“All You Can Write Is What You See”
These words were penned by Woody Guthrie in New York City at the bottom of the lyric sheet of "This Land Is Your Land," Guthrie’s most famous song. Guthrie’s legacy would eventually spawn two distinct folk movements in New York separated by some twenty years, and both would include females as tentpoles. The Bleecker Street scene of the 60’s, widely associated with Bob Dylan, also featured Joan Baez, Judy Collins (for whom Stephen Stills wrote "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. The so-called "Fast Folk" scene of the 80’s included new voices Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Lucy Kaplansky and Ani DiFranco. Now, some twenty years later, a new wave of female singer-songwriters like Regina Spektor, Nellie McCay, Ingrid Michaelson, Kimya Dawson, and Jennifer O’Connor are carving their own ring in the NYC folk family tree.
27-year old songwriter Jaymay (ne'e Jamie Seerman) carves as deep as anyone. Whereas Bob Dylan and Judy Collins first wrestled with stage jitters learning songcraft at Café Wha? on MacDougal Street in the 60’s, Jaymay first graced the open mics at the East Village’s Sidewalk Café in 2003. Like her "anti-folk" contemporaries, though, Jaymay does not fit so squarely into the folk category, as her music fuses elements of swing jazz, orchestral pop, and acoustic country. But like the work of her folk forebears, Jaymay’s music and personal lyrics expose how deep the folk roots are buried in the fertile ground of our fair city, which continue magically turning street noise into sweet song. New York is, of course, the grandest of human experiments – cram as many of us as possible onto a small island and see what happens. Brute ugliness and distilled beauty are such everyday occurrences as to often go unnoticed, or, if noticed, ignored. Every so often a voice like Jaymay’s emerges, capable of absorbing it all and casting that illuminating beam back on us, helping us understand, and be reassured, that life in the city is a rich and noble, if not easy or simple, existence.
When we last heard from Jaymay on record, she’d invited 25 members of her extended family to join her in a beach shack near her parents’ Long Island home to sing the words "You Are The Only One I Love" over and over. The lyric doubled as the title to the final song of her debut full-length LP, Autumn Fallin’ released by EMI imprints Heavenly (abroad in ) and Blue Note (stateside in ). The track brought deep resolution to Autumn Fallin’’s emotionally-fraught 10-track song cycle, ending on a profoundly cathartic note. Recall how you felt when credits rolled in Finding Neverland, and you get the picture.
In 2007, Jaymay moved to London to help promote the UK release of Autumn Fallin’. After 14 months of European touring which included a slot at the Glastonbury Music Festival, she returned home for a headlining gig at the Bowery Ballroom this past June, a venue she’d longed to play since the days of those first Sidewalk Café open mics. After the Bowery show, Jaymay settled back in on the Upper West Side – to re-group, rejuvenate, and record her largely improvisational forthcoming EP "10 Under 2" comprised of ten songs each under 2 minutes. Following the EP’s completion, she was invited to play alongside fellow anti-folk sirens like Ingrid Michaelson, Priscilla Ahn, and Catherine Feeney on the esteemed Hotel Café Tour, a modern-day Lilith Fair on wheels. The Deli caught up with Jaymay at Café Deville in the East Village – not far from her humble beginnings at Sidewalk – before she heads back across the pond for more touring in 2009.
What have you been up to lately now that you’re back in NYC?
My favorite place always has been the Upper West Side. I haven’t had any time off for 14 months while I was touring in the UK, so I got place up there and have just been recording in my bedroom making a new EP.
What did you miss most about New York while you were living in London?
Everything. I just missed living here. I missed waking up and getting coffee I missed a window in an apartment. New York is my home. So I just missed home.
Were there any specific places you had to re-visit once you settled back in here?
The Met and the Alice In Wonderland sculpture at 77th Street in Central Park.
How has the new EP been coming along?
I’m hoping to finish it up this week. It’s called "10 Under 2," and it’s ten songs all under two minutes long.
How would you say it most differs from [full-length debut] Autumn Fallin’?
Autumn Fallin’ was basically a compilation of a few years’ worth of recordings in all different stages of my life and in different places whereas this recording is all made in the same place in the same short span of time. It’s all me and it’s all improvised. A big theme in it seems to be marriage for some reason. My cousin is getting married soon and I’m a bridesmaid. Maybe that’s why.
When I first heard Autumn Fallin’ I was surprised to learn it was your debut album. For a singer/songwriter, one expects the first album to be more of an acoustic, sparse affair, but I found Autumn Fallin’ to be filled with these lush orchestrations. Do you expect the new EP will have more of an acoustic feel?
This record is produced much in the same way. There’s no professional studio producer kind of thing. It’s really just a bunch of friends playing music together. It’s all done on the same microphone. I play violin and guitar and keyboards. There are a couple of tracks that are just me and my guitar. But they’re all under 2 minutes long – for a total of 18 minutes.
Did it take you a long time to write the songs for the EP?
No. Well, it’s all improv. I just have so many songs under two minutes. I’ve been working on this idea for a long time, so I had some songs recorded already. But then when I returned to New York, I liked what I was doing more now. So I redid the whole thing.
