Stages & Phases

Jessy Wilson stakes her ground in the Music City

In the autumn of 2018, Jessy Wilson was searching for her voice as a solo artist. A meeting with Black Keys drummer, songwriter, and record producer, Patrick Carney convinced her he should produce her solo debut. Carney wasn’t sold, yet she eventually talked her way into a second meeting at his studio.

“I had been recording all week with my band at the Bomb Shelter and had a tape of some board mixes,” Wilson says. “I played it for him and ten seconds into the first song he said, ‘Stop.’ Fifteen seconds into the next song — ‘Stop.’ Ten seconds into the next song — ‘Stop,’ and he said, ‘I don’t think this is what you want to do, and I don’t think this is who you are.’ He actually told me I was having an identity crisis, which for most artists would have been insulting, but I’m from Brooklyn so it’s really hard to insult me.”

Wilson’s charm and grace are immediately apparent while her thick, Brooklyn skin is not. She begins an interview with her own questions — Where are you from? What’s your story? What brought you to this point in your life? Her curiosity is genuine, a desire to understand the person she is about to share her story with, and it’s through this process that her grit and tenaciousness reveal themselves.

The same mixture of charisma, curiosity, soulfulness, and determination flows throughout the 11 tracks of Wilson’s debut solo album, Phase (produced with aplomb equal to its seeming inevitability by the aforementioned Carney). Sonically, it mashes up the musical styles that have captivated Wilson as a professional singer — classic soul, hip-hop, Americana, indie rock, and more, while also declaring an exciting creative independence.

Although a proud Brooklynite through and through, Wilson’s familial and musical roots are a tangle of cultural fonts. Her father, a Costa Rican immigrant of Jamaican descent, brought an international flair to her life, while her mother’s family roots in Plains, Georgia, meant each summer brought direct exposure to Southern African-American gospel traditions, and the constant accompaniment of the radio tied the threads.

“My mother loves music, and I grew up listening to everything on the radio,” Wilson says, “all the classic soul — Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, black disco — Loleatta Holloway, the Salsoul Orchestra, and lots of hip-hop. When I was about 3 years old, my babysitter noticed every time a song came on the radio I would sing along. My mother went straight out and bought a microphone and an amplifier and set it up in our living room.”

Wilson’s mother went beyond simple encouragement as she utilized her daughter’s musical passions to provide educational moments. “I was an only child, and I would listen to a lot of music with my mother. My mom taught me to listen to the quiet moments, like the way different artists hum in songs — where is it coming from? The head or the chest? What does it mean in the song? She taught me the emotional intelligence of music, along with how music connected to our place in the history of America. When I hear soul music I hear my mother’s voice, my grandmother’s voice, and the voices of my ancestors.”

By the age of seven Wilson was performing in local talent shows. Moving up to off-Broadway shows, she toured Japan at the age of 11 as part of a production of the James McBride musical Harlem Kids Symphony. While attending the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, she worked as a back-up singer for Alicia Keys and held down a steady gig on Fridays and Saturdays with a cover band in a New York nightclub.

After graduating from high school in 2006, Wilson secured what seemed like a dream job, singing backing vocals for soul and pop superstar John Legend. But rather than supplying satisfaction, it instilled a desire for further creative horizons.

Working with John was when I started taking the idea of songwriting seriously,” Wilson says. “Before that I really didn’t have the confidence to write. There was something about the way he approached the craft and his lyricism that was deeper than just ‘this is what I feel and I’m writing it down.’ I was making a lot of money working as a background singer, and I started flying to any of his studio sessions I could so I could watch the process. Since I was there, he started having me record background vocals, which I still do for him.”

As Wilson gained confidence in her writing, she relocated to Atlanta and then Los Angeles, eventually co-writing songs for successful R&B artists Keyshia Cole, Vivian Green, Fantasia, and Ledisi. Despite her successes, including songs on two Grammy-nominated albums (Fantasia’s Back to Me and Ledisi’s Pieces of Me), she found herself hemmed in by musical stereotypes and arbitrary boundaries.

“The music industry has a way of putting you into boxes and keeping you there,” Wilson says. “If I walked into the room as a songwriter, it was very hard to prove to people I was anything else. And if I was writing for a female R&B artist, the only
subject allowed was, ‘Oh you hurt me, I took you back.’ We also frequently wrote to beats the producer already created, so you’re not making the music in the moment. I didn’t feel like that was who I am, so I stopped and took a step back.”

Her thoughts turned to an experience in Nashville while working with Legend. “In 2011, John and I were at [country songwriter’s] Aimee Mayo’s house. We got there at 10 a.m., which never happened in LA, where you never start work until 5 p.m. We were writing and having a great time, and at around 3:30 she stopped and said she had to get her kids from school and start making dinner. I was like, ‘What?’ Everything switched for me in that moment. You can have music and be successful with gold and platinum records on the wall, and be a well-rounded person with a family. In the culture I had come up in New York and LA, that didn’t exist.”

Relocating to the Music City in the fall of 2013, Wilson quickly discovered the city an unexpected match to her talents, personality, and her evolutionary path as an artist. “My friends thought I was crazy, but I just fell in love with Nashville,” she says. “I met my now fiancée on the second day I was here, and it just seemed like the right place to be. It’s amazing that the city celebrates songwriters, and as a black woman from Brooklyn, making that conscious decision to move to the South and to live in Nashville seemed to switch on my self-awareness of who I am and what I wanted to give as a musician. I recognized there was an absence of people like me, and I wanted to be a part of building that here.”

Four months into her time as a Nashvillian, Wilson found a new outlet for expression upon meeting and writing with photographer, songwriter, and singer Kallie North. Billing themselves as Muddy Magnolias, the duo began attracting notice with a fusion of classic rock and soul.

