with Jessica Bailiff
It has been a few years since my last interview with Jessica & her last album. Now she has a new great album, so we talked about it.
QRD – You’re a big fan of shorter albums in the 30-40 minute range. Why do you think this time length is ideal?
Jessica – I get bored or begin to not really listen after a certain point, in most cases. I grew up listening to records, and you’d get about 20 minutes a side. Many of my absolute favorite albums seem to be around 30 minutes long: Scott 4 (Scott Walker), Odessey & Oracle (The Zombies), Song to a Seagull (Joni Mitchell), Pink Moon (Nick Drake). Sometimes all I need is to listen to one side of a record. The vinyl version of Geogaddi (Boards of Canada) is really great because each of its four sides seems to have a certain wholeness to it. Just because it’s possible to put about 80 minutes worth of music on a CD doesn’t mean it should be done.
QRD – One of the things I really like about Feels Like Home is it doesn’t feel like a modern record, but more like an undiscovered gem from anywhere in the past forty years. Did you try to intentionally avoid trying to sound like 2006?
Jessica – No, not at all. I actually feel it sounds very 2006, and I hope in 2026 it sounds like 2026. I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s for years now, happily discovering things new to my ears, much of it really standing the test of time. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by a lot of that music. But it seems there’s a large number of bands doing a sort of retro folk/psychedelic folk/wyrd folk (a term I don’t really like). More people are getting into using acoustic instruments again, which used to be a bit old-fashioned and unhip, especially in the ‘90s. I guess having done a lot of the new album with a computer, there wasn’t really much avoiding sounding modern, to some degree.
QRD – The cover for Feels Like Home was a bit of found art with a doll that coincidentally looks quite a bit like you. How did you find it & how much did it initially freak you out?
Jessica – When we played in Paris in 2002, a man in Paris named Laurent Orseau shot some black & white pics at the show. I came to know him this way, we write occasionally. He sends me updates sometimes when he has new images at his on-line gallery, and when I viewed his Square Dolls series, this image just jumped out to me as perfect. It was a little freaky, because I had long black hair at the time, no eyes, casks of wine around me in a boat that seemed to be beached, with a camera nearby and my dress blown up by the wind.
QRD – The tracks “Spiral Dream,” “Evidence,” & “If We Could” seem to look back towards earlier in your career. Do you think this style is going to always appear on your records or shift to live in your other projects & your solo career become more acoustic focused?
Jessica – The music on “If We Could” is actually the oldest part of the album, recorded a few years ago, so that’s a reason it sounds more like the older things. But that was done intentionally – if you listen to the words, it makes sense. I can’t say there’s always going to be any specific element on any record to come. It might get to a point where I physically am not able to play guitar, so maybe I’ll start to learn to program beats, or rely on sampling & make more texture-based music.
QRD – What are the backwards/foreign vocals about on your song “Spiral Dream”?
Jessica – The intro & outro parts aren’t backwards – it’s just all in Russian. They were sung by two lovely young women from Moldova, Iulia and Nelly J. They told me the rough translation, something like “When I leave, I will tell you...” – it’s basically about heartbreak & a relationship that isn’t working out, so when she finally gets up the courage to leave him, she’ll tell him what’s been on her mind. That’s all I remember about the translation (& that might not be totally accurate) – but what I liked about the singing & the song is the mood that’s conveyed. You don’t really have to know the words to know what the song is about. I have the benefit of having a more complete version here to listen to, of just the two of them singing. It was recorded in a moment of spontaneity late one Friday evening last summer.
QRD – What track on the new album would be the radio hit & why?
Jessica – I don’t really think any of them could be a radio hit. I wear too many clothes to be played on the radio.
QRD – Since starting to do your own recordings do you feel that the engineering has become as important as the song-writing to your sound?