Do you find living in urban areas like New York and London an inspiration or a distraction? In other words, does urban living help or hinder the creative process?
It’s all I know. I never really considered myself a songwriter until I moved to New York in 2003. That’s when I knew that I would do this for a living. So all of my inspiration came from NYC. Each song on Autumn Fallin’ is written about New York. And in London, of course that’s an urban lifestyle as well, but the fact is, while I was based there, I was always on tour. Always on a bus. So that’s a very different way of living, but in general I find the urban lifestyle more stimulating than anything else.
When you write, how do the songs coalesce? Do you typically write the lyrics first, music first, or do you write them together?
Every song is improv really. So when I say the new EP is specifically improv – really all of my songs are. Melodically and lyrically, something will just appear in my head, and then I’ll realize ‘oh I just wrote that.’ [laughter] It’s like your subconscious speaking. I’m not ever specifically trying to say something, but once the song starts to evolve, I know what I’m talking about. It becomes the theme of my week, and then it’s much easier to complete the song. Sometimes you can write a song in two minutes and sometimes it takes two years. With "You’d Rather Run," I had the last line of the song two years before I actually finished the song. They all seem to want to write themselves at their own pace.
That song ("You’d Rather Run") has some harsh, biting lyrics to it. Do you find writing as a way to work through difficult emotions? Is it a painful process sometimes?
Experiencing what I’m writing about is the painful thing. Not the actually writing of the song itself. But writing is definitely a coping mechanism for me. It’s the way I process information too. It’s definitely cathartic, but every time I write a song, I’m nervous I’ll never write another song again, even though it’s all I do. Everyday. Is write. But as soon as I finish one, I’m always nervous about the next song. So I never feel good. And I suppose that’s what helps perpetuate the process.
I read that, when you were 24, you felt that you should have written your magnum opus by that age, like Bob Dylan with "Like A Rolling Stone." At the time you mentioned that "Sea Green, See Blue" was that song for you. Do you still think that is the best song you’ve written to date?
No, now I figure it’s "One May Die So Lonely." Right now that’s my favorite.
Autumn Fallin’ had a lot of seasonal references. Do you find the seasons affect your writing?
That’s just living in New York. You’re so immersed in it. There’s no escaping the weather. Everything here is so specifically spring, summer, fall or winter.
So is "10 Under 2" filled with summer songs?
Well, there’s one track called "Summertime Is Where It’s At." So that’s one for sure.
When you were readying Autumn Fallin’ for release, I’d read that you contemplated releasing it on your own, and then ultimately decided to sign with [UK imprint, EMI subsidiary] Heavenly Records and release it through them. Was that a difficult decision?
I was really reticent to sign. Some [labels] had expressed interest early on, and I always said ‘no, no,’ because I just didn’t feel ready. I didn’t start playing until 2003. But I was intrigued by the whole ‘signing of the UK’ thing to go experience traveling abroad and exposing myself abroad and living abroad. I kept meeting everyone [at the label], and then finally just decided it was time.
Does Heavenly "feel" like a major label?
It doesn’t feel any different than not being signed. Except that, you have this team of awesome people working with you. But there’s no real glamour. You’re working your ass off. You’re not showering enough. You’re sleeping on buses.
Autumn Fallin' was released here in the States by Blue Note Records. How did it feel being released by the same label that released all these jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk?
Chet Baker is my favorite, dude. Embraceable You is just it for me. So just sharing a label with him is awesome. And Norah Jones! I remember when I first heard Norah Jones, I was driving with my Dad in the car and I made him pullover to the side of the road. The Blue Note folks are such genuine music fans. They go out every night and they’re always watching live music.
Were you concerned they might be too jazz-focused to release and promote your record properly?
Well, I really don’t think of Norah Jones like that. To be honest, I didn’t think it would be an option to sign with them, so I never really even thought about it. I played a show at Rockwood Music Hall, and they came down to see me and based on that performance, it was gonna be ‘yes or no.’ I thought for sure they would not be interested and I didn’t want to meet them beforehand or talk to them afterwards because I was sure they hated it. Positively hated it.
Why? Bad show?
I always think my shows are bad. [laughter] But hey that’s what makes me keep at it! I always want to do better. But I never imagined it would be an option to sign with Blue Note. I still don’t really think I’m signed with them! [laughter]
You close Autumn Fallin’ with the track "You Are The Only One I Love." When I first heard it, I assumed it was your voice overdubbed several times. But then I took a peek at the liner notes and realized you had 25 people on there singing backup! How did that come about?
I wished someone would come with a camera and watch how I record and see how unprofessional and sloppy it all is. It’s the most pathetic setup. Lou Schefano produced a lot of the record with me and that we did it in this shack beach house on Long Island near where my parents live. I wanted all these background vocals, so I invited my whole family over -- cousins, grandma, uncles…everyone. My entire extended family. And they all sat in the room and I played the song on the speakers and I just put a microphone in the room, and they just sang along to me singing.
You come from quite a large family. How many siblings to do you have?
There are 6 kids. I’m in the middle. Number Three.
What was it like sort of growing up with such a large family?
