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Interview: Jesse Marchant

25 June 2021

It stands to reason that someone who trained to be an actor – and has some credits under his belt – creates beautiful cinematic-quality music. Jesse Marchant stumbled into an acting career, telling me, “I had an opportunity to take an acting class and find an agent when I was quite young and it was a way to get out of Montreal where I was living and get to New York. Throughout that period I was starting to write songs and I realized my passion laid elsewhere.” In 2008, Marchant released his first album, Not Even in July, under the name JBM (re-released by Partisan Records in 2010) and put acting in the rearview mirror, though he does say that if the right opportunity came along, he might be interested in revisiting his acting career.

Antelope Running is Marchant’s latest release for AntiFragile Music and was mostly written and recorded during the pandemic with a handful of trusted collaborators. The sounds are rich and complex, a menagerie of instruments working together on a score worthy of the big screen with Marchant’s wistful vocals setting the tone. Marchant says that his lyrics often are not linear, he doesn’t always tell a story from beginning to end, and the different perspectives allow for multiple lyrical interpretations. One of the best examples of this is “An Accident (from 3 Perspectives)” which is based on a serious snowboarding accident Marchant had as a teen that nearly killed him. The song, as the title indicates, is told from 3 different perspectives and is a harrowing listen.

Before talking about the songs on Antelope Running, I asked Marchant about his 2020.

What was your last year like?

JESSE: I was starting to write the record in January, I had some song ideas before then. I had accumulated a lot of stuff I wanted to sift through and really start writing lyrics for. Start of the year, I went out to L.A. where a friend of mine had a vacant apartment so I used that, just wanted a change of scenery. I went out there, did a little bit of work for about two weeks and then came back. To continue that, I had rented a house in the Catskills for February and March and by the time I was coming back to Brooklyn, things were starting to change shape. We were in Brooklyn for a while. My family has a home in the Adirondacks and they live in Canada. There was beginning to be discussions about the borders closing and I so I figured I could resume working up there since nobody was going to be coming and going. My wife and I went up there. I spent a lot of my time up there. We took some trips back and forth to New York City to take care of some things that needed to be taken care of but I was mostly in isolation up there when the heavy lockdown stuff was happening.

I was trying to find privacy within the home to write and it was winter time so we would find ways to get moments of our own time for our creative work. I think everybody experienced this who’s in a relationship, it was just tons of time together and hard to find an inner space. In a way, I was fortunate enough to be in an expansive place because the house is up in the wilderness so I could get out a lot. A lot of my process involves walking around and churning through ideas in my head. I was able to do that up there.

There were some silver linings with everybody being in lockdown. What was good and bad about lockdown for you?

JESSE: Well, what was good about it was getting to spend time with my wife. We have a dog and we also decided to have a kid. She became pregnant during that time. We felt like that was a good time to throw caution into the wind with that decision. He’s now born, he came in February, so a lot of the period I was writing, my wife was pregnant. I kind of timed it all out for me to be done writing the record and recorded it by the time he arrived so I wouldn’t be conflicted trying to tear myself between trying to be creative and trying to tackle that new chapter. That was a blessing, I spent a little more time investing in my personal life and the future of my personal life while writing. So that felt complete in a nourishing way.

The negatives were that my family is all in Canada so I didn’t see them for a year and half. They missed my wife being pregnant and they didn’t meet my son for quite a while. We went up there recently, after we were vaccinated and they still have quarantine rules in place but we were able to see them. Those were the challenges of not seeing friends, not seeing family. In that way, I’m pretty social and I have a lot of close relationships that I was not able to connect with during the time. And, also, I like to travel and be out in the world doing things. I was definitely starved a little bit for that side of life.

Was your wife pregnant when you were writing the album?

JESSE: Yeah, she got pregnant in April or May, some time in the first third of 2020. I was recording in September so she was relatively far along then.

Did the idea of becoming a father work change the way you wrote lyrics?

JESSE: I don’t really know how I could answer that question because it’s very rare for me to write songs with a deliberate intention. There was never a moment where I was like, “I have a kid on the way, I really want to write a song about him or about the idea of waiting for him.” That’s not interesting to me. If it worked it’s way in, it was maybe through subconsciously the feelings I was having related to that. It’s hard for me to say. Maybe it informed it in the sense that a lot of the songs are looking back a little further than I tend to look back and I wrote a few that are somewhat related to my youth and a bit more of a perspective on circumstances or events that are far away. If anything, it might have come out in that way a little bit.

