Jamie Wilson: Her Fabulous Trip Around the Sun
A lot can happen in a year. For Texas singer/songwriter Jamie Wilson, the list of accomplishments since 2009 is pretty impressive. She’s been a major force in the creation and release of three major projects: her debut record as a solo artist, the debut record of The Trishas (of which she is one of the band members), and her first child–10 week-old daughter Joanie. During this time, she’s also experienced the rapid rise of The Trishas–from a slapped-together, two-song tribute to songwriter Kevin Welch by four girl singers at Steamboat’s MusicFest, to a polished, touring stage act on the verge of signing a major publishing deal in Nashville this week. It’s been some year.
Playing in an all-girl band was a new venture for Wilson, as well as for the other singers–Savannah Welch, Kelley Mickwee, and Liz Foster. “Actually, at first I didn’t know what it was going to be like at all. I’d only played with guys, so it was kind of daunting just to think about the idea of being in a band and in close relationships with girls depending on each other. And you know? It’s been really, really good. Everybody was in the same situation [of never having played with female musicians]. I think that all of us were a little bit surprised at how well we got along and how much fun it was. There’s a lot more indecision (laughs) with girls. It’s a little harder ‘cause we’re, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ ‘I don’t know, what do YOU think?’ Instead, with the guys it’s, ‘I think this’ and it’s done.” Wilson recognizes the girls’ desire to compromise in order to get along: “I’d like to think that that’s [a sign of] more compassion. We do well with that because we’ve all been a part of projects that haven’t worked for one reason or another, so whenever we’re having a conversation where we don’t agree on something, we’re aware of our approach to each other. We know what makes it work or makes it fail. It’s working so far.”
The gender of the band is also drawing attention to them in a way they’ve never experienced before. “The doors opened really fast (laughs) and that was another big surprise. I think at first it’s a novelty thing. People were like, ‘Oh, wow. It’s all girls.’ We took it upon ourselves to say that we get the gig maybe the first time because we’re all girls, but they’re not going to ask us back if we’re not any good. So we’ve been taking it seriously and we practice. It takes us a long time to work up one song’s four-part harmony. And we want to make every song sound different. How boring would it be to sit there and watch a band where everybody does the same part on every song? So we trade out–one takes the high and one takes the low, and the next song we switch. We try to make all the harmonies and backgrounds different from song to song. We’re aware of the novelty situation, but we just have to be good, you know? We have to live up to that.”
Not only do they switch off on harmonies, they share lead vocals–something that’s not seen too often. No divas here. “We actually argue over, ‘No, I don’t need to do this part–you can do it.’ We’ll try to sing a song where we all get a verse or where one of us takes a first verse, and then two of us take the second and harmonize on it, and the third verse for the next person. We try to change it up like that. It’s fun to watch people [in the audience], their eyes going back and forth.”
This refreshing band attitude is almost a mantra for “the girls,” as Wilson affectionately refers to them. They are naturally humble: “We try to come across as confident, but we’re completely aware of our limitations and we’re actually a little bit self-conscious of them. I read a quote one time: ‘Style is defined by limitation.’ That’s us. We do what we do well, and that’s about all we can do.”
They Call Us The Trishas–their EP just released last week–has been a labor of love. “We’ve been waiting to do this record forever. We were a band for a year and a half before we put anything out at all, so we took time crafting it and thinking about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. There was a lot of thought put into that production part. Luckily, we got our friend Scott Davis to come and help us with that, and John Silva our drummer was our engineer. They know us really, really well and knew how to work with four girls in the studio. We did it at Cedar Creek [Studio] in Austin.”
The last track on the record, “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” is especially meaningful for the band. “Kevin Welch wrote that song right after [his daughter] Savannah was born. The chorus is “Let me watch my children grow to see what they become.” This was actually the first song The Trishas ever learned. That’s why we got together at all–was [to sing this song] for a tribute to Kevin. That’s been one of my favorite songs forever, since Moe Bandy cut it when I was little. And when I found out that Kevin wrote it, I was like, ‘Girls! We HAVE to do this song!’ And we HAD to put it on this record. Kevin came in and did the guitar part on it, and Dustin, Savannah’s brother, came in and did the banjo. It’s been a little family project. There’s a lot of feeling behind it. I love that song.”
