‘I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll’

New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom’s second solo album, Circles, is one of our favourite records of the year. This time around, the former frontman of  Tennessee band Tenderhooks has cranked up the guitars and embraced his love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, power-pop and country rock. 

Speaking from his New York apartment, which he describes as “a shoebox”, he says: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”

He’s certainly achieved his goal – recent single, the brilliant What’s The Over/Under?, is an infectious power-pop song  – “I’ve never had too much of a handle on what I want until I fuck it up” – with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on its predecessor, the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom does his best Marc Bolan impression.

Circles is full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.

Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, has echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard is reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.

Winstrom, who is 37, also looks to the ’90s and early Noughties for inspiration –  on the moving, cello-assisted ballad, I Walk In Circles, he channels Elliott Smith.

Two years in the making –  writing and recording –  Circles was produced by drummer Jeff Bills (The V-Roys and Steve Earle), who also worked on Winstrom’s debut album. The songs were committed to tape just before the coronavirus hit. 

‘The world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one’

“We were lucky for sure – we were basically 99 percent done, so we were able to lean on some very talented friends with home studios to add the odd overdub here and there,” he says.  “And engineers John Harvey and Mary Podio were super-savvy to invent a new workflow that let us finish mixing remotely.”

He adds: “We were really fortunate. I mean, obviously, the world needs another rock ‘n’ roll record like it needs a hole in its head right now, but I needed this one.

“For my own sanity, I feel like I’ve been working up to this album my whole life. I’m 37 years old – it’s 37 minutes long. Coincidence? I think not. But I do feel like a good chunk of my lifetime is living in these songs. The highs, lows and in-betweens, to quote Townes Van Zandt. I hope folks dig it. I do.”

Q&A

How are you doing? Congratulations on Circles – it’s a great record.

Jake Winstrom: I’m good – just chugging along and trying to stay safe, like everybody. Thanks so much. I’m very happy to hear you dig the record.

You’ve said that your first solo album, Scared Away The Song, had too many “singer songwriter” type songs on it and not enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock and roll tunes. With Circles, that’s not something you can be accused of. How did you approach this album?

JW: I definitely wanted to broaden the musical spectrum on this album. The last one, maybe due to time and cost constraints, ended up veering a bit too much toward what folks call “Americana”, I guess – lots of acoustic guitar-based, rootsy-sounding songs and what have you.

I had several more rock songs written for that record, including What’s The Over/Under? but we ran out of time on the day we tracked with a full band. So with this one we moved full band, electric songs to the top of the pile. And I wanted more moments of fun and levity in the songwriting. I think I had Bruce Springsteen’s The River in mind. What’s the saying? Shoot for the stars but settle for the moon? Hah. I wanted sad bastard songs sitting alongside frivolous rock ‘n’ roll.

How were the recording sessions? You worked with drummer / producer Jeff Bills again on this album. What did he bring to the process? Why do you like collaborating with him?

JW: The recording sessions were so much fun. I love recording and Jeff is just fantastic. He brings so much to the process. He has a real ear for songwriting and arranging.

I’d send him my four-track demos as soon as they were done and then we’d start ping-ponging arrangement ideas. And his production process is all about the song. He’s not afraid to get into the weeds on minute lyric edits and things like that. He really hammered this record into existence. He also has a great talent and Zen-like patience for mixing. Which I do not. Hah! So it’s a good musical marriage.

You have a great band on the album. How did you choose the musicians that you wanted to work with?

JW: We did have a truly great band for these sessions. Putting it together was easy – I just rang up my friends and they very graciously all said yes. On the last record, Jeff and I had kind of a rotating cast of musicians from song to song, depending on the sound we were going for. On this one I wanted more cohesion, but we didn’t have time to rehearse.

I knew we’d need a versatile group that could hammer out arrangements on the fly. We ended up with a veritable wrecking crew: Jeff on drums, Peggy Hambright on keys, Dave Nichols on bass, Greg Horne and George Middlebrooks on guitar, and Jeff Caudil on backing vocals. That’s some serious muscle.

Some of the takes are live, aren’t they? Do you normally record that way? My Hiding Place was done in one take, wasn’t it? 

JW: Everything started with us playing a song three or four times to get a good live take. My Hiding Place was one where it all just kinda fell into place in the room – even the vocal. I think it must’ve been the mood lighting in Scott Minor’s studio. Hah.

