Analogue Music | Darren Jessee

Darren Jessee

By Matt Conner

There's an unspoken trust between Darren Jessee and the music.

Conversing about songcraft with Darren Jessee sounds eerily similar to discussing a relationship, a vocation much less about discipline or demand than it is about trust and nurture. There's a deep-seated belief that the art itself will be there, ready for a creative interaction, just as Jessee also believes that the finished work will find its intended audience—all in its own way and time.

Not only is there a beauty to the way Jessee talks about songwriting, but the melodies themselves are striking. Central Bridge is his latest work, a lovely follow-up to the unfortunately overlooked Remover which was released at the height of our collective sheltering-in-place during a global pandemic. Both albums are marked by a tenderness and maturity that he's previously described as "beautiful music for sad misfits."

As he prepares to support the release of Central Bridge, we sat down with Jessee to hear more about the chance Remover never received, the road ahead for this album, and what he's learned from the last couple of album cycles.

Analogue: Coming out of the pandemic, was it clear that you were going to keep moving forward as before as a songwriter?

Darren Jessee: I think it was clear, just because I’m a person who is happy when I’m being creative. Albums tend to just start to show up for me. I enjoy thinking of songwriting. It’s just a satisfying thing for me to think about. The melodies will just be in my head. So in some ways, I knew that I was going to do it.

My last record, Remover, came out in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 and I’m still trying to figure out my feelings about that. It’s too big of a thing for me to… Bar None is a great label and they’re very supportive, but they’re not competitive in the way of, say, Atlantic Records or something. So I know going into it in general that it’s going to be word-of-mouth—the type of record your friend who is really into music might be like, ‘Damn, have you heard this?’

Photo: Dustin Condren
Photo: Dustin Condren

The pandemic became a thing you could talk about and put your frustration on, but a more honest conversation is that this has been very slow, satisfying work for me to continue to challenge myself and enjoy writing. I think I’m just on my path.

As far as the other stuff I do, I haven't really been touring on drums. My last tour was with Hiss Golden Messenger in 2017 or 2018 and then I put out my first solo record. So I’ve been focused on and enjoying putting together a body of work that will hopefully somehow appeal to enough fans that I can do this full-time. That’s my dream about it. But lucky for me, I just enjoy creating this music so I can still find a lot of satisfaction in it.

That’s a long answer, but the pandemic is hard for me to understand how it affected me because I didn’t have tours canceled. [Laughs] So I don’t know. I just think, for me, one of my bands was famous a long time ago, it’s now a slow, persistent, quality thing to rewrite the story and try to have a second act in music which is a difficult thing to do.

Analogue: I want to clarify. When you say you’re not sure about your relationship with releasing a record during the pandemic, do you mean that album not getting the attention it would have or do you mean the pandemic in general and all that entails?

Darren: Yeah, thanks, the first part. Remover was a record I put a lot into and it has a lot of cinematic string arrangements and all kinds of stuff going on. The release was coming up and it was a weird time to be putting out an album in that tonality. It even sounds better to me now.

So to clarify, it was an easy scapegoat with the pandemic to say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do this’ or ‘it was hard for people to find my record because most people’s tastes were nostalgic.’ But I didn’t want to make the pandemic my excuse for that record not going as far as hoped it would. So I just turned the page to get to Central Bridge, I guess. It was like, ‘Remover is out there for people to find, but let’s just keep moving creatively.’

In a way, creating Central Bridge helped me get through all of that because it gave me a sense of purpose as an artist.

Analogue: I don’t want to set you up as making your problems bigger than anyone else, but how real was that grief for you in the moment about Remover and trying to figure that out?

'I think you have to understand that music has its own way of finding people, especially when you’re someone that people organically discover."

Darren: Well, all artists want their music to connect with people. And it did. There were tons of people who emailed me or messaged me when they found it. But the mindset I was in in 2019 was that 2020 would be my year. I was going for it. But like so many other people, I couldn’t. So I don’t feel like a victim or anything like that. None of that. Like any artist, whatever you have just finished, you’re imagining it connecting. When I was unable to do that, it was disappointing, because you care about your work. But, y’know, music sticks around and a lot of my favorite artists, some of their records didn’t do well at all and now they are considered masterpieces of the genre. I think you have to understand that music has its own way of finding people, especially when you’re someone that people organically discover.

Analogue: When you say 2020 is going to be your year and then that can’t happen. Does that keep you from gearing up again?

Darren: Yeah, at first it was a real challenge. I had to rebuild. I had to start over. That, at first, can be daunting, but as I said before, something I’m always remembering is that I just enjoy being a creative person. I think I just didn’t want to get too bogged down in what didn’t happen. Because a lot of good things did happen and I’ve had a lot of good things happen in my musical life.

I just thought, ‘Hell I’ll just get back to work.’ There were things I could make little tweaks on moving forward, so I made those subtle little shifts on the new record that I wanted to try. I don’t know. It could be argued that putting out Remover during the pandemic was necessary for me to get to where I’m at now.

Analogue: I like that perspective and would love to know more. Can you take us inside where you’re at Central Bridge in that way?

Darren: Well, Remover as the title suggests someone seeking solitude or it's an album of getting rid of things that aren’t working in your life. It’s a lot of that feeling. It’s a brooding record. For me personally, when I got to the other side of the pandemic, I started feeling a lot of gratitude that I was alive and able to pursue my interests as an artist and I wanted to express a little of that and try to move away a little.

I’d like to believe that all of my records are a little bit different. When you’re making a record, if you do one little thing differently, it changes everything as you are building it. So just a subtle mindset shift helped create a different sort of feeling album. So I just trust those feelings I have as an artist. I let the song tell me what it wants to be and do my best lyrically to be interesting and a little surprising. And then I try to surround myself with really talented people to get the whole thing across.

Analogue: For the last album, you had no real chance to support it like normal, so how are you approaching this time? What’s in the works?

Darren: Well, I have a band right now which has really been great. We’ve been rehearsing and putting songs together for the last year and we’ve got some shows coming up. It’s fun for me because I’m leaning on the new records but I can pick through my whole catalog and we just have so much to choose from that’s really satisfying to play.

So I’m hoping I can start to tour more and get back at it. Otherwise, everyone is just doing their best to promote their music the best they can and see if they’re one of the lucky ones. For the most part, I feel there are 15 to 20 records that people seem to talk about every year. So you never know, but your goal is to try to be one of those records, but it’s kinda out of your hands.

VISIT: Darren Jessee

Photo: Dustin Condren