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Jessica Bailiff interview via email September 2002

Jessica Bailiff is a superstar on Kranky Records.  A few years ago a lot of her songs used a lot of backwards recording & heavy effects that drew fans to her like Dave of Flying Saucer Attack & Alan Sparhawk of Low.  With her new album her style has taken a lean away from the psychedelia area to the introspective songwriter side.  Guess what? It's still good.

QRD – I know you listen to a lot of the introspective song-writer stuff from the 1960's & the new album seems to have that influence a lot more than the previous two.  Is it more recently you've gotten really into that style or is there another reason for your sound changing that way?

JB – I've been a Nick Drake fan for years, but he was the only one I really was drawn to, you know – the singer/songwriter, guy w/a guitar sort of thing.  I've been into Syd Barrett for a long time, too.  But a friend, Iker Spozio, who was living in northern Italy at the time, introduced me to a whole new world of music, upon a visit in February 2000.  This was definitely a turning point for me, both in what I wanted to listen to, and how I wrote music.  I gained a new enthusiasm for music that had been lost for a couple of years.   So, yeah, it was fairly recently that I was turned on to the likes of Bridget St. John, Vashti Bunyan, Anne Briggs, Tir Na Nog, Jackson C. Frank...actually, when I was a kid my parents liked Simon & Garfunkle, so I've always liked them, but strangely enough, this Jackson C. Frank guy was an American who moved to London to try to make it with his music, and ended up being roommates with Paul Simon.  Simon actually took a lot from Frank in his style, and even covered a few of his songs.  I suppose another reason for the style change is that it was necessary for me to try some new things in order to keep interested.  There's a lot of the old me in there, too, for example, the songs "Mary" and "Dissapear" - and "Hour of the Traces, " although people tell me it's the most radically different song on the new album, I think it's a lot like "One Red Year," from the first album.  Although I only just now noticed that...

QRD – On the new album you recorded yourself at home on the computer.  Did you still record it in sessions as you would have in a studio or just a song here & there as they came to you?

JB – It was more like I did it as the ideas flowed, but, in a way, it was done in sessions.  I have Mondays and Thursdays off from work, so I would spend most of those days working on the album.

QRD – You did everything on the new record from the performing to the recording & producing.  What do you think are the major benefits & deficits of doing everything yourself?

JB – I did MOST everything; the benefits to that is having only myself to rely on - not having to wait for someone else, or listen to what anyone else has to say...I was in complete control (those comments are in no way a reference to my time working with Alan Sparhawk; I couldn't have asked for a better situation to record my first two albums).  The major deficit is that I am lazy, and sometimes it's hard to motivate myself.  If there's someone else involved, there's more incentive to get things done, and, oftentimes, it's more exciting.  I do like working alone, but I also enjoy collaborating, provided it's a good situation.

QRD – What do you think is the best & worst thing about recording on a computer?

JB – The best thing about using a computer to record is that it is easier to work around mistakes - you know, cut and paste and all.  Mixing is also a lot easier.  The worst thing(s) is that it make me lazier; with the ease of fixing mistakes, I'm less inclined to just do something right when recording; I'll fix it in the computer somehow.  There's less incentive to actually perform well.  Also, it must be said, I don't like the sound of recording this way as much as recording to tape, although it is a lot better than it was, say, only 2 years ago.  We have a plug-in called Truetape that actually allows you to push the levels much in the way you can with tape, but without that annoying digital distortion.  Ideally, using both tools, tape and computer, would be best for me.

QRD – Are you still as into recording stuff backwards?

JB – Yeah; it's on the new record a bit.  I think it's done in a more subtle way (except for the backwards drums on one song).  It can be done quite easily with a computer, but it's not as fun; there's something about actually flipping the reels over...

QRD – I know this one is probably a little touchy, but hey you know how I am always ready to offend people.  If you'd known that recording with Alan Sparhawk from Low would create this wave of accusations that you weren't playing your own parts & stuff, would you have just recorded that material by yourself?

JB – No.  I don't care what people think or say, as far as that matter is concerned.  The first few times I read things like that it really annoyed me, but I know that most people who review albums don't even listen to them, so it really doesn't bother me anymore.

QRD – I've heard you say that you don't think of yourself as a cellist or a guitar player, what do you consider your dominant instrument?

JB – I guess maybe I would consider guitar to be my main instrument, simply because it's what I use most.  But I'm not very good at it, and I don't strive to be.  If I was a guitarist, I would practice my technique and all that.   I consider myself more of a creator than a player, if that makes any sense.

QRD – About how many hours a week would you say you actually play guitar on average?

