Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Sexy, Seductive Jessie Evans Was Once a Band Geek

Written by Elliot Smith
 Active ImagePlug your headphones in. Hit that little megaphone in the bottom, right corner of your screen and make sure the volume is up. Wiggle your fingers on the keys over to Listen. Come back when you’re done.
Photos by Daniela Macé Rossiter
Plug your headphones in. Hit that little megaphone in the bottom, right corner of your screen and make sure the volume is up. Wiggle your fingers on the keys over to Listen. Come back when you’re done.

I expect you’ll return some while later, about the time it takes to listen to a good number of the songs off Jessie Evans’s first solo album, Is It Fire? And I bet you’ll go back to her Web site to listen again. And again. And then you’ll wonder if she’s coming to a town near you. At least that’s what happened to me.

As a music enthusiast, my worst fear is that, despite my best efforts, there is music playing out there, somewhere, that I love, but have never heard. When something wonderful comes along completely out of the blue, there’s a feeling of self-inflicted shame in not having discovered it earlier. I’m chagrined admitting that my introduction to Jessie Evans and her music came in the process of preparing for this interview. But better late than never.

Those of you with your ear closer to the ground will already be familiar with her solo work, or know the talent she showed in collaborations with Hanin Elias (Atari Teenage Riot), Bettina Köster (Malaria!), Glass Candy, Subtonix, and the Vanishing. Or maybe you’ve heard that musicians you keep an eye on—e.g. Toby Dammit (Iggy Pop)—have joined her on her albums and tours. But if you haven’t yet, you should take the time to check her out.

Evans has been busy playing dates in Brazil, but she was kind enough to provide very thoughtful answers to my questions over email.

Elliot: Who or what is “Jessie Evans”? Is the audience, whose access to you is limited to the records, shows, Web pages, photographs, etc., experiencing a person who lives and breathes twenty-four-seven, or a persona, an invention that only comes alive in the studio and on stage?

Jessie: I think every person has different sides to their personality and different ways they want to share themselves with others at [various] times. Being a performer only makes those sides more accentuated. As you want to put on a good show, you need to engage the people on all levels and express what it is you have as best as you can: musically, visually, spiritually, etc.

For sure, who I am on stage is the rawest form of who I am and what I have to give in that moment, trying my best to give my heart and be free and reach out to people. There are many other moments in my life, which are more quiet, or messy or whatever. Sometimes I like to dress up; sometimes I’m a total slob. That’s the way most people are.

Arriving at who I am and how I want to express myself onstage has been a process, which has evolved over years. In one way I think we all come into the world totally pure and knowing everything, then get confused and messed up living in society, and have to spend some time getting back to that pure space where we don’t question who we are and
what’s in our heart.

Elliot: I think your record is great, but I know you have a real passion for live performance. Your Web site says the music and performance in combination make you “a complete work of art.” What are people missing just listening to the album, as good as it is?

Jessie: I think my gift lies more in the energy I project onstage, rather than in being a great musician or dancer or any of the above. That’s why the live show has more of a value than the disc, cuz though I love the songs, it’s not really about them. They’re sort of just a vehicle that allows me to be on the stage, putting a vibe out there and trying
to break through to the people.

Elliot: What do you expect a person to experience at a Jessie Evans show? Does the audience just shake it around all night? Do they think? Are emotions evoked? Laughter? Tears? What’s the most unexpected feedback you’ve ever received?

Jessie: I often see people making out in the crowd, and that’s really cool. I love it when people dance and come up onstage. I love most of all going into the crowd and dancing with the people and freaking them out. Of course there’s nothing more boring than being faced with an audience who is just standing there not moving or expressing any emotion. I understand we have devolved a long way from our tribal roots where music and dance were not just entertainment or an excuse to get fucked up, but a ritual, a method of evoking the gods, of bringing communities together to transcend everyday life.

