20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published January 29, 2021
In part 19,
Jesse Lynn Madera—pianist and singer-songwriter—
is our newest guest in our continuing Q&A series.
Jesse’s lovely debut album Fortunes is at times ethereal and captures a sense of mystery. Join us as she discusses the creation and vision of this album, her inspiration, love of New York, and much more. Welcome Jesse!
Photos by Alysse Gafkjen | Courtesy of Jesse Lynn Madera
20:20 with Jesse Lynn Madera
NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Jesse: My name is Jesse Lynn Madera, born in Parkersburg, West Virginia, USA, Planet Earth, as Jessica Lynn Fitzpatrick. I play the piano because that was the main instrument in our home. Our gatherings seemed to center around it. My grandmother Frances played very well—she had a really funny act she’d put on. She’d play and sing a song like ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,’ and make these funny faces that commented on the lyrics in a self-effacing sort of way. She was extraordinarily beautiful, so it came across like a Lucille Ball type of act.
Sometimes I try to branch out and play something else, but I always come back to the piano when I really have something to say. I’m not classically trained in any way but theater. I studied theater in high school and college, everything from clown work to Beckett, and wound up majoring in Experimental Theatre at NYU. It was a study in freedom of expression, and now that I think about it, that training most certainly impacted the way I approach anything I create now. I’m still grateful to my teachers there, and to that city.
NWM 2): What’s a favorite Jesse Lynn Madera song?
Jesse: I guess it depends on who is listening! But a lot of people like ‘Dante.’
NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Jesse: I love it when the morning sun turns the leaves gold. I love hearing our two boys laugh together. I always smile at hummingbirds.
I love it when the morning sun turns the leaves gold.
NWM 4): Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist?
Jesse: I was playing a very COVID safe house show. The small audience was all spaced out, physically … and mentally. People have been so used to watching television, that’s how they were watching the live show. That’s only temporary though. It’s not forever! We’ll come back to life. I’ll be there for it!
NWM 5): Your debut studio album, Fortunes, ‘is a labor of love that has been years in the making,’ in which you partnered with John Hawkes (a favorite here at NoteWorthy Music) and Joel Taylor for duets. Please share a little bit about the creation of this album.
Jesse: The one with John Hawkes is the oldest track on the album, followed by the track with Joel. Those two duets were supposed to be the foundation for another project called Belle and The Claytons. That project was going to be me singing with a bunch of different guys. I started to realize that it was going to take forever to put that together. I was under a lot of pressure, from people in my life who love me, to do something already.
That whole period of time between the tracking of those songs with Paul Redel, and me deciding I was going to self-produce, was marked by such trepidation. I was so scared to fail, or scared to succeed and upset the balance in my life with my husband and kids. So I was stagnant.
Making this album is the first thing I’ve ever done that I can fully embrace and call mine.
I broke out of that stagnation to do this. Making this album is the first thing I’ve ever done that I can fully embrace and call mine. There’s not a note on it I didn’t create or approve. So if it had failed, I would’ve only had myself to look at. This was the big mountain I needed to climb, and I’m so much better for having taken the chance.
About working with John and Joel, they are both masters at what they do, so it was an honor to get to work with them and learn from them. With John, his focus was moving. Seeing the way he approaches words made it clear it to me how he got to be where he is in his career. Joel is incredibly talented, and it’s refined talent in the best sense of that word.
NWM 6): We became fascinated by the myriad of words used to describe your work: genre-defying, Cohen-esque, otherworldly, mystical, wordsmith. Listening to Fortunes, it’s immediately apparent that you are worthy of such descriptions, and more. Please describe the concept and vision of your music overall.
Jesse: Thank you so much. Those are dream words. Fortunes was personal, so had it fallen flat that would have been hard. I think the lockdown, the slowing down, created a space for the pace of the album. I kept asking people to lie down and close their eyes, and allow the music to take them somewhere. In our usual, frenetic world, that would have been an unrealistic ask.
I released this early on during the lockdown, and have not been able to tour with it or anything. I knew what I was giving up—I couldn’t market this the way I would have a year ago because I can’t play out—but I took the chance, deciding it would be worth it to seize the moment for what it was, and release the songs when I knew they might actually be listened to the way they were intended to be listened to.
NWM 7): We applaud genre-bending here at NWM. It’s refreshing to us when we cannot easily categorize a song or sound. There are those, however, who may not be so receptive. What challenges, if any, have you faced in this regard?
Jesse: I haven’t thought too much about that. If I meet someone for the first time, and they ask me what kind of music I play, that can sometimes be a bit of an awkward dance, but other than that it’s not something I’ve worried about. There’s room for someone like me I think. I just have to try to do what I do as well as I am able to do it. I’m hoping that if I come out of the gate a bit of a wild horse, it won’t be a surprise or disappointment when I change things up.
[If] they ask me what kind of music I play, that can sometimes be a bit of an awkward dance …
NWM 8): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Jesse: There are so many! But I’ll say ‘The Redheaded Stranger’ by Willie Nelson.
NWM 9): What is a favorite concert or show you have attended?
Jesse: I used to go see my friend Heather Christian play out in New York City with her band. She has always been a transportive performer. Of course there are the bigger acts that I’ve seen countless times—I have seen at least three dozen Robert Earl Keen and Willie Nelson shows. I love drinking beer and wearing boots, and I love great poetry. Put those things together, and I’m in heaven.
I have seen at least three dozen Robert Earl Keen and Willie Nelson shows.
NWM 10): We gather from your social media that you are a recipe aficionado. Please share about your love of cooking and/or recipes.
