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Young, Restless

Singer/Songwriter Jessie Hughes’ Husky Voice And Electric Riffs Spend The Summer On The Road

joeff Davis

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/10/2005

Jessie Hughes plays a CD-release show at the Talking Head Aug. 13.

Jessie Hughes has one of those down-low bad-girl voices. You know the kind—languid as honey, but razor sharp. A deep, dark croon that can go from a whisper to a howl in seconds flat. An acoustic guitar sounds thin beside a voice like this, so Baltimore singer/songwriter Hughes brings it on electric, favoring anthemic grunge-inspired riffs and a black ’79 American Stratocaster. The guitar is older than she is. She bought it two days after she moved to Hollywood, 18 and intent on ditching her childhood harp, viola, and violin training for the primal crunch of rock ’n’ roll. Now 21, Hughes has been playing solo electric shows since 2003.

Guitar was the first instrument that I picked up by myself, outside of classical music, so it was the first time that I felt that the music was really my own,” Hughes explains, speaking through a headset as she drives her trusty Jeep to Chicago. “I was such a latecomer to rock. I didn’t have any older siblings who were cool and in the know. Vocally, I really don’t know what I’m doing. I just kind of do it, finding things by accident. But a teacher out in L.A. taught me how to scream without hurting my voice. And I had to learn how to sing, because no one else could sing the stuff I’m writing.”

Jessie Hughes’ “stuff” hits Baltimore streets this month with The Seventy-One Demos, a five-song EP that augments the angsty, distortion-soaked sucker-punch of her live set with a full band. Seventy-One was recorded two years ago after Eric Penna (guitarist for Boston band Ketman), intrigued by Hughes’ raw style, invited her to record at Lifted and Gifted Studios, the Boston-based indie label he runs with beat artist Wallywhat. The EP is an intensely personal debut—a ragged notebook’s worth of sneakily accessible twentysomething introspection.

“A lot of the songs on the EP, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but they’re about being conscious, being aware and awake and wanting to just shut off, but not,” Hughes says. “I got my heart broken last year, so recently it’s been relationship things. It sounds so cheesy, but really, the songs come out of a commitment to figuring myself out. It’s something I’ve always done, I’ve just started doing it mindfully.”

Initially delayed by a backup at Lifted and Gifted’s mixing desk, Hughes has been touring behind The Seventy-One Demos since the spring, but this week’s show marks her hometown CD release. A self-confessed “Baltimore nerd,” Hughes is deeply passionate about the city’s music scene (citing Avec, Karmella’s Game, and Carter Tanton as favorites). She grew up in Towson, picking up classical music and later Nirvana and Radiohead at the Waldorf School, then moving to Friends for high school. But things took a darker turn.

“I was exhausted all the time. I’d get these headaches, and no one knew why,” Hughes says, with a rueful laugh. “It turned out that I had Lyme disease for six years, undiagnosed.”

Hughes was homeschooled after that, free to spend time honing her songwriting skills. When most of her old Friends classmates were comparing colleges, Hughes decided to follow her gut instincts and spend eight months at Hollywood’s Musicians Institute. Her illness under control, Hughes felt inspired to pursue music full-time, despite the risks and uncertainty of the business.

“That experience with being sick, and being held back from things, was something I really felt a push against,” she says. “Music was really just a pull I couldn’t ignore. Since then, I’ve been really lucky. Well, no, I don’t believe in luck. I’ve worked really hard. But things have sort of been falling into my lap, and it’s awesome.”

These days, Hughes divides her downtime between Baltimore and Chicago, substitute-teaching sporadically at the Waldorf School and nannying when she needs some extra cash. But for the most part, she’s out on the road. This summer alone, she has started playing dates in Chicago and toured Canada, where she ended up spending an extra week hanging out in Petersborough, Ontario, with some newfound musician friends.

“It’s been a really interesting summer—I’ve seen a lot of things and met a lot of great people, which is sort of the point to doing music, really,” she laughs. “Like, I stopped in Wheeling, West Virginia, to get gas, and this horse came running toward my car, just running wild. I ended up joining all these townspeople to corner the horse in a corral, and befriending the sheriff, and when he found out I was a musician he wanted my autograph.”

Lately, Hughes has been picking up her viola as well as her guitar, adding string parts to friends’ recordings and starting to compose new material, with an eye toward hitting the studio sometime within the next year. Until then, however, the touring life suits her just fine.

“There are times when I’d love to have a band, but I also love the freedom that solo performing allows,” she says. “I get thrown on bills with anybody. I’ve opened for punk bands, for metal bands. I even opened for a joke ’80s hair band called Mullethead. I just throw my gear in the back and drive around with my Jeep and my little sleeping bag. I love it.”

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