I often hear that you have your whole life to write your first album and then every one after that is a slice in time. The song “An Accident (from 3 Perspectives)” is about an event that happened during your childhood but this is your fifth album. Why did it take you so long to sing about the traumatic event?

JESSE: It might have been that I might have been a little more sympathetic to the experience of a parent. I have not written about that experience in my life but it was a major event because I almost died. My life was hanging in the balance at that moment. I have thought about that event several times in my life but it never occurred to me to write about it. It came to me in an image when I was playing those chords. I often will ruminate on a chord structure for a long time until I have an idea. Sometimes it’s a long time. Months go by and I play it here and there and nothing really happens. If I don’t have the idea of what it’s about, I’m not good at deliberately or intellectually creating the idea. It just has to pop up. In that instance, it popped up while I was playing and I just had the image of that time. I wrote it pretty quickly because it was then just a matter of living through the narrative in my mind and then just finding the words that were the accurate ones to describe it and that flowed with the melody. The melody was so old at that point that it was really waiting for some words to bring it back to life. I was going to give up on that one actually.

Jesse Marchant · An Accident (From 3 Perspectives)

Lyrically, are the words 100% from your experiences or is it some experiences from your life but other things and influences you’re weaving in?

JESSE: It’s mostly from my own experience and my own place in the world. The one thing that I do sometimes do is switch the point of view. I’ll sometimes be writing something from my point of view and then I’ll continue writing from that same point of view in a song but I’m actually another person in it, maybe the person I’m talking about. There’s no clear switch that that’s happened. I’m sometimes writing from several different viewpoints in the same narrative. That can sometimes scramble time, it can scramble experiences. Sometimes the stories in the songs become a composite and other times they’re much more linear and I’m the only person relating the experience. I don’t typically write about myself from an outsider’s perspective, I write about other people’s internal perspective from my point of view. I guess that’s just trying to imagine what it is for somebody or it’s maybe that I identify with something somebody is going through and I so I sing it from my point of view but I’m not the one who had the experience. There’s a little bit of interpretation there.

Is there a particular lyric that you’re particularly proud of that maybe people might miss the first time through?

JESSE: Oh shit (laughs). There’s quite a few lyrics in “Century” and “Antelope Running” that I’m proud of.

“Century” is one of my favorite songs on the album but I’m not sure I understand what it’s about. It sounds like it deals with loss.

JESSE: It’s the juxtaposition between a major life event and all the memories that that brings up and how people behave in circumstances, it’s about family ties. It’s a really wandering, meandering thing. A lot of people who heard the record early took to that song and I think it’s going to be the kind of song where people can dig in and have different associations with different verses which is kind of the way I wrote it although it does all tie together for me very crystalline in my mind. That’s a lyric sheet one, I think. It’s fun to read it out.

There’s a part of the song where you sing, “Fuck.” And that really catches me each time I listen to it because you’re not using it in a negative or abusive way, but, to me, it sounds like you’re exhausted emotionally or something bad has happened and you’re reacting.

JESSE: That is very deliberate, it relates to the lyrics that come before it. That particular section talks about the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer. It’s just the sheer fact that this all was still happening and the visuals that I saw related to that. Sometimes there’s no better thing to say than that. It was so engrained in the lyrics, I wrote that song essentially as a poem and there was no way to take it out. We tried where I took it out but it needed to be there.

Jesse Marchant · Century

I read that you don’t like to go back and listen to your albums. Is that right?

JESSE: I tend not to. I’ll revisit a record I just finished, like, I listened to my new record today in my car because I just got the CDs and I had not yet heard them on a car stereo which is how I usually listen to things and decide whether or not it sounds good. I had been playing WAV files through a transmitter that I have because I don’t have a jack. There was a lot of static even though it sounded good. I played it again just to see how it sounded. There’s usually a window of about 6 months after I complete it where I’ll listen to it or if somebody plays it, I’m okay to hear it because my perspective on it is still in the universe of the one that it was in when I made the record. But when I get past that point where I’d hear it as something else, I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t like to listen to it then.

