Interview with Jamie Weems
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Belhaven Heights area of Jackson, Mississippi
Laurel: So how long have you known Johnny Bertram, and how would you describe your musical connection?
Jamie: That’s a great question. I think it we met in 2007. Yeah, I think we met when he and Emily were living in Midtown, in a place that my friends Joe and Ellie used to live.
Julia and I would throw this thing every year called “The Golden Bowl.” We’d cook this big vegetarian dinner. And I think I had met Emily but not Johnny