w/ Richard Buckner, Rose Thomas
Crocodile, Sat Oct 20, $10.
When journalists are looking to help unearth musical talent, our gaze habitually turns to young newcomers. We'll get terribly excited about finding barely legal people who blow our minds with fresh chops and precocious insights. But it can be equally thrilling to watch an artist unveil the mature crystallization of her voice after years of quietly honing her musicianship. Thirty-four-year-old Jesse Sykes and her band the Sweet Hereafter are a graceful example of such a wise fermentation of ambition: Sykes' wisdom gives her work an informed, heart-wrenching incisiveness that could very well signal the commencement of a critically acclaimed career.
She meets me at Hattie's Hat in Ballard, flush-faced from a waitressing shift, apologizing for her minor tardiness. It's impossible for her physical beauty to go unnoticed: Throughout our conversation she graciously deflects advances from fellow patrons at the barstools where we perch. She peppers our conversation with expletives and exudes a humility and forthrightness atypical of an artist who's been playing music for more than two decades.
An adolescent obsession with Lynyrd Skynyrd drove Sykes to purchase her first guitar at age 12, a joy further fueled by a love of Led Zeppelin and other classic rock staples. Post-high-school years were spent exploring visual art and photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Sykes began absorbing more underground influences like Throwing Muses and the Minutemen. After graduation she lived in New York with her mother, where a growing sense of aimlessness and a particularly moving performance by blues session-man Leon Russell brought her to a turning point: "I came home from that show and just started crying," she recalls. "I went to my mom and just said, 'What the fuck am I doing with my life?' I was into other arty stuff like my photography, but I had really put music on the back burner. I really just thought I had blown it. And she said, 'Well, fucking go do it then.'"
Sykes heeded her mother's advice and moved to Seattle in 1990, playing in various country and rock configurations with friends. She eventually formed Hominy with her future husband, Jim Sykes. Hominy was a Fairport Convention-style country combo that garnered her some recognition and bolstered her confidence as a songwriter, but also made her more aware of the limitations she was putting on her own voice. "I wasn't confident. I was afraid to come out and write a love song. Instead I'd be very tongue-in-cheek and very ironic. It was that whole mid-'90s thing, when the idea of being sincere was considered bad form. During that time I rebelled against the idea of singing to my full potential. It's kind of hard to talk about this without bringing Jim into this...." She trails off, wrapping her fingers firmly around another American Spirit.
Four years after Hominy's inception, the couple divorced. With the loss of her marriage, Sykes also experienced the concurrent grief of her band's dissolution. "I slowed down on writing," she says. "Anyone who's been through a divorce or a band break-up knows this. You need time to redefine things for yourself. You're so wrapped up in the sheets of the ghost of what the relationship used to be."
When the seeds for a handful of blue-toned country songs eventually sprouted, she cautiously initiated a collaboration with her boyfriend, Phil Wandscher, a recently refugeed guitarist from the turbulent lineup of Whiskeytown. Sykes' endurance of past romantic struggles converged with the anxious euphoria inherent in a freshly passionate relationship, and much of the strength of her songs comes from lucid knowledge of both sides. "I'm well aware that when you fall in love it can be beautiful, but it's easy to lose yourself, or maybe even find yourself in a situation where you're completely over your head. That's ultimately what this record is about."
Tentatively titled Reckless Burning, the forthcoming debut suggests Cat Power's resigned sadness and the inherent strength of country icons like Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. At this point, there is no doubt that Sykes has found her voice. The husky yet clear tone of her soprano infuses seamlessly with Wandscher's warmly distorted back-porch strummings for a stunning collection of countrified lullabyes and stark, fable-worthy character sketches.
Joined in the studio and onstage by Wandscher, violinist Anne-Marie Ruljancich, bassist Bill Herzog, and drummer Kevin Warner, Sykes has found a peaceful footing. She's looking forward to self-releasing their debut in early 2002. "The beauty of it is that I don't have the same needs and expectations of it that I had in my 20s. I'm very comfortable with the notion of nothing grandiose happening. I would like to turn 40 and have a pretty nice, solid body of work, and that's really all I can fucking ask for."