 JB – It depends, really, on what I'm doing.  If I'm in the middle of making a recording, I'll play a lot more (a complete guess - maybe 4 hours, I really don't know), or if I'm about to play shows, I'll try to practice a bit.  There will be weeks that I don't pick up a guitar, or any other instrument.  Music is a big part of my life, but to be honest, unless I'm working on something, I don't sit around & work on playing guitar.  I have no great desire to be an amazing guitarist.  I have a relatively short attention span, so "practicing" really bores me.

QRD – Do you regret deciding to do music under your own name instead of a project name?

JB – I struggled for a long time to find a band name.  There's a lot of issues with using your own name, like if it's complete crap and everyone hates your music, there's nothing to hide behind.  It's you.  I tried to come up with a stage name, too, but to no avail.  But at this point, I don't really regret it.  In a way, it's more honest than making up a name for something that's just you, anyway.

QRD – Why is the new album self-titled/untitled?

JB – Technically, it is untitled.  Why does everything have to have a title?  I think I'm going to be anti-title from now on; none of my songs will have titles.  I won't even have a name anymore.  I'll become the Artist Formerly Known As Jessica Bailiff.  But, wait, that's still a title...

QRD – How often would you ideally put out records?

JB – Maybe, ideally, I'd put an album out every year and a half, or two years.  I think it's good to have a bit of space in between, to allow time to work on other projects, or to do an occasional single or something.  Besides, there is so much music out there, I don't see that it would do any good to release an album every year; I don't think people would be able to keep up.  I guess it doesn't really matter, anyway - a lot of people that can't buy a lot of music will just get a copy from someone if they really want it.

QRD – Do you think that if you didn't have to have a day job that you'd work a whole lot more on music or just spend more time goofing off?  Do you think you'd be able to deal with the financial instability of being a musician rather than having a day job?

JB – Firstly, I only work 3 days a week, 16-18 hours total.  I used to work 35-45 hours a week, but cut down so that I could work on music.  I would say that I do work a lot on music, but not as much as I'd like, but that's mostly because I have to share the studio equipment.  Also, I don't have a manager, so a lot of things that are non-musical that come along with doing this is up to me to take care of.  And I really don't want to spoil the illusion for people, but just because I have a day job, it doesn't mean I have financial stability.  Doing music, so far, has cost me money.  I have not made a profit yet.  Obviously, it is not about the money, because I still do it.

QRD – What makes you feel that a person is professional as a musician?

JB – That would depend on your definition of professional.  When I think of a professional musician, I think of Bruce Springsteen, or Paul Schaffer, or the Rolling Stones.  But in another context, I think that Low are professional as musicians because they have their act together and take it seriously, and do everything with purpose.  They also don't seem to make creative compromises.  And they're really good, too.

QRD – What's your favorite Swans song?

JB – I might insult you, as I know you are a huge Swans fan, but the only album I ever really knew was "Greed," and that was, what 16 years ago?  I can't remember the song names.  I do remember a song that I liked having lyrics something like "I'd cut off my right arm and stand in your shadow..." Was that on that album?  Let me guess, I've got the lyrics all wrong...

QRD – That's the song "Fool."  It's kinda surprising to me that you got into that record, did you get it because of Sonic Youth  doing Gira's "Confusion is Next" around the same time?

 JB – No, that had nothing to do with it, really.  At the time, I had no clue.  Back then, I was really interested in music that was challenging, music that was different and actually repelled some people.  It was very intriguing that someone was making such dark, yet intensely emotional music.  And I never bought it - a friend had the record and I taped it.  I had a meager allowance at age 15, and didn't have a job then.

QRD – What do you think is the one thing all the different styles of music that you like & listen to have in common & how do you try to put it in your music?

JB – Most music I like has an intimate feel, very personal, and often isn't perfect.  I like hearing someone's voice crack, or hearing something in the recording that "shouldn't" be there.  Most music I enjoy has some sort of emotional impact on me, too.  I don't think I've gotten to the point of being able to inflict emotions on people with my music, other than maybe frustration & annoyance.  I don't consciously try to put these elements in my music.  But now that I think of it, I'd really like to make an album that really grips a listener and makes him or her feel intense emotion.  I don't know how I'll go about that...maybe by not trying.

QRD – This fall you've nearly doubled the number of live shows you've done, are you planning to start to be more of a live performer & how has prepping stuff for live changed how you look at your songs?

