Music Interview: JAIMEE HARRIS – ‘The Congress House Sessions’ Release

JAIMEE HARRIS

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We were lucky enough to catch up with Austin-based musician JAIMEE HARRIS following the release of ‘The Congress House Sessions’ EP. Read our full interview now!

How did you first get into music?

When I was five years old, around Christmas time, I fell in love with Emmylou Harris’s ‘Light of the Stable’. I sat by the stereo and kept putting the song on repeat, singing the lead and all of the harmony parts. My folks noticed I was interested in music and gave me a guitar for Christmas that year. 

Who influenced your latest release, ‘The Congress House Sessions’?

When I first started playing music live, I played in a duo with my dad. I’ve been in duos, trios, or bands most of my life, even though I’ve primarily written solo. By the time I left Austin, my band had grown into a seven-piece ensemble. 

In 2018, almost everything in my life changed. I quit my day job of seven years, fell in love, and hit the road full time for the first time in my life. I found myself having these incredible opportunities to share my songs for listening room audiences all over the world, and I felt like it was totally blowing it. I learned that being on stage alone required a completely different skill set than the one I had developed fronting a band. I felt like I was drowning. I knew having these opportunities to play for these audiences was a privilege that I deeply wanted to honour.

I was afraid that after waiting a long time to commit to music full time that I still wasn’t ready. I felt like I couldn’t really share my discomfort with my friends, who are primarily singer-songwriters that would soar in these same situations because I didn’t want to be perceived as ungrateful. 

So, I became very lonely and trapped in a swirl of imposter syndrome and crippling self-doubt. It eventually led to a mental breakdown in Amsterdam. Mary Gauthier and Michele Gazich witnessed me break down all the way but then helped me to build up again stronger. By the time we played Union Chapel, I felt like I was finally getting a handle on the troubadour thing. I felt strong again. 

I believe, as a woman, I had a fear of being known as a “chick singer”, so I shied away from using my voice in a lot of ways in which I am capable because I really wanted the songs to be taken seriously. I know now that the songs stand on their own if they are written honourably, and I have no control over what anyone thinks anyway! 

Being alone on stage with just my voice in my acoustic guitar taught me that I have to use the three tools I’ve got. The songs have to be super solid. No leaks. I have to be a super solid guitar player. I’m the band. I have to create the dynamics and memorable parts with my guitar. My voice needs to be used in dynamic ways, as well to take the listeners on a journey and to keep the solo show interesting for me every night. 

By strengthening these skills, I knew I wanted to capture these seven songs in this time and format before it passed by me. My soul knew I needed to capture what I worked so hard to develop on the road to remember how far I had come. 

 ‘The Congress House Sessions’ were recorded in Congress House Studio by Mark Hallman; what was that process like?

No song was recorded in more than two or three takes. I sang these songs with my former roommates Kris Nelson and Jane Ellen Bryant, countless times. I wanted this record to feel like you were sitting in our living room or in our backyard with us. It was very casual and friendly. 

Ray Bonneville stopped by for lunch and ended up playing the harmonica on ‘Red Rescue’. Brian Patterson, who I’ve known since I was a teenager, added beautiful guitar textures to the record. Sammy Powell and I work together in a rock and roll band called Western Youth. Our mutual love for Ian McLagan bonded us early on, and I knew this record would be a great opportunity to work together. This whole record was made with very close friends who have believed in these songs for years. 

 I’d also been dreaming up an opportunity to work with Mark Hallman for a while. I’ve sung background vocals on several projects recorded at The Congress House, but I’d never recorded my own material there. I met Mark at parties over the years and always enjoyed visiting with him. It wasn’t until about six years ago when I fell in love with (became obsessed with) Eliza Gilkyson’s work, that I realized he was a producer. Particularly a fabulous producer that was involved with so many records I love. 

Mark has seen me live in various formats over the years. So, I can trust that he knows what kind of emotion my voice is capable of communicating. I know that if Mark tells me to keep going or that we have it, I can trust him completely. He knows my voice better than almost anyone. 

My experience working with Mark was empowering because he guided me to answers instead of bossing me around. Instead of saying, “We should do this” or “I think it should go like that”, he asked me what I thought or asked me what I wanted to try. 

Sometimes, like in the case of tracking ‘Creatures’, we tried an arrangement that we’d used live for years. I’m sure within the first chorus, he knew it wasn’t working. But his method was to have me listen, ask me what I thought, and when I said, “This isn’t working, right?” Mark shook his head no and then gave me the space to ask for his guidance. That method helped me to trust myself again, which I desperately needed after experiencing a long period of so much doubt. 

What motivates you to make music?

More often than not, I’m motivated to write because something is weighing on me. It could be my own struggle with mental health or addiction. It could be that I’m searching to understand grief or the experience of someone else. By putting myself in the shoes of a narrator, I’m able to articulate and understand the world in a way I am not able to do outside of the songwriting art form. The songs continue to evolve and teach me with the passing of time. The process humbles me every time. 

 If you could open for any artist/band, who would it be?

I’ve been fortunate to share the stage with some of my favourite artists: Peter Case, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, and Gretchen Peters. Honestly, opening a show for other artists can be a hard gig. My real dream would be to sing harmonies with James McMurtry, Bonnie Raitt, and Emmylou Harris. I’ve had the chance to share the stage with Emmylou once, and it pretty much made my life. Honestly, that was my biggest dream, and it has already come true. I’d be super happy if I got the chance to sing harmonies with Caroline Spence, too. 

What’s your favourite venue to play?

Picking a favourite is just too hard for me. Some of my favourites have been The Cactus Cafe (Austin, TX), Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe (Galveston, TX), The Shitty Barn (Spring Green, WI), Union Chapel (London, UK), TivoliVredenburg (Utrecht, NL). My favourite place to see a show in the whole wide world is The Continental Club in Austin, Texas. 

What are your other passions aside from music?

On the road, I like to look for arcades. I used to be a competitive skeeball roller. I’m also a super fan of pinball and try to find pinball machines whenever we travel. My other non-musical obsession is riding roller coasters. If I wasn’t a musician, I’d be a roller coaster vlogger. I spend an embarrassing amount of time watching POV roller coaster videos on YouTube. If there’s a great arcade or roller coaster in your town, I want to know about it! 

If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

Only one???? I guess my first order of business would be to break up the radio, so DJs had the freedom to play who they wanted to play.

What new music are you listening to at the moment?

I’m still really hooked on the latest Terry Allen record. I’ve also been totally blown away by the David Olney / Anana Kaye collaboration. I’ve been fortunate to receive an advance copy. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Spooky Ghost, particularly his record from 2002. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with David Bowie and Selena. 

As far as more up and coming artists, I’m loving Caroline Spence, Wes Collins, Brian Wright, Garrett Owen, CHIKA, GospelbeacH, and Phoebe Bridgers. I have several playlists on my Spotify profile if you’d like to check it out! Oh, and I have to hear Mavis Staples’s voice at least once a day. 

 What musical plans do you have for the next two years?

I’m looking forward to going back into the studio with Mark Hallman in March to make my second full length record. I’m trying not to think too far beyond making the record. I believe if I honour the songs the best I can in the studio that they will go out into the world and do what they’re supposed to do. The songs are in charge, really.

FV Music Blog March 2021

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