental Creatures your first full length experience of collaboration with others and molding songs into finished recordings?
I have made what I feel to be the best music I've ever made, and the truest to who I am, in the past few years. And that has happened in conjunction with having the most community surrounding me.Jess Ray
Jess: Yes. And when I showed up with the demos for that record, the guys producing it with me told me we just needed to replicate the demos. I had already added lots of percussion, trumpet, layers of synth, and such, so they sounded like lo-fi versions of finished recordings. So between our low budget and the work I had already put in, it ended up being me and my producer friend Jacob Early tag teaming to bring those demos to life. I would hop around instruments and lay down tracks, and he had faith in my ideas. I shared the role of producer with him and realized that I really loved it.
That’s what Sentimental Creatures was. And I made it three years ago—there’s plenty I would go back and change if I could. But the most important thing is that it’s the first project I’ve ever done where I can go back and listen and say, “that sounds like me.”
Drew: So you’re producing Parallels & Meridians as well, with Jacob Early?
Jess: Yes. In these past three years I’ve become more and more capable of recording by myself, accumulated more recording gear and everything, but I’m so glad I didn’t decide to do that. The checks and balances of teamwork, even the friction of it, is so important. I’m super glad that I got Jacob in on this one. We met together in a studio in Nashville called the Art House. And this was the first time I ever tried to make an album in a set amount of days—we were there for ten days and got about three quarters of it finished in that time.
Drew: So tell me about the idea of Parallels & Meridians.
Jess: It dawned on me that a lot of the songs, even more than previous projects I’d done, were me talking to other people in my life. Like horizontal lines. But about half the songs were more like Sentimental Creatures, too—dialogues with God. So Parallels & Meridians is a succinct way of summing up those two directions of communication. We’re still digging into all the ways to explain that, but even as I’ve thought about it so far, I’ve been amazed at how much it comes down to the first and second commandments to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
When those two intersect, it forms a cross. The way Jesus is this perfect point between humanity and God, this intersection of horizontal and vertical—there’s so much there.
Drew: That’s such a rich framework. It feels like the kind of thing that’s going to keep giving you more iterations of itself. So are there any instances of convergence on the record, where the horizontal and vertical lines come together in one song?
Jess: There are a couple songs where people might think I’m singing to my husband, but I actually wrote them addressed to Jesus. I think that ambiguity can be valuable and I’d love for people to interpret the songs however they fit their story. With my writing, it’s often surprising that I’m talking about God—it usually sounds very intimate. At certain times I’ve been worried about how deeply intimate my music sounds, but you know, when it comes to relating to our Creator, is any language really to be reserved only for human relationships? I don’t think any language can be too strong to sing to God.
Drew: It’s cool how Jesus being a person allows a conversation with him to be both horizontal and vertical. It’s tempting to categorize God and people cleanly apart—that’s all we’ve ever wanted to do as humans—and the name Parallels & Meridians in some ways sets you up to think those two avenues of connection can be completely distinct. But then—
Drew: Yeah! They’re totally interwoven. No way to separate them.
So one more question, and this is sort of the Rabbit Room question: the whole idea that art and community nourish one another, that they exist within the context of each other—I’d love to hear anything you have to say about how you’ve experienced that to be true. How have you seen those two relate?
Jess: I have made what I feel to be the best music I’ve ever made, and the truest to who I am, in the past few years. And that has happened in conjunction with having the most community surrounding me. It doesn’t take dozens and dozens of people, either—five years ago I felt completely alone in Raleigh as an artist. But then I met Christa Wells, and she put me in touch with Taylor Leonhardt. Those two changed that whole story for me. I’ve gone from watching Taylor play open mic nights and thinking, “she’s got such a great voice and some great songs,” to hearing new songs she’s written and being completely blown away and overwhelmed at the depth of what she has to say.
It’s not that there are that many of us in Raleigh doing this, but the key is that we’ve become friends who share with one another. And that has become a real focus for us in Raleigh. There wasn’t really anything like that, but now we are that thing! So we get the honor of asking, what can we do to welcome others into this?