On his latest release, Jaye Bartell combines intelligent sanguine reflection with sophisticated, poignant musical arrangements.
Your 2016 release, Light Enough, was mainly inspired by a move from Asheville, NC to Brooklyn in 2013. Was your new record, In a Time of Trouble a Wild Exultation the product of becoming more familiar and comfortable in NYC? Is that even a possibility there?
Light Enough is a story -- it takes place within and describes a discrete period. With the exception of the "The Worm" and "When I Arise," all of the songs on that record were written over a year or so. Light Enough was not about moving but it was itself a movement, if that doesn’t sound totally meaningless and/or gastrointestinal. It doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes the process of writing can catalyze a revelation, not in some debilitating mystical way, but a way that makes it easier to go to the grocery store or not yell at traffic.
My experience has been, when you move away from a place, it’s a free fall, and you lose everything that isn’t fastened to your body. What you don’t lose to the chaos of gravity, you lose to time and change, to distance. It’s lonely, dull, anonymous, and all you want is to see your old ashtray or a sketch of Charlie Brown your friend made that was tacked to your wall with colored pushpins. The first two songs I wrote after moving used imagery about flight and falling, and although those two songs have yet to be recorded, they constituted the thematic germ of the album, which is the desire to come into one’s own life, “to find a home on earth,” as Robert Creeley writes in his poem “Later.” In some ways, I was led to make new work because the person, the mechanisms, the means of continuing from where I had been were no longer operable.
As has happened other times when I’ve moved over the years, I didn’t bring any instruments with me, or anything really. It’s not that I was decisively quitting music or anything, but I had nowhere to live, no job, and not much money, and carrying a guitar around just makes those conditions worse. Up to then, I mostly played electric guitar, especially when I played with a band. When at last I found a small room in a Greenpoint apartment, any form of music seemed too loud for my circumstances.
Despite all the years I’ve made music, up to that point I’d never had a guitar I truly enjoyed playing. I wanted a simple, light, nylon string guitar, so I could write simple songs with focused melodies and stories, like Sibylle Baier, or, as Damian Weber would say, for once in my life, to just write one decent song. I found a mysteriously inexpensive old Guild at Pentatonic in Greenpoint which I’ll hold dear until someone steals it or I drop it on the subway tracks by accident some day.
I moved to New York at the end of fall, which is also the beginning of winter. I lived in Asheville for 12 years, with departures here and there for as much as three years to Buffalo. I’m not saying that the woman at the DMV invited me to her wedding, but I know everyone in Asheville, just from shared duration. Comparatively, I had two or three friends who knew I was coming when I moved here to NYC. They were all helpful but no one was around. It takes time to be busy somewhere, to have errands. If I showed up at my own door right now, I’d tell myself to reconsider, but good thing I found better people than me. Now that I’ve been here for a few years, it will take me all afternoon to buy a can of coffee grounds at the store a block away. When you move though, it’s like waiting for the sunrise or the mail -- nothing takes any time because there’s nothing to do, and when the mail comes, there's nothing for you. All of this is to say that I had time, and for once in my life, I worked on songs. after about a year I had the story mostly wrapped up except for the ending, and once I wrote the song Light Enough, that period was finished. Not long after, I signed with Sinderlyn, met the woman I love, and bought a can of coffee grounds.
In a Time of Trouble is a collection of songs written over a longer period of time, before and after Light Enough. "Out of Doors, for example, is one of the first songs I wrote, in Buffalo, circa 2007 or so. The last song, "If I Am Only for Myself …”, I finished in the studio. So there is a range of contexts there. The so-called “old songs" are just a few of many many more that I have yet to record, specifically with many of the musicians I’ve always worked with.
As far as the sense of being familiar and settled in NYC, I moved here because I’ve always felt comfortable and settled here, in terms of a landscape. Asheville will always be a home of a kind to me -- all of my people are there, and the person I am now developed and grew out of my life there, certainly more so than my childhood in Massachusetts. But you live where you can, and I can live here. For some reason my roots never took to the soil down there, to use an Asheville-appropriate gardening metaphor. Of course I’m not comfortable or contented all the time, but at least I don’t feel like a fish stuck in a tree. And that’s not because anyone or anything is insufficient. I haven’t felt this grounded since I lived in Buffalo. Excelsior, I guess. But who knows. Everything could fall apart by the time this is published, and I could be living on the street in Key West working on my next album, Surf Enough.