Jesse Terry is an internationally award winning songwriter whose music is truly genuine and heartfelt. His three albums, The Runner, Empty Seat On A Plane, and Stay Here With Me, showcase storytelling, and an emotional depth and intimacy all conveyed by his comforting voice. Jesse was the Grand Prize winner of The John Lennon Songwriting Contest, The NSAI/CMT Song Contest, and The We Are Listening Singer/Songwriter Awards. He has had the honor of performing for US and NATO troops stationed at Thule Air Base in Greenland. Jesse graciously took some time to talk with us about writing from a place of truth, influences and what's ahead.
Tell us a little bit about how you decided to pursue music as a profession.
I was super into fine art, but I had gotten an injury, and my mom lent me her guitar. I was hooked; consumed by it really, and once I wrote my first song, I decided that was it for me. I quit art school, put down the paintbrush and completely focused on music. I had many wonderful guitar teachers including David Coe, and a voice teacher, Tracy Marble, both of whom prepared me for Berklee. I attended Berklee, and two months after graduation I had a publishing deal in Nashville. I worked in Nashville for five years writing professionally and then started touring full time.
To be offered a publishing deal two months after graduation is typically not the way things happen for many.
No, it’s not. Berklee offers its students an amazing Nashville spring break trip. I was a total nerd and went there four years in a row instead of going to Panama City. It was just amazing! We got to go into Warner Brothers, have Alison Krauss talk to us; just ridiculous things! We toured the finest studios, sat on stage at the Opry, went to the Bluebird and met songwriters in town. Also, in my senior year I won the grand prize in NSAI/CMT Song Contest. It seemed the universe just guided the way and I knew I was on the right path. I got a job washing boats in Nashville, and one day, Mark Alan Springer came down and asked me to write for him full time and get paid to do it. Of course I said yes.
So this way is not normally how things happen, and I learned that later on because that company [I wrote for] eventually closed their office, and as I was looking for a new deal, I realized just how hard it was and just how few spots there are. There are a little over 300-400 paid songwriters positions in Nashville, which is not a lot when you think about how may singer/songwriters there are in Nashville.
How did you make your way to Connecticut, where you currently reside?
After the company closed, I went to the South Pacific just to clear my head. It was there I met my wife, who is a New Zealander. When I got back from there, I toured and traveled for eight months straight and got married. That was 2010, which was a very good year.
Your wife seems to be one of your sources of inspiration.
My second record was pretty much about falling in love with Jess, touring with her and marrying her. I see songs and albums as snapshots in time, and that album was really about that whole time. Those were definitely magical, momentous times in life. It was a big year and most songs were about that experience.
Where else do you draw your inspirations from?
Just real life. Not that you can’t make stuff up, but I write from a place of truth and one that feels real to me. I won’t write anything unless it resonates from me and has impact. I am always trying to write about different things, a lot of which comes from the road and meeting interesting people from the places I have been. Those are the things that I missed most when I was in Nashville, because, for the most part, I was showing up to a job and writing in an office. There is nothing wrong with that at all, and some writers are fine with that, drawing inspiration from books and film, but I needed a bit more input, which I get from traveling, coming in to assist me with my writing.
Who do you consider your musical influences?
Besides my wife, I love the Beatles more than anything. I also enjoy the real golden age of storyteller and songwriters like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. They really inspired me. They are so transparent and vulnerable in their songwriting which appealed to me. I find it really comforting because it’s so obvious they’re speaking the truth, and that connects with you on a deep level. They’re definitely people who I would want to model my career after.
What drew you to make the type of music that you do?
That’s a great, tough question. I was hung up on the kind of project we were going to do, wondering if it would be acoustic or more rock or something else, but my producer said don’t worry about it, just worry about writing great songs and think of it as genreless. If the project needed something like pedal steel or a big string section we’d add it. That’s been so liberating because I hadn’t been thinking about genres and where the music fits. I just think about great songs, what fits the songs and how to produce the songs creatively.
For your own records do you prefer to write on your own, co-write or does it depend?
It just depends. I wrote the whole second album by myself, which I wanted to do because I had years of co-writing in Nashville, and I needed a break from it. Then, when I came back to co-writing, it was a lot of fun to do again with the right people; people who I was inspired by, and I loved, including my producer Neilson Hubbard and Angela Kaset, a wonderful singer/songwriter. I love how certain co-writers will take you different places, but you don’t want to go to so many places that you become a chameleon with your project and lose your center. It’s really cool to have different kinds of songs on a record, but they should be authentic to you.
It seems to me that with your music and lyrics, you strive for something more than commercial airplay?
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. We’d all love to have a big old hit, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting that, but I cannot write from that place. I have to write from truth and what I love, and then, hopefully, eventually one of those songs will organically have exposure. I’m not against having a hit, but I don’t find it necessary, and I don’t write with that purpose in mind. I just try to write the best, most truthful song I can write.
Speaking of exposure, you are going to have nine song placements on the PBS series RoadTrip Nation.
Yes! They called me a while back and used one of my songs, so when they asked to use more of the music, I agreed. I’m a huge fan of NPR and public television and told them they can use whatever they’d like. I would have been thrilled with one placement, but to have nine is great. I don’t know when the songs will pop up, so it’ll be fun to watch and keep my ears peeled for my songs.
Do you feel that this year things are moving forward faster for you professionally?
Absolutely. It’s the first year that I’ve headlined theaters which is a big milestone, but I think 2015 will be big year for me. I’ll go out on bigger tours, support larger artists and put out a new record. It will either be a full length record or an EP. I am keeping an open mind because unless we feel that we have ten to twelve perfect songs, I will not make a full record.
Your last two records were fan funded. Will you also go that route with the new record?
I will probably shop that record to labels, but I also will keep an open mind. I wouldn’t sign anywhere that wouldn’t let me be me. I’ve been at it long enough to know that if I try to fake it, it wouldn’t work. I’d rather not waste their time or mine. I think I have a place, and I’ll find it as my own authentic artist.
It’s still hard to make music independently. People say it’s an even playing field, but that’s not necessarily true; you still need a publicist and money, but things are evolving, and we have to evolve with them.
I try to be positive. If not, it’d be pretty depressing. It is hard to sustain an artistic career without positivity, because there is so much persistence that is required and rejection that you may encounter. It’s not always rejection per se, it’s that there’s not enough folks listening, which is almost harder than rejection. You need to have a lot of confidence and humility, and that goes along with gratitude and positivity, so I strive for that.
People will most certainly be listening on September 3rd when you play Rockwood Music Hall.
I am really excited to play NYC. I have played Rockwood before, and they have been very supportive and a big part of me building a fan base in NYC. I started on stage one, and it took me a few years to move to stage two, and I am really glad to be there. The NYC crowd is really a special one. They are really wonderful people who are astute music lovers who are loyal. They really embraced me.
Finally, I always love to know: What are you listening to now?
I’ve been listening to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern like crazy. I also like the Milk Carton Kids and Roseanne Cash’s new record. There is so much music I need to discover and dig into! Also, every month I kind of go back to someone I idolize and wear out their stuff. Lately I have been wearing out Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Ryan Adams. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors, too. They’ve been killing me lately; they’re really talented!