The Jessie Baylin Interview: Seeing the Light From a Dark Place
It was around this time three years ago when serious-minded singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin turned prankster, playing the trick of a lifetime on her mother.
"Mom, I just want to tell you, I'm not pregnant," Baylin said matter-of-factly.
"Oh, that's OK," Dori Baldassarre responded, figuring she would become a doting grandmother one day. Then Baylin delivered the knockout punch line:
Recalling that moment with glee during a March 24 phone interview from her home in Nashville, Baylin said, "That was sort of a thrill," though it meant a premature ending to her first major tour, including as a supporting act for the Fray at places like Red Rocks. But the reaction she got from her mother on April 1, 2012, more than made up for it, spreading joy throughout the Baldassarre home in Gillette, New Jersey, ever since.
"Oh my God. Like ridiculous!" said Baylin, who gave birth to Violet Marlowe Followill on Dec. 26, 2012. "It was amazing. She's like super-grandma."
These are also happy days for Baylin, whose lyrical content for Dark Place, her dreamy new album that drops April 7 on her own indie label (Blonde Rat), might suggest otherwise.
After a rough winter in Nashville, where Baylin lives on top of a hill with her husband, Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill, and their 2-year-old daughter, the fact that spring has finally sprung is welcome relief for a housebound family that just recently was passing around strep throat.
Dark Place, with 10 of the 11 songs written or cowritten by Baylin, is her first full-length album since 2012's Little Spark, and much has transpired since then. But despite spending her share of time on the dark side, Baylin said she has learned to lighten up. Asked how her approach to music has changed since her daughter was born, the soft-spoken, contemplative Baylin sounded blissful.
"I guess I just want to make her proud now," she said. "I don't really care about anyone else at this point. It's like ... it's made me take everything more seriously, honestly, in a good way, in that I'm enjoying it more. And that it's supposed to be fun and joyful and not stressful in any way. And that's sort of like what I want to give to her. This is like mommy's happy place, you know. Even though it sometimes sounds ... the songs can be a little intense. But it's more like really happy. Maybe when she's 14 and angsty, she can relate to this."
Yet while exploring your inner child, you can dance to this mood-swinging album while listening to Baylin's luscious voice that adopts the qualities of some of her favorite singers -- Astrud Gilberto, Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield and Stevie Nicks.
"I loved how Stevie created a world," Baylin said. "I thought that was always neat for my voice. I loved Astrud Gilberto melodies and just where her voice sat in the songs, just always ... it takes you away. It's like listening ... it's instant vacation. And I just loved that as a kid. I felt exotic. And I hope on this record in particular that I could bring some of those elements in."
Baylin self-deprecatingly contends that this record is "sort of like Dusty on Quaaludes." But while niftily, as she puts it, "getting to the nitty-gritty" lyrically, she juxtaposes that by bringing "The Girl From Ipanema" to the party, setting the stage for a sexy, sentimental journey that will create everlasting memories.
Get ready to take a hip trip with Jessie and those gorgeous blast-from-the-past melodies. You might not want to come back.
For the record
From that same New Jersey home that her parents still own (their daughter's room now belongs to their granddaughter when she visits), Baylin first connected to music about the age of 6, when one album in their collection caught her eye.
"My mom had a Patsy Cline record and I thought she looked like a really neat gal," Baylin said, adding that the disc probably still occupies a place in the same drawer of her childhood home. "And I put it on and I heard 'Crazy' for the first time."
The song written by Willie Nelson became her favorite, and while her first-grade classmates at the Gillette School lined up to hula-hoop for their talent show, Baylin sang "Crazy" for the grand finale, bringing "a lot of mommies" to tears.
"And I remember thinking about the lyric and how beautiful it was and really kind of performing at 6, you know. I felt it, and there's a video to prove it."
Besides school, Baylin and her brother John, who's 4 years younger, spent a lot of time at the Morris County roadhouse tavern her parents bought in 1983, the year before Jessie was born.
It became a way of life for Baylin, who said of her formative years, "That's all I'd known is that restaurant."
A would-be singer-songwriter also plowed that fertile ground for source material as she matured.
