An Interview With Henry Jamison: Conversations Set To Music
Henry Jamison can write a song that gets stuck in your head because it’s got a good hook or a catchy chorus; and then the more you sing along, the more you start to hear. He’s got a knack for writing lyrics that have a rhythm all their own and catch you off guard with a word you have to look up (and you find it’s the exact right word to use) and a pop-culture reference a few lines later. It was great to chat with the Vermont native about his craft and how he thinks about where he is now and where he’s going.
RLR: For readers who are new to your music, tell us a little background–how did you come to making music and what is it that drew you to it?
HJ: Basically, my dad is a musician and my mother is an English professor, a Thoreau scholar. In various ways that I can’t quite pick apart myself, I combined their [jobs]. I basically came out of the womb…well, it took a few years, and then I started banging on pots and pans and recording onto a cassette tape. There wasn’t any formal goal in mind and now, it feels like a cobbled together, fateful thing. I took viola lessons, I played in orchestras, and I was in a folk chorus that performed different traditions from all over the world. And then I consciously set myself apart from that…because I didn’t want to be a nerd. [Laughs] So I quit orchestra and started playing guitar in eighth grade. My whole childhood, I listened to The Beatles, and then I got into indie rock and it just felt like I wasn’t going to do anything else. But I think all of those things gave me a sort of strange ear for different harmonies and stuff.
RLR: Thinking about that “strange ear,” your music often has a lot going on in terms of beats and tonal elements that get richer upon relistening. How does the sonic side of your songs usually develop? Do you have those sounds in your head as you’re writing, or is it a lot of experimentation to find what works?
HJ: For The Wilds record, it would be disingenuous for me to say it was all there, because it was a lot of tinkering. Some of those songs went through three or four versions and other ones didn’t at all. Some of the songs depend very heavily on the arrangements, so when I am writing it, I [know] the guitar part is complementary to the whole thing, as opposed to being central. It’s basically one or the other, more or less, because there will be songs where the guitar has more of voice. I am actually in the middle of finishing a record and for this newer stuff, I actually surprised myself with how much I knew what I wanted; and I think that was the process of doing the last record and also working with tons of people before being in a band. It’s hard to say why, but I seem to know what I want much more clearly than I did with the last record.
RLR: Sometimes when I talk to artists they think about that tension between committing sounds to a record that they cannot recreate live and I’m wondering how you think about that, given that your records are so sonically rich and that it would take quite a trapeze act, or a pretty big band, to play them live.
HJ: In the fall I had a band and basically the parts were more or less the record, with slightly more pronounced keyboard sound, and we had a violin player, so it was a little more string-heavy, but it was essentially the record. I think I have my work cut out for me more than I did before, with the material I’m working on now, because it’s just hyper-arranged; I’ll probably need a six-piece band. I don’t feel too much tension around that, though, because the songs can be one way or another, and it’s not going to be that big of a deal. Most of my spring tour will be as a duo. I just did a Spotify session and I got to do another version of “Real Peach,” which, to me, wa a really neat thing–[it was] totally different.
RLR: Speaking of Spotify, “Real Peach” has over 20 million streams. First, how do you get your head around that? And, also, There’s a lot of conversation about that model of music distribution and I’m wondering what it looks like from where you sit.
HJ: No one’s quite asked me that, in that way. I know why it happened; it’s not a mystery. It’s my manager doing a very good job at something that people find very mysterious. He has his ways, and I also make music that, up to this point, seems to thrive on the platform. So, through him, “Real Peach” got placed on certain playlists and then it performed well under whatever their algorithms are. It’s great for me, because it’s led to some exposure, maybe not as much you’d think. Even though it’s a tiny amount of money for each stream, it has accumulated so that I am able to make new records. The most sticky thing for me is whether or not to go for it again, but that’s no longer such a difficult question, because I think I have navigated that pretty well with my new music.
RLR: I think your comment, “not as much as you might think,” is part of the mystery for people. They’re thinking, 1 million streams, so what does that mean? And sometimes that’s only about how it translates to money, which is reasonable to ask, but there seems to be a broader question about how it translates to a sustainable way of making music, which also includes developing a fan base and loyalty and many other things.
HJ: Most of the bands I’ve opened for over the past year have fewer streams than I do and they have sold out crowds singing along to every word. The reality that Spotify hasn’t broken my career [open] is evident all the time. But at the same time, there is like an intravenous drip of fans coming in. In the spring, I have around 9 weeks of touring. There’s a much more grassroots way of doing it and I have a little bit of an inferiority complex, maybe, about how I’m doing it, but it’s also just the way I’m doing it.
RLR: Listening and reading your lyrics, you seem to draw a lot from poetry when it comes to rhythm. It feels like you’re much more likely to enjamb a line or leave space where other people might fill it in. Poetry and music feel pretty far apart culturally right now and I’m wondering what you’re drawing on.
HJ: I was recently thinking about this. And it might not be a direct answer, but if you consider all the different art forms as separate and how it’s very difficult to be an incredible painter or an incredible poet. I couldn’t write a very good poem, and I couldn’t paint a very good painting or make a very good movie. But because this art form isn’t just writing poetry and it’s not just making music, I will be making music videos, and doing my social media and stuff, and it seems like the only choice is to tap down into something more intuitive and have it all come out of there. Because otherwise, it will be all cobbled together as a Similac persona.
My friend Olivia, who is singing on the record, commented that it is very hard to sing harmonies with me, because my vocal delivery is so conversational, which I don’t even notice. It’s as if the song comes out with all of the inflection and poetry baked into the melody. If I try to write a song, sometimes it works out, but only sort of, and the best songs are going to come all together–even though they come together sort of slowly. People ask about process, but it’s really more of a daemonic kind of thing.
RLR: Well, in terms of process, is that you having that “conversation” with yourself and seeing what sounds natural?
HJ: Yeah. Whatever conversational quality there is to it, I don’t have an agenda for it. But it does seem like my favorite artists have this whispering in your ear, confessional [style], but not in too simpering a way–I want it to be more like a narrative.
RLR: On this album, you reference Degas, Lil Weezy, Wes Hartley. There are these unexpected boundary-crossings that we sometimes build ourselves to define our identities and aesthetic. Can you talk about how you think about that?
HJ: I’m trying to push on that more than ever right now. I still feel like i have limits. Maybe when I was 18 or so, I was walking on the side of the highway, and there was a muddy Doritos bag, and I decided the death of poetry was a muddy Doritos bag on the side of the highway. I want my life to be aesthetically on point but I need to walk past all this shitty stuff to get to the next beautiful thing. But you need to include that to some degree, even though it’s not very nice. I get into some of that on “The Jacket,” being on your phone, but I sort of feel that there’s very little discussion or understanding of what our particularly American cosmology is. I was at lunch and I overheard someone joking about the Geico gecko, and I laughed, and it is funny to talk about the Geico gecko, but I don’t even know why, and it’s almost compulsory [to talk about it] because it’s there, so it needs to be integrated in some way–but it would be a real feat to put that in a song. [Laughs] But if I didinclude the Geico gecko in a song, everything around it would have to be just beautiful to justify it.
Henry is on tour this month with Adrianne Lenker, of Big Thief, and you can check tour dates here. Get out there–you might hear the first song to feature the Geico gecko and you don’t want to miss it.