But you’re playing the songs live so you might not be listening to them passively but you’re performing older material.

JESSE: Yeah. I judge it so harshly while I’m working on it, but I’m judging it from being inside of it. When years have gone by and you hear it again, you can hear it as a piece of art that somebody made and whether or not you think it’s good. I find that that stew is not one that I want to get into.

Are you always conscious of listening to your music in different ways, like through ear buds and headphones and stereo speakers and car speakers?

JESSE: I tend to want to make it sound really beautiful to listen to on most mediums. I tend to like records that are made not too bright but have a real clarity and a modern frequency range to them. That’s why I like working with Dan Goodwin, the engineer that I work with. He really fills it up so that you can play it on a modern sound system and have it really move through you but when it’s on vinyl and the mids are cranked, it sounds great as well. You can play it really loud on headphones. It may sound different on the different mediums and there’s a different experience you’re having. If you’re driving in a car, that’s cinematic intrinsically because you’re looking at things and you might be going somewhere which is motivating a particular emotion. That’s different than if you’re sitting at home in front of the speakers, which is a much more passive experience. I feel like the experience of listening is different but I like it to sound good on all those format. I’ve had recordings that some good on some of them but not all of them and that’s why I guess I keep collaborating with Dan because I feel like together we get a really rounded picture of the thing.

I’ve listened with ear buds and in my car. It’s a beautiful sounding record.

JESSE: Thank you. It’s mostly Dan that took care of the engineering.

The cinematic quality is there. It sounds like there are some non-standard rock instruments that are played on the album as well.

JESSE: We did use a lot of guitar and keyboards. I was using a lot of the Sequential Circuits Prophet synthesizer. I had a bank of sounds that I had been making, that was another thing I was working on in the quarantine because I had just acquired the instrument. There’s a world of sounds to create and I had stored a few. There’s some traditional instruments. My friend Logan Coale played the upright bass on a few songs and a lot of guitar. Dan and I will mess around and make it sound like something different. We had clarinet, flute and saxophone too. That was all done by one player, Stuart Bogie. He’s a phenomenal musician and I admired his stuff from a distance. I didn’t know him and I had a few people who knew him who introduced me to him. He created those arrangements on his own. We went back and forth a little bit but mostly that’s what he came up with on intuition.

Do you think this is stuff you’ll be able to pull off live?

JESSE: It so depends on the record and how well it does and if I have the budget to take everybody. For now, I have a tour booked in Europe and I’ll be doing that solo. The songs will be mostly stripped down. I have a drum and electric guitar and keyboard that I travel with. I sometimes reinterpret songs or play them the way they were created. I would love nothing more than to tour with the whole outfit. They are all guys who are no longer in their young 20s and stuff and I need somewhat of a budget to take everyone along.

How do you decide the song order?

JESSE: Dan and I co-produced it, so we work so closely together that way. We both kind of messed around with it on our own. I’ve always been the final decider on that stuff. I usually mess around with it so much that I go kind of crazy. I’ll send a few people that I trust maybe 3 versions to listen to. What’s interesting about sequencing – this is an 11-song record – with 11 songs there’s literally hundreds of millions possible combinations. It’s the weirdest equation, it almost seems impossible. So when you learn that, you kind of have to take it all with a grain of salt. You get what you think is your best flow and then you basically have to strive for that. And then there’s some limitations when you’re pressing vinyl because this was a long record and I had to cut one song on vinyl so the vinyl edition is 10 songs instead of 11. Whoever buys the vinyl will have a download card which will have all 11 but the actual vinyl was already long, even long with 10 songs.

If you have a long song, like one of the songs on this record is almost 8 minutes. You sometimes have to move that song to accommodate an even split. That stuff becomes a technical challenge in addition to a creative one. I went kind of wild with the whole thing but the thing that I tend to have a hunch about, even while I’m recording, is what the opener and the closer is. I knew pretty early on what those were for this record. I just had a hunch. And then you work against the hunch and you flip it on it’s head and you try it a million different ways. Usually you come back to your instincts at some point.

You grew up in an era where CDs were the main way of listening to music. And, on CDs, you don’t have to think about what song will kick off the B side. Is that something you do think about these days with vinyl being all the rage?

JESSE: I just recently started playing vinyl. I’ve always been enamored with the idea of side A and side B and them having two different moods. That classical distinction of having the brighter stuff on A and the darker stuff on B, or the wind up and the come down, or the day and the night, however you want to categorize it, has always been extremely appealing to me and naturally how I like to arc the records anyway. Thinking of it as vinyl is very helpful and kind of congruent to how I think about it anyway. The one thing that you really have to think about when you’re sequencing for vinyl is what it feels like to hear the song end on side A and then you get up and flip it over and put the needle down and what do you then hear? That’s an important moment. If you get that wrong, what comes after in the middle songs on each side are just kind of okay, there’s more leeway with that. Essentially, choosing 4 openers and closers when you’re thinking of vinyl where with CDs there just the opener and the closer and then the thing plays throughout.

The percentage of people who are listening to my music on vinyl compared to in digital form is very low and then even that is a low percentage of people who are listening to the record as a whole compared to people who are listening to a couple of singles that they enjoy. It’s really getting down to it for the purist and then really getting down to how you would want to listen to it which is cool because that’s how you make something that feels complete.

I listened to a podcast that you were a guest on and you were talking about Weezer’s The Blue Album. I know that’s what you listened to as a teenager but I’ve also heard you say that Sinead O’Connor and R.E.M. were influences so you seem pretty well rounded.

JESSE: After that, I got really into hip-hop and I was really into Tupac and Biggie. I had a girlfriend who was into R&B, like radio R&B, so I was listening to all kinds of stuff back then. It was all in the mix. I did have a curiosity about a lot of different things. My taste has kind of settled in that way too, it’s a number of different things I like to listen to now.

Do you go back and listen to old music or are you seeking out new artists?

JESSE: A bit of both. A lot of that stuff that I listened to when I was a kid, like Weezer, I don’t listen to that much anymore. It felt emotionally poignant to me at the time but it doesn’t really much anymore. Some of it does. I just kind of tend to go with friend’s recommendations. If I have something that I like, it’s so easy to find things now and you can really go down deep wormholes with streaming platforms. You can find so much stuff. I’m just always kind of looking for new things. At home, I often just play comfort food records like old beautiful jazz records by John Lewis, Chet Baker, things that are easily to play in the background that are soothing. I play those a lot and then I tend to listen to more challenging stuff when I’m out walking.

You’ve got a pretty extensive touring history and you’ve either been on bills or on tour with a bunch of recognizable artists. What can you tell me about touring?

JESSE: I toured a lot. I guess I started in 2009 or 2010 and I did a decade of a lot of opening slots for bands. There were periods during the first two records where I was jumping from one national tour to the next, opening for bands; main support, first of 3 sometimes, just all over the place. I built a bit of a fanbase that way but not enough that it felt worthwhile to continue it so then I started headlining on my third record. That’s the way I’ve been touring lately, playing smaller venues on my own. I brought a band on a few of those tours and then when it wasn’t financially viable, I toured solo.

I’ve slowed down on touring in the U.S. because it just hasn’t grown as quickly as it has in some other places. Europe has been a bit more consistent for me in terms of people showing up. As you get older, playing to 3 people when you’ve driven 8 hours to get there just is not viable anymore. I tend to focus on cities where people show up more regularly. Of course, if the record is successful than that changes and all of a sudden you have a bit of a swell. I keep my finger on that pulse and then decide accordingly.

Do you record behind-the-scenes video footage when you make records so that you have a document of the time you’ve spent in the studio?

JESSE: We don’t have cameras just hanging out on the sidelines which is kind of too bad in a way because I never end up with great quality photos of the process, just a couple shitty iPhone pictures that the band takes. The reason for that is that I get really into the mood when I’m working on records, I like to be in a bubble. I’ve made all the records where we go away somewhere and we all live together and work on it together. To have people coming and going who are outside of that bubble, I find it to be a bit of a distraction. I’ve been in studios where that’s happening and I feel like everything is diluted. My first records, I kept my dad’s old film camera around and I took some pictures of that myself so I have some beautiful photos. My wife is a professional photographer so I imagine I could next time invite her up for a day to take a few pictures. I think that would be really unobtrusive and a good idea.

 

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