‘The studio where we recorded half a dozen songs is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic’

Where did you make the album?

JW: We did it in Knoxville [Tennessee], with the exception of some vocals recorded in Brooklyn. We started at Scott Minor’s Wild Chorus studio, early last year. We recorded half a dozen songs there. The studio is sadly no longer with us, but it was a great room. It definitely had some spooky magic. I wanted to record there because one of my favourite bands, Count This Penny, did their absolutely gorgeous album A Losing Match there.

It had a live room with no dividers between the guitar amps and drums, which made Jeff a little nervous, but I loved it. To quote the Rolling Stones – let it bleed! A little Telecaster in the cymbal track never hurt anyone. And that’s where My Hiding Place was recorded. It definitely has that room’s stamp on it.

We recorded the second batch of songs at Top Hat Recording [in Knoxville] last fall. The engineers are a super-sweet married couple – John Harvey and Mary Podio – who built a house with their dream studio inside. It’s a fabulous, comfy place to hunker down and make a racket. We mixed the entire thing there too. We still had six songs to mix when lockdown hit, but John and Mary were very savvy and invented a new workflow that allowed us to finish things up. They’re really smart, great people.

Luckily, you pretty much finished the album prior to the Covid-19 lockdown. How was isolation for you? Did you write any new songs during lockdown? Did it inspire you?

JW: It’s been fine for me. I’m thankful to still be gainfully employed. I guess I’ve mostly been entertaining myself by getting this record finished and out into the world. So after September 25 [album release date] it’s time to find a new hobby!

I’ve written a little bit. Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found it to be a particularly inspiring time. I miss hearing snippets of subway conversations and weird one-sided cell phone arguments while walking down the sidewalk.

You’ve relocated from Knoxville, Tennessee to New York? How’s that? Do you like living in New York? How has it influenced your writing and music?

JW: I love New York! I’ve been here for eight years now, I think. I reckon once I hit the decade mark I’ll be ‘official’. Hah. I like to think about songs while I’m walking, so New York is perfect for that. You can get into kind of an unconscious rhythm zigzagging through neighbourhoods while turning things over in your mind. I remember coming up with What’s The Over/Under? and My Hiding Place while making my way through the East Village.

What’s The Over / Under? is one of my favourite songs on the record. What can you tell me about the track? It’s a great power-pop song, with a killer chorus, Rickenbackers and horns. 

JW: I think I was in a hardcore Buddy Holly phase when I wrote that. I wanted to write lots of strummy, propulsive, open chord songs without too many minor chords. It’s easy to disappear down the minor chord rabbit hole sometimes. I remember coming up with the chorus, then having to Google what “over/under” actually meant. I don’t do sports betting or anything. It’s funny the things that tumble out of your subconscious mind sometimes…

 

The first single, Come To Texas She Said, reminds me of T-Rex – it’s a glam-rock-country-boogie!

JW: Hah – that’s awesome! “Glam-rock-country-boogie” sounds like my ideal genre. I was ruminating on the title Come To Texas She Said for a while. And once I kinda broke the verse melody everything else fell into place. It’s a song that’s gotten a big reaction live since I started playing it a year or so ago.

Jeff and I had many conversations about the arrangement. He actually went rogue – as he is wont to do – and initially produced a whole different version from his home studio, overdubbed on top of my four-track demo. It was actually really cool. The track included a mini V-Roys reunion, with Paxton Sellers laying down a groovy walking bass part. It had horns too. But ultimately we felt it was too Americana-y. Too much like the last record. I wanted to let it rip.

We recorded what became the album version during the Top Hat sessions. Dave Nichols’s elastic bass line really makes it for me. And Peggy Hambright’s call-and-response electric piano is so great – it reminds me a little bit of Harry Nilsson’s records.

‘I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-’70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma’

There are several classic rock ‘n’ roll influences on the album. Think Too Hard reminds me of The Beatles, Revolver-era, Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror has a Tom Petty / Springsteen feel, and My Hiding Place and Kilimanjaro have a Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe. Are those artists all big influences on you? What were your musical reference points for this record? 

JW: Wow, thank you – that’s extremely high praise. Yes – I love everyone you just mentioned. I always bring up Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the studio. I love the rawness of those mid-‘70s albums, like On The Beach and Zuma. And I think Peggy channelled a little E Street magic with her organ part on Loose Change, so those were all reference points I had in mind.

