SPOTLIGHT: How Jeremy Ivey’s Unique Path to Music Helped Him Find His Own Way
Photo by Danielle Holbert
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeremy Ivey is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for March 2022, and his new album, Invisible Pictures, is out March 11. Look for more about Ivey and the new album here at nodepression.com all month long.
“When I graduated high school, I thought The Doors were like a heavy metal band from the ’80s. I didn’t know a timeline or what [anything] was. I think the first time I heard Bob Dylan, my friend had a cassette of his greatest hits and he put on ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and I was just like, ‘How is this guy famous? He sounds like he’s squawking.’ I didn’t get it because I wasn’t listening to what he was saying. And I think I lived with the thought of it for a few days and then was like, ‘Can I borrow that tape of that insane guy?’ And then I figured out what he was saying was brilliant.”
For a self-described shy person, Jeremy Ivey gets especially animated when talking about his youth, the memories of which are chronicled on the latest release in his recent prolific run, Invisible Pictures, out March 11 on ANTI- Records. The album — his third in as many years — is filled with deeply personal stories about Ivey’s sheltered upbringing as the adopted son of strict religious parents in Texas. Born to a mother with drug addiction, Ivey was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a baby after suffering a stroke. But he pushed through and later learned to play guitar in church. When it came to listening to music, though, secular stuff was off limits and the genres were limited to Christian or classical. Ivey chose the latter.
“Beethoven was my first love,” he says. “That’s the obvious choice, but I got really into ‘Pathetique’ and that whole movement, and Dvořák and Rachmaninoff and some of the crazy angry but sweet piano stuff.” The classical greats pushed Ivey toward composing and songwriting, but it wasn’t until he picked up a Simon and Garfunkel record for a buck at a Southern Thrift that the door blew wide open. “It just happened to be that way,” he says of finding such a treasure. “It could have been anything. Could have been Donna Summer that I discovered, and I’d be writing disco hits.”
The poetic lyrics to “The Sound of Silence” and later, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Fiona Apple’s Tidal reminded him of the writers with whom he’d become enamored, like Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Rimbaud. It was poetry that taught him the power words can wield. “I would just love the way that the language felt,” he remembers. “But also if you’re in a hotel room and you’ve got the window up and there’s people talking in the street and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, there’s a certain lonely sadness to that, but what a beautiful picture you could paint to describe what that felt like.”
Though Ivey was deprived of the experience of growing up in a home like the one he’s created with wife and musician Margo Price, filled with a “kaleidoscope of the history of good music coming through the speakers,” he doesn’t seem to harbor much resentment. Instead, he envies it for their two kids (one born just before the pandemic), whose young, impressionable minds have already been exposed to the sounds of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, and Motown.
“In a way, I wish I could shelter them from everything and then when they’re 20 be like, ‘Here it is, go write songs now!’ ’Cause you can’t measure what it really means to hear something for the first time,” he says. “For me to discover something like Etta James for the first time would be like, ‘Whoa!’ Wilson Pickett or something like that. And to not be a kid, but to be an adult with an adult brain, I think that was cool.”
What It Means Can’t Be Measured
Perhaps more than any other artist Ivey was discovering as he entered adulthood, Elliott Smith is the one that changed everything, for better or worse.
Ivey had begun recording his own material on a little four-track. He shared it with a friend who pointed him toward Smith’s seminal 1997 record Either/Or, and Ivey shuddered. “You know that chill that comes over your body when you know you just did something wrong? I knew I did what this guy did, but he did it better, and I just felt really defeated, like, ‘I can’t do this,’” he remembers. “Because I was a finger-y picker and a whispery singer, kind of depressive but very chord-y and kind of melodic songs. So I just stepped as far away from it as I could.”
This insecurity and sense of woundedness plagued Ivey and ultimately set him on a completely different creative path. “I was so self-conscious of that, that I wasn’t writing intricate chord progressions and this musicality wasn’t coming out of me because I was trying to keep it to, like, three chords. I’m from Texas, so I can write country songs, but that’s not naturally who I am. The way my brain works, I can come up with three chords around that melody or I can come up with nine. And nine’s kind of where my brain goes,” he says.
Years passed and Ivey continued to write music, but mostly took a co-pilot position alongside Price, working collaboratively as a songwriter and playing in her band. Even when he began to release his solo music in 2019, he was still piecing together his sound, unsure of himself and afraid to revisit Smith’s work. Until now.
