by Ryan Meehan
Jessica Lee Wilkes is no stranger to the spotlight. Her upcoming release Lone Wolf (Free Dirt Records) may be her debut album, but for the past five years she’s been a key member of the JD Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers, penning songs, sharing lead vocal duties, and playing a critical role in furthering the groove and swagger the band is known for via her dynamic stage presence and skills on upright bass. But with Lone Wolf, Jessica Lee Wilkes trades in her upright for an electric bass, and takes over center stage; her empowering aura and skillful musicianship continue, leaving no question of her rightful place as a commanding front woman. The five song EP takes Jessica’s raw rock ‘n roll edge to new heights and scorches you with the fire of a fearless femme fatale. Hearkening back to classic 50s rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues, Jessica injects these forms with an energy and vigor that shake the dust off a classic sound. Complete with swinging brass parts, surf-inspired guitar licks, and punchy handclaps, Lone Wolf is an infectiously timeless record. Based in Paducah, KY, Jessica has won over many a famous fan throughout her musical career, including rock legend Wanda Jackson, Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys, along with JD McPherson and his band; in fact, Jason Smay, drummer in McPherson’s band, recorded drums on Lone Wolf, while guitar parts were provided by celebrated rockabilly guitarist Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets. 2015 marks a new chapter in Jessica’s music career, with Lone Wolf set to release this Summer, and Jessica hitting the road and her touring band (Preston Corn on drums, Wyatt Maxwell on guitar) to tour the USA this Spring and Summer, including sets at Rhythm N’ Blooms and Lowertown Music & Arts Festival. She’ll be appearing at RIBCO Tuesday, August 11th and we are delighted to have her as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: Who was the first performer you recognized as a songwriter that led you to decide you’d be interested in writing songs of your own? What was the first song you ever wrote about; and in your formative years of songwriting what were some of the topics which accounted for a majority of the lyrical subject matter?
JLW: Well, it wasn’t really just one musician that made me decide I’d like to start writing. Like most kids growing up, my earliest musical influences came from my parents’ record collection. It was mostly Classic Rock, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, CCR, stuff like that. It was definitely a gateway into all of the music I got into as I got older. My dad had a John Lee Hooker record that I got my hands on as a young teen. I heard “Boogie Chillun” and it was a game changer for me. After that, I started buying blues records. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, stuff like that.
I actually remember one of the first songs I ever wrote. I was seven years old and I wrote a country song in my little sunflower journal. It was called “Empty”. It’s pretty funny to go back and read the lyrics now. It went, “When you walk along the road, Holding hands and kicking stones, and you look into his eyes, They’re empty. You don’t want to believe it’s true, but he’s not the one for you. You can feel it in your heart, it’s empty.” Haha! I was writing tragic love songs before I ever fell in love. Bitter and jaded from a young age.
RM: You’re based out of Paducah, which is right on the Kentucky/Illinois border…How much of your decision to remain at that location – as opposed to moving to Nashville, Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles – is based on the fact that it is centrally located and for the most part ideal for touring purposes?
JLW: A big part of it, actually! Not only are we centrally located, but we live in a very affordable location. I’m not sure we could maintain our crazy touring lifestyle if we lived in a more expensive city. It’s definitely a bit of a tradeoff living in a smaller town, but it’s a good balance with our hectic tour schedules. It’s nice to decompress out in the country, which is where we live.
RM: Who are your three favorite bass players in the history of recorded music? Which characteristics of each musician are the catalysts which draw you to their work; and how do you go about interpreting such attributes into your music while putting your own unique spin on what you’ve picked up by listening to those artists?
JLW: I’d probably have to say Willie Dixon, James Jamerson, and Carol Kaye. Willie Dixon was a true artist. Not only was his playing superb, but he also wrote a ton of blues songs that have become standards. He played for Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and recorded his own records as well. Jamerson and Kaye are two of the best session musicians of all time. They’ve played on some of the most well known tunes and often went uncredited.
RM: Do you find that you come up with the musical idea for a song structure before you put words to a concept, or are you a songwriter that typically comes up with vocal hooks before any music is composed? Is the practice of writing lyrics something that is very therapeutic for you, or do you find that at times it can be troublesome and a bit of a hassle when you’re attempting to put words to a song structure?
JLW: For me it’s often a melody line first. I get most of my ideas around five in the morning. I’ll wake up in a weird fog with an idea and I’ll fumble for my phone and try to record it. There are usually some strange, nonsensical lyrics attached to it as well. Sometimes I’ll keep some of those in the song, sometimes they’re too out there.
Anytime I’m doing something creative or productive it’s therapeutic for me. Songwriting is something that happens pretty naturally for me. If I had to force it, for whatever reason, then it would become a hassle.
RM: Which song off of The Lone Wolf EP is your favorite to perform live and why? When you are writing a particular piece of music, do you ever feel early on as if your intention is for it to lean in either the direction of being a track specifically written for a performance or one that is more subdued and studio-oriented?
JLW: I really dig “Something’s Goin On”. It’s one of those kind of tunes we can really play with the dynamics live and we just play it however it feels right in the moment. It also gives the guys in the band a chance to take some really killer solos. I don’t consciously write with a “live performance” song versus “studio” song in mind, but at some point in the process it becomes clear which songs will work better in each sense.
RM: Which song on that record gave you the most trouble to track in the studio? Which portion of that cut was the most bothersome to get to tape; and how long did it take you to finally nail it?
JLW: The song that gave me the most trouble didn’t make it on the record! It’s called, “Be Still My Love”, and it just didn’t have the feel I wanted. I struggled with signing it because I picked bad key for my voice. We mixed it and everything, but I just couldn’t go through with putting on the record. It made me cringe every time I heard it.
RM: In what ways has working with The Dirt Daubers helped you become a better solo artist? What’s the most enjoyable aspect of getting to work with that outfit?
JLW: I love that band. I’ve learned everything from my time on the road with those guys. I was the tour manager so I learned the business end of things, and I co-fronted the band so I gained a bit of experience performing center stage as well. We all got along really well and we became a big family.
RM: What’s the most bizarre thing that’s ever happened to you on stage in all your years of performing? How did you respond to that occurrence at the time, and if the same thing happened to you tonight do you think you’d react in a different manner?
JLW: It’s hard to think of just one incident. I’m sure I’ve blocked a lot of stuff out of my mind! We’ve played a lot of bizarre venues in the middle of nowhere to about two people. That’s a surreal experience. Not much surprises me at these shows. When you’re in a different place every night, you learn to expect the unexpected.
RM: Are you using the upright at all on this tour, or are you pretty much sticking to the Gretsch? Do you feel as if it’s easier to sing while playing one of those two instruments as opposed to the other?
JLW: It’s all electric bass live. I really love having the freedom to move around on stage as opposed to being stuck to the upright. It’s definitely easier to sing and play the electric for me.
RM: Is there any specific project – musical or otherwise – that you would really like to take on but you haven’t had the time to do so just yet? Do you think that ten years from now you’ll be able to say that you have completed that undertaking?
JLW: I want to get back into drawing comics. It’s been awhile since I’ve done anything with drawing and I really miss it. I think I’d like to make that my goal. I’ll need you to follow up with me in ten years to make sure I’ve done it!
RM: What’s up for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JLW: Lots of touring! I just want to play as much as I can. I hope people dig what they hear and keep coming out to the shows!
Official Website: http://www.jessicaleewilkes.com/
Jessica on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Jessicaleewilkes
Jessica on Instagram: https://instagram.com/jessicaleewilkes
Jessica on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jessicaleewilx
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