"My parents were really focused on growing the business and kind of took my brother and I along for the ride," Baylin said. "We spent a lot of time at their restaurant and bar just 'cause they were trying to make it and, you know, they succeeded at that.
"I think they put a lot of themselves into it. But it really took the whole community raising my brother and I because they were busy. But everyone around comes into the restaurant, so I always had someone to talk to, someone to listen to. A lot of people would tell their secrets, even to little kids after a couple of cocktails."
Baylin might have been angsty way before turning 14, the age when she began working at the restaurant. "I was a horrible food runner and then a hostess," she said. "I was a great hostess."
Her musical tastes were also developing. She enjoyed other records by other singers her mom played, such as Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, but remembers her first CD purchase was the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream. On April 4, 1994, she bought Nirvana's In Utero for her 10th birthday.
The next day, Kurt Cobain died. "I was like, 'Oh my God! This is crazy,' " Baylin recalled. "And so I, of course, lit a candle and listened to the record because I'm that kid."
Eventually, Baylin left it up to her brother -- the "local stud muffin in town" -- to become one of the restaurant managers and "the future of the family business." For her, Los Angeles and the music business had their own allure.
Baylin's musical education first began at Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where she believed creative writing classes helped her to blossom. There was comfort in being "surrounded by like-minded kids and you didn't feel weird about it. It just worked really well for me. Met some of my best friends in the whole world there."
That group included musician Jack Antonoff (fun., Bleachers), Scarlett Johansson (the A-list actress who directed Baylin's "Hurry Hurry" video from Little Spark) and singer Julia Haltigan. "I'm really happy for those girls," Baylin said of her gal pals who recently formed a new girl group called the Singles.
"Our whole group from PCS, we're still close," she said. "It's a little more complicated now. We're all in relationships and things like that but we keep in touch."
When Baylin moved to L.A., she found that strong urge to become a singer-songwriter with relative ease.
"It just kind of fell into my lap," she said. "I wrote my first song and a week later I had five songs and then I had shows booked and a great band behind me. ... It just sort of unfolded really naturally. But I loved playing with words, so it felt like the right gig for me."
Baylin will return to the road with her Nashville band -- including singer Courtney Jaye ("one of my best girlfirends"), John and Scotty Murray and drummer Ian Fitchuk -- in support of Dark Place, with shows in Nashville (April 7 and 11) and New York (April 22) before winding up at the Troubadour in L.A. (May 8).
"Just because it was the first time I really got to put myself out there the way I wanted to," she explained. "That was really exciting for me. I love that record. I feel like Dark Place is really sort of solidifying what I touched on on Little Spark. I wanted to explore a different mood, a different sort of theme.
"Sort of like the veil of innocence had been lifted in my life over the past few years, you know. Got married, had a baby, really incredible things happened, but some challenging things for me as well that I felt like I needed to talk about. ... And it ended up being really therapeutic for me to make this album. ... I feel really proud of it."
After having Swift produce her 2011 Pleasure Center EP of mostly covers (including Nicks' "Storms" from Fleetwood Mac's Tusk), Baylin knew she wanted him at the helm again. But whether she was ready was another matter.
"We had been speaking a few months before (in 2014) and he's like, 'I feel like it's gonna be time to make a new album soon.' And I was like, 'I don't know what I have in me. I feel like something might be brewing but I don't know what it is.' "
It didn't take long to seal the deal after Swift visited Nashville last May.
"We wrote I think four songs in five hours. It was pretty wild," she said. "It's like the moments you wait for when you're a songwriter. Yeah, it felt totally honest and real. Richard and I were sort of finishing each other's sentences in a beautiful way. So that's when I was like, 'Yep, you just let me know when you've got some time and I'll be there.' And then a few months later, he was like, 'October, this state.' And it scared the shit out of me."
When it came down to leaving for Swift's National Freedom studio in the Pacific Northwest, Baylin had plenty of reasons to be frightened. For one, "leaving my family for 10 days was terrifying," she said. "I had never left my daughter for more than two nights before."
