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Behind the Songs a Portrait Interview with Songwriter Jessica Leigh Graves

Behind the Songs a Portrait Interview with Songwriter Jessica Leigh Graves

1. Why did you become a songwriter, and how old were you when you began?

For more than ten years, I only ever played other people’s music. I played in bands starting at age eleven or twelve. I remember as a teenager thinking that I had no business writing songs, because I didn’t think anybody would care what a privileged-upper-middle-class-teenage-white-girl had to say.

I was raised around people who wrote and played their own music, so I suppose it got ingrained in me early on that that’s the pinnacle of musicianship–writing great songs. But nobody ever said taught me that (songwriting) on purpose, and I never decided that I was going to do that.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I found myself on a several-thousand mile summer road trip with no way to play recorded music. After a while, songs just started coming out of me. I sang them until I could remember them, and figured out how to play them on an instrument later. Why? Hell, I don’t know. It just happened.

2. What is your writing process like?

Mostly, I’ve written songs because they kind of popped out, almost fully formed, all at once. I’ve heard people call that a ‘twenty minute song.’ Tom Waits‘ description is that it’s ‘taken like a dream through a straw.’  That’s how I got started. Then I figured that I should do more writing, even if it wasn’t inspired and sudden like the first ones were.

Constantly running in my head is what I call my “internal iPod,” or the “brain juke.” A lot of the time, the music running in my head is music I learned or heard–music that’s already out there. Sometimes, though, I’ll get something playing in my head that I haven’t heard before, and I try to notice when that happens, and record it.

I keep my smartphone handy for such occasions. My little voice recorder app has dozens of short clips of me whistling, or humming, or singing some words I’m trying to string together. When I make time to work on something new, I’ll go back to that bank and use one of those little nuggets as a jumping-off point.

My journal is with me all the time, and when I have lyrical ideas, I jot them down. I’ll also sometimes do a free-writing exercise, take an idea and write everything I can think of on the subject for a few pages. The ratio of raw material to useful lyrics is pretty ridiculous, but it still works sometimes. Plus, it makes me feel like I’m being disciplined about my craft, instead of sitting around waiting for something brilliant to occur to me.

3. What are some things that have happened in your life because of songwriting?

I get to play with great musicians who like the songs I’ve written. If I were still just playing covers, that most certainly wouldn’t be the case.

4. Where were you born and raised? How did this influence your songwriting and/or becoming a songwriter?

I was born and raised in Austin, by parents who love music and took me and my brother out to see shows constantly. I have no doubt that this is one of the primary influences on my playing music and writing songs. Wednesdays at Threadgill’s for Sittin’ Singin’ & Supper, when the Threadgill’s Troubadours were Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, and later when it was Champ Hood and Marvin Dykhuis. Sundays at Gruene for Erik Hokkanen, Luckenbach for Gary P. Nunn. Mondays at Artz Rib House for Sarah Campbell & the Banned for Bummer Night. Kerrville Folk Festival. Aquafest. Liberty Lunch.

I didn’t know any of the popular music on the radio until I was in middle school. Hell, I didn’t know who the Beatles were for years, and then my dad figured it was time he started me on their catalog. I was probably 10. The music we listened to was by people we knew and loved and saw every week.

5. Who or what are you most inspired by?

I am most inspired by people making a difference. Those who seek to enliven, inspire, and break down barriers, through music or otherwise. A perfect example of this is Ukuleles For Peace. This guy goes and teaches kids in Palestine and Israel to play ukuleles, and then gets them together. They look at the warring adults around them and say ‘We don’t care about your conflict. We’re friends.’ That is as powerful and moving a thing as I reckon there is in the world, and I get all verklempt just thinking about it. That’s a direct path to world peace, right there. That’s why I teach music to kids.

6. Can you share a story about the significance of a specific song title?

The second co-write I ever did was with a woman named Natalie Gelman. We sat down in a park in West Hollywood on a summer day, with the goal of writing a song. We very quickly figured out that we didn’t have at all the same things to say about love, so we started looking at other subjects.

