Cris Jacobs: A Rare Q&A
Cris Jacobs is a busy man. With two different albums currently in the works, as well as an upcoming tour opening for the legendary Steve Winwood, Jacobs certainly has his hands full. Lucky enough for us, Jacobs kindly took time out of his busy schedule to provide some detailed and insightful responses to our many questions.
Jacobs, whose first solo album Songs For Cats And Dogs was released just two years ago, spent a decade leading the talented and underappreciated rock ‘n’ roll band The Bridge. Jacobs is a musician’s musician who has collaborated with several critically acclaimed artists, including Anders Osborne, Los Lobos, Darrell Scott, Ivan Neville, and many more.
A true triple threat, Jacobs dazzles audiences with his soulful singing, incredible musicianship, and expert songwriting abilities. On the stage, Jacobs is passionate and intense; off the stage, Jacobs is humble and sincere. And as I’ve stated before, Jacobs is surely one of the most underrated artists in recent history.
Although hailing from Baltimore, Jacobs’ music definitely drips with the soul of the South. Citing Townes Van Zandt and Willis Alan Ramsey as songwriting influences, as well as Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell as current favorites, Jacobs is clearly no stranger to Southern music.
Enjoy this fascinatingly honest and insightful interview with Cris Jacobs, a star on the rise.
Dallas Terry: You just recently announced that you will be opening a few shows for the great Steve Winwood. How does it feel to be opening for someone as legendary as Steve Winwood?
Cris Jacobs: It’s a dream come true honestly. It’s crazy to think that when I picked up the guitar as a teenager, I was trying to figure out how to play “John Barleycorn” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone”, and now I’m sharing the stage with the guy who wrote that stuff. I’ve always been a huge fan of Steve Winwood. Who hasn’t right? He’s one of those living legend icons that is on a very short list of mine: Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Rolling Stones.When I opened for [Winwood] a few months back, I was enjoying his set in the crowd with my dad, who of course turned me on to him when I was a kid, and in between songs hearing Steve say “I very much enjoyed Cris Jacobs” was a huge moment for us. To say it’s a huge honor is the understatement of the century.
DT: What is the current state of the Cris Jacobs Band? Will you be performing with them during the tour, or will you be playing solo?
CJ: The Cris Jacobs Band is an ever-evolving unit. I have a pool of musicians that I like to call on, and they’re all bad ass. The sound changes in my head over time, so the group continues to evolve as well. I’ll be performing solo with Steve Winwood, which is what I was asked to do.
DT: You are an infamously busy man, with several projects and bands currently in the works. Please tell us everything you can about the current projects/bands you are working on.
CJ: I’m currently in the middle of writing and recording songs with Ivan Neville. Due to everyone’s different schedule, there really is no time table, which makes it kinda fun. We’ve just gotten together a few times and made some noise and some great tunes have come out of it. We’ll be finishing the record this summer…hopefully. Other than that, I’m writing a batch of new tunes that I plan to record in the fall.
DT: Can fans expect any new albums out or any other tours from Cris Jacobs in the near future?
CJ: Absolutely. Most likely in the fall/winter. Right now I’m just trying to get some good songs down, and we’ll take it from there.
DT: I really enjoyed your 2012 release Songs for Cats and Dogs. What was it like doing your first solo album?
CJ: It was a terrifying but liberating experience. On the one hand, I could do whatever I wanted, but on the other hand, I could do whatever I wanted. My name was big and bold on the album, no more hiding behind a band name. So, I needed to make sure that I made the statement that I was truly trying to make. My approach was to keep it as genuine and real as possible, both with my writing and with the recording process. I had the band do all live takes of the tunes, with some overdubs after the fact, but I really wanted to capture the live feel. It really came together quite organically. I was able to freely write without the preconceptions of what I thought my listeners would expect, and just keep it honest and current to where my head was at the time. Some of the Bridge fans probably didn’t love it, since it’s quite different in a lot of ways from the Bridge sound, but I really consciously made sure not to just recycle old ideas or follow any past formulas. I, of course, went through the “are people going to like this” process, but in the end I just trusted my instinct and tried to create the best piece of art I could at the time.
DT: How did you go about compiling the band for the album? I really enjoyed the “roots” aspects of the band with the upright bass and pedal steel. Why did you choose that specific setup?
CJ: Those two guys (Dave Hadley on pedal steel and Jake Leckie on upright bass) had been on my radar for quite sometime. I really dig the sound of some of Bill Frisell’s work with Greg Leisz, which may have influenced a feel that I was trying to capture. As soon as the Bridge broke up, I contacted those guys and they were both available and we hit it off right away, musically and otherwise. They were a great extension of my sound at that time and it was just a natural fit to the tunes.
DT: When you write songs, do you write them specifically for each project? Or do you tweak the songs after you decide which project you will include them on?
CJ: Sometimes. I’ve learned that certain songs don’t have the same effect in certain settings. It’s hard to get an acoustic ballad across at 11:30 at night in a loud bar, and funky rock songs don’t quite work as well with fiddles and mandolins. So yes, for instance with The Band of Johns, which was a band I put together to be loud and rocking and intense, I wrote and chose songs accordingly. But for The Union Men, which was an acoustic, bluegrass influenced group, I had a totally different repertoire. Sometimes, there will be a tune that works in both settings, but usually I need to cater to the group.
DT: You are sort of infamous for the eclecticism of your music. You play anything from bluegrass to psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll to deep delta blues. What is it that makes you wish to be such an eclectic musician?
