Interview: Jaime Wyatt the new queen of outlaw country

Jaime Wyatt started writing songs when she was four years old, and despite having a record contract as a teenager, she was in her early thirties when she released her first self-financed debut album which won many plaudits. In between, she struggled with the Los Angeles music industry, suffered drug dependency and had a spell in jail for robbing her heroin dealer, and finally accepted her sexuality. Americana-UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jaime in her Nashville home to discuss her new record deal with New West Records, her second album ‘Neon Cross’, her approach to songwriting and celebrating the individual Beatles’ birthdays as a child.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
I’m keeping busy as much as possible and while I know people who have had it everyone is OK.

You appear to be getting some real momentum in your career. How important is success to you and how would you define success?
I just want to make enough money to allow me to make a living writing my songs. I am a songwriter and that is what I want to do.

Like a lot of modern artists, you have had a variety of musical influences, and while your music is currently been put in the outlaw country genre there are elements of roots rock, indie rock, folk, soul and blues in your music. What attracted you to the genre?
My parents were both musicians, though not successful ones, so when I was growing up there was always music in the house particularly Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and the Pretenders.  I moved to LA from rural Washington State when I was 17 and I recorded a number of tracks that were never actually released, you know, bad deals and what have you. Growing up and living on the west coast country was everywhere from the giants of country rock, and Waylon Jennings was rock’n’roll, to the sunny California sounds.

After the success of your debut album  ‘Felony Blues’, I assume you had several labels after you. What attracted you to New West Records?
They were always on the alt-country frontier and being pioneers of what we now call americana. They had wonderful artists like my favourite songwriter John Hiatt. I just think they have a particular stamp of approval and it was a dream for me to work with them as I had grown-up buying albums from artists on their label since I was like a pre-teen.

Your first solo album ‘Felony Blues’ was recorded in LA with a big dose of Bakersfield, you now live in Nashville, will you be sticking with Bakersfield for a while?
Where ever I am it is all about what I study. I’m sure the music is influenced by the landscape, but I am still drawn to sunny California stuff and I think I am already on a trajectory as far as my career is concerned. My sound is not going to be adulterated by any place that I live because I am already on my path, you know.

Merle Haggard came from California and managed to keep his sound when moved to Nashville, and you also sound like you know who you are musically.
I do, I do. I feel strongly about what I hear and what I want to release.

Nashville will forever be associated with country music but musicians from various genres have made their home there. Who do you hang with?
That’s right. At the moment it is a lot of gardening, and I like to play with horses and dogs. Also, I have several home improvement projects. When there is a world we can go out into, I like to play pool. I’m pretty new to Nashville, but I do have some friends that have been here for a while. My friend Travis Stephens, he helped me write ‘Sweet Mess’, lives here and I love hanging with him.

Are you happy you moved to Nashville?
Nashville is a good place for me, it reminds me of where I grew up in Washington State. Los Angeles is tough, and I was there for 12 years, and you get no breaks there.

You mentioned Waylon Jennings earlier, and you worked with Shooter Jennings on your new record ‘Neon Cross’. What was that like?
Shooter is amazing. He is quite brilliant as a musicologist, just his knowledge of recording and sounds and his intuition, he just seems to know what a tune needs in terms of sound and arrangement. When I write a song I hear a lot of the production, and there were times when Shooter was pulling in another direction. I knew to trust him because of his experience and knowledge, and also we have known each other for a few years. The sound on  ‘Neon Cross’  ended up way beyond my wildest dreams. He has recorded a few records before mine and he has won two Grammys, with Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlisle. As I knew him personally I knew he was developing a massive skill set that went with his God-given talent. He is a great artist but I think he has found his niche as a producer, an amazing producer.

Your personal challenges are well documented and you have had some hard times to deal with which gives you a rich experience to draw on for songwriting, but all the experience in the world doesn’t give you the literacy to articulate your thoughts and emotions effectively as you do in your songs. Where did that skill come from?
I have been writing poetry and lyrics since I was four years old. It was really the first thing I started to do, write songs and play music. My parents were singer-songwriters, they weren’t famous at all but it was just part of who they were. We would play word games in the car and make-up rhymes, sing songs together but with all of us making up our own songs. They encouraged me to make up my own songs rather than sing covers. I didn’t learn a lot of covers while I was teaching myself to play the guitar and sing because my parents were very strong and said don’t learn covers, write your own music. It was the best thing they did for me because now I have learnt how to nourish this internal world within myself and also come up with melodies. I also grew up reading a lot of poetry. I also analyse a lot of classic songwriters. Words are my favourite thing, I really love the English language and just turning a phrase and keeping it simple.