“I ran from it for so long because I was embarrassed of the fact that this guy was doing what I was trying to do and he had the same influences, The Beatles and all this stuff. So finally, I just decided I don’t care. I’m gonna be myself and obviously it’s not the same, it’s different,” Ivey says. “But I have a huge respect for him and his music, and what it means to me can’t be measured, so hopefully, if anything, it’s an homage.”
Smith isn’t the only influence on Invisible Pictures. There are sonic shades of Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, The Kinks, and, more recently, Riley Downing. Ivey had intended to make a sparser acoustic version of Invisible Pictures, but when he heard Downing’s 2021 Andrija Tokic-produced release Start it Over, he knew he’d found the sound — and producer — he needed to illustrate his stories of depression, isolation, and loneliness. The result is groovy, melodic arrangements that swirl around Ivey’s vivid, often morbid lyrics.
Tokic’s hand, plus Megan Coleman’s percussion and Billy Contreras’ strings, adds a certain funk, a wonderful oddballishness. Right off the bat, album opener “Orphan Child,” with its whirling organ and Spanish guitar picking, throws you off guard with its quirky textures, even as Ivey sings:
I’m an orphan honey
I am a transient soul
My family tree’s on fire
And I don’t belong here
Or any place near
I am an orphan child
With a heart of barbed wire
On “Grey Machine,” Chris Scruggs’ pedal steel does a dreamy dance with Contreras’ strings while Ivey’s lyrics tell the story of meeting Price. “Our whole dream when we met was like, ‘We gotta run away.’ I don’t know where we were gonna go,” he says of the song. “I think that the overall feeling was that we were going to escape something. Probably our shitty jobs and the feeling of going nowhere.”
The darkest days of the past couple years also take shape on Invisible Pictures. “It was more of a mental thing where my self-worth was gone, and I’ve been there before, but I think this time for some reason, whether because of all the planets aligning, I was like, ‘I’m gonna talk about this, I’m gonna write about it,’” Ivey says. “There were certain things I’d never really addressed.”
Aside from a bout of heavy drinking and the typical-at-this-point pandemic-induced depression, COVID-19 nearly killed Ivey. He got a lifeline from Fiona Prine, the late John Prine’s widow, who, after her husband’s passing, dropped off the nebulizer and Albuterol administered to Prine in the hospital. Ivey still has it, and it now serves as a surreal note-to-self of what’s important. “I can’t say enough for how sweet and thoughtful that was,” he says. “It just kind of reminds you of a lot of things: how brief life is, and how precious time is with people that you respect and love.”
Still, you can hear his bleaker state of mind on songs like “Black Mood” and “Phantom Limb.” Ivey conjures up eerie, bleak imagery — a melted face, snakes and venom, a demonic doorman, a gangrenous arm — and then coils Wurlitzer and harmonies around it, injecting these dark clouds with a shot of something like hope. “I’ve always thought of music as pictures that your ears can see. It’s little films,” he says.
Some songs, including one about the biological father he never met, were too morose to make the cut. “I don’t like writing happy songs, I’m not good at it. It’s easier for me when I’m feeling low to go put that feeling into a song. I’ll try to always keep a little hopefulness in there, but I can’t guarantee it. You gotta be honest sometimes, you know?”
Songs like “Keeps Me High” and the album’s title track are especially sweet. The former tells of the transformative experience of having their daughter, the latter of keeping your head above water no matter what muck is sloshing around. “Nothing can bring me down today,” he sings on “Invisible Pictures.” “Nothing can take my mind away.”
The finishing touch of Invisible Pictures was particularly cosmic. Ivey went to Los Angeles and hooked up with mixer and renowned indie rock guru Rob Schnapf, known for his work on the early records from Beck and, wait for it, Elliott Smith. “I think my label picked up on it because when I sent the rough recordings of everything I’d done they were like, ‘You need to meet Rob,’” Ivey says. “He put the vibe on it when he mixed it.”
And though touring remains something of a question mark for so many musicians itching to play their new music, Ivey is already onto creating the next set of songs, rejecting the typical album cycles and opting instead to just put out new music when it feels right. “It could be making up for lost time, but I’ve also always written this much, since I started as a teenager. I just didn’t have anywhere to put it,” he says. “It’s an addiction. I think I could give up really anything else in my life, but creating is something I like to do and will probably do until I’m done.”