CJ: I just love so many different kinds of music, and more importantly, I feel as though I have a natural resonance with various genres. Which isn’t to say every style of music that I like I want to play also. I like Michael Jackson and Prince, but I do not feel like I have any of their thing burning to come out in my music. On the other hand, all of the styles you mentioned are in my opinion very closely linked, and the feel and vocabulary within those genres seem to speak to me and feel natural when I try to use them in my own expression. If you really look at blues, bluegrass, country, rock, and even early jazz, the vocabulary is quite similar, the differences being in the rhythms and nuances. So it’s not as if I “wish” to be eclectic, I just have a wide variety of sounds I want to express I guess. It’s been a blessing and curse honestly… sometimes I think it would be easier if I just said, “I’m a bluegrass guitarist, or I’m a rock guy.” But I can’t. Maybe it’s the Gemini in me, but on some days I’ll want to sit quietly and play some pretty or lonesome acoustic guitar, and some days I want to crank up and rock, and sometimes I want to make people dance. It all feels naturally connected to me, even though it can come off as quite schizophrenic I suppose.
DT: The genres that you do tend to play are generally Southern styles of music. You are currently based out of Baltimore. What draws you to the sounds of the South?
CJ: I don’t know what draws me to it, but as I say, that vocabulary and expression speaks to me. Whether it’s innate or learned through experience I really have no idea, all I know is that when I hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Doc Watson, Robert Johnson, Bill Monroe, and Louis Armstrong, it resonates a hell of a lot more for me than Steely Dan.
DT: Your musicianship is extraordinary. You were in The Bridge for many years, who are widely accepted as a “jam band.” Do you feel like “jamming” is something that you will always incorporate in your music?
CJ: Absolutely. I love to improvise, and I love to interact with other musicians in the moment. It is the most fun part of music to me. It’s what drew me to wanting to play music in the first place.
DT: Alongside your expert musicianship, you’re also a very talented songwriter. How do you go about writing songs, and do you have any strong songwriting influences?
CJ: Well thank you. Songwriting is the most challenging part of my music. To put everything together into a song is very difficult for me. I start with various catalysts. Sometimes it’s a guitar riff or a chord progression; sometimes it’s a word or phrase. But then I’ll sort of just try to flow off an idea, usually with vocal melodies being the guide for where the song wants to go. I wish I was better at it honestly. I start many songs, and finish few. It’s sort of a mindfuck to write a song sometimes because you have to constantly change perspective on it while in the act of doing it. You need to let the unconscious flow to really get to the good stuff, but then you need to step back and evaluate it, which can mess up the whole thing. There are various approaches I’ve learned through the years to not let myself get stymied or talk myself out of things too quickly, but I’m an insecure human being just like anybody else, so many times I am my own worst enemy when it comes to writing.
As far as influences, I of course have my favorite songwriters… the list is huge. Guys that I enjoy listening to and store away little notes about structure, delivery, things like that: Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey, Lowell George, Jerry Garcia, Allen Toussaint, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Bill Withers… But I find when I try to write “like” someone it never works. If I ever have a tough time getting words down and try to listen to someone for inspiration, it rarely works. I just end up trying to be like them and end up feeling inadequate and not genuine. Honestly, reading is what really seems to help me write better. If I’m constantly absorbing words and stories, it opens up my palate lyrically. I’ve written songs influenced by books and poems I’ve read.
— Ray Wylie Hubbard (@raywylie) November 19, 2012
DT: You covered a Waylon and Willie song with Eric Lindell. Are you a country music fan? If so, who are some artists you enjoy?
CJ: Yes, I love older country music, like Hank Williams, Willie, Waylon, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash. George Jones is one of my favorite singers of all time.
DT: You recently participated in as part of the Southern Soul Assembly for one night. The assembly consisted of Anders Osborne, JJ Grey, Marc Broussard, and yourself. What was that experience like?
CJ: That was quite a treat. I was scheduled to open the show, and when I got there Anders told me that Luther [Dickinson] was double booked and couldn’t make it, and they had already set me up a microphone and chair, and that I would be the fourth in the rotation. First of all, all of those guys are complete badass singers, songwriters, and performers. Not only that, but true gentlemen. To trade songs with those guys was really an incredible honor, I admire and respect each one of them, and it was a trip to share the stage with them. No matter what, whenever I’m in those situations, there’s still the part of me that thinks I’m a 16 year old kid with these guys and that I’m just a fan. So I try to curb that and just do my thing, and feeling the respect from them is really an inspiring feeling.
DT: Who are some modern artists that you are listening to?
CJ: I’ve discovered a few guys that really caught my attention lately. Jeffrey Foucault is one, he’s an amazing writer and singer and a very literate lyricist. Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is one I just got that I can’t stop listening to; what a killer record. He’s got a voice and attitude like Waylon Jennings, beautiful songs, and the record has plenty of psychedelic ear candy, which I love. Jason Isbell’s Southeastern is pretty much a perfect record, one of the best I’ve heard in years, and I just saw him live and his performance was flawless. And I’ll always listen to whatever Anders [Osborne] puts out, I’m a huge fan. Lots of those New Orleans guys I really dig, like Eric Lindell and Ivan Neville. I’m fortunate to have become friends with these guys too, which makes me like their music even more because they’re such great people. Other than that, a few other favorites are Kelly Joe Phelps (one of my all-time favorites, period), Darrell Scott, and Tim O’Brien. Guitar-wise, I’ve been digging on Bombino and whatever Bill Frisell does.
DT: Last question: If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could take three albums with you. What three albums would you take, and why?
CJ: Willis Alan Ramsey – his only one – This record is genius. It was made 40 years ago, and was the only one he made throughout his whole career. Every song is incredible, top to bottom
Grateful Dead – American Beauty – Some of the most beautiful, timeless songs ever written. People who don’t really know about the Dead think of them as just some psychedelic hippie band, which they were… but at the core of their music, and the reason for their popularity in my opinion, is their songs.
Led Zeppelin IV – Just in case things got a little too quiet out there on the island.