JESSIE JONES: YOU CEASE TO BE A HUMAN
photography by abby banks
She may look it, but Jessie Jones is no longer the same shy, young singer from Orange County with the bold, weathered, jazzy old woman’s voice that she was when I first interviewed her in 2010. Back then, she sang with the psychedelia-tinged Burger Records-approved garage band Feeding People, who then seemed to be just approaching the lip of the cusp of the edge of greatness. Instead, they quickly burned out, but Jones never truly faded away. After a few years in wandering the country trying out dead-end jobs and engaging with supernatural phenomena, Jones re-emerged in full force in 2015, first on a triumphant tour co-singing lead vocals with Death Valley Girls, and now—as of last month—with her first solo album, which has been tickling the fancies of folks from the bowels of Gnar Burger all the way to the corridors of NPR. (Recorded by Bobby Harlow, it also features Tomas Dolas and Wyatt Blair from Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel as well as Hannah Glass, Corey Gemm and King Tuff.) We now meet again for a very candid interview at the vegan restaurant Sage in Echo Park, a place so opposed to animal cruelty that even the arachnids have started getting cocky … She performs at Burger-A-Go-Go 2 on Sat., Sept. 5. This interview by D.M. Collins.
So I have a confession. Remember when I interviewed Feeding People in my backyard in 2011? You were all so young and so charming; it was obvious the band was going to implode horribly, and soon. I should have said something. Do you forgive me for not warning you that your life was about to go to shit? It feels like it was just yesterday: you and Louis Filliger put together a new version of Feeding People out of the ashes, then you put out a second album, then it broke up entirely, and then you left town for years! And now you’re back. Feeding People even had a reunion show.
Jessie Jones: It was, like, such a long period of not playing together, and having all the emotions come out, and hating each other. In the end, you just come back to why you got together in the beginning, and it was just the pure love of it, and wanting to express yourself … I think we just matured. But I never knew people cared! I didn’t know that I was connecting with anybody, maybe because I was afraid of being heard.
What’s happened to you in the years between the Feeding People breakup and these new solo recordings?
Jessie Jones: A few nervous breakdowns, a few lapses, two or three million miles across America, a few abductions…
Abductions? Who abducted you?
Jessie Jones: Aliens. Mostly they were just dark, shadowy characters. I didn’t get to see their faces. But I’ve had dreams where a wand-like device was injected into my brain, and a silvery substance came out…
It sounds rather Freudian.
Jessie Jones: It does have a lot to do with the subconscious overlapping that state.
Can I posit the idea that they might be waking dreams? A lot of people have sleep paralysis, and even feel a ‘dark figure’ hovering over them, but there’s probably a psychological reason …
Jessie Jones: I wasn’t having a lucid dream, where I couldn’t move because something was pushing me down, like normal paralysis. I was in this structure and there were figures steering me around in this underground locked-down zone. I’ve seen UFOs. I’ve been on a good one just experiencing paranormal activities in different parts of the country and learning about the occult, and developing more as an artist. Most musicians, whether or not they admit it, do certainly acknowledge a higher power, or transcend this reality through music, which is a religious experience. Maybe it’s different in my perspective because I’m actively trying to pin down where it comes from, and what it’s called, and how it relates to other authors or schools of thought. I’m trying to recreate, through my music, the notion of nature and the divine ‘other.’ I just discovered a couple months ago there was a scientist/philosopher/astronomer named John Dee, he calls this form of magic ‘Enochian’ magic, and I really believe in it! It’s one of the things I really believe in—that I can talk to angels and angels can talk to me.
I definitely get a ‘Glenda the Good Witch’ vibe off you.
Jessie Jones: White magic, only!
What’s a way that you’ve used your powers for good?
Jessie Jones: To get this record, for sure. I just, like, prayed every day, up until I heard Bobby [Harlow, who recorded the album] said yes. That’s all I wanted. Bobby recorded it, he engineered it, and he produced it. He and I were working on everything together. And he was so excited! I feel like we were both trying to contact each other. He only wanted to record very unique types of people. So the only other records he did in L.A. were with King Tuff and White Fang, and both those groups are pretty distinct.
There are little nuggets of philosophical truth all through the songs on the new album—like on ‘Butterfly Knives,’ which is strung together with beautiful koans such as ‘nothing changes like destiny.’ When you say these things, are you speaking directly from your own perspective? Or might you also speak from the perspective of different characters, maybe not always ones we should trust?