It was the best ever. We’re a really really close family. Because I’m a middle child a lot of what I was interested in came from my older siblings. They keep you in check and they’re really just my best friends. Everyone gets along. We’re still ridiculous close. My brother is my manager.
Was music a big influence on your childhood?
No. In fact when we’d go on long car trips, the rule was no music. But we had pianos. We had this crappy grand piano and we had an even crappier upright that we don’t have anymore. And I played that, along with violin in elementary school. I was always doing music in school, singing in the chorus. But no solos! I was extremely shy.
That’s a rather odd trait for a singer/songwriter who performs solo in front of crowds.
Yeah! That’s why I used the name "Jaymay" when I performed! I didn’t want to use my real name because I didn’t think I’d ever do it again! But when I was growing up we would put on plays all the time – my sister, my cousin, and me – and I would always get the smallest parts. I’d be the floor sweeper in the play, and they’d be the stars.
What allowed you to break through that shyness and start performing in front of an audience?
When I was at New College in Florida, I met my friend Heather. She’s an awesome singer/songwriter, and she introduced me to the Sidewalk Café when we were in New York together. We went to an open mic, and she performs, and I was astounded at her bravery to get up on the stage. So I always promised myself that when I graduated I would do the same thing. So I did. I went to a Sidewalk open mic and played half a song, called "Banana Without a Peel." It was horrible. So nerve-wracking. But it’s addictive. From the first time I performed at Sidewalk, I knew that was what I’d be doing for good.
Within the NYC open mic circuit, did you find it to be a big support system, or was there competition among musicians?
I found it to be them most friendly encouraging atmosphere ever. I’m still friends with lots of them. My whole phone is filled with Sidewalk Café musicians. I had just moved to New York, I didn’t know anybody except my sister, and for me that was the birth of everything, musically. And I didn’t feel it was competitive then. I feel that it’s more competitive now, maybe.
Now that you’re a professional recording artist signed to a major record label, has your attitude toward music changed?
I worry about it more. When I first started I didn’t know to care. I didn’t know what to worry about because I had no experience. Now I do, and I feel that I actually have an audience now. Before I was just writing songs that I wanted to hear – writing to myself. And now it’s not as carefree as it used to be. And at times it’s not as fun as it use to be, but sometimes it’s so fun. But I don’t really feel pressure. I’m not this huge star who has to make this huge album. I don’t feel any pressure like that. I’m making this silly E.P. I can still do whatever I want. Say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whatever I want. I just do what I do and that’s make music.
When did you play the Glastonbury Music Festival?
I think it was last summer.
That’s an enormous festival. What was it like playing a venue like that?
Well I’m not into festivals really. I don’t really feel like I can experience the music like I want to. And Glastonbury is insanely muddy. It’s pouring rain. And it’s cold. Uncomfortably cold. It’s not some warm tropical experience – it’s freezing! I didn’t have any sleeping arrangements so I walked all night in the rain. I watched Pulp Fiction in a tent until three in the morning. Stage wise, I played the first night, and the sound was all broken. I wasn’t a huge fan.
What’s your favorite venue to play here in the City?
I love Bowery [Ballroom] now that I’ve finally performed there. Love it. Love it! I think now that’s my favorite, although I also love Rockwood Music Hall.
It’s so wonderful. You must go. Its on Allen and Houston. It’s a small room. A beautiful room. With a beautiful soundman, Ken Rockwood.
What are your hopes for the next year?
I don’t think people get a sense of how much I have written because I haven’t recorded as much as I write. I feel like I’m always catching up. I write songs all the time but I’m not recording fast enough. I want to get all my songs out there. That’s all I want to do really.
Do you find yourself growing tired of certain songs you’ve played over and over?
What’s interesting to me is how the song’s meaning changes. I’m always constantly editing songs I’ve written – changing the lines and such. That keeps it fresh. When I’m on stage, I am thinking of what I’m singing but it’s not necessarily the same sentiment as when I wrote that lyric. So it can be weird that way. I just want to write, and write and write. I want to write a book. I just want to write. Ultimately, I really want to write soundtracks. I like working by myself -- that’s my favorite way to work. I can picture myself sitting at home by myself watching the screen and writing companion pieces.
Any film projects in particular?
Eat Pray Love. I read that book and I’m working on the soundtrack on my own, just because I feel like it. And then I just read this book by Christine Schutt called All Souls. I’m going to meet with her soon, and begin working on music for that.
Do you still sort of consider yourself a "New York musician" and identify with the scene here?
For me it’s all about living in New York in this life. My inspiration comes from here and it’s home, and this is where I ultimately want to end up. I just see myself in New York City. I always miss it. It’s really where I want to be.
It’s time for the desert island challenge. You’re on a desert island and you need to choose one album…one film…
Too easy…too easy…
…one book and one food that’s going to feed you for the rest of your days.
The record is "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison. That’s my favorite record of all time. And then the book would be [JD Salinger’s] Catcher in the Rye. I read it twice a year at least. It’s with me on tour always. I need that book. I need it.
And the movie?
What About Bob. I even have a song on new EP called "What About The Bob?"
I love grape leaves. Grape leaves and licorice.