Collaboration has long been an important aspect of Jordan Tice’s artistry. Born into a family of Maryland bluegrass players and later coming into his own both as a sideman and a bandleader under various outfits, including Hawktail with Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert, and Dominick Leslie, he’s well versed in the practice of sharing influences and melding minds with fellow players.
But Tice goes it alone on his latest album, Motivational Speakeasy, a pared-down project focusing solely on his voice and Collings acoustic guitar. Produced by The Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale, the 11-track project is a free-wheeling jaunt through a mixture of blues, classic bluegrass finger-picking, rollicking instrumental numbers, and sharply told story songs. The instrumentation is simple, but the results are anything but repetitive.
“Walkin’,” for example, is fast-paced and mesmerizing, inspired by Tice’s experience of wandering New York City while he killed time waiting for a flight to Finland. It’s a positive, bright, and playful song (clearly, he wasn’t running late for his plane).
Next up in the track list is “Creation’s Done,” a vastly different kind of tune, attended by brooding guitarwork and a dissonant, despondent vocal line.
Tice wears his influences on his sleeve throughout the project. His songs echo the early blues of Mississippi John Hurt, the powerful bluegrass mastery of John Hartford, and the straight-shooting songwriting of John Prine and Bob Dylan. Nowhere in Motivational Speakeasy, however, does Tice flatter any of those artists with simple imitation. Rather, he seems to be interacting with his influences, bouncing seamlessly from interpretation to interpretation as he weaves his way through the songs.
Old habits die hard, and Tice is still collaborating even when he’s the only artist on the record. On his solo record, he brings the same lively, improvisational energy to his legend-inspired original material that he would to a jam session with his friends and fellow artists.
And though Tice’s musical influences tend toward older American roots and the blues, his song’s storylines and problems remain squarely modern-day and personal. “I think you’re sexy and you’re ’fraid to be alone / We’re a match made in heaven so let’s go and build us a home,” he sings matter-of-factly in the opening lines of “Bad Little Idea,” a song about the rickety beginnings of an ill-fated romance.
The singer takes influence from an array of artists that came before him, but he uses those influences in the service of creating a deeper, more authentic first-person project. Perhaps that’s what Tice meant by titling the record Motivational Speakeasy. In a statement about the album, he explains that his musical heroes — he names Hartford and Norman Blake as two examples — are artists who “chose to look beyond the idiomatic elements of the music and tap into where those things came from. …They learned from literal examples, but they were working more off abstractions that they absorbed into their own work, creating something entirely new.”
Inspiration, in Tice’s case, is not something that makes him want to imitate another artist — rather, it makes him want to tap into the core of what he loves about that artist and apply it to his own music.
“[It’s about] experimenting to find ways that you can express yourself in a way that adds up to yourself,” he reflects.