There must be a temptation as a songwriter to write lyrics that are complex and clever when the hardest thing to do is often the simplest lyric.
I have an emotional gauge on a new song and I try and listen back objectively, and if my emotions get involved and I hear a phrase and go ”ah-ha”, then that is a keeper, but until that happens I work it. I love songwriting.

Apart from John Hiatt, who else are your songwriting heroes?
I grew up in a Bob Dylan household, so I really love Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle were played around my house a lot, and also The Rolling Stones I really think they are great songwriters as far as like turning a phrase and taking a cliché and just altering it a little bit. I also love the Beatles, I used to have Beatles parties as a child and celebrate the Beatles’ birthdays, and I really extensively studied their catalogue as they are so catchy and I love them.

How did you go about writing the songs for your new album?
The date was set for the recording and I was writing while I was out on tour, I would just throw a bunch of half-written ideas into a folder on the computer and share them with Shooter. He would tell me which ones were really strong and I would continue working on them. Because I tour extensively, a lot of the songs were finished just before we went into the studio. I am very diligent about writing but touring took all my resources. Sometimes I write in the van and travelling is one of my inspirations. An idea will come to me while I’m sleeping just before the session. I finished ‘Just A Woman’ just before I tracked the vocal. I came up with the bridge for ‘Just A Woman’ when I woke up, it was just there, a major-minor thing like the Beatles used to do.

‘Mercy’ is a very strong performance. How many takes did it take to get that vocal and what were you thinking about when you recorded it?
You know, not many. I always want to work with a more polished vocal but Shooter wanted a rougher take. I must have done seven takes but he went back to an early one, probably the first or second take. If a producer doesn’t scare you they are not doing their job.

‘Neon Cross’. Country music has strong gospel roots. You have managed to capture that old-time emotion of gospel but for a modern audience. What’s your view on gospel music?
I love it. You know who got me into that old-time gospel, it was the pop and rock artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Elvis and Gram Parsons, just the way they dipped their toe into gospel music. I’ve listened to Loretta Lynn’s gospel records. It is something I want to explore, even more, chase after it. I’m just dipping my toe in it coming from the pop artists and the blues to an extent. I need to go back to the original source, including bluegrass.

Did Shooter just ask his mom Jessi Coulter in, or did you ask him to bring her to the recording?
Yeah, I asked for sure. He was certain he could get her because I have met her a few times, and he played my music for her, and he goes she will love this. He always told me when she liked a song I performed. I guess she really liked my voice. I asked Shooter to ask her and he got the green light. She recorded her vocals from her house and that was in another state. I was worried she would get into the song and then go “No, it is not for me.”. I was waiting with bated breath until I got the email with the track and her vocals. I was driving around Los Angeles with my mother and we listened to the song, ‘Just A Woman’, and it was just tears of joy, it was sort of a dream come true for me. My mother was so proud.

With the quality of songs you have written, there must be a chance of other artists covering some of them. In an ideal world,  what would your favourite cover be, and by who?
I feel like I could write a song for Chris Stapleton and I would be honoured if he recorded one of my songs,  also Leon Bridges.

Is the Jamie Wyatt on the cover of ‘Neon Cross’ the new Jamie Wyatt, and where did you get that rodeo suit?
Ha ha, I’m certainly more confident. My mom and I made it. My mom found the vintage fabric and she made a pattern with an up and coming tailor in Nashville, Cery Gassler, and the three of us designed it.  The cover photograph was taken on Hollywood Boulevard, we rolled up with my mom’s chair and stuck it in front of The Frolic Room, an old bar, and we took the photographs.

The cover fits the music which is a bit darker than your first album. It is tough times, how are you and New West going to promote ‘Neon Cross’?
I am trying to make videos and stay creative in ways to promote the album. I’ve got some projects on the horizon, including a documentary and live performances, music videos. I’m looking to record some covers for my Instagram account and some live streaming. I did think about holding back on the album but it was like if not now, when? It is all about trusting in a loving universe and God and roll with the punches. What I have discovered is that people need art right now, they need something to emotionally process with, and music has always done that for me, so I thought it could be a great service right now. I am happy it is out there, I am happy I have an album to promote as I am not on tour so I don’t know where I would be without it.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your playlist?
Little Feat ‘Two Trains’ from ‘Dixie Chicken’ I listen to that a lot, J J Cale ‘Don’t Go To Strangers’ from ‘Naturally’ and  Dolly Parton ‘Living On Memories of You’ from ‘Jolene’.  This is my study music, I’m also enjoying the new  Texas Gentlemen album.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to our UK readers?
I can’t wait to come to England again. I’ve got my framed map in my kitchen, I like drinking lots of PG Tips, it is a big dream of mine to live in London. Be patient, I’m coming when they let me.

Jaime Wyatt’s ‘Neon Cross’ is out now on New West Records

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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