Jessie Jones: Through all my lyrics, I’m definitely channeling whatever is speaking through me, which could be from another plane. But I wouldn’t speak it unless I mean it. I always try to disappear from myself so that other characters can inhabit me; I open myself up to all influences. So sometimes what I’m saying is inspired by another person. So maybe that’s the mysterious force that makes you wonder?
With your song ‘Make It Spin,’ with lyrics like ‘You know I want to quit/you have got that energy/it’s glowing from within…’ I thought it was about smoking meth! But I have a suspicion I’m wrong.
Jessie Jones: Ha ha! It’s a positive song that is totally natural and has nothing to do with being high. I honestly wanted to write a song for my friends who are all under the age of 12. They were so joyful and so happy that I took on that childlike innocence. Again.
I had childhood innocence once! I even believed in God, and losing that faith was kind of a tragic part of growing up. You still seem to have kept your connection with God.
Sometimes, though, I sing to the Devil. Sometimes I sing as an evil person.
What do you sing to the devil?
Jessie Jones: There’s some songs that I do where I take on that personality. I guess that makes people a little scared.
Does he talk back to you? ‘Now I want you to sing an E flat, and now I want you to butcher a child! I’m Satan!’
Jessie Jones: [Laughs] I mean, he doesn’t have a name!
You’re starting to sound like Roky Erickson. At one point he thought was divine, but then he thought he was the devil, and at another point it was aliens…
Jessie Jones: Yeah, you get possessed.
… But I don’t want you to end up like Roky! I want you to be famous like him. But I want to make sure you don’t end up in an insane asylum, where you have to play in a band with murderers.
Jessie Jones: But, I mean, that’s the sacrifice you have to make. And I think that’s why they say that you ‘sign a deal with the devil.’ You’re giving him, it, everything: access to your whole soul, maybe. I mean, just that belief in itself is pretty schizophrenic. Or, I mean, delusional.
Is that what the song on your album, ‘Prisoner’s Cinema,’ is about? ‘God is the devil in prison, trapped in the hearts of those chosen…’
Jessie Jones: That one is about the phenomena of people in solitary confinement, who often start hallucinating. They’ll see nightmares, or angels. When I lived in Orange County, before I left, that was the first song I wrote, kind of a manic confession!
Orange County as Orange Is the New Black?
Jessie Jones: Oh, absolutely! I kind of have to retreat and become a hermit to be in touch with my creative side.
Things got even more remote after you left, right?
Jessie Jones: I went through Colorado. I went to Oregon first, lived in the forest in a tent. Saw Bigfoot several times. At first it was a joke. My main source of income was working at a campground, checking in campers, so we had to kind of wait it out to see if it was legit. It got to the point where we heard it shrieking, and we had to hide. We were so scared that we left a couple weeks later. But we couldn’t leave, because we had to stay and work for the rest of the summer, so we ended up renting an old CCC shed, used for storage. It was really scary, because as soon as the sun went down, you didn’t know if you were going to hear anything, or if it was just a hallucination. But we were completely isolated.
You’ve told me that your favorite bogeyman used to be Charles Manson. And there was a little Manson Girl influence over some of your older work. Is that an influence you’ve shaken off the new album?
Jessie Jones: I don’t know! I mean, the last song, ‘Mental Illness,’ was made towards the end of the recording, and that was when I was when I was reading the book about the murders, and had a dream about killing them …
I thought ‘Mental Illness’ was a heartwarming song about how everyone has a little mental illness, but that’s okay, because we’re all in this together. But you’re saying it’s not okay, because we’re going to get together and butcher a child.
Jessie Jones: No, no babies! I haven’t killed babies. I haven’t killed anything besides a rabbit, in South Carolina. That was kind of mean … that was really gross. We hunted it, and I skinned it. Ooof, that sensation will never leave me. People who only go to the grocery store and buy fresh meat, they don’t even know.
Aside from Charles Manson and Roky Erickson, what other artists who inspired you to record songs like this?