It’s funny, though – Jeff absolutely hates it when I say something like “hey, why don’t we try playing this song like Tom Petty, or The Bangles, or Syd Straw?” He’ll really flip his shit! He thinks bringing up musical reference points cheapens the creative process or something. He’s a purist I guess – hah. So I have to go and whisper those ideas to the rest of the band when he’s not paying attention…

I Walk In Circles has an Elliott Smith feel, doesn’t it? Are you a big fan?

JW: It does. I was trying to emulate his kind of hushed, double-tracked vocals. His records are so beautifully crafted. I actually came to his music late. I saw one of my favourite artists, Marika Hackman, cover his song Between The Bars when her tour came through Brooklyn last year, and that kind of set me off on an Elliott Smith tangent.

Some of your songs have a country influence. Did you grow up with country music in Tennessee? What were your influences when you were younger?

JW: Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.

I think during my sophomore year I picked up Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road at the Disc Exchange and fell in love with everything about it – the songs and the sound, which actually has some Beatles-y touches, thanks to the Twangtrust production. That led me to Lucinda co-conspirator and Knoxville poet laureate R.B. Morris, as well as The V-Roys.

Then it was down the yellow brick road to Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and on and on and on.

‘Going to college in Knoxville really opened my ears to country music. Before that I was pretty much solely focused on the British invasion and classic rock ‘n’ roll, with a smattering of post-punk bands, like R.E.M.’

What’s your songwriting process?

JW: Songwriting for me almost always begins with improvising – picking up a guitar and strumming/singing while I walk around the apartment. Maybe getting the gears moving by playing someone else’s songs and then seeing if I can hit on a melody or chord change that peaks my interest.

Those ideas will usually live in my iPhone audio notes for a while, waiting for words to flesh them out. That’s when I find it helps to walk around the block and get a change of scenery. Anything to trick myself into not thinking! Staring at a blank page isn’t the way to do it – at least not for me.

Are you hoping to play live when things get back to normal?

JW: I hope so. I’ve had offers to do outside things during the pandemic, but it’s just so dicey, safety-wise. Plus a lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play, so I’m basically a public safety risk! We’ll definitely do something once life gets back to normal. It would be fun to play the record in sequence. Of course, by the time it’s safe to do that, I’m sure I’ll be on to the next album.

‘A lot of sweat and spit flies off me while I play live, so I’m basically a public safety risk!’

How hard has it been as a musician being unable to play gigs to promote your new record? Are you worried about the future of the live music scene?

JW: I’m lucky in that I have a day job. I’m gutted for my friends that make their living playing music. It’s a really brave, hard life. And then to have the rug yanked out from under you by this…

Yeah – I’m really worried for the small venues. The sweaty little clubs that are so important for artists honing their craft. I’m terrified that by 2022 all the ones here in New York are going to be replaced by Chase Banks and Chipotles. And watching concerts on Zoom and Instagram Live ain’t gonna cut it. The pandemic has proven that much.

What are your plans for the rest of the year? 

JW: Stay vertical! I hope to venture down to Tennessee to spend Christmas with my family. We’ll see what the state of the world is by then. Fingers crossed.

Can you recommend some music – new and old? What are you into at the moment?

JW: Ooooh – let’s see. X’s new album Alphabetland is frenetic and fabulous. Girl Friday, this L.A. band I saw last year and fell in love with, just put out their first LP, Androgynous Mary. It’s a total blast. Great harmony singing and fiery guitar playing with stellar songwriting and arrangements that twist and turn. I’ve also had the new Haim record on repeat since it came out this summer.

As far as oldies, Fire On The Bayou by The Meters has found its way back to my turntable many times this summer. I’ve also been digging into Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love album, which includes several Elvis Costello covers.

Finally, have you heard Nick Piunti, who’s a power-pop singer-songwriter from Detroit? Your music often reminds me of his – I think you’d like him. I’m going to recommend that he checks you out. Have a listen to this:

JW: I haven’t. Thanks for the recommendation. I really dig this song! It reminds me a bit of Cheap Trick, in the best way. Total melodic confidence and barnstorming guitars.

Circles by Jake Winstrom is released on September 25 – it’s available on streaming and download services, as well as vinyl.

For more information, visit: https://jakewinstrom.bandcamp.com/

 

 

 

 

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