Wednesday, September 1, 2004

New ways to feel lonesome

• Ballard-based singer releases “Reckless Burning”

By Steve Stav, for Ballard News Tribune, Seattle, Sept. 2004.

"The 'lonely' sound? I think it was always in me, though earlier on, I had been smitten with more 'rocked-up' stuff. Everything from the title to the concept of this record came from me going through a divorce, and Phil (Wandscher) leaving his band, Whiskeytown (a popular Raleigh, NC-based combo.) We (had) met each other at the right time in our lives...when we first started hanging out together, we were both estranged from our 'communities,' so to speak. We spent a lot of time alone, out in the wilderness fishing and camping; a lot of these songs come from being out in the open space. There was a lot of loneliness, there was a feeling of being very 'lost' in my own hometown for a period of time." -- Jesse Sykes

Sitting in the misty-yet warm spring air on Market Street, an apologetic Jesse Sykes was fumbling for words to describe her enchanting new album, Reckless Burning.

It was mid-afternoon (mid-morning for those in the music biz), she had had a fitful sleep, and hadn't had her coffee yet: nonetheless, the Ballard-based singer-songwriter was fielding questions rather eloquently.

She continued, "Yes, (the songs) are very 'lonely' sounding, but there's also hope and forgiveness. Ultimately, I was falling in love when a lot of them were being written; it was a weird time-I wasn't in a band, we weren't actively playing music-it was an absolutely pure, peaceful time. I didn't know that there was a record coming down the line; at the time, I didn't care.

"I began to get inspired to get in the studio, and had been saving money. I just wanted to do something creative, and to have fun...I think we got something that was much more than what we had anticipated."

Reckless Burning is much more than anyone could expect from a semi-unknown band gigging about town for a year. With a haunting blend of Cowboy Junkies-like lonesome sparseness with a lush, Chris Isaak-echoing, lonesome twang-the common ground here being 'lonesome' -- the record's desolate sound reverberates through the most tender parts of a listener's psyche. These nine narrations of heartbreak, longing and regret won't quite have you reaching for a bottle of sleeping tablets, but the disc does make you want to slide deeper under the covers, or pour another drink. Though the album's lyrics and concepts are her own, the upstate New York native is quick to credit her band, the Sweet Hereafter (the name inspired by an ethereal epiphany of a dream), with making her ideas come alive.

"Phil, Anne-Marie Ruljancich (the semi-legendary Walkabouts' violinist/cellist) and I began playing together-it started out with a little gig at the Sunset," recalled Sykes, whose slightly breathy, emotionally intense voice drifts through the album like a ghost. She added," When it came time to get more players, I just kind of chose people that I admired from afar (including Evangeline drummer Kevin Warner and Bill Herzog, who's worked with Joel Phelps and Neko Case) and they said yes. I'm honored that they wanted to be a part of it, and that they wanted to stick around afterwards. Without them, I couln't have done this."

Though each musician's talent is easily recognizable- from Wandscher's striking guitar style to Warner's subtle pulse-all of the disc's dark paths lead back to Tucker Martine, a local producer and musician whose reputation as a superb "facilitator" had grown in leaps and bounds in recent years.

"Tucker Martine is one of those guys who...any sort of vision that you have, or are aspiring to evolve, Tucker will push you in that direction and open it up," Sykes said. "The sound that Phil has one this record is much like on 'Reckless Burning,' the first song...that weird, echoing stuff (a fantastic use of feedback and reverb, reminiscent of whale songs) was Tucker's idea."

"That first song is sort of like my' movie soundtrack," the slender siren explained. "It's kind of clich├ęd -- 'Imagine driving down a dark road at four in the morning -- but it's based on a true story about Phil and I. We were camping, and it was getting dark; for some reason, we decided to take this 17 mile logging road that was supposed to connect back to the highway-and it didn’t. It got really scary...I was stupid enough to let him get us in that position-I should have seen what was going to happen. There was that freaky Northwestern darkness, and rain coming down. There were ravines, and trees across the road; we were in a pickup that could handle it, but...

"It was one of the most terrifying experiences, on one level, but it was also one of the beautiful experiences. I had just fallen in love, and I was right on the fence, thinking, 'I might die tonight, but I don't care-because I'm so in love.' That's why I named the record Reckless Burning', and put that song at the beginning; to me, the record is about vulnerability... and forgiveness, in whatever context it might be taken."

With such an attention-grabbing debut, Jesse Sykes (who refers to the Ballard Avenue regulars as her "extended family") joins an impressive list of country-inspired, Seattle -spawned female vocalists, including Christy McWilson, Neko Case, Evangeline's Jennifer Potter, and the Believers.

However, she's quite aware of the unlikeliness of lightning striking twice, of achieving another extended moment of clarity and passion that inspired this disc.

"This record was like... fate," she said after a few moments of thoughtful silence. "There's part of me that's a little scared (about recording again), because there was something very magical about this (CD)... but, then, there's another part of me that thinks that there could be a continuation. I wouldn't want it to be an identical thing, but it could be sort of a 'sister' record, to some degree. Some of my new songs are coming from that residual energy... I'm still on a 'high' from making this record -- we all are -- and hopefully, we can tap into that energy again."

Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter • Reckless Burning • 2002 • Barsuk Records

Originally published in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, Sept. 2004.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav