Fresh back from Treefort Music Festival, Eugene singer-songwriter Caitlin Jemma talks to #WomenCrush Music about her single, new album, and the women who inspire her.
Caitlin Jemma has been a staple of the local music scene for a while. With three albums behind her, the Eugene singer-songwriter has continued to dazzle with her country-tinged folk and bluegrass sound. According to a tag on her Bandcamp, Jemma’s sound can be summarized as “swirling, mist-covered folk.” However, with her new album, Love Notes, Jemma says this description has now evolved.
“My sound has changed a lot,” Jemma says. “For me, it’s a little less misty and a little more sparkly.”
Though her sound has shifted to a more sparkly texture, her strong songwriting and country influenced storytelling live on in her new music. With a new album on the day (due out May 1st via Bandcamp), Jemma treats us to a brand new cut from the new record, a single title “Lean on My Love.” To celebrate it’s release, she talked to #WomenCrush about her influences, the intentions behind the new album, as well as her experience as a female songwriter...
With the new album, you’re going into a more “electric frontier,” but you’re keeping the same intimacy in your songwriting as the first three albums. Though it’s more electric, it’s marked by country still. And you grew up on country?
I grew up in a small mining town in Northern Nevada. It’s this old west town that they kept the way it was. There was a lot of western honky-tonk there. I didn’t fully appreciate it when I was a kid, but I realized later that country music has inspired me. I grew up listening to my Dad’s records a lot. So Bob Dylan was a huge influence in the earlier days, and I really liked Cat Power as well. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 17, and I got into songwriting I think because of all of the Dylan I was listening to, but then I was also inspired by Cat Power as far as vocals. I realized I didn’t need to be a super strong singer in the way that’s conventional. It was just about learning that, and finding my voice. I don’t have to sound perfect, you know. That’s kind of my earlier background.
Then I lived in Northern California, and I was in a bluegrass band for a few years. Now, I’m doing this electric band that I’m really excited about. I really love soul music, and I’ve always wanted to do a [soul] side project, but then I realized I don’t need to do that. I was putting myself in a box for a really long time, and that can be limiting in the way that songs are structured. Like most bluegrass songs are about soloing, but I’m not a solo person. I am a songwriter. Learning to use my voice as my primary instrument in my songwriting has been really fun. I’m putting all the genres I really like (blues, soul, country) into this sound that I feel I can explore more deeply, more than ever before.
What new elements are coming into Love Notes? What’s the shift? You said that where your previous music was more “mist-covered,” this is more sparkly. So what makes it sparkle?
I’d say the biggest shift is my intention. I’ve been extremely intentional with this album. It’s a concept album about love, exploring love in all its different forms. I first got inspired by the album in the fall of 2016. My string band and I were done playing music together, so I went on this solo tour with Bart Budwig. We’d only known each other for a few months, but we decided to go on a tour across the country together. He plays trumpet. It was my first time playing some solo shows, and he asked if he could play trumpet on some of the newer songs that I’d written. I’d never heard that sound in my music before, but it really inspired me. We were in the South, and hearing the songs of the South (blues and soul), especially in New Orleans, there’s this really unique sound that comes out of [there]. I was really very inspired. So having the brass and strings together is a new thing. Because it’s only ever been strings before this. And then having electric guitar.
So I’ve been extremely intentional about the message I’m trying to get across with this album, and then also exploring sounds and thinking about the song’s needs. Like when you have a bluegrass song, everyone’s going to play. The mandolin, the banjo, the guitar, the upright bass. Everyone’s going to play, and everyone’s going to have a part. It’s kind of mechanical in that way. And now, some songs don’t have trumpet, some songs don’t have a guitar solo. So I’ve been thinking carefully about what the song needs and the intention of the song, and not overplaying it. So creating music that serves the song is the new element.
Was it a challenge pushing into that new sound or was it a natural evolution?
I think it was an evolution. I stopped putting myself in a box. Instead of thinking “I need to have a soul side project,” I thought, “No, I love soul music. I should make soul music.” And I love country music, I love so many different genres. So not putting myself into a box as an artist has been really exciting because I can just go so much deeper now. And I can work with different instruments in different ways.
In talking about your intentions with this album, you mentioned it’s a concept album on love. How has love in all of its different forms impacted and inspired this record?
