Slowly but surely, Nashville manages to shed the reputation of being a "one note" Music City. As country and americana continue to charge forward, the hip-hop, R&B, electronica, pop, and every genre in between follow suit at seemingly exponential rates. Five years ago, you would have been lucky to catch one or two soul jams a month, but now, there's Rudy's Jazz Room, and some form of R&B salon at any given venue. Which (questionably) segues into Now/It's next feature interview - Jess Nolan - an R&B singer whose cut her teeth sharp and fast during her first two years in Nashville, and looks poised to keep doing the same. She talks about the initial struggle to build momentum in a scene where she knew nobody, as well as how it's informed her perspective as of late, now that she's a budding figurehead in Nashville's next wave of R&B performers. Jess is playing The 5 Spot on Wednesday, October 25th, at 9 PM with Suzy Jones and Jackie Venson.
Now/It's met with Jess Nolan at Portland Brew East, in the East Nashville.
Jess - I got food because I’m starving right now.
N/I - No worries. Do your thing…. Well how have you been?
Jess - Good. How are you?
N/I - Doing pretty well. Got stuck behind a Grayline tour bus on the way over here, so that added about ten minutes. So I apologize about that.
Jess - Oh damn [laughs]. You’re fine.
N/I - Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to meet up. What have you been up to other than being hungry?
Jess - Just music. A ton of it. Touring, recording. It’s been great.
N/I - Pretty busy, then?
Jess - Yes. Very busy. It actually slowed down a little bit for the first time in a while, so that’s kind of nice. It’s good to have a break.
N/I - Sure. A little respite from the grind. But otherwise, things are going at a pace that you would prefer?
Jess - Definitely. I’m putting out new music next month, so I’m getting ready for that. Touring at the beginning of next year. I’m doing all of my booking, so it’s pretty much a full time job booking everything. I’m diving into the deep end on that.
N/I - That’s got to be a little tough. Or at least I would imagine it is.
Jess - Yeah. It’s a lot of work, for sure. It’s just sending a ton of emails - it’s like I’m sending one hundred emails to get eight replies.
N/I - I would imagine that type of scenario would humble you pretty quickly, at least in terms of expectation.
Jess - Definitely. It’s hard, especially when you’re trying to make a name for yourself outside of town. I can get a show in town, but booking outside is really hard. It’s a good learning experience, though.
N/I - I’m sure. So what’s the music you have coming out next month?
Jess - So I recorded three singles over the summer, and I think I’m going to put out one near the beginning of next month and then two at the top of the year.
N/I - Okay. And did you record those singles with some of the Dynamo guys?
Jess - I did my first EP with the musical director of Dynamo - he co-produced it with me - but these next singles I’m doing with a guy named Goffrey Moore. He did Jonny P’s stuff. He’s amazing.
N/I - That’s right. Well that’s super cool. So how was that working with Goffrey, I know Jonny seemed to love it.
Jess - It was amazing. He basically just bought a house in Madison and turned it into a studio, so it was just super relaxed because you feel like you’re in someone’s house. So it’s a comfortable environment.
N/I - Smooth and relaxed.
Jess - It was great for recording.
N/I - So how did you get hooked up with him, then?
Jess - So I heard Jonny’s stuff on Lightning 100, and I’ve been a fan of his for a while…. I reached out to Luke Enyeart, who plays guitar for Jonny - he’s actually playing guitar for me at my next show - but I basically reached out to him and asked him “Who produced this? This sounds so great.” And he said it was Goffrey Moore, so I just looked him up on Facebook and just messaged him. I was like “I’m a songwriter in town, I’d love to get coffee.” So we met up and just kind of hit it off. I had been looking for a producer for the next project, because I wanted to do something different for the last EP, and then things went from there. He told to come play him some songs and he was into it.
N/I - Does that resemble the general arc of everything that’s happened for you since you’ve been in town? I know it’s been two years, which is and isn’t plenty of time.
Jess - It’s been pretty smooth, for sure. I can’t really complain. I set my mind to something and try to make it happen.
N/I - That’s great. Is that different than how things were in Miami?
Jess - I feel like I was sort of in a bubble there - I didn’t really know what the industry was like - I really just saw it through the scope of the Sony job.
N/I - Right. And that was a little warped, in terms of unprecedented access to certain things.
Jess - Exactly. And that’s not even close to how things actually are for an indie artist, like at all.
N/I - Sure. I mean, it’s a giant corporate entity/conglomerate, so things are kind of set in a specific manner.
