Brooklyn roots rocker Jackie Greene’s new EP, Modern Lives, combines the folk blues of the Mississippi delta with the ragged barroom rock of early '70s rock. “Tupelo” weaves the haunting echoes of Jo Jo Gunne’s first album with a New Orleans blues piano, all underscored by a plucky banjo cadence that captures the attraction-repulsion the singer feels toward the mysterious, weird South. The sprightly banjo opens out into a cascading lead riff that blossoms into rousing harmonica trills on the title track. “Modern Lives” captures the frantic character of life; it passes us by far too quickly but we’re too self-absorbed to notice how quickly time, and the others in our lives, is passing by.
When the president urges the kid to “go buzzing on your modern life,” Greene evokes the flitting from one moment to another, one event to another, which makes up the sum total of nothingness of our daily lives. With a Vonnegut-like humor, Greene portrays the irony of the hollow death at the center of modern life: “You can’t fool me/your Times Square looks like a graveyard/I’ve got a billboard for a headstone.”
“Back of My Mind” is a sparkling piano ballad that recalls songs like Mercy’s “Love Can Make You Happy” or James Taylor’s “Shower the People,” except with more knowing lyrics about just where knowledge of love lies for most people. Greene looks at modern condition and fearlessly calls it out for its moral bankruptcy.
I caught up with Greene recently for a chat about his EP and his music.
What’s the story behind the album?
I have a little basement in my apartment here in Brooklyn. I sort of look at it like woodshedding. Everything is like a tool; I go into the studio and hammer nails into a plank. There’s a strong homemade vibe to the music. A lot of that is because I’ve always had my own studios to work in and can control things. Part of what’s different on this EP is that I played every instrument myself. That’s what’s new to this one.
This is the first volume of two EPs; why two rather than a long album?
Originally, I was going to put it out as one, but then I thought about the songs and the way they fit together and broke it up into two EPs.
What’s the theme that lies under the music on this album?
What do you give up to live a modern life? Most of the songs deal with that. It’s telling that the most popular phrase in the English language is “selfie.” That says a lot about our society today.
What’s your approach to songwriting?
I think a song ought to be transportive. If I’m writing a song, I want in the best way I can to bring people to that place in my mind. I can know instinctively when the song I’m singing matches the music I’m playing. A lot of songs I start and throw away. I don’t consider myself a topical songwriter; I tend to gravitate toward the symbolic. I’m much more concerned with conveying a feeling. The trick for me is to paint a picture. The title track for the EP I wrote in about five minutes—not all of them come so fast (laughs). My wife and I were in an Uber headed to the airport, and the words came to me; I wrote them in a memo in my phone, and I recorded the song when I got home. My models for making music are the big production sound of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the folk songs of Muddy Waters’ live album. I’m not sure where I fall in there. (chuckles)
When did you start playing?
Right out of high school; started playing in coffee houses, songs by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Townes Van Zandt. Then I’d play these happy hours at biker bars. Eventually, I started opening for big acts. Susan Tedeschi was one of the first people to take me on the road; I’ve played with B.B. King and Mark Knopfler.
If you could have lunch with any three authors/artists, living or dead, who would you choose?
Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell: I love Watts’ and Campbell’s writing. I can see how songs can extract these archetypal ideas, these timeless messages. Merle Haggard: I’m a big fan. Jerry Garcia, given my relatability to the Dead these days. Picasso.
What are your greatest challenges to you as musician these days?
Making a living; that’s true across the board. All of us make our money through touring and at the merch table. Still, if you have the urge to make something — music, a record — then the dire straits of the business are not going to stop you from doing that. There’s a question of how to be creative, how to be inspired. Artists need a place to make mistakes, a place not to give a shit; that’s the freedom I have in my studio.
Tell me about the videos you’re making of the songs.
I heard about Bill Plympton through a friend of a friend. Turns out that Bill was a fan of my music. I thought his DIY animation fit well with the DIY vibe of my record. I told him to be as weird as he wanted to be; be as tangential as you want to be. His style marries very well with the aesthetic of my music. Working with him is a lot of fun.