Jessica – The recording of instruments, vocals, & sounds has been a part of the songwriting process for me since I began using a 4-track in 1995. That’s when I really started to write songs. It’s incredibly hard for me to separate the two, which is why it’s much easier for me to do recording at home. I’ve been doing my own recording since I was in a band called The Jane. The guy I wrote music with, Noel Keesee, had his own equipment. We did our own recordings then, & when I started to write music on my own, he let me use it (as well as helping me to record some of it). When I did the two first solo albums for Kranky with Alan Sparhawk, it was a challenge – especially Hour of the Trace. The first one, Even In Silence, was easier because some of it was finished on 4-track & a-dat before going up there. We had a lot of fun experimenting with how to capture the sounds of the songs I’d written to record at his studio. With Hour... we recorded everything there, & some of it was spontaneous. I enjoyed having him engineer & help me figure things out, but I’m not very good at amassing a bunch of material for going into a studio. I work better on the fly, & often use the recording process as a writing tool – whether it’s a 4-track or a computer.
QRD – Do you ever want to work with someone else recording your albums again or do you feel best on your own?
Jessica – It would be really great to work with someone else again sometime, as it’s a challenge, & a different process for me. But I have a lot of songwriting to do first before I’d ever ask anyone to help me out. I’d really want that person to do his thing – give him a skeleton to help flesh out. That’s the thing about choosing someone to work with; you have to choose someone whose talent & skill you trust. You have to be able to let go of a lot & let him do what he does best. To work with anyone, though, a lot of it has to do with timing (schedules), & appropriateness – is the material I’m working on in need of someone else’s input & talent, or is this something I need to do myself? Feels Like Home ended up very much needing to be something I did largely on my own. The songs are very personal, & that sort of intensity can be hard for someone else to capture.
QRD – Do you miss your four-track at all, or are you pretty happy with computer recording at this point?
Jessica – My 4-track is still here, probably needs a bit of tuning up, but it still works & is still in use when I find the time to record. All of the piano parts on the new album were captured by taking the 4-track to my grandparents’ house & playing their upright piano. The electric guitar parts for “If We Could” were done on 4-track. I’m happiest using both tape & software, really. Ideally, I’d have a 1/2” reel-to-reel 8-track machine here, do all my tracking on that, then record it into the computer for editing & having a bit of fun.
QRD – Do you try to have some part of each song recorded onto tape to add a quality to the music or is it just if it happens to be a more convenient way to capture that part?
Jessica – Sometimes I’ve started writing a song on 4-track, & have chosen to use that as a base for the song, adding the rest via computer. In the case of the piano songs on the new record, using the 4-track was the only way to capture the sound. I do not have a piano of any sort. I prefer a real piano to a digital piano, & since it is quite impossible to have a piano at my house for several reasons, I chose to take my 4-track recorder to a place where there was a piano.
QRD – Your recordings, despite being digitally recorded, don’t have a thin sound, what’s your secret?
Jessica – Using as much non-digital equipment as possible in conjunction with the computer recording works for me. Also, really listening to what I’m recording helps – trying out different means of capturing the sounds, or how they are effected or equalized later.
QRD – Would you like to do more with recording other people’s music?
Jessica – Yes, if it’s something I’m interested in, or if I can benefit that person in some way (sometimes just hitting the record button is all someone needs). I am by no means a pro engineer, so it’d have to be a special situation for me to be asked to record someone else’s music. The right situation could be a lot of fun, though.
QRD – I know you own kind of a lot of instruments, how does playing other instruments effect your guitar playing & vocals?
Jessica – A lot of the songs on the new record began with acoustic guitar, lyrics, & vocals. Any other instrumentation was added in, & really didn’t affect the guitar playing or vocals directly, as those parts already existed on their own. With the songs that started out with piano, vocals came much later, as well as everything else. If guitar was added, it was more difficult, as the piano I was using was in need of being tuned at the time.
QRD – You have a couple collaborative projects like Eau Claire & clearhorizon. How are these different for you than your solo material & how do you know if a song shouldn’t be a solo song?
