When Gentleman Jesse Smith released his second album, Leaving Atlanta in 2012, the lauded local songwriter had gained a reputation as something of a power pop savant, crafting songs steeped in garage-punk minimalism and tales of heartbreak. Over the last decade, Smith has spent much of his time working as co-owner of seafood restaurants Watchman’s in Krog Market and Decatur’s Kimball House. Shiny Dimes Oyster Farm will open in Florida this year as well. Music, however, did not fall by the wayside. In December, Gentleman Jesse released Lose Everything, a 10-song return that finds him singing and playing every instrument — organ, keyboard, guitar, bass, drums, melodica, etc. — while eschewing the pop reductionism to embrace a layered and sophisticated approach to songwriting. On the heels of the album’s arrival, Smith took a few minutes to talk about how the songs have taken shape.
Nearly 10 years have passed since you released Leaving Atlanta. Did you reach a point where Lose Everything felt like it was too much to make happen?
Yeah, after the first day of recording! I can play the drums but I’m not a drummer. I practiced a ton, and if I played a show you might think, “Jesse’s not bad …” But recording drums is a whole different beast than playing drums in front of people. The consistency of your snare hit will affect the way it’s recorded.
We recorded at Notch 8. Andrew Wiggins and Ryan Bell have a control room there, but because other bands had to practice and use the space, we had to record the drums in one day. So I recorded for 13 hours. By the end, I was just done. There are songs that just aren’t great performances because I was like, “I used to have the ability to play a song this way, but because I’ve been playing for 13 hours my hip hurts. I can’t do it anymore.”
You get through an entire day of that, and you’ve spent so much of your own personal income to do it, and then you hear the results, and you’re like, “Fuck it, we tried …”
Ryan talked me off the ledge by saying things like, “You gotta understand that we’ll layer things. We’ll mix the drums, the things that bother you will start to disappear.” I know every missed hit and and fucked up thing about the record. But you can sweeten the sound, and once you add bass, guitar, keyboards, and vocals it’s less distracting.
I often wonder if it’s a burden for musicians to bear — listening to music and focusing on the snare, the bass, etc., and not just hearing the mass.
There are two different ways to listen to music: There’s the bird’s eye view, and there’s focusing on every little nuance. If you watch the Paul McCartney and Rick Rubin thing, one of the best things about it is a moment where they pull out one specific vocal track and play it by itself. One of their voices cracks, or gets a little gruff, and you’re like that’s the Beatles! So you realize that things can go away with a little mixing magic.
Stylistically speaking, the songs on Lose Everything are about as far removed from what’s on your previous two albums as you can get while maintaining a connection.
That’s partially by design, but what you might not realize is that I’ve been sitting on the riff for the title track since Leaving Atlanta. Same with the intro riff from “Dead May Rest.” I’ve had that riff for a long time, but thought it was too indie-sounding for Gentleman Jesse.
Fun fact: You’re hanging out at a party during SXSW, talking with your musician buddies that you don’t get to see all that much. I was at a party with Jay Reatard and we talked about collaborating. He wanted to do one-off collaboration records and stuff like that. So I was saving that riff for Jay, but then I finished it. There are things that are stylistically different, but I’ve been incubating them for a long time. “God Is Blind” is one that I’d been working on for nine years. I finally finished it but a lot of the stuff would have been on the record if it had come out two years after.
The second to last song on the album, “The Line,” is the only song that I wrote during the pandemic.
What is that song about?
It’s about a lot of different things: It’s about a person’s connection with the place where they live. It’s about an idea of nature reclaiming man-made structures, and what the world would look like if we disappeared — how quickly our mark would go away.
Is the cover art a representation of that idea?
That image is something that I drive by every day on my way to work. Specifically, I know the person whose house is where you would see it. I shucked oysters and worked an event at his house. I saw it out there and knew that it would be the cover. The original idea was going to be a burned out house. Lose Everything is a record about loss in all different forms, and I was going to take a photograph of myself standing in the rubble. Sort of like Leaving Atlanta style, but it’s just Gentleman Jesse loses everything. I think this is more tasteful.
When I think of what you’ve accomplished since Leaving Atlanta — opening two restaurants — calling the album Lose Everything feels like the stakes are high.
That’s one way to look at it. The title track deals with the idea that no one is anything, everyone can be whatever they want. We’re learning that more and more. But the idea is that you can change anything — whether it’s your opinions, or anything about your nature. You can lose the identity that you’ve created. You can shed that into whatever you want at any given moment. I thought this was a good way to wrap that idea.
That song kind of sums up everything, and brings everything together after all these other ideas are explored — losing a loved one, or losing your direction. The album is bookended with “Become Nothing” and “Lose Everything.”
I’ve been searching for a lyric in “Lose Everything” that ties it all together.
That song deals with abstraction, and it’s not something you can put your finger on. “Dead May Rest” has a lyric that sums up the idea of not being sure of anything — nothing is concrete. And that’s the line about whether or not destiny exists: “Scholars have wondered throughout the centuries if mankind was bound to destiny, and if so, why freedom of the will while we dance in circles ever still.”
Ultimately, we know nothing and we’re a blip in time. So none of this really matters all too much.
The long, slow fade out in “Become Nothing” projects a lot of what you’re talking about.
Yeah, and there’s a moment where I pulled a This Heat trick, and as the song fades out, I fade into the demo version of the song. So the audio changes to something of lesser quality.
Post-modern! A reference to a reference to a reference!
See! I’m not as one-dimensional as I painted myself to be with my first couple of records.
Has finishing and releasing the record lit a fire under you to continue with the next record?
Yes! Part of the reason I forced myself to do it all by myself is because I wanted to get this one out of the way so that I can work on more. I feel like I have a new angle, and I’m comfortable putting out more music as Gentleman Jesse.
This interview also appears in the January issue of Record Plug Magazine.
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