Our Woman of the Month for February is Jackie Gage! She’s a singer with a velvety rich voice, a musician who mixes elements of soul, jazz, and R&B, and a woman who believes wholeheartedly in her art and, most importantly, herself.
She recently relocated from the Bay Area to NYC, and her sound and her identity are in a constant state of evolution. She and Courtney chatted about an artist’s drive to create, what it takes to self-produce an album of this magnitude, and the exploration of a musical identity. Jackie’s self-produced debut album, Siren Songs, comes out on March 15th. Lucky for you guys, she’s giving away an advance copy of the album to one lucky reader!
MB: I’m so lucky to have gotten the chance to hear your debut album, Siren Songs. It’s gorgeous and unique, and WOW, your vocals! How would you describe your sound to newcomers? And who are some of your biggest influences?
JG: Thank you so much! I’ve been referred to as the Sade of jazz, and that definitely plays into my musical influences. My sound is smooth but plays with jazzy and R&B-like grooves. I’m also obsessed with luscious chords that tell a story. I truly admire Billie Holiday and Dionne Warwick, and I equally love more modern singers like Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding, Lianne La Havas, and Gretchen Parlato.
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MB: Oooh! I love Lianne La Havas! I can definitely see the connection between the two of you. One of my biggest influencers as a musician and as an artist in general is Gerard Way. I saw an interview with him from a long time ago, just after My Chemical Romance’s second album came out and they were sort of blowing up. I’m going to paraphrase, but he said something that’s really stuck with me. He said when an artist creates her first album, she has all the time in the world. No one is giving her deadlines or expecting anything from her. It’s a certain creative freedom you don’t get after that first album comes out. Did you find this to be true while you were writing material for Siren Songs? Or did you always feel a certain pressure to get these songs ready and out there?
JG: This definitely resonates with me because it’s so true! The lead time for the process was very relaxing. There was time to fully flesh out the music, time to have all the other instruments I was hearing in my head be recorded, and time for serious mixing and mastering! There was no one but myself holding the candle to the fire. It made everything very calming.
The biggest pressure for me is that I’ve had ambitions to finish an album before, but slowly the concept would unravel. Things wouldn’t feel ready. I made a serious decision that, this time, I had to love every song and make this beautiful. I wanted to make something that would last.
MB: Yes! I know quite a few friends pursuing creative careers who struggle with getting larger projects off the ground. It takes a lot of belief in self, a lot of grit, and a lot of patience to pull off something like this, and even more so when you’re an indie artist. What was your turning point? That moment when you said to yourself, “No matter what, I will make this album happen!”
JG: My move to the East Coast was a big fuel for my recording fire. I didn’t want to leave without capturing my musical moments from home. I wanted to record with my friends. I wanted to explore my musical identity from California. Plus, so many stories from the album are based off my life in the Bay Area. It finally felt like the right moment.
MB: So now you’re based in NYC, correct? Moving all the way across the country is no small feat! Did you move for the music? And what sort of differences have you noticed so far between the two different areas?
JG: It was a crazy step, and I’m really happy I took it. I did move for music. So many of my musical heroes were based here, and I wanted to learn about how they were establishing themselves as artists.
The saying “work hard, play hard” must’ve come from someone in New York because people work their butts off here! Friends are very focused on making ends meet, as life here is just as expensive as it was back home.
The East Coast scene is also so vibrant! I’m a night owl and can be up and about at 3:00 a.m., and there will be 5-10 events still happening. It’s pretty magical. At home, I love hanging out in Downtown San Jose, and can also head up to Oakland or San Francisco, but everything would close at 2:00 a.m. Here, the nights never end. I’ve had a few instances where I’ll be at a session and not realize what time it is—it might be 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.—because they never called last call!
MB: Sounds like you’re really thriving in your new environment! Earlier you spoke of exploring your “musical identity” in California. I love hearing stories of how some musicians amble from one place to another and let the city and the people and the experiences flavor their work. Can you go into this a little further? What is a musical identity? And what other sorts of factors (besides location) can play into this?