Jessie Jones: Broadcast is a group from the U.K. that ended abruptly because the singer died, but she was one of my favorite singers, an artist I listened to constantly while I was away that gave me a lot of hope and inspiration. I mean, one of the main artists I was really obsessed with, and still am, is Kendrick Lamar. He’s absolutely genius. Like, the whole album m.A.A.d. City. He’s just such an urgent, fearless singer. And that gave me so much drive to, you know … not care. The vocal styles are very upfront, and I tried to borrow that from him. Like, ‘Quicksilver Screen’ was written when I was listening to m.A.A.d. City constantly, and the dangerous attraction that that album has. Of course, I adore everything that Bobby Harlow has done with the Go, and the Conspiracy of Owls…
His production on your album seems so different! It’s not lo-fi, it’s not bombastic like Feeding People was, and it’s not exclusively psychedelic—it’s very different from song to song. One might sound like the Doors, and another very poppy. There’s even a violin on ‘Butterfly Knives’ that sounds like something from the 70s UK kids program, The Wombles.
Jessie Jones: That was Bobby’s idea. Bobby is the brains behind the operation, for sure! The songs as skeletons came from my own writing, so we just met in the middle. He would say things like ‘Well, this sounds like an Italian wedding song,’ so we would use, like, Eastern scales, or certain instruments.
Did you ever push back on his ideas? ‘Noooo piccolos on this goddamn song!’
Jessie Jones: No! All his ideas were really great. We worked really well together, with his experience and ear for music, and my complete naivety. Like, I had no idea until recently how important tones were, or what kind of equipment makes you sound like this or that. I thought music was just this magical, surreal blend … I was just caught up in the moment, or the conviction, the person’s heart, what they’re trying to recreate. I’m not very scientific when it comes to that.
Were you afraid that all these choices might be hard to recreate in a live setting?
Jessie Jones: Yeah, but I just did it for the sake of creating. I wasn’t really concerned about going on tour. I just wanted to make one last album before I die. It was, like, my death wish.
Your ‘death wish?’ You think you’re going to die?
Jessie Jones: I think so. Something weird is going to happen, for sure.
Forever Changes was made because Arthur Lee thought he was going to die. But he didn’t. How soon do you expect to die?
Jessie Jones: I don’t know. It’s not just me! I think I’m just really being paranoid about the state of the world. It’s all fleeting! I just felt that there was this closing window, and if I didn’t change what direction I was going in, it was never going to happen. I literally started to feel the creative pitch, and contacted everybody, including Bobby Harlow. I found out later he was planning to leave in two months. Some kind of premonition told me to go for it. I just had to do it. I felt like since I left Orange County—April 2013—there was just such a depression, in L.A. and globally. Everybody was just neglecting … The psychological state of Los Angeles is very morbid, in a weird way. And it’s really dreamy, because no one knows where they are. But it’s a total fantasy world. And if you go to other countries, or if you just kind of step off and go to the really small towns, like in the South—South Carolina, when I was just living in the middle of nowhere—that’s where it hit me: there’s so much poverty, such a lack of education, and not a lot of opportunity for people who are born without any guidance or any money. Just seeing how capitalism and consumerism really exist only when you’re in the eye of the storm. And when I was working weird jobs and stuff for companies in weird factories to keep existing, and I could see like, all this crap is coming from China. And I’m sending it to some person’s house in like Anaheim or Chicago, but they don’t see what’s going on behind closed doors. It’s like I could finally see how big America was, how small I was, how small my little bubble in Orange County was. And I had to talk about it, I guess. I had to get it out. And with all the revelations I had with all my relationships ending … all that waste of time, or emotions, and not really expressing who I was because I was sucked into this kind of weird Stockholm Syndrome kind of relationship, a really obsessive, super intense, passionate world. I had no idea what was going on! I had no grasp of reality. And then when it was starting to explode, I was just like, ‘Aaaaaaaaah, I have to do something with this or I’m going to die! I don’t want to waste my life anymore.’
But you put some of that impulse on hold this year in order to tour with Death Valley Girls—you were sharing lead vocals with Bonnie Bloomgarden on songs mostly created before you came on board. Have you learned any solid lessons from that experience?
