Bay Area-based Americana group Eight Belles celebrated the release of their first record, Girls Underground with a live show at the Cafe Du Nord back in June. This is the first official record for the group, brainchild of crooning songstress Jessi Phillips. Phillips was raised on a farm in Michigan, left to move to New York and landed in Oakland, and you can hear pieces of each city in her music. The record will appeal to listeners who appreciate strong vocals and gritty Americana, as well as heart wrenching lyrics coupled with catchy tunes. To sum it up – it’s hard not to like.
We caught up with Phillips via email after her show and asked her a few questions about the release, her genre and what’s coming next. Take a look.
The Bay Bridged (TBB): You made it to the Bay Area by way of Kalamazoo Michigan and New York City — what influences does your life on a farm and in the big city have on your music here?
Jessi Phillips (JP): I’ve always felt like I didn’t completely fit in in rural America or the city. Much of my writing and music reflects my search for a place I can settle down and my doubts that one actually exists for me. I have lived on both coasts, but Michigan will always be my only true home, period. I mean, I still have Michigan license plates on my car even though the cops keep yelling at me about it. I go home a lot and I always find my time there really artistically productive. That said, I don’t plan on moving back anytime soon, if ever.
TBB: What’s it like to be a part of the music scene in the Bay Area? Do you feel like you’ve fully assimilated to life making music in Oakland?
JP: I have a love/hate relationship with Oakland. I probably shouldn’t say that; everyone will think I am a huge jerk. I have a lot of fun in Oakland, but the crime and the garbage and the cost of living here definitely get me down sometimes. I have pretty much only lived in West Oakland, so perhaps that has colored my experience. But there are so many inspiring artists, writers, community activists, and musicians here; I’m constantly discovering people who blow me away. Also, the music scene in the Bay Area is more friendly and welcoming than in other places I’ve lived. There is a supportive, non-competitive vibe which I really appreciate.
TBB: How did you find your band members? Luck? Friends?
JP: They pretty much all saw me play my very first shows here two years ago, either with other people or solo, and we connected that way. So it was friends and a huge amount of luck.
TBB: You’ve made music solo before, How do you think having a band with you changes things?
JP: It makes being on stage so much more comfortable and enjoyable. At our Cafe du Nord show, we also had three backup singers and that was the most fun I’ve had playing in a very long time. I would have 20 people on stage with me if I could. I feel really lucky that I have an amazingly talented drummer, Shaun Lowecki, and a bass player, Christian Carpenter, who is a really excellent songwriter in his own right. And my guitar player, Henry Nagle, has become a really instrumental part of my music. At this point, I think that if he quit my band I would probably just stop playing my songs and would start writing electro-pop or something.
I give the band very little direction as far as their parts. I really think of my songs as very pliable and flexible creations that can be interpreted in many different ways. Many of the songs on the record turned out very differently than I had originally envisioned them, but I love them that way. None of my band mates ever chooses the most obvious alt-country, Americana way of playing the song, which I think makes the music more accessible to people who aren’t into Americana or country music.
TBB: Let’s talk about the record, Girls Underground. what was your inspiration in making this album? How would you describe your sound?
JP: I’ve been writing songs for years and this is my first record, so really this album represents the best of the songs I’ve written in the past six years or so. I’m kind of a late bloomer. Many songwriters are writing great songs when they are 22, but I was not one of them. I am glad I waited quite a few years until I had a collection of songs that feel a little more wise and mature.
My favorite thing about the record is that the songs are really diverse. I have some very delicate folk songs on there, some really twangy alt-country songs, and some songs definitely veer toward pop. For years, most of my songs sounded like Patsy Cline b-sides, but I think I’ve branched out from that.
TBB: What approach do you take to songwriting? The lyrics, for example on buried child, “come bury your blues little girl” are so full of heart. How did you create that and other songs in the album?
JP: I’m not a trained musician in any sense of the word; I am a “trained” fiction writer, if you can be such a thing. I have an MFA in Creative Writing, so I feel like I have been indoctrinated in the basic rules of powerful language, but I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing when it comes to writing music. I am really just searching blindly in the dark, hands outstretched, until I find one thing I can hold onto, and then another, and then another, until I have a song. I always start with both an image and a general narrative or theme and try to distill that down to as many good lines as I can think of. It took me a long time to learn to write lyrics in lines instead of sentences. The chord progression and melody are total trial and error. I never write a song in one day; it usually takes weeks of me putting it aside and then coming back and revising, and often doing that many times. I have a pretty big vocal range, so I try to write melodies that take advantage of that. I was hosting a once-a-month songwriters open mic at my house; it was actually a great way for me to try out half-finished songs. Playing them live, even for ten people, can be a really illuminating part of the revision process.
TBB: Where did you record the album?
JP: We did the basic tracking at a gorgeous new studio in Oakland called 25th St. Recording, and then did most of the overdubs at Wimmerland Recording in Santa Rosa and also at Ross Harris’s grandmother’s house in Santa Rosa. We returned to 25th St. Recording for the mixing. Ross Harris engineered the album at every step of the process.
TBB: Who produced the album?
JP: Henry Nagle, my guitar player, was the main producer, and I would call Ross Harris and I assistant producers. We made decisions democratically during the process. This is as much Ross Harris’s album as it is mine; he worked so incredibly hard on it.
TBB: I am a sucker for folk music and have to say your sound appeals to me because it was like Joanna Newsom meets Jenny Lewis, but are you worried about just being another folk singer? How will you differentiate yourself from the pack?
JP: I don’t actually consider myself a folk singer at all, though the genre is so broad that I suppose I could be included. I do have some delicate, finger-picky stuff on the record, but I place myself solidly in the Americana genre. Sometimes I feel weird telling people I play country music, because many people get the wrong idea, but old country really is my inspiration. I love both Jenny Lewis and Joanna Newsom, so I am happy to be compared to either of them. If we play a bill with indie-pop or folk bands, we are the most country-sounding band on the bill; if we play a bill with Americana bands, we are the least country-sounding band on the bill.
TBB: You played an album release show at Cafe du Nord, how was that and do you have plans to play more shows in sf soon?
JP: We are going to play some local shows in August and September when I come back, and hopefully some out-of-town shows, too. We have not officially released the album and we aren’t putting it on itunes or bandcamp until September or so, so the du Nord show was kind of a sneak preview.
TBB: Standard Bay Area question, since this is for The Bay Bridged – what are some of your favorite parts about living in this area? (places, people, food etc)
My favorite part of the Bay Area is the natural beauty that lies within a few hours of it — the Oakland hills, Bolinas, the Russian River, the Sierra Mountains, the Yuba River, Big Sur, Point Reyes, Mt. Tamalpais. It seriously kills me.
Eight Belles, The Chelsea Set, Paula Frazer, and Virgil Shaw
Arlene Francis Center
August 24, 2012
8:00pm, $5-10 sliding scale