Jess - Absolutely. So I think I just needed to get to an environment outside of that and outside of school. Don’t get me wrong, I loved going to Miami, but I feel like it doesn’t totally prepare you for what’s happening in the real world. We didn’t learn how to book our own shows there, I’m just now learning how to go about that by actually doing it. It’s definitely been more difficult outside of school as far as “making things happen” is concerned, but Nashville is a great place to do it, because there are so many different people trying to do it.
N/I - It seems a little more communal.
Jess - Everyone’s trying to help each other, for the most part, which is great in terms of collaboration.
N/I - It’s funny, I talked to Lydia Luce a little while back, and she had mentioned something that was interesting when she was at UCLA. She was a teacher’s assistant, teaching orchestral strings students, and part of her job was to teach them how to get gigs, or at least, steady ones.
Jess - Oh wow. See, I feel like we should have had classes like that, like “How to Make Your Website,” or “What’s the Etiquette for Sending an Email?” because a lot of people have no idea. I was lucky to figure it out somewhat quickly, but I look back at the interviews I was sending a year and a half ago, and it’s obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.
N/I - Oh sure. It can be hard to find that sweet spot of professional and casual when sending cold emails. It’s easy to tell who’s gone through the wringer of finding their perfect outreach email, and who hasn’t. There are some that are simply “Hey man, I have new music coming out. Put it up tomorrow if you can!” and then whoever they’re sending it to is just kind sitting there with a short notice request that is offered under pretense of it already being posted.
Jess - When I was first trying to book my first tour - which ended up not happening, because I wasn’t doing it right - I was sending emails a month out, and that is not enough time. You have to be four months ahead of the curve.
N/I - Absolutely. You need to be a quarter ahead of everything.
Jess - Exactly. But I didn’t know that, so I’m sending out all these emails and basically everyone is responding “We’re booked.” So we never went on that run. I remember me and this songwriter were trying to go on the run, but we couldn’t get anything booked. It never happened because we didn’t know what we were doing. It was good, because I learned, and now I know that I have to send things this far in advance. It’s been a learning experience. I feel like I’ll appreciate it even more if I ever wind up with a booking agent, the fact that I did it myself.
N/I - I would imagine that at the very least, it provides some added perspective. So once you get an independent booking agent or a major one, even if they might not be able to get every stop you want, you at least understand the nature of their correspondence.
Jess - Exactly.
N/I - So I have to ask you - since we both have the commonality of the Sony thing - was that at all what you wanted to be doing?
Jess - No. Not at all.
N/I - Me neither. It was a nice thing.
Jess - It was a great job, and that was what I looked at it as: make some money, learn about that side of the industry. And I was a music business student in school, because the songwriting program didn’t have a major within the school. The music program was just that, a program, and then music business was the major that made the most sense to me. So I majored in music business and we had to have some sort of internship, so I used the Sony job as my internship. It was great, I had a really good experience doing, but I knew when I took the job that that was not what I wanted to do. And even more so after, because I thought about moving to Nashville and maybe getting a job in the industry here, part time or full time, and trying to do music on the side, but part of what the Sony job made me realize was that I didn’t want to do that at all. So I decided that once I moved to Nashville, I just wasn’t going to do that. So when I did move here, I just wound up getting a job at the YMCA lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons, because I’d rather be able to do that and actually try to orient my energy toward music.
N/I - Sure. Sometimes you run into that strange perception of people that work an “industry” job, but willingly let people know they’re also pursuing a career in music performance as an artist, musician, etc.
Jess - It’s really kind of a conflict of interest.
N/I - It absolutely is.
Jess - It creates a weird vibe. I never wanted to be in that situation. I felt like I was pretty good at the Sony job - I’m an organized person - but it wasn’t something I was ever passionate about.
N/I - I feel like you and I were on the same wavelength, with regard to the job. It’s a good gig, do good work, plenty of perks, and a good learning experience in terms of first hand access within a major label system, but at the end of the day if it’s going to be a lot of clerical stuff….
Jess - It’s bound to become kind of soul sucking.
N/I - Right. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, in theory.
Jess - Of course. There are plenty of people that love doing that, but it wasn’t for others.
N/I - Sure. Analytics are interesting, marketing is cool, but other things are less enticing.
Jess - Exactly.
N/I - So when you did come to Nashville, how long were you working at the YMCA? Which by the way, was there a news story that you wound up being a part of?
