Jackie Greene: The Aspirations of a "Say Hey Kid"
Photo by John Patrick Gatta
memories of lifetimes
in his head
“you have a visitor, should I let him in?”
- “1961,” Jackie Greene
One can almost see the torch being passed on Jackie Greene’s new album Till the Light Comes. It is a frank and well-structured record. But, it is also a loose and open commentary on where the singer is at in 2010. And where he is at is a reflection of all that has come before, and all that passes through his visionary mind in the fading sunset of a music business that appears either dead, or, worse, lingering on in some sort of sad limbo state that is neither relevant, nor resilient. However, Greene appears to transcend those very real modern music issues by recording songs of timeless resonance. He also tours with a crack band that knows where he is going, even if the singer/songwriter/guitarist appears to have no plan, no compass, no map at all. He’ll get there, sure; but, it’ll be a fun and unpredictable ride along the way. With the Phil Lesh & Friends band on hiatus while Furthur tours, Greene finds himself returning to his solo artist roots with his finest work yet. In many ways, he stretches beyond himself to collect from history, and add on to the rich American traditions that have rolled past him.
Jambands.com caught up with Greene before his tour opening for Gov’t Mule, which begins on July 16 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The musician is a thoughtful, candid, humorous, and, yet, deeply humble young artist, caught in a timeless warp where his music, ironically, may have gotten more notice in the past, if not for the constraints of the contemporary music business. And yet, Greene does it the old-fashioned way—he takes the time to craft his music during many hours of “heavy bedroom songwriting,” as he so eloquently and playfully calls his process, and he takes his work on the road, trying to find that arc of a performance which will forever link him with the historical pedigree of some of the esteemed musicians he has shared the stage with in recent years—gentlemen like Phil Lesh, Larry Campbell, and Levon Helm, immediately come to mind. Upon repeated listenings of Till the Light Comes, Greene may no longer need to be continually associated with those prior generation legends to affix relevance to his young career. Indeed, the man’s work now fully stands on its own, even if Greene—to his credit—appears just as mystified about his gifts as does the legends who pay him their respects.
[Editor’s note: for an official video of the song “Shaky Ground,” directed by Jay Blakesberg, click here. In addition, click here to watch Greene cover the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree,” live at the Relix office.]
Part I – A Moment of Temporary Color
That was when the strange things started to happen. He looked at his water as if to take a sip, but he felt quenched without drinking it.
- “Lunch Break,” Mike’s Corner, Mike Gordon
RR: How long did it take to record Till the Light Comes? Describe the involvement of co-producer and co-songwriter Tim Bluhm, who also is your band mate in the Skinny Singers, and co-owns Mission Bells Studios where the album was recorded.
JG: The whole recording took about a year, off and on. The thing is, working with Tim, or anybody else that is in another band is that when we are working together, it’s a whole scheduling issue. But, the initial sessions, we started off with “Shaky Ground,” “Stranger in Sand,” and “The Holy Land.” We did those in April of last year, and we used the [Mother] Hips and it worked out really well. It was really a great sound, and we stuck with that, and the songs developed. I guess the difference is this record is really the first record that we started and finished in our own studio. There really wasn’t a sense of a due date. The lesson I learned, and I think the lesson the label learned is to leave me alone, I’m making a record, and let it be done when it’s done. That’s definitely the way that I like to work.
RR: I’m impressed with the consistency of Till the Light Comes. There are layers of sounds that blend together quite well. There is also an overall strength to these songs, and I was wondering if you felt that impact of the entire piece, so this wasn’t just a collection of songs, but a unified work.
JG: Yeah, we demoed probably about fifteen, sixteen songs. As far as songwriting-wise, material-wise, it was clear which they were going to be. [ Till the Light Comes ] is only ten songs for a reason. I actually only wanted to do ten songs on my record. I didn’t want to make a really long record. I wanted to make a concise record. But at the same time, a lot of the songs on there explore musical outros—call ‘em as you call ‘em. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. To me, in a way, “The Holy Land” and “Stranger in Sand”—a lot of these songs have these alternate endings. And that is the vibe that ties it musically together. They were written that way on purpose.
As far as there being a consistent sound, a lot of that is just due to the fact that it was all made in our own place. We didn’t cut a track in a different studio. We made it all there, so I think sonically that helps a lot. It is interesting that you bring up the density. In fact, there are actually a lot less instruments on this record. What it is, is that we had so much time to think about the parts, that we placed them very, very well. We figured out what was good. “Stranger in Sand” is a good example. There really is not that much stuff on that song—two guitars, bass, drums, an organ, and vocals—but everything has a place, and we figured it all out. You can really only do that if you are given enough time to figure it out, so that is a new thing for me, in a way. In the past, I always had to come up with something, come up with the hook, the riff, you know? And do it quick. I feel good about that. I feel like I’ve always been able to do it, but I feel like this time, it happened more naturally, I guess. I wasn’t forced to figure it out real quick. That might help and lend it to the more relaxed feeling that you might get on it.
It’s different in a lot of ways in terms of how we made it. Mainly, it’s just the time thing. We had plenty of time to do it. Having done it that way, I can’t really see of any other way to do it now. (laughs) Unless…I was talking with Jacob Dylan yesterday [at the Nateva Festival in Oxford Maine] about his new record [ Women + Country ], and he was telling me that they made it in like ten days. I love his new record. I love it. It’s minimal, and it’s exactly the kind of record I want to hear come out right now because it reminds me that you don’t need to have a whole bunch of stuff on a record for it to be good. And, you know, there is huge merit in that, too, on the other hand. This is the opposite of that. This is a little more painstaking, I guess. It’s interesting.
RR: I read your post about how you thought Jacob Dylan was Nateva’s best act.
JG: It was happening because—and the reason I said this (and I didn’t really say this on the post), and why I thought he was so great—at a festival like that, you know, it’s like a hippie fest, basically. There’s a lot of loud jambands, and a lot of noodling going on, and not a lot of songs happening. For him to go up there in his suit, with his band that’s quiet and sparse, and to just do song, song, song, and do what he does like that—to me, that’s extremely gutsy. He didn’t change anything that he did to fit where he was at. He did what he did. I thought it was really beautiful. I thought it was the best set that I heard. Granted, I wasn’t there all weekend.