I couldn’t help but ask Wilson what song off The Trishas record baby Joanie likes. “Well, she really likes “Give it Away.” I have the most upbeat song on the whole record, and I was surprised ‘cause that’s not usually my style, but there’s a lot of little oooo’s in the background and it’s bouncy, kind of folky. She likes that song, mainly because whenever my mom is her nanny, she’ll sing it to her, and whenever they’re watching our show, the baby bounces around and she’ll laugh.” Nanny Granny is the namesake of baby Joanie and will be going on the road with The Trishas to help care for the infant. Wilson likes to joke about “The Trishas and The Joanies World Tour.”
In the middle of these projects this past year, The Trishas were invited to sing backup on a couple of songs on Raul Malo’s upcoming release, Sinners & Saints. Wilson happily recalls the experience: “We met him last year at the Americana Music Festival. We were downstairs in the Cannery and I’ve been a real big fan of his for a long time. I saw him standing at the bar. It was pretty empty and we were about to do sound check, and I went over to Liz and said, ‘Liz. No big deal, but don’t look over there. Raul Malo’s standing at the bar.’ She was like, ‘Oh! My Gosh!’ She was real excited and then the next thing I knew, I turn around and Liz is over there talking to him. She was like, ‘Jamie! Come here.’ I was really surprised at how normal and self-deprecating he is. We hung out with him that week and two weeks later, he came to Austin for ACL (Austin City Limits), and we went in and did some demos with him at Asleep at the Wheel’s Bismeaux Studio. It was real cool singing with him on his record. We did it all on one mic. He had sent us the songs beforehand so we’d know what we were doing. He came over to Kelley’s house with us the day before and showed us what he wanted us to do. Then we went in the next day and did it. So we’ve kind of become friends. We just couldn’t make ourselves say ‘Raul’ all the time when we were talking about him. He’s kind of goofy, so we nicknamed him Rudy. Anything to do with him is fun. I think he has a disco ball in his tour bus (laughs).”
Add to all of this Jamie Wilson’s solo project, the 6-track effort titled, Dirty Blonde Hair. “I actually did this album between bands–that’s how fast The Trishas thing took off. I was in The Gougers before and I started wanting to make a solo record–just a little EP, something that’s only mine. I wrote all those songs by myself and I knew exactly how I wanted them to sound. So I got my friends and I sent them all demos of the songs. I got a really good band. I was lucky to have a bunch of talented friends, is the deal. The Trishas were [already] a band, playing here and there, but I could see that taking off and I wanted to just have something that was mine so that I could say, ‘This is my solo thing. This is what I do. This is how I like my songs to sound.’”
Recorded in analog, to the untrained ear the difference in quality of Dirty Blonde Hair might not be noticeable; but to Wilson, choosing that format over digital was a choice move. “We had the opportunity to do that and I just did it because I could. To me, just because I know it’s analog makes me happy. It sounds so good. I like the idea of having my name on a reel of tape (laughs). We did some tricks where you run it backwards, where you flip the tape over and then record the track so there’s a backwards track on the song. That’s what we did on the title track. There’s a guitar going through it the whole way on a backwards track. There are pedals you can get for that stuff, you know, when you’re doing it digitally and it flips the sounds around, but there’s just something cool about being able to actually do it [by hand]. It’s a mechanical thing instead of all digital, and you have to think about it a little bit more. Our drummer Silva went to a junkyard and got a brake drum. He hit it with a hammer and liked it, and that’s the sound on “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard.” Well, it wasn’t in the right key, so whenever they recorded it, they slowed down the tape and changed the key of where it hit. I don’t think I would have been able to experience those things had I not decided to do it analog.”
All throughout this little gem of a record are Wilson’s ethereal vocals: reminiscent of, but slightly more grounded than Emmylou’s, and even darker at times. The break in her voice aches with feeling. Lyrically, the emotions are more subtle, brought to the surface through her imagery. Pictures hold special meaning for her and are everywhere in her songs. “Well, they’re really important. The only way that I know how to write a good song is through pictures. For some reason, I’ve always found that I’ll start singing something and I’ll end up describing it. While writing the song “Dirty Blonde Hair,” I was actually sitting in this room that I have called “The Sanctuary”–it’s a different building separate from my house and is on the cover of the record. I started singing [about] all the things that were around me. “There’s an old rug rolled up leaning on the wall/Because there’s no room for it on the floor/There’s a red notebook with my name on the front/That I don’t ever use anymore.” These became the opening lines of her song. “I don’t really know what I’m doing, that’s just how it comes out, just painting a picture.”