The single, “Lean on My Love,” has an interesting story that answers that question. I was on a train going to Reno, and I was listening to Alicia Keys at the time. This was in October of 2016, so around election time. And I was thinking about how a lot of Mexicans are feeling really afraid, myself included. Like what’s going to happen? What’s happening to our country? I was thinking about that, and I had just come from a wedding in Eugene. It was the end of summer, going into fall, and I was thinking about what changes in our life, and what is always available to us. With the seasons changing, being at this wedding, I wrote this poem that became the first verse of “Lean On my Love.” And it said “Love is the constant season that stays / Love is the steady breath that remains.” So I was thinking when I wrote that that no matter what happens in our life, we always have love. And I was on this train, listening to Alicia Keys, and there was this box car on the Amtrak for luggage. And someone was down there playing guitar, and we started jamming and then I started to try to learn this Alicia Keys song, and I think that inspired the groove and feeling of “Lean on My Love.” On the train, I had written the first verse and the chorus. Then I thought, “I should try to finish this and give it to [my friend] as a wedding gift.” So I snuck away and wrote it on a piece of paper and gave it to them as their wedding gift.
That particular song started the concept of “what is love, how can I be more loving, how can I choose to be loving even when I’m afraid to be.” So that’s what the song is about. You can lean on my love, which is essentially saying, “I’m here for you.” I want to heal you for the feeling in your heart is weighing down your mind. Whatever is going on, I’m here for you. When I wrote that song, I thought, “this is the best song I’ve ever written.” It’s got totally different chords, a different groove. So I just kept going from there. Each song [I wrote] lead to the next and I noticed, “Oh, I’m writing a lot of love songs.” And that’s why I called it Love Notes.
I want to talk about being a woman songwriter as well. What’s your experience been like on the local level, being a woman songwriter?
I’ve been playing music for 10 years. Pretty much that entire time I’ve been songwriting. For 7 years, I’ve been touring. I feel it’s a really important time for female voices. It’s obvious there needs to be more of a balance and more of an opportunity for lady musicians to be more supported in the music industry. More all lady bills, or all lady songwriters. I just feel like I want to see more female musicians lend their voices to an audience.
What challenges have you had to face that you want to see changed for other female songwriters coming up in the same position?
I think getting male staff at shows used to the fact that I am the boss. The fact that my guitar player is a male, but he’s not the front person. I’m the front person. I run into that, where mic check will be given to a male person in my band. Or something that really bothers me is when I’ll get up and play a show, and people will be like, “Oh, I’m really surprised.” And that kind of offends me, because what did you expect? Why are you surprised? I’m very strong in my vocals and very confident, and I think that’s what they mean is that they’re surprised I’m not soft-spoken and emotional. What I want people to become used to is that women can be bold. To get rid of the stereotypes of what kind of performer you think I’m supposed to be, or what you thought I was going to be. I don’t think that any of my male bandmates get that “Oh I was surprised” thing. So stuff like that. Getting people used to the fact that I’m the one in charge of this project.
I want to also talk about some women who inspire you in music. Who are some female artists you’re listening to at the moment that reflect your sound, or inspire you in ways?
I love Valerie June. And I’ve actually been listening to a lot of R&B too. Jamila Woods. She was at Treefort. And Princess Nokia. She’s a rapper. I’ve been listening to a lot of her. What I really love about all of those artists is they’re bold and grounded. They’re women that have a very clear message. Like when I saw Princess Nokia, there’s a line in one of her songs that says, “I’m done with these all male bills.” Talking about only being able to open for a male artist, and not being put on the bill with another lady. And so she said something like, “You ain’t shit. I should be able to perform with artists I respect, no matter their gender.” I love her saying that. And something I really love about Jamila is she’s just really good at stating what her boundaries are, and what she’s willing and not willing to put up with. And she’s really confident and bold about that. With all those artists, I think they’re all really fearless female artists that have some sort of political muse that they put really gracefully into their music. I think they’re really poetic in the way that they make a political statement.
Listen to Caitlin Jemma’s new single, “Lean on My Love,” below. Preorder the new album, Love Notes, on Bandcamp and catch her at her album release show on May 3rd at The Liquor Store in Portland, OR.