JB – I would like to perform more, simply as a challenge to myself.  I have a really hard time with it (playing in front of people), so I hope to overcome that.  Also, I really love to travel, so what better excuse is there to do so?  As far as how I see my songs with getting ready to play live, it's more and more apparent (although I was completely aware of this when making the recordings) that most of my songs do not stand alone in a guitar & voice, stripped-down setting.  I really prefer not to play this way, but I think it will end up being unavoidable at some points. I really prefer to have at least a 4-person band to make the songs sound good live (it can be pulled off well with 3, too).  I'm not saying that I think the songs aren't good; they're just not meant to be played in that manner.  It's boring for me, and I know it'll be a bore for an audience.

QRD – When was the last time you seriously thought about giving up music?

JB – Yesterday.

QRD – You're a relatively strict vegan & an organic food fan, why do you think eating right is so important & what's the most  disgusting thing you see americans consuming constantly?

JB – Everyone has their vices, and I'm really not a heath food Nazi, but I do feel it's important to not fill your body with junk, even if your not vegetarian or vegan.  Most people never look at the ingredients of the food they eat.  I never used to, but after deciding to be vegetarian years ago, I paid attention, looking for meat products - lard, broth, etc. There is so much garbage in most packaged foods.  People don't realize that hydroginated and partially hydrogenated fats and oils are poisonous to the body.  Why?  The molecular structure of such a fat cell is changed in the hydroginating process (by heat), and actually forms a hook shape; it can hook onto the walls or your arteries (don't let someone tell you margarine is better for you than butter), and even lead to stroke.  And some artificial colors have been linked to cancer and behavioral disorders in children.  To answer the rest of your question, I think fast food is the most disgusting thing people eat.  Not only does one eat 3 days worth of the RDA of saturated fat in one "meal" of burger & fries (not that I think all the RDA recommendations are correct), but where's the vegetables?  Crappy iceberg lettuce and thawed-out chopped onions on a burger do not count.  As a result of poor diet, people are suffering from many illnesses, including cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and irritable bowl syndrome (which can often be reversed by eating fresh vegetables and less or no refined foods - white sugar, white flour, etc).

QRD – What was the most challenging thing about working on the new Rivulets record & what was the most fun thing about working on it?

JB – The most challenging thing was recording vocal parts in front of people I barely knew, or had just met.  The most fun was being there in Duluth, and making new friends.

QRD – Can you name five musical experiences that changed your life & tell how they did?

   1.  Taking part in Elegy last September (the 25-hour revolving drone benefit performance in Duluth); it was both a breakthrough in playing in front of people for me, and a spiritual experience while taking part.  I've never felt that while performing.
   2.  Recording my first album; it made me feel like I was a real musician - I had been laid off, so this was what I did, at least for a couple of months (there was no day job).  I also began to overcome the fear of playing my own music in front of someone.  I was used to recording alone with my 4-track.
   3. Studying cello in college; my teacher was really great.  He was the premier cellist in town, had a degree from Yale, and agreed to take me on as a student, without much knowledge of the instrument, simply because of the drive I had.  He was extremely open-minded, and not stiff (like I'd imagined classically-trained musicians to be).  His approach was more like "The Zen of Playing Cello" or something. I refused to call myself a musician when I first knew him; I didn't feel worthy, I guess.  So he said to me, "You're playing music, right?"  I said, "Yes, I try to, anyway."  His response was, "Then you are a musician."  It's hard to explain, but my experience with him changed my thinking.
   4.  Working with people I had been listening to for a while, and admired (Low, Flying Saucer Attack), and receiving compliments from them on the work I've done. With these experiences, I've learned that people I admire, musically, are no different than myself, in many respects.  I still hold them in high regard, and respect them greatly, but they are no longer on pedestals (which is an unhealthy way to treat people). This is not to say that I think my talent in comparable - I've a long way to go, really.
   5.  Discovering Sonic Youth when I was 16 probably changed my life; I think this is where I began to realize that it was possible for me to have a go at making music someday; Kim wasn't a technically great singer, but she did it anyway, and I loved it.  And the way they treated guitars & tuning (or not)...for a long time I hated the guitar because I couldn't play it (like a normal guitar player would) - but their music changed the way I listened to music, and ultimately approached making it myself.

QRD – I know you have some side projects going on, are there any that you'd really care to talk about?

JB – Not really, but... I think anyone interested already knows that there's a collaboration in the works with Dave Pearce from Flying Saucer Attack; we're close to finishing our first album, and have ideas started for the second one.  I've done some vocals and a tiny amount of instrumentation with Red Morning Chorus (remember this name; it's amazing stuff, and will be released by a very good label in the future).  Did an ep's worth of material with friend Rachel Staggs (of Experimental Aircraft) in August; not sure what the plans are for that.  There's a project called My Glass Beside Yours that I hope to work on (with this guy named Brian) soon.

QRD – Anything else?

JB – No, thanks...