There’s a quiet, inner strength in some of her work that swims against the current of “female attitude” material that’s heard on radio today. When asked about this quality in her music, Wilson reflects, “All my songs are kind of dark when they’re finished and I sometimes don’t really know where they come from. There’s always a little bit of truth to them, because I’m not that good of a fiction writer. My brother spent 2-1/2 years in prison for intoxication manslaughter, and I was doing a lot of writing when he was in there. Maybe there is some of that quiet, inner strength in the lyrics because my family had to really stick with it during that time. I was really sad, but we had to not be sad.”
Wilson has been quoted as saying, “It seems death seeps into all of my songs in one way or another.” She has a fascination with the mystery of death, and is open to talking about it. “I’ve always enjoyed graveyards strangely enough, but for historical factors and for the forgotten thing. I was sitting in a graveyard when I wrote, ‘Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard.’ I had that line in my head [ever since] I heard it on talk radio. I was flipping channels and I stopped on this one AM station, and this guys goes, ‘I don’t know. Maybe we’re just whistling past the graveyard.’ And I said, ‘How have I never heard that phrase before? How did it slip by me?’ And it just stuck with me for a couple of months. There’s a real cool graveyard in Yancey [her hometown 50 miles southwest of San Antonio] that has an historical marker, and my husband’s great-great-great grandfather is buried there. There are entire families buried there, where they all died at the same time of the plague and other things. They are the original settlers of Yancey, and it’s the first cemetery here from the 1840’s and 1850’s. I was sitting there one day and I had that phrase in my head, and most of that song came out there; graveyards have good imagery.”
The recording of “Whistlin’” took on a life of its own. The track is a sonic sensation; not overly burdened by lyrics, the soundscape is an all-enveloping, 7-minute wonder. “We didn’t mean for it to be that long. I told them [in the studio], ‘Y’all know how The Trishas play this song. I want this version of it to be completely different.’ And I wanted it to be rockin’ and electric, and to have that spooky feel without having all the high/low harmonies on it like we have with the girls. So I brought in Kevin Welch singing way down low in the background and Scott did, too–so I only had male vocals on it. Then we were playing it and everybody tracked live. I sang at a different time, but I was doing my acoustic guitar [live]. It just wasn’t working and the groove wasn’t right, so we all took a break, got a beer and relaxed a bit. Then Silva was in there messing with his drum kit–he was tying keys to his cymbals and trying to make all these weird sounds come out of his drums (laughs). Then we started playing it in a different groove–the groove it has now–and it just worked. And I didn’t want it to end, so I said into the little talk-back mic, ‘Okay guys, keep going, keep it loud!’ [Afterwards] we listened to it and said, ‘It’s just going to have to be 7 minutes. It’s not going to make the radio, but it’ll make it here.’ And we all love it. I was so proud of that record. It’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Now, a year and a half after they first sang together, The Trishas have begun writing with each other. “Savannah and I finished one the other day. That’s really the first co-write I’ve had with any of the girls. We’re about to sign a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music, and next week we’re going to Nashville to write. They’re setting us up with a bunch of other Warner/Chappell writers and others who aren’t under their company. At night, we’ll also be writing with each other. We all have a bunch of ideas that we’re going to bring. Once you start and you’re forced like that to be creative, whether anything comes out of that time with co-writers or not, it still makes you think and still makes your brain work creatively. So whenever you come home at night after the day of writing, your mind is still open and keeps you creative. I’ve never done that before–just go meet somebody for the first time, then try to write a song [together]. I’m a little intimidated.” It should be an equally great opportunity for those Nashville A-listers, since they will most likely have cuts on The Trishas’ future recordings.
When they return from Music City, the group will begin a Texas tour that will last a couple of months. Wilson plans to have solo shows here and there if she gets a weekend off. “But right now, we’re really focusing on the girls.”
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