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How Jessie Jones Quit Life to Find Her Music

"I thought if I’m just going to die, I should try one more time in music. Maybe I can make something that’s bigger than life.”
August 4, 2015, 2:59am

Photo by Abby Banks

Jessie Jones has a mystic quality to her. Not just because the Orange County native casually references gods and goddesses in conversation. Not just because many of the songs on her new solo debut were inspired by a spontaneous, months-long road trip across the United States that left her single and homesick on a farm in South Carolina.

It's deeper than that. And it was on display this past May in a basement venue outside Boston, where Jones was handling co-vocal duties alongside Bonnie Bloomgarden in Death Valley Girls. Under a low ceiling punctuated by black water pipes, Jones clutched a tambourine, swayed from side-to-side, and summoned her hypnotic voice, which added a bluesy, soulful depth to the band's hazy psych-rock.

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Jones was a recent addition to Death Valley Girls' lineup, being asked to join shortly after a chance encounter with the group's guitarist, Larry Schemel, at Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. The only reason the 23-year-old Jones was in the City of Angels last summer was to record her first solo album, Jessie Jones. It may have been a coincidence, but it was exactly how Jones planned it, which is to say, she didn't.

"I've always believed that everything would work out," she says. "I'm always looking for signs or directions. I really think that's a creative way to live instead of having to know the reasons why. I never want to know why because it's so beautiful to maintain a mysterious element."

Jones' come-what-may approach to life blossoms on her solid solo debut for Burger Records. On Jessie Jones, you'll hear playlist-friendly pop (lead single "Sugar Coated"), dreamy folk ("Butterfly Knives"), psilocybin-soaked nods to Bollywood ("Lady La De Da") and gypsy-turned-Southwestern ballads ("La Loba"). Through it all, Jones' imaginative ambition never gets ahead of her voice's versatility, which seems capable of fluctuating from Grace Slick to Victoria Legrand with a flick of her tongue.

That distinctive voice reflects an intense spiritual evolution. Growing up, Jones first began singing in the choir of the evangelical Christian church in which she was raised. She did her due diligence to become a good-mannered devotee, not cussing and participating in youth group, but something shifted dramatically around high school. Jones started smoking pot, listening to a lot of rock, and gaining an acute self-awareness. She renounced Christianity and ripped her Bible into pieces. "I really wanted to challenge everything," she says.

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Photo by Abby Banks

Luckily, Jones found a way to channel her inner tensions. In the church's band, Jones had met guitarist Nic Rachman, and the pair began writing songs together. That relationship gradually sparked the formation of Feeding People, a propulsive, heavy-psych rock act that bounced from sludge-metal to brain-frying garage, breezy acoustic ballads to experimental punk. With Jones as the electric frontwoman, the group had a nice run, releasing a couple albums and playing festivals like Austin Psych Fest, before going on what became a terminal hiatus in mid-2013.

Around the same time, Jones endured something of an existential crisis. After months of saving up money, she and her then-boyfriend— Feeding People's bassist and guitarist Louis Filliger—set off for Oregon from Orange Country by train with nothing else but backpacks. The initial goal was to work on a farm, but the pair made it to Oregon a week ahead of their scheduled start date and decided to check into a nearby campground.

There they met the campground's hosts, a family with young daughters who became smitten with Jones. The family lived a somewhat transient lifestyle, taking seasonal jobs across the United States and moving on once the work was finished. After developing a serious connection with the family, Jones and Filliger bought a used hatchback and followed them across the country, doing odd jobs along the way. "It was just a really divine intervention," Jones says. "We could have gone to any campground. We could have gone on time to the place to work. And we wouldn't have met these people. And it wouldn't have turned into this crazy adventure."

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The freewheeling life revitalized Jones. She felt her imagination return and began painting. After a stint harvesting sugar beets in North Dakota, Jones touched down in Kentucky before landing in South Carolina, where she lived for nearly three months. It was there that Filliger decided he was finished with both Jones and the vagabond lifestyle they'd developed and headed back to Southern California. "I was just kind of stranded out there," she says. "And the only friend I had was the guitar. So I wrote one song and it just felt good. I felt part of myself come back alive."

Jones says she never intended to go solo, but in Feeding People, Rachman had penned a lot of the tunes. Now, she saw an opportunity to explore her own songwriting abilities. So Jones returned to California, met with producer Bobby Harlow (King Tuff, The Go), and developed the rest of the songs that make up her debut. "I was obsessed with the world ending," Jones says. "And I thought if I'm just going to die, I should try one more time in music, see if it can express or heal. Maybe I can make something that's bigger than life."

Photo by Abby Banks

The result, Jessie Jones, is easily the most accessible collection of songs she's ever appeared on, and doesn't sacrifice her fearlessness or independence in the process. From her haunting vocal solo on the chorus of "Prisoner's Cinema" to the gentle, lo-fi coos on closer "Mental Illness," the album also doubles as a free-spirited showcase for her vibrant voice. It's certainly a long way from operating a crane on a North Dakota sugar beat farm.

"I think with a lot of our culture, it can sometimes be really restrictive and I always like to remind myself that we're only limited to what we can sense as humans," she says. "I like to think about other gods and muses and little things like that to lead me to the right place and time. I think that's a really natural rhythm: just kind of moving with the seasons, moving with the moon, moving with your body. That's how I make music."

From here, Jones says she'll continue collaborating with Death Valley Girls, do some touring, and keep writing music that aims to inspire others. At the very least, the existence of her debut makes a case for the power small coincidences can play in everyday life, and having the courage to follow your instincts when they're revealed. Maybe you don't need to caravan with a nomadic family across the country, but you could start by taking a left somewhere tomorrow instead of the usual right.