Jessie Jones: Yeah! Showing up and playing shows and getting people excited and making eye contact, and just performing and getting lost in the music, and getting into that rhythm. I never went on tour for that long before, so that was new! It showed me how to be in a band. I love all of them! They wanted to jam and learn a few songs, I guess in late February, and then I just started playing with them live, right before SXSW. I had four weeks to rehearse! That was my first time playing shows since 2012, so that was crazy, just being on a stage again. Because I have a lot of anxiety! I used to get knots in my stomach, but now I get on stage and it’s like ‘I know how everyone feels.’ And that scares the shit out of me.
Have you ever thought about deflecting the intensity by performing as a character instead? Certainly some of your songs are about interesting characters. Like in ‘La Loba.’ Could you be that character?
Jessie Jones: Yeah, sometimes I use certain archetypes, and I pretend to be them. But I’m doing that in my head, and it takes up so much energy. And it’s really intense. That’s usually what’s happening on stage. In that song, it’s about a woman that turns into a wolf, and she finds bones in the desert, and she sings over them. And the bones come to life, like skeleton animals, and they run off into the horizon. It’s like a folk tale from Mexican folklore.
Walking skeletons … add that to the aliens, and what’s left? Vampires? Chupacabras.
Jessie Jones: I think chupacabras have a good chance of being real because you have no idea what’s in the middle of nowhere unless you go there!
Some people think they are aliens.
Jessie Jones: Like alien coyotes? Some kind of wolf-alien hybrid? Very possible.
You’re a hybrid! You’re this sweet, warm, innocent person who speaks from your heart. But there’s a serious dark side to you that thinks about alien wolves. What’s something terrible that you’ve done?
Jessie Jones: Sometimes I steal food from the grocery store? One time I stole clothes from Goodwill. I think my shadow side is mostly self-inflicted.
I wonder if that’s from being raised in an Evangelical church. How old were you when you realized most people don’t go to church where they speak in tongues?
Jessie Jones: I think I was probably 11 or 12. And I was finally getting to the end of junior high, beginning of high school years.
I’m glad, for selfish reasons, because that’s where you learned to sing. Is singing to God like a first date? Like, you want to look good, but you also want to be yourself?
Jessie Jones: It’s like singing to your true love. Like, you want to give them everything. You’re not afraid. Like you embrace who they are, exactly who they are, no judgments. It’s just pure love, like all light, no negativity. It takes up the whole room. It’s like your whole day. Like you bring yourself from, like, every single moment you’ve ever had, and then you release it. And then you are just nothing. And then, I don’t know—you cease to be a human.
What you’re describing sounds so much like enlightenment. Like a Buddhist thing.
Jessie Jones: It is, like, everytime.
And if rock music is nothing else, it is the secularization of that feeling, from Ray Charles to Little Richard to Elvis, who always wanted to make gospel albums.
Jessie Jones: You know, the gospel style, you sing with your whole body. I didn’t realize that was a part of what they were doing. With Bobby, I remember we were using different mics in the booth, and he would say, like, ‘You need to stand with your whole self present. You need to make sure that your warmth is coming into that microphone from your body, not just your voice.’ And so I definitely take that from church. You’re not singing to everyone else. You’re not caring if anyone else can hear you. You’re singing to God, you know. Like the best listener. The only one that matters. You know, so, I think, that’s maybe a big part of it.
As a kid growing up in that, was there a musician or rock band who taught you to rebel?
Jessie Jones: Yeah—the Beatles, for sure. It was on the radio at youth group. I was with all the other girls, and it came on, and I was like, ‘Who is this?!’ And they were like, ‘The Beatles. You haven’t heard of it?’ I didn’t even know about the 60s. I had no idea.
What’s your favorite flavor of the 60s now?
Jessie Jones: 1967. That was good for everyone.
Sometimes it’s scary to think about how many people from that era, they’re either dead, or they’re crazy or …
Jessie Jones: Or they’re missing.
How will you avoid going missing?
Jessie Jones: I’ve considered a witness protection program. I have Plan B.
That’s why I don’t have kids—Plan B.
Jessie Jones: No, I mean like an escape route!
JESSIE JONES WITH CAT POWER, THE JULIE RUIN AND MORE AT BURGER-A-GO-GO 2 ON SAT., SEPT. 5, AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 1 PM / $40-$80 / ALL AGES. OBSERVATORYOC.COM. JESSIE JONES’ SELF-TITLED ALBUM IS OUT NOW ON BURGER RECORDS. VISIT JESSIE JONES AT FACEBOOK.COM/JESSIEJONES4EVER.