JG: Yes, definitely! Many artists I know start crafting their musical selections based off their heroes. Some artists have access to an A&R rep (artist and repertoire) who helps shape their craft and their career, or a parent or relative who can guide an artist into a strong path. Much of how I learned to identify myself relied on my surroundings. I grew up listening to old-school jazz greats like Billie Holiday. I dreamed of wearing my grandma’s ball gowns—which spurred my love for vintage fashion during performances.
As I continued singing, I was molded by the players around me. These are artists who equally resonate with big legends, as well as the historical artists in California, people like Dave Brubeck and Chet Baker. So, as I continued playing with musicians at home, I was also tuning in to the musical identity of my city.
It’s those beautiful, little things that shaped my identity, a mixture between my upbringing and the people surrounding me who influence me.
Now that I’m on the East Coast, I’m already experiencing a whole new take on music with people who grew up knowing and studying with the likes of Betty Carter, Pat Metheny, or Roy Hargrove. Their ears are so different than my friends from the West Coast!
MB: That’s so cool! That’s actually one of my favorite things about playing and performing music live. I’m always amazed at how bringing in just one new person to a band can completely evolve the sound, chemistry, and energy of a song. I’m interested and excited to see what your next album sounds like compared to Siren Songs, now that you’re on the East Coast!
But before I jump too far ahead of myself, I’d like to get into the nitty-gritty of self-producing a debut album. 1) Because I’m curious about your process and 2) because having spoken to a lot of friends and family who aren’t familiar with the music industry, there tends to be a misunderstanding that making an album is glamorous and magical and should probably only take a couple weeks. This is probably because movies, TV shows, and other forms of media have romanticized the idea of what it’s like to be “cutting a record” in the studio. Could you give us an idea of what actually went into bringing this album to life?
JG: Speaking to the first part of your question…that is so true! I had my first NYC gig this past January, with players who were all new to my music, and it sounded much different than my friends from home. Those friends know my tunes like the back of their hand!
Oh man, in terms of making the album…here was my honest process:
– Write out all the songs. Every single track had a lead sheet created for it.
– Think about the instrumentation for every track. For instance, I wanted strings on this album, so this is when I brought in my good friend Joshua Washington to arrange parts.
– Book studio time. Depending on the studio, this set the timeline for the pre-recording steps. The album concept was formed in March, and I then booked studio time three months out in June because that was their first availability!
– Hire the musicians for the album. I wanted to make sure my dream team was available the moment I booked the studio time.
– Rehearse! It depends how much time you need. In the jazz sense of Siren Songs, we only had one intensive rehearsal for it. For another band I was in, we had four rehearsals before we went into the studio. For the string section, they were able to come in day-of and lay down their parts.
– Record! Lay down the foundation of the music first. For me that was the piano, bass, and drums. Then the other instruments were added—marimba, Rhodes, and strings. And finally, the vocals came in! For the timing of this, we took three days to record instruments (two days for rhythm section, and one day for strings and the marimba), and four days for the vocals. I recorded my main vocals at 25th Street Recording, a studio in Oakland, then worked on all the background vocals with Joshua (my arranger friend) and Matt from The Press Recording Studio in Stockton.
– Mix it. Once everything sounded to my liking, the next big decision was in what style I wanted the record to sound. We played with some soulful R&B mixes, and found later on that a more traditional jazz mix fit this music best. Adam fromFantasy Studios was “all ears” in mixing this. Once he heard and mixed two songs, he felt the entire vibe of the album and was able to plug away on mixing. It’s a very tedious process, so this took time. We spent about five days just doing this!
– Master it. This is what balances the record’s volume. For instance, if you have a playlist with three songs—two of which are your favorite artists that you think your album sounds like, and one of your tunes is in the middle—does the entire volume of your song match up to what you hear in your well-mastered heroes’ albums? It would be a shame to create beautiful music, only to have it be too soft or blown out.
I had so much help and feedback from everyone involved on this record. The musicians I played with are masters at what they do in the studio, and when I was doubting (which happened often!), they had killer input about tracks. Scott Bergstrom from 25th Street Recording was also instrumental to the process. We had a whole evening, for instance, where we just tried out mics from the studio’s collection to make sure my vocals sounded the way I was hearing them in my head.
