Music

Jesse Ainslie Explores Demons, Love, Kindness With 'Only in the Dark' (album stream + interview)

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Walter Reed / Courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media

Joined by an ace band, Jesse Ainslie delivers what may be one of the year's best singer-songwriter albums, "Only in the Dark".

Jesse Ainslie's new album, Only in the Dark, arrives 18 May via Epifo Music. It is destined to be hailed as one of the most emotionally direct and poignant records of this year. There are shades of Crazy Horse's ability to temper the sweet with the shadowy, to acknowledge that sometimes those things lingering in the darkness are larger, more overwhelming than we first imagined. Though Ainslie's record is not informed by the same depths of tragedy, one can pair it with Neil Young's Tonight's the Night for raw power and honesty.

"Caroline" carries genetic similarities to Jackson Browne's "Before the Deluge" and pieces of Jason Isbell's most soulful ballads. It is, though, Ainslie's material and his album and he reveals himself as a most capable writer on this collection, whether touching on America's current social and political climate ("Things to Come") or personal strife ("Real Good Night").

Ainslie, who came of age in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina scene and recorded with the band Straight No Chaser, later moved to New York City where met Castanets' songwriter Ray Raposa. Ainslie joined Castanets and was later a member of Phosphorescent when Matthew Houck transformed it from solo project to full band.

Though it is a solo effort, Ainslie is quick to praise his collaborators, including keyboardist James Hallawell, whose credits also include spells with David Gray, Florence and the Machine, and the Waterboys. Hallawell worked on his tracks from London. "We basic tracks at the end of a day and he'd say, 'Jess! I've got 11 organ tracks coming to you today!' That would be way too much, and I'd say, "James, please send me one great one?' He's just such an eager, wonderful collaborator, wonderful musician, the nicest guy."

In speaking of both bassist/engineer and co-producer Jeff Crawford and drummer Daniel Hall, Ainslie remarks on their strengths as human beings almost as much as he does their musical skills. "I knew quickly that Jeff was the right person for what he was doing. I could feel that he was a good, kind human being who I could get along with," Ainslie recalls. "David was very similar. I met him and right away knew that I was dealing with very lovely human being. I think that sense of cohesion among the band members is largely personal and spiritual before it's musical. But those things translate so nicely into one another."

His praise for manager/label boss and longtime friend Brendon Massei (Viking Moses) carries a similar tenor. "I've just always loved Brendon," the singer says. "We've only become very close in the last couple of years working on this project. He's just a great person. When he approached me about working on the record on the industry side of the record, I knew it was absolutely the right decision."

Where and when did this material start coming together?

The composition process started in early 2016. That's when I put the first couple of songs together. We started recording pretty soon after. Our engineer's schedule got very busy over the summer so we recorded the first song probably in the spring of 2016. We didn't get started in earnest until the end of October that year, right before the election. Between Election Day and inauguration day we did most of the recording and most of the songwriting took place in that period as well.

That explains the song "Things To Come" in a way, then.

It certainly does. [Laughs.] I knew I'd have to talk about that one eventually. That song addresses some of the anxiety I was feeling both personally and for us as a species, for us as a society. That song is certainly tied to all that stuff. Personal reflections on what was happening, what is happening.

With "Things To Come" there is a sense of spontaneity. Did it come out like that or did you have to go back and refine things?

The first. It came right out. I probably wrote that song in two hours and the lyrics in half-an-hour, probably. I knew that the music needed to be pushy and direct and static in its way. Not doing too much movement, not doing too much to distract from the central message.

When I first listened to the record, I heard "Real Good Night" and thought, "OK, this is a record about the end of a relationship."

It is to some extent about the end of a relationship but it's more about a relationship with myself. The way I was living and the way and the way I was operating. Let's just be explicit it about it: I got sober before this whole record started coming together. That song's about the end of my relationship with alcohol or the end of my relationship with that self. The friends that I say I can't find in that song? So many of them have returned to me in the aftermath of getting sober.

You capture that mood, the desperation and desolation of someone at the end of their drinking rather well on that song.

I'm not overly private about that part of my life. I don't want it to become the single defining feature. I also think that it's such a common story, that it's not special to me. I think Jason Isbell is a great example of that right now. He's stepped out of the shadow of this addiction that we share and has made some really beautiful music after setting aside this thing that causes so much chaos. I think the way he's been able to talk about it has been really positive. I think, also, Marc Maron is an excellent example. He doesn't keep it secret. He also doesn't dwell on it too much.

So I think the conversation about alcoholism and sobriety and addiction and how we live in the world, how we treat ourselves, how we treat each other, that conversation is getting clearer in our society in a way that we don't see with other topics of conversation quite as readily. Which is great.

I'm always cautious about talking influence. I don't ever want to ascribe something to someone that's not part of who they are but I wondered, listening to this album, if you've heard the first three or four Jackson Browne albums, including For Everyman, Late For The Sky.

I didn't until after we recorded this record. I was listening back to some recordings that I had done with James Hallawell years before. He and I sang a really beautiful version of "These Days" which was somewhat inspired by the Gregg Allman version which inspired Jackson Browne to record his version of his composition.

And then I started digging in a little deeper to him. He has such a beautiful way of writing that's so personal without being too saccharine. His singing voice is just so perfect and so himself. That is certainly something that I am always looking for in other artists: Are they singing from an honest place in their physical form? Or are they singing with a fraudulent accent? Are they a Connecticut Yankee playing knight? Can I hear that their voice is honest? There is nothing duplicitous about the way Jackson Browne sings or the way he writes.

It struck me, listening to "The One You Love" and "Caroline" that there was that similar sensibility in those songs in terms of expressing something in the zeitgeist without being so on the nose.

I think it's very easy to make fun of someone who titles a record For Everyman. But it's sort of a perfect title. He's writing about very normal experiences but he's condensing them into this very perfect gem. He's sharing an experience. He's not telling you what happened to him, he's speaking from a personal place that is very relatable. It is by sharing those truths that we can gain strength from one another. That's what great art can do.

This is not an overstuffed record. Things have room to breathe. Was that something that you were striving for as well?

I do have a tendency to fill up musical space but I like clarity. My natural impulse is to make something that's very large and lush. But if I was to pick two really important defining influences, it would be Smokey Robinson and Television. While Smokey Robinson is leading up to that Phil Spector Wall of Sound, it's also very well defined. Every instrument has its place, every singer has their place. Television's Marquee Moon is one of the sparsest records you could listen to. It feels like they didn't even do overdubs, which may or may not be true but everything's so clear, everything really owns its own space. I like narrative and I like communicating something that I believe is real and important. So I want the lyrics and the vocals to be present. I don't want anything too wishy-washy.

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