The Lonesome Winner
Slightly hunched over a pint of cool brown Yuengling, singer-songwriter Jaymay sits in the hidden corner of a musky bar on West 4th Street in New York City. As she empties her glass, she begins to raise her delicate voice in order to fight the bustling atmosphere, complete with mingling after-work suits and an unnecessarily booming soundtrack. The bar, a shadowy dive, is located a mere nine blocks from where Jaymay played her first show a couple years ago—the Sidewalk Café, a haven for up-and-coming antifolk singer-songwriters.
Antifolk, which Jaymay describes as a group of “people who hate people,” has spawned the successful careers of counterparts Regina Spektor and Nellie McKay. But unlike some of her antifolk peers, Jaymay placed herself outside the circle of piano ticklers and guitar cradlers at the onset of her career, allowing her to first embrace her own musicality through self-meditation and find solace in her independence. “I don’t hang out with any of them. I work with them, maybe, but I don’t run with anyone,” she says, pausing to sip her beer. “I’m a loner.”
In separating herself from the antifolk pack, Jaymay has blossomed from a quirky college bibliophile into a roaring one-woman impresario. In April 2006, she released her debut EP, Sea Green, See Blue, a five-track collection of summery gems that draw heavily from the grassy haze of Dylan-esque musical charms. Although she played her first live show with a band in May 2005, Jaymay has already reveled in the successes that any unsigned singer would envy: her EP snatched the number one slot on iTunes’s top-100 folk albums, and is perpetually dancing in and out of Insound’s top-100 sellers; she won second place in 2005’s Williamsburg Live Singer-Songwriter Competition; and she has been featured in Nylon Magazine and AM NewYork. “I think that people are very receptive very quickly, and are kind of like ‘Wow!’” she excitedly states. “I just want to put my music out there.”
Her sound—an incorporation of quirky vocal elements like Spektor and relationship-driven premises in a Fiona Apple vein—comes across as a mellow pastel conglomeration throughout her five-song set. The EP, strung together with a color theme, also follows the arc of her romantic desperation and loneliness, with both facets weaving together on each of the tracks. On the album’s opener, “Gray or Blue”, Jaymay struggles in remembering the color of a love interest’s eyes over the combination of the gentle strums of a guitar, plucks on an upright bass, and soft shake of a maraca. She reflects, “I watched you very closely, I saw you look away / Your eyes are either gray or blue, I’m never close enough to say”, gradually revealing that her interest is already claimed by another woman, leaving her a silent onlooker.
Jaymay grapples with relationships to reveal her vulnerability throughout the EP, like on the heart-melting title track, a guitar-based ocean breeze complete with lush violins and a brushed snare. In a bittersweet ode to her distant lover, she sings “This is crazy, but I know I left you to be with your art / You always put me first, and somehow that broke my heart / Cause it’s not my place to choose / My first love, and my only muse / Sea green, see blue”. Jaymay’s source of inspiration for her love songs lies in the hands of a single subject, who she seems to be struggling to draw back into her life.
“Every love song that I’ve ever written has been for the same guy,” she says. “But I haven’t written a love song in a long time, a few months. They’ve all been angry mean songs.” In contrast to her recent rage, the EP finishes with the leisurely-paced “Color Confused”, a track that captures the essence of old-time radio with its unintended faulty quality. “We recorded it, it sounded shitty and I love it. I was like ‘Fuck sounding good.’ I said that it would be the first thing that I’m going to hear.” The track conveys Jaymay as dangling at the edge of loneliness, leaving the listener with an air of simultaneous hope and sadness.
Jaymay’s romantic individuality and introspection on the EP directly mirrors her life outside of her music. Her self-professed independence is apparent in every aspect of her life: she recorded her EP with the help of a single collaborator, Jared Engel; she takes pride in her abstinence from the New York nightlife; she even painted the artwork for the EP. Her iron-willed autonomy stems from her wishes to both find the right dynamic between collaborating musicians and have the only stake in her decisions as an artist. “You can’t just believe what people say. I don’t trust people,” she says in regards to labels, noting that they can only control an artist through money. “Right now, I feel so free to do whatever the fuck I want. I don’t feel any pressure at all, and it’s fun. It’s a good time.”
As an unsigned artist, Jaymay has valued the same independence since her childhood in Long Island. She was first introduced to music by a gay uncle, who played Madonna, Bette Midler, and Cher in her household. Digressing from her uncle’s imposed musical tastes, Jaymay discovered Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, while teaching herself how to play the violin and piano by listening to their records. She hid her inclination towards songwriting until her college years at the New College of Sarasota, Florida, where her future percussionist accidentally crushed her violin with his bongo drums. “I’m not sentimental about my instruments at all,” she says, lifting her chin pointedly. “[The students] freaked out and thought I was this weird girl after he did it, so no one really talked to me for a while.” Jaymay taught herself the guitar after the collapse of her instrument, prompting her to write and perform songs by herself in her dorm. As a humanities major, Jaymay combined her educational, personal, and musical interests with her college thesis. “I wrote on Bob Dylan, babysitting, and books. The three B vitamins, I called it. The formula is like me, that’s how you make me.”
Jaymay decided to pursue a career in music after she left college, following a string of babysitting jobs, which she quit only half a year ago. She embraced her interest in songwriting by performing at open mics, and had her first residency at the Living Room in New York in 2005. As her fan base grew, she began to branch out and perform across the U.S., which has led to opening slots for Mates of State in London and a recent tour in Japan. For now, Jaymay is embracing her self-sufficiency and individuality by venturing to the woods or beach to record her next project with fellow artist Louis, which will be either another EP or a full-length, depending on the recording process. But like her career up until now, Jaymay is only making music as long as it is done on her own terms.
“Right now, I can record whatever I want and put it out. I don’t have to make a certain number of songs. People are listening to it and I’m just doing what I’m doing, so how could I possibly complain?” she states. “I’m so happy!”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article