She had a nugget of a tune that she had started to write about her mother, whom she has been slowly losing to Alzheimer’s. I had been going through the same thing with my grandmother. We didn’t get into the darker end of things, the more severe stages of dementia, and what it’s like to watch someone go through that. That was a little too much, especially for the sound of what we were starting with.

The song we ended up writing is more about when you start to see someone slipping, and you know that they’ll eventually be gone. It’s called “The Lights Upstairs.”

7. What are your pet peeves?

Long intros, sloppy stops, jam bands, and out of tune instruments.

8. Do you have a secret talent, if so what is it?

It is definitely NOT remembering people’s names.

9. Favorite experience from your recent show or tour?

I lost my voice a couple months ago, but I showed up to my band’s weekly gig, anyway. My bandmate and I take turns singing leads, and we know each other’s songs really well. When she’s out sick, I sing her tunes, and when I’m out, she sings mine. But I was there, with no voice.

Thing is, I’m fluent in American Sign Language, so I left my instrument in its case, got rid of the mic stand, and interpreted the whole show instead of playing or singing. There was one deaf guy in the audience, a friend of mine. If he hadn’t been there, I might have just played my instruments and not sung, but it was too perfect. He had gotten new hearing aids the day before and just so happened to want to come to the show that particular week. He sure picked the right time to come.

I got a big kick out of hearing someone else sing the leads on my songs. One of Raina’s tunes has a line in it that I didn’t understand until I had to render it visually. I had only paid attention to singing the words in harmony, but never contemplated their meaning. That’s probably my favorite thing about the experience. We had a great time. My bandmates told an extraordinary number of dick jokes that night.

10. It’s a dull day when..

I don’t get bored, and I never run out of things to do. I haven’t had a dull day since I got caught in a snow storm with nothing to read.

11. Who’s on your ipod?

Tom Waits, Anais Mitchell, Andrew Bird, Ray Charles, K.T. Tunstall, Uncle Walt’s Band, Queen, Mr. Lewis & the Funeral Five, Alice Spencer & Her Monkey Butlers, Roger Miller, Amy Winehouse, John Vandiver, Michael Jackson/Jackson 5, The Subdudes, David Rodriguez, Stevie Wonder, Morphine, Jonathan Byrd.

12. Who do people say you sound like?

Several times as a band I’ve been told we remind people of Uncle Walt’s Band. One of our fans once told me I sing like Billie Holiday–not that I sound like her, but that I sing like her.

13. How do you reenergize?

I sleep.

14. If not a songwriter, what would your alternate career pathway have been? Or do you have any additional jobs?

I work as a sign language interpreter. I actually didn’t play music much at all between 2002 and 2008 while I was in college at Gallaudet, and then working as an interpreter in Washington, D.C. So, you could say I had an alternate career pathway for a while, there.

15. Where is your favorite place to song-write?

Alone in the car on a road trip.

16. Do you have a particular (type, make, model, year) instrument you like to write on and why?

Nope. I prefer not to be bound by an instrument other than my voice when I’m writing. Tom Waits said something about the hindrance of an instrument when writing in an interview with Terry Gross: ‘There are no frets on your neck, you know?’

17. Advice you wish someone would have given you when you were first starting out?

I’ve gotten loads of good advice along the way, and I can’t think of a thing that nobody told me that I wish they had.

18. What are three of your favorite songs and or writers and why?

Walter Hyatt, for how elegantly he matches the meaning of the lyric to the feeling of the melody. “Tell Me Baby” comes to mind. Anais Mitchell, for writing songs that are both important and beautiful, like “Two Kids,” and for how she always makes me cry. Roger Miller, for being s’damned good, for being s’damned funny, and for how effortlessly he sang the hard truth. I loved singing “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone)” at the Roger Miller hoot night this year.

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