One of the best shows I had [this year] was in Ajaccio, Corsica. It was a beautiful show but after it ended, it just continued on with us dancing together, me in the crowd and them taking turns lifting me up and spinning me around the room. And as the songs got slower I got down on the floor and everyone followed me into some sort of psychedelic meditation. It was May twenty-first and I had read online that many people thought that would be the end of the world, so I told the crowd that if it was the end of the world I was happiest being there with them that night, and it made us all feel really strong to be together.

Elliot: Your songs often involve lust, desire, love, and passion. Are these the themes that you find match best with your musical ideas—shake-and-sweat rhythms, sax lines, etc.? Or do the lyrics come first to be paired with music later? Or does it all arise organically from Jessie Evans following her muse? Does it matter?

Jessie: I’m just writing about what I know. In the past I tried to be more political or intellectual about things and I realized that it doesn’t make sense [for me] to impose so many words or personal opinions on music. The best songs are about universal themes that everyone can understand, or maybe [that are] abstract or about nothing at all. I simply write about lust, desire, love, etc., because it’s what I know and what I’m engaged in. Though I hope to evolve in this lifetime, I’m not trying to be a saint or a nun here. This is what I know and what I’m after.

Elliot: Speaking of music, when did you pick up the sax? Was the sexy, seductive Jessie Evans we know now once a so-called band geek in high school?

Jessie: Yeah, of course I was a geek in high school band. I picked up sax when I was fifteen. I wanted to play it in band long before that but they had too many sax players and put me on flute, which I found really uncool at the time so I switched to bass drum. Shortly after, the teacher kicked me out cuz he thought I was on acid. I’ve always just been a dreamer and actually still have never tried acid, but it was one of those things that makes you realize how fucked up school is. Everybody has to fit within the lines of what is considered normal. That has never interested me, and I didn’t relate much to anybody at that age.

Elliot: Your music incorporates influences from diverse musical genres. What compels you towards a musical style, performer?

Jessie: I love music that is honest and simple. I like best something that is raw and free within a really simple groove. For performers, I like freaky dancing, raw power, someone who has been through shit but is still innocent. My first musical influences were reggae, new wave, bebop. In the last years I’ve gotten more into Afrobeat, Cumbia, Turkish psychedelic, etc. I love all kinds of music.

Elliot: Your music and your image are very fresh and refreshingly unlike much of what I’ve been listening to lately. Yet at the same time, it’s all very familiar, evoking sounds, places, and times. What are the images and music that have influenced Jessie Evans?

Jessie: Right now I’m in Brazil for some time on tour and in the studio recording my new album. My percussionist Debora is from São Paulo and her father is the director of a samba school here. The thousands of samba schools compete every year in Carnival, and it’s a very important thing that everybody takes seriously. We went to their rehearsals last year, and [went] again this [year]. [Rehearsals] happen every Sunday in an auditorium and there are about 400-7000 people there, 100-plus drummers, hundreds of dancers, singers, etc. They work all year round on making their presentation for Carnival. Each year they select somebody from the community whose life they want to celebrate.

The samba schools aren’t just about music and dance, but [they] are really active in their communities. They’re like the thread that holds society together. [Carnival is] like a religion. Seeing it for the first time last year was just mind blowing and I was so impressed with how they make a celebration, how they’ve managed somehow to preserve their tribal roots while making something totally modern out of it. It’s like booty dancing with [a] marching band mixed with the energy of a sports game.

There are so many artists that inspire me, it’s hard to know where to begin: Almodovar, Fellini, T. Rex, Josephine Baker, Prince, Coltrane, ESG, Sun Ra, Mexico, Pompeii, the Mediterranean Sea, and every other sea and ocean I’ve swum in, to name a few things. Basically everything.

Elliot: I’ve noticed you’ve spent a lot of time outside the US? Why? Is there something pushing you away? Or are you pulled towards other lands, peoples, etc.? Both? Neither?

Jessie: I just want to get out there and see the world, and experience life to its fullest. It’s really hard to be an artist in the USA. It’s a shame cuz I loved touring in the past with my old bands there, but since moving away I’ve had a lot better lifestyle and feel really grateful for that. For all the freedom USA claims its people have, if you are born poor you are easily forever trapped in a system of working for the man. I wanted to live a free life, so I left.

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