“It was different from what I had done professionally to that point, but it wasn’t different from what was in my heart,” Wilson says. “When we were writing songs I was thinking about classic soul. Loving Aretha Franklin like I do, I was longing to explore what I had grown up listening to and the true essence of my voice.”

After a sizzling performance at the 2014 CMA Music Festival, the duo released their debut EP in 2015 and their follow-up album, Broken People, in 2016, both to critical acclaim. While Muddy Magnolias offered Wilson the chance to explore her love for classic soul, it was a step back in time, just as her musical palate was expanding in new directions.

“I started discovering different styles of music through my friendships,” Wilson says. “I soon found there was a lot of music that my friends loved that I had never been exposed to — My Morning Jacket, Cage the Elephant, Tame Impala — I had never listened to indie rock before. I remember thinking, ‘I really love this, but how do I incorporate it into who I am?’ The idea became clear to me when I discovered the Alabama Shakes. When I saw Brittney Howard singing abstract rock lyrics soulfully over twangy guitars, it was like I suddenly had permission to be who I was. I’m an urban girl. I’m from Brooklyn, all my old friends at home twerk to Cardi B, but I also love Aretha, and I’ve gone to indie rock festivals and had a blast.”

Wilson’s epiphany and vision of fusing disparate styles of music she loved came at an opportune moment. Near the end of 2017, Kallie North stepped away from recording and live performances. “When Kallie decided to leave Muddy Magnolias, we both met with Coran Capshaw, the owner of Red Light Management that was handling us,” Wilson says. “He asked me what he could do for me, and I said I wanted a meeting with Patrick Carney.”

“I had listened to the Black Keys before and hadn’t connected to their music, but their interpretation of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Meet Me in the City’ was the spark,” Wilson says. “I became obsessed with their music, and as I listened, I began to dissect their influences. I started zoning in on Patrick’s drumming, and I could tell from the way he played the drums that he listened to hip-hop. Even though it was rock music, there was a swagger that sounded like hip-hop. That gave me the idea that maybe Patrick could produce my record.”

After one positive but formal meeting with Carney, Wilson’s enthusiasm to work with him was piqued. Even though she saw an obvious musical connection, the consummation of their creative partnership was not immediate.

“Rock stars can be kind of elusive,” Wilson says. “He tried to play it cool. I eventually started texting him saying, ‘Let’s just do one song.’ He finally agreed and told me to bring my band by his studio. But that was not the way I wanted this to go down. So I kept bugging him and asking if I could just come by
and talk.”

Wilson’s persistence eventually led to their second meeting at Carney’s Audio Eagle Studio and the confrontation of Carney’s frank criticism and Wilson’s Brooklyn-tough hide.

“His personality was perfect for me,” Wilson says. “He’s very opinionated and, in this industry, there are so many people that just tell you what they think you want to hear or give you a version wrapped in a package that they think you can accept. He was straight and direct, just like my mom. Finally, I said, ‘Well why don’t we make something right now.’”

The challenge resulted in the song “What’s Wrong,” a powerful and soulful fusion of hip-hop cool with fuzz tone indie rock, unflinchingly delivering a dissection of a dead end love affair. Carney says it was the tipping point that made him commit to an album with Wilson.

“Her personality, out-goingness, and power resonated with me,” Carney says. “She also had an element of being an underdog that appealed to me. She’s never had a fair crack at getting her voice heard.”

The resulting album, Phase, defies genre boundaries and subverts the listener’s expectations. It’s also a bold statement from an artist not timid about wearing her passions on her sleeve rather than appealing to market expectations.

“It’s so easy for an artist to pigeonhole themselves as a singer-songwriter, or ‘I’m an Americana act,’ or whatever it might be,” Carney says. “I think there’s more fluidity to art than that. Artists get to that point because of thinking about who has played their music in the past, or what radio stations will play it, and the minute you start working toward those markets, you stop making music for yourself.”

The desire to break free of genre clichés and musical stereotypes is not only reflected in the sonic landscape of Phase, but also in Wilson’s lyrics. In “L.A. Night” Wilson recalls her time in the City of Angels — dealing daily with the 21st century pop stardom machine.

But I’m too dark. And too short
That’s what they said in New York
Now I’m here. I took a different route
But it’s politics as usual
Never sneakers. Always heels
On my tippy toes for a record deal

A mixture of desire and frustration, acknowledgment of the status quo, and struggling for a better future winds its way throughout the songs of Phase — the precious yet precarious nature of love in “L-O-V-E Me;” the anxious, impatient passion of making art in “Waiting for Genius;” or confronting the ever-present background racism of American culture in “Cold in the South.”

“It’s the first time in sound and song that it says 100 percent who I am — standing on my own in my own truth,” Wilson says. “My art has always been attached to someone else, whether it was singing with an ensemble in musical theater, as a background singer for another artist, or writing and singing in a duo. I now have the awareness that I’ve opened this door and I’m in a room that’s my own.”

A greater and forward-looking vision is central to Wilson’s art and life. It’s a simple acknowledgment that change always begins with one person opening a door and stepping into a forbidden place — for art or for a larger social change.

“This is a beautiful and bold time we’re living in where you see lots of people, especially women, standing up and saying we all need to be represented and we all need to be seen and heard,” Wilson says. “Because it gives the next person that shares something in common with you the power to fully realize who they are. Coming into this record I wanted to show reverence to all of the music that has inspired me while still making it something new and very representative of my generation. You don’t associate people who look like me with the sound on my album, but I want to see more black musicians and artists, and especially women, walk a path where they are free to combine whatever inspiration they want in their music, and have their music recognized and celebrated for what it is.”