Jessica – The main thing that’s different about the collaborative projects is that they are exactly that – collaborations. Those songs wouldn’t be as they are had it just been myself doing the writing. All songs were written for the collaborative project, whichever one, be it Northern Song Dynasty, Eau Claire, or clearhorizon. The only instance would be some of the songs on the second clearhorizon album (as yet unfinished). They were originally meant to be jb songs, but Dave liked them & wanted to add to them. We were working on our second record at the time, so it seemed appropriate to use those jb tracks for it.
QRD – You’ve appeared as a guest musician on a few of your friends’ records. What has to happen for you to appear on someone else’s record?
Jessica – Usually it’s a matter of someone asking me to participate, & me saying “yes.” Sometimes it involves getting me to another city, sometimes it’s just a matter of trading cd-r’s or sending mp3s over the internet.
QRD – For someone else to appear as a guest musician on one of your records, what would they need to have to offer?
Jessica – If someone happens to be around while I’m working on something, & an idea happens, then that’s it. Many people I would love to have as guest musicians live terribly far away, & it’s not really feasible. I generally don’t have the patience to wait for via mail collaborations with the solo music - especially when I’m trying to get a record finished by a certain time. The girls from Moldova happened to be here while I was working on the new album. The other people that participated in Feels Like Home live in town, or within an hour away.
QRD – A lot of the musical community you’re associated with is male dominated. How do you think being a woman has been an asset & deficit to you as an artist?
Jessica – I’ve gotten some attention because I’m female – both an asset & a deficit, depending on the situation. It’s nice when someone pays attention to the music itself rather than the gender of the person making it.
QRD – What’ve been the best & worst musical gear purchase you’ve ever made?
Jessica – The best purchase I’ve made was probably the Jaguar in 1993 – it’s what got me started in doing all this. The worst purchase... probably the Loopstation pedal, but only because I bought it over a year ago & have barely used it – haven’t made it a worthwhile purchase yet.
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Jessica – My first guitar was plastic with nylon strings. I cannot remember how old I was when I had it, somewhere between 7-10, maybe. I played little things by ear & really didn’t know any chords. It was given to my younger brother at some point, & he carried it with him everywhere for the longest time. It’s probably in a landfill somewhere right now, or maybe in my parents’ attic.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar tuning & why?
Jessica – All I’ll say is that my Martin’s tuning is dropped significantly, to the point where I’ve compromised the intonation. I’ve finally discovered where my voice sounds best, & it’s about a step & a half lower, sometimes two, than where I tried to put it. A capo is used to bring the tuning up when necessary, which requires fine tuning, which is a hassle. But despite all the quirks, I prefer the severely dropped tunings I have been using.
QRD – When you pick up your guitar, what do you play to warm up?
Jessica – I guess I don’t really warm up, I just sort of dig in.
QRD – What’s something you’ve intentionally done to hone your talent as a guitarist or a songwriter?
Jessica – Listen.
QRD – What was the last thing you learned at a live show?
Jessica – I cannot play or sing well in front of people I know in a non-standard venue situation in broad daylight with no p.a. & no stage monitors.
QRD – What’s the longest you’ve worked on a song that you’ve ended up abandoning?
Jessica – Anything that’s gotten to the point of being called a song hasn’t been abandoned yet. I’ve either finished the ideas I liked, or they are still half-done, waiting for the right time to be completed.
QRD – How do you think your musical career would’ve been different if you’d moved to a bigger city instead of staying in Toledo?
Jessica – I probably wouldn’t have been doing music, as I don’t have the drive to work 2-3 jobs to pay rent in a bigger city & do music. I guess I did that here in Toledo at one point (3 jobs + music), but that was a long time ago, & short-lived.
QRD – What was the last non-musical thing that affected what you think music is about to you?
Jessica – There are things I see or read
about every day that make me think that the pursuit of a creative life
(making music) is a little wasteful – there’s so much else that a person
can do that is more useful than running around in a van playing shows,
or sitting at home writing songs. But music is really important to
some people – it is for some strange & unexplainable reason important
to me. Someone told me that I should think of it as being helpful,
making music for others to hear. I don’t know what it’s about, really.