Adam from Fantasy Studios was able to take the tracks from the moment he heard them and shift them to what he thought was the best jazz sound.
And another thing is that this first time through took a loooot of time. This varies for everyone. For me, I was lucky to be able to stretch out some of the recording dates on this, and our timeline went from having our first studio session in June to completing the final mastering toward the end of October.
MB: That is so much work and energy and passion driving you through. Do you have some advice or tips for bands going through a similar process?
JG: If I could add anything to this breakdown of the process, it’s that the entire time I was putting this together I was thinking of my game plan. I kept asking myself, “Why am I recording? What do I want from this?”
Many of us have a chance to record our music, and then up and release it as soon as it’s done. But, if you look at lead time for some very successful artists who’ve released several albums, some artists sit on their albums for years—think of Kamasi Washington waiting almost five years before dropping The Epic on Brainfeeder.
Once the music is done—or for some, before you even start recording—that’s the chance to share with the people who would want to get behind releasing it. Those are the labels’, promoters’, and agents’ time to shine. So think about where you want your music to take you, and release it when it’s going to help you get there!
MB: That last sentence is a beautiful metaphor for all creative endeavors, and for life in general!
I noticed on your Instagram feed that you make and sell bracelets. What’s the story behind these beauties and how did you get started in making them?
JG: Yes! They’re gorgeous, right?! It’s totally a family affair. I started weaving bracelets in summer camp when I was a kid. The beauty of friendship bracelets is that they are so organic and honest. You care about someone, you make them a bracelet, and they swear to you that they’ll wear it until it falls off. *heart eyes emoji*
I took up crafting hemp bracelets again after college, wanting to keep that identity of honest bliss. At the same time, my cousin from Cali had been creating wire jewelry for family members. My grandma for instance had a lovely necklace but couldn’t find earrings or a bracelet to match it for the life of her! So my cousin made her a matching set. I loved her work, she taught me how she creates her pieces, and now we work together in building them!
MB: Amazing! I love that it’s a family affair. It makes it that much more special. Anyone interested can browse through Jackie’s shop here.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel as if artists and creative types are constantly at war with self-doubt. You even mentioned feeling some doubt while recording this album (understandably!).
It makes sense. We put ourselves out there for the world to critique, so maybe it’s our way of critiquing ourselves first, to make sure we’re as prepared as possible. But after putting so much work and passion into this album, what are your biggest doubts and fears? And then, to sort of turn that on its head, how do you deal with and manage any self-doubt you may feel?
JG: Amen! It’s tough to put your thoughts and feelings out there so openly.
My biggest doubts came from not having someone guide me through this process the first time around. I mentioned heavily talking with/freaking out about musical decisions with Scott from 25th Street, with Tim and my bandmates. My thoughts were tumultuous because I didn’t have someone else pushing forward the concept. I had to learn much about the process as I went through it. Even the idea of radio play—what makes it a promising track for DJs and how to even create your physical album to their liking—I had to learn as I was in the midst of it. After a while, I realized that once I focused on what I wanted to see realized from the album, I could then find the people who would be making those decisions and ask them what they were looking for, and alter some ideas to fit that.
It goes right into the next question, too.
Whenever I doubt myself (like the self-conscious, “I’m not sure if I’m ready” kind of doubt), I remind myself that I NEED TO be my biggest cheerleader. If I have a question about something and I know who has the answer to it—even if I don’t know that person very well—then I better get my butt over to that person and ask them! That mentality is what drives me, and many times that drive creates a lot of amazing friends who feel similarly about their lifestyles. It’s those types of risks that forever alter your life.
I was laughing in my mind about this too because that was how I met you! I had a period where I wasn’t sure if I should reach out, asking myself, “Would Model Behaviors really care about my journey?” but, lo and behold, you have been the most amazing person that I could have never dreamed was on the other end of my email! I cannot thank you enough for all the work you have put into this process. I’ll never forget this!
MB: We’re so glad you decided to send that email, Jackie! You’ve truly inspired us, and I can’t wait for our readers to fall in love with your album just like I have.