Jess Nolan has several creative outlets including poetry, painting, singing, songwriting and playing piano. She recently released two songs to end this year with messages of hope and an honest look at what we’ve gained, during a year full of so much loss. Nolan released her debut full-length album, From Blue to Gold in August and has collaborated on several Nashville projects. She’s part of Katie Pruitt’s touring and recording band as well as co-writing “My Mind’s a Ship (That’s Going Down)” off of Pruitt’s debut record; she sings background vocals for artists such as Joy Oladokun, Gabe Dixon, Lydia Luce and others. Nolan recently played our Finally Friday From Home series on WMOT and today we’ll find out a little more about her, these songs and, in trying to find the positive in so much negativity, how Jess has used this time of isolation to meditate and reflect.
AnaLee: What a year. Jess, thank you for the gift of these two songs as we close out 2020. A reimagined version of “Change” and a song you started writing a while back but were able to finish effortlessly this year called, “A Little Light”. Tell us how “A Little Light” started and how some of this summer’s events led you to finish the lyrics.
Jess: Feels like a whole decade encased in a year, right? Thank you for having me. I first started writing “A Little Light” a few winters ago when we were reading the headlines about children being separated from their parents at the US/Mexico border. I had never experienced such a visceral reaction to this kind of injustice coming at the hands of our government. I was pondering the stark contrast between what these families were experiencing against my own reality. When I thought about it like that, it was hard not to feel incredibly aware of my privilege and like I wanted to use my energy and resources towards helping other people. After watching the events of the summer unfold and listening to Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, speak about necessary reform in the U.S. policing system, I rewrote the first verse of my song. There is so much I’ve learned from listening and truly empathizing with people who have lost everything and are still choosing to use their voices for change. The pandemic has been devastating for a lot of people, and we’re about to enter into a very cold and lonely winter. I’m trying to remember that even though it’ll be difficult in my own way, there is still hope; there is still necessary work to be done; there is still light to be passed around especially to those who are worse off than I am. This Saturday 12/12, a local non-profit Project Love Strong will be doing a donation drive outside War Memorial for the houseless. Come out and donate (they are in need of hoodies, blankets, backpacks) if you can.
AnaLee: I love this arrangement of “Change”, a song that appeared on your 2016 ep, Strike A Match. This new version aired in last weekend’s Local Brew Hour, that episode is available on the Roots Radio Replays page at wmot.org. Can you talk a little about the song and what inspired the new recording of it?
Jess: I really appreciate you spinning this new version! I’m super proud of the recording. It was a one take run of the arrangement with me singing the vocals, Juan Solorzano playing nylon string acoustic guitar, and Ross McReynolds playing a bunch of random percussion instruments. This production inspiration came about after imagining what Elliott Smith and India.Arie’s music might sound like together. I wanted it to feel warm and subdued, but also organic and inviting. These two tracks are my first try at producing my own songs. I’ve had “Change” in my back pocket since moving to Nashville. Feels timely to re-release it during a year where we’ve all experienced more change than probably any other year. I rewrote the last verse here to sum up my feelings about the biggest lesson I’ve gained through the hardships and uncomfortableness of this time. When life feels overwhelming and the future is uncertain, I try my best to come back to the present moment and allow myself the space to just breathe and feel my way through the emotional tunnel. We’re going to be alright! I’m choosing to trust that we will come out the other side stronger.
AnaLee: In “Shame”, there is a choir of women’s voices reciting your poetry at the end of the song. Tell us about this track, the video and what these women’s voices represent in this track.
Jess: This song is really about freeing myself of this idea that there’s one way to be a woman. Breaking from the rigid confines of that social construct. The choir of voices speaking poetry at the end is representative of the power of our collective voice as women when we radically love ourselves and each other. They are the voices within us that stand up to injustice, that find strength through moments of weakness, and are fearlessly unfiltered. I brought together some of my favorite Nashville songwriters to sing this one with me. Jasmine Mullen (The New Respects), Georgia English (co-founder of Girls Write Nashville), Hadley Kennary, Rochelle Feldkamp, Becca Richardson, and I were crowded around one mic. It was my favorite day of tracking for my debut record, “From Blue to Gold”, that came out this past August. I showed this song to Emerson Kyle, a brilliant director here in town, after seeing the work she did for Jessy Wilson’s film. She brought the song to life through visuals of me freeing myself, progressing from being isolated and paralyzed inside a house to swimming and floating in Percy Priest Lake.
AnaLee: I think it’s safe to say most everyone reading this or listening to WMOT appreciate and like me, really love and miss Tom Petty. You recorded a different sounding version of this song on piano. It’s a deeper cut from his 2014 album, Hypnotic Eye. What led you to this track?
Jess: I was at Tom Petty’s final concert in Nashville at Bridgestone 3 years ago. His whole show was mesmerizing. The energy, the decades of thoughtful songs, the band! When Dylan Sevey reached out to me about being a part of a benefit for his birthday this year, I knew I wanted to pick a song of his to cover that had relevance to the social climate. After reading through the lyrics to “Shadow People”, I was floored. “And this one carries a gun for the USA / He’s a 21st century man / And he’s scary as hell ‘cause when he’s afraid / He’ll destroy everything he don’t understand.” He talks about the political climate in our country and how we’ve become so obsessed with picking a side and hating the other one, that we’ve lost sight of the humanity in each other. Perhaps it’s even more relevant now than when he wrote it. It’s a beautifully executed track, and I wanted to pay tribute with a stripped-down, piano/vocal version of it. I hope I did it justice!
Jess Nolan – “Shame”
Jess Nolan – “Shadow People”