Jesse: Yes! That’s very true. I absolutely love to cook. I have the New York Times cooking app on my phone, and, aside from the recipes I grew up with, or have collected over the years in cookbooks (I have a cookbook addiction), that app is where all the best recipes are. My go-to right now is Melissa Clark’s garlicky chicken with lemon-anchovy sauce. It’s all about that anchovy oil—I made it the other day and slow-roasted my salmon in it.
NWM 11): Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Jesse: I don’t know if anything would surprise anyone! But I am a big fan of the French singer Zaz. A friend turned me on to her a few years ago, and I love the melodies and the sound of her voice. I don’t speak French though! So I guess that’s the unusual thing.
NWM 12): You divide your time between New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. How do the respective music scenes vary from one another? Do you prefer one over the others?
Jesse: In usual times, of course, New York is my favorite place to see live music. I like to walk around and find new things, and New York is great for that. Los Angeles was trickier for me. I found the Hotel Cafe in L.A. through singer Tim Jones, and that became the one and only place there for me. In New York, I had several places I liked to go. I was always walking around with whiskey in my coffee cup, dropping in to different places and seeing all kinds of music—from jazz to bluegrass—it was all there. In the city, it was easy to do that.
I moved to Nashville about six months before the tornado hit, and then COVID, so I can’t really speak on ‘Music City’ yet. I was finishing up Fortunes during those first few months, so I didn’t get out much at all. I will say that I love artists who play for the love of playing, and who aren’t bound by other people’s rules or ideas of how music should be. New York has always been that place.
NWM 13): What in particular fuels your inspiration? Tell us about your space or what is most necessary for your writing.
Jesse: I cannot write when I’m feeling any instability. I think it’s a defense mechanism, my feelings shut off so I can get through. I’m pretty good in a crisis for that reason. I can write about bad things after they’ve gone away, but not while I’m experiencing them.
I cannot write when I’m feeling any instability. I think it’s a defense mechanism.
I have written a lot about love. I’m intrigued by relationships, which doesn’t make me very unique at all, but I’m hoping the honesty in my writing, and I’ll continue to dig deeper, might make up for my inauthentic subject matter.
NWM 14): Your website states: ‘The piano became an integral part of [your] life, thanks to family friend and mentor, the late Rock & Roll Hall of Fame pianist and songwriter, Johnnie (B. Goode) Johnson.’ Please share about this influential relationship.
Jesse: My mom remarried in 1993, and they hired Johnnie, not knowing his history, to play the reception. After learning more about him, they knew they had to help him get the recognition he deserved. He should’ve been credited on a lot of those songs we attribute solely to Chuck Berry. Even Chuck knew that. He didn’t do the right thing, but he knew better. Anyway, during the time that my family was fighting for Johnnie, he spent a lot of time with us at our house in Houston. I picked up some small things, style-wise, but the greatest gift was his encouragement and seeing his humility.
NWM 15): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
NWM 16): How do you express your creativity other than through music?
Jesse: I like to draw people’s faces. Of course, cooking. I write poetry, too, and I hope to one day put out a book. I started on a screenplay a few years ago, so maybe I’ll get back to that at some point. Maybe I’ll act again. I still love acting.
NWM 17): What instrument holds the most fascination for you and do you play it?
Jesse: Definitely the pedal steel guitar, and no, I don’t play it. But I have an appreciation for the geniuses that do play it. That instrument is so versatile and emotional for me.
The pedal steel guitar … is so versatile and emotional for me.
NWM 18): Prince or Bowie?
Jesse: Tough, but probably Bowie.
NWM 19): Strangest road story?
Jesse: I played a show during South by Southwest several years ago with my band from New York. We followed it with a show in Houston. It’s a long story, but we wound up needing a place to stay at the last minute. We wound up at my best friend’s father’s place on Tiki Island [Texas]. We were all exhausted by the time we got there, and the drummer in particular needed to blow off some steam. My drummer and cellist couldn’t have been more different from one another, and the drummer had a wicked sense of humor. He’d had a few drinks, and he decided to put on a short magic show.
He went over and took an egg out of the fridge, stood next to the cellist, and said ‘Wanna see a trick with an egg?’ Well, the trick, I learned, was supposed to be him squeezing the egg as hard as he could while applying pressure equally all around it. If the pressure was equal, the egg wouldn’t break. Well can you guess what happened? The poor cellist was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
NWM 20): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about which we might not know to ask?
Jesse: I have never done hard drugs, and my husband says it’s a good thing. Once I get going on something I like, I get obsessive. I was a willful and stubborn child, very tough. My mother told people I was ‘spirited.’ Saying all this, because I hope parents know it’s a good thing for kids to have fire. They just need to learn how to channel it. They can use that fire to weld or to destroy. Teach them to weld!
NWM): What’s next for Jesse Lynn Madera?
Jesse: I’m releasing some live performances of two of the Fortunes tracks, as well as vinyl—including an extra song. I’ve got another duet coming out, probably in the spring or early summer. I also wrote what I guess is a reggae song I’m really excited to flesh out. I have a whole album’s worth of songs to record. Musically, it’s going to be a great year, and I’m so grateful for anyone who has found my songs in the ocean of songs, and is listening. Thanks so much for that.
‘Dante’ by Jesse Lynn Madera from her album Fortunes
Jesse Lynn Madera
Jesse Lynn Madera blends country, soul, and jazz seamlessly in her music. The granddaughter of self-taught back porch musicians, she follows in the footsteps of her musical family to create songs with depth and thought-provoking lyrics, cultivating a compellingly unique sound. Nearly constant in her songwriting is the piano, an instrument she met, almost at birth, in the form of her grandmother’s antique upright. The piano became an integral part of her life, thanks to family friend and mentor, the late Rock & Roll Hall of Fame pianist and songwriter, Johnnie (B. Goode) Johnson.
To learn more and buy stuff visit: http://www.jesselynnmadera.com/
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Tim Stafford
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