When you hear Jessie Baylin sing for the first time, it takes a matter of moments to realize that she’s intimately familiar with pop’s history – but not at all interested in repeating it. Her songs—and her plangent voice—carry a classic pop tone that evoke memories of the Brill Building and Laurel Canyon in the ‘70s while retaining a decidedly modern, empowered worldview.
“I drew a lot from people like Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick, the Brill Building writers,” says the New Jersey-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter. “But I didn’t want to make a retro, throwback kind of album. Nostalgia is fine, I have a definite fondness for that, but I didn’t want people to listen and think I was trying to recapture something from the past.”
That’s exactly the vibe one gets when immersed in Baylin’s third album Little Spark, a recording that emerged after negotiating her way out of a major label deal that was threatening to mar the clarity of her singular artistic vision. Rather than go with the flow, she went with her gut, gathering what remained of an inheritance from her grandmother—whose nickname Jessie borrowed for the Blonde Rat label moniker—Jessie hired Producer Kevin Augunas, who helped her gather some of the most empathetic musicians she could find, including old-school guitar man Waddy Wachtel, veteran drummer Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, The Watson Twins on backup vocals and famed Emmy & Grammy winning string arranger Jimmie Haskell (Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel, Bobby Gentry). But it was modern-day auteur and multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift who was Little Spark’s chief arranger and with Swift, Kevin, and the musicians in place, Jessie had her creative collaborators and co-conspirators.
“They became absorbed into my world to a degree I never expected,” she says. “In a lot of ways, I really had these guys live my life with me and I think that closeness is reflected in the music. There was a seamless feeling, like we’d grown up together—it was that tight.”
Little Spark bears out those words. From the soulful orchestrations of the gently swinging opener “Hurry Hurry” through the high-desert plaint of the wistful “Yuma,” Baylin and company move together as if joined at the head, the heart and the hips—leading to a direct connection with the pleasure center. She readily credits the arrangements conjured up by Swift—a veteran of sessions with artists as diverse as The Shins, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and Damien Jurado—but the most striking instrument is her own.
As borne out in songs like the sigh-inducing ”Love Is Wasted on Lovers” and the country-kissed juke-joint ballad “Holiday,” Baylin can use her voice to cut like a stiletto, then to soothe like a balm, often within the same song. “Everyone always told me I had a ‘nice’ voice, so ever since I was 6 years old I had the instinct that I could do it,” she says. “But I sometimes felt like I was kind of holding back. I was comfortable singing, and I liked singing, but I don’t think I ever felt as open and free doing it until I got into the studio to do this album.”
Baylin has certainly drawn her share of kudos over the years. Growing up in a small town in New Jersey, she wowed friends and family who eventually bowed to her pleas to allow her to pursue musical training at a high school for the arts. There she made connections with kindred spirits like Scarlett Johansson (who directed the video for this album’s lead-in track, “Hurry Hurry”). Soon afterwards, she moved to Los Angeles, where she expanded her horizons further with a regular gig at the Hotel Café.
“That was a great environment because the musicians around me were really inspiring, and the audiences were really insightful,” she says. “When a crowd is really there to listen, and they are really into the music, you put more of yourself out there. It’s just natural.”
Jessie’s performances drew attention from within her peer group as well which included long-time Norah Jones collaborator Jesse Harris, who teamed with her on her first album, You, which was released through iTunes, as well as the crew that worked on her acclaimed 2008 follow-up, Firesight. It wasn’t in the studio that she really cut her teeth, though: It was on the road, the clubs of the Midwest and south and the festival circuit—where she met her husband, Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, with whom she settled outside Nashville a few years back.
“Moving to Nashville was a big deal for me, because it changed the way I move through the world,” says Jessie. “At first, I was alone a lot when Nathan was on tour, and it was just not my world. It was new, it was unfamiliar and that was both exciting and scary. It’s also a lot more slow-paced, compared to everywhere else I’d lived. It forced me to listen more, and you can hear that in these songs, I think.”
Baylin’s ability to listen is palpable throughout Little Spark, in her mellifluous phrasing, the gentle twang that’s crept into her voice in recent years. But even more tangible is her ability to feel—and make her listeners feel. Listen to a song like “Joy Is Suspicious,” a starkly vulnerable self-assessment about learning to love against some pretty strong odds, and try to remain unmoved.
“Some of the songs I’m proudest of are the ones that were the hardest to write,” she says. “The ones I didn’t want to write, but had to. That can be draining, but it’s the kind of thing I keep going back to—people know when you mean what you’re saying, and they’re willing to come into your world. And I want people in my world.”