Jess - There was. So within my first six months living here, I hadn’t really done much musically yet, because I was still getting my grounding meeting people. I had played a couple shows out, but the first big thing that happened to me while was in town was that a guy had a heart attack while I was at the YMCA, lifeguarding. I had to do CPR and we saved him. The Tennessean covered it and it became this whole thing, and my parents were like “Maybe you should be an EMT?” and I was just like “No!” [laughs].
N/I - Because of one instance?
Jess - [Laughs] Yeah. But that was the first news story with my name on it.
N/I - Introducing Jess Nolan, the hero, to the greater Nashville area.
Jess - Right. That was the first time I got press in town [laughs].
N/I - So those first few shows that you played - were they open mics?
Jess - Yeah. I did a ton of open mics, writers rounds, those types of things.
N/I - Douglas Corner type stuff?
Jess - I think I did one show at Douglas Corner. I did some Listening Room Cafe stuff. I think I did Listening Room in January, so about half a year after I moved here and then I did a couple full band shows at The End - that was the first venue that I played. But it was really fun, just meeting people and getting to know people. And then I went to this Super Jam - I don’t know if you know Josh Blaylock….
N/I - I used to play basketball with him.
Jess - I call him the “Mayor of Nashville,” because he seems to know everyone in town. He’s a great guy. He has these Super Jams at his house and invites thirty R&B and jazz musicians from around town to come and play. And I think that’s where I met pretty everybody that I play with now. So that was a great opportunity. Just meeting Josh and that opening up the door to the Dynamo guys, and the whole soul scene that is just exploding here in town.
N/I - It’s blossoming, big time.
Jess - It’s really cool.
N/I - And soul music was what you’ve oriented yourself toward from the onset, right?
Jess - For the most part. When I started writing - I started writing when I was twelve - and in the beginning, it was involved with whatever was going with me, but once I got to college, what I listened to began to change my trajectory and writing. I started listening to a lot of Carole King, and a lot of sixties, seventies era singer songwriters and was just sort of drawn toward the soul thing. Plus, I was always into Alicia Keys for as long as I could remember, so I’ve always been drawn to that. And things have only grown even more so here. Some of the musicians that I play with… they’re incredible musicians, playing at churches, and are the most amazing people to learn from.
N/I - So it wasn’t all that difficult to find that community, then?
Jess - No! I’m still sort of feeling it out. I play with a ton of people - I don’t want to limit myself to one set of people and nobody else - I love playing with new people. It happened pretty easily. I feel like Josh was the connection to that whole world.
N/I - The catalyst, so to speak.
Jess - Yeah!
N/I - So do you ever run into anybody giving you grief for wanting to play with a lot of different people?
Jess - I don’t think so. I think people respect that. I mean, I’ve only been here two years, so I don’t think that I would want to limit myself, so if I want to play with somebody new, I’m always trying to be upfront with people and express that. I just think there are so many great musicians here, so why would I limit myself to just one person?
N/I - Well that’s a very realistic and mature approach to the whole situation. I’m sure that mindset would pay dividends in the end.
Jess - Yeah. I try to keep an open mind when it comes to playing with people. If I hear somebody I like, I obviously want to try and collaborate in whatever way I can.
N/I - Is there anyone like that for you now?
Jess - Oh man. I actually went to a show last night - and I’ve seen this guy play many times before - but Jay White, he’s a bass player here in town, and an amazing singer. Man, everytime I hear him play, my mind is just really impressed. He’s definitely somebody that I’d want to collaborate with. I could list a lot of people that I’d be super down to play with.
N/I - Well who are some of the others?
Jess - I recently opened up for Mike Hicks at Eddie’s Attic.
N/I - In Decatur [Georgia]?
Jess - Yes. That was my first time playing that room. Mike is just a really inspiring guy, and a big head in the soul community here. He’s another person I’d love to collaborate with more, write with, play with…. Who else? There’s so many.
N/I - That there are. So how did you get involved with Mike?
Jess - So Jason Eskridge asked me to do Sunday Night Soul around a year and a half ago - and that was the first show in town where people within that scene heard me for the first time - and I don’t know how Mike heard about me. I was aware of him since I moved here, more or less, and somehow he heard my music and dug it and I got offered to do the Eddie’s Attic show, and they asked for a local opener, and I asked Mike since he’s from the area, and it was great. I actually did a solo set before him, and he came up and played on two of my songs. He’s one of those guys that can add just a little bit that winds up adding so much more depth. He’s an incredible player. So getting to do stuff like that here has been pretty cool.