Followill provided "a well of support," basically pushing her to get on the plane, Baylin mentioned with a laugh. "I was just really dared to do this and put it all out there," she added. "He just said, 'You need to do this. So go and do it. I've got everything else. The home's gonna be fine.' "
"This state," though, was Oregon, or as Baylin put it, "the middle of nowhere" in Cottage Grove, a town in the Willamette Valley where "whatever is in the air just turns me into an allergic freak." Steroids and dark rum took care of whatever was ailin' Baylin.
Perhaps most chilling was revisiting some of those dark places she had dared to explore on songs like "Creepers (Young Love)," "To Hell And Back" and "Kiss Your Face." It was all a sublime mix of Baylin's breathy, seductive vocals bolstered by Swift's stunning array of instrumentation, bringing sonic blasts of synths that sound like St. Vincent guitars and vice versa.
After a list of thank-yous in the liner notes that includes her family and "my incredibly supportive husband," Baylin wrote, "And this record is for you, Violet."
That includes the title track, a message to her daughter "sort of acknowledging this place inside of me that was sort of darker and she filled that in me and then me sort of telling her that one day she's gonna have this place in her as well and that it's OK."
Dealing with her own vulnerability during this next cycle of life, Baylin said, "It's just, when you become a parent, it's incredible, beautiful, the most love you've ever felt in your entire life. ... But it also means that your heart is gonna be outside your body. And that was really intense for me. Like that concept, it brought up so much fear. It scared me so much. With the love came this great fear, basically. So I just wanted to explore some of that and just being married and how much work goes into that and that it's hard sometimes and that's OK. And I feel like anything worth anything is hard, you know."
Family feedback is important to Baylin, though she said her husband "tries not to say too much. ... When it was all said and done, he's like this is ... he feels like this my best work. And so that means a lot to me."
Baylin just laughed when asked if Followill bounces Kings of Leon ideas off her. "Uh, no. No, no. Those boys, they do their thing the way they do it, you know what I mean. And they do it well, so. But they definitely bring home ideas."
Now part of what Baylin calls a "pretty mellow" musical family "with extraordinary jobs," she said her succinct how-was-it? reviews with Followill go something like this:
Him: "I know, right? This is good."
Her: "Yes it is."
Other than Followill and Swift, Baylin has a number of veteran musical professionals she relies on for advice, including ex-Eurythmics artist Dave Stewart ("He's always a good sounding board for the truth") and Nicks, the rock goddess she recently watched from the side of the stage perform with Fleetwood Mac at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
"She's also been really supportive and sweet and it's a pleasure to know her, truly," Baylin said.
Of course, her go-to advisers on other matters remain her mom and dad Tom. After all, Dori Baldassarre "was a foxy lady" back in the day, Baylin offered, a Jantzen swimsuit fit model who, at the age of 18 in the early '70s, had a beautiful shag hairdo and sang in a cover band called Bahia with some of her former high school classmates.
They would open their sets with "Do You Wanna Dance," which Baylin always enjoyed from another of her favorite records of that era -- Bette Midler's The Divine Miss M. It was only natural that Baylin decided to close Dark Place with an even more intimate version of the tune that was transformed many times after Bobby Freeman wrote and performed it in the '50s.
Of the 10 original songs she had a hand in writing, though, Baylin feels most attached to "Lungs," which she describes as "a love letter to my family," that was done on the final day of recording.
"I was just missing my family more than ever," Baylin said. "More than I've ever missed anything. And this one just quickly poured out of me in like 30 minutes. And then 30 minutes later, it was completely done, recorded. Actually, it was a fun exercise in songwriting. ... I recommend doing that for people 'cause it was fun to not think and just let it be."
Yet, when it comes to getting input about her music, Baylin just might figure the final verdict these days comes from Nashville -- where "a wild redhead" simply knows what she likes, particularly songs like "All That I Can Do" and "Creepers (Young Love)," the first single off Dark Place.
"She loves the album," Baylin said of Violet. "Whenever I put it on, she's like, 'Mommy music! Whoo!' "
For someone who occasionally likes to kid around, there can be no better endorsement that that.
Top publicity photo by Will Holland. Second publicity photo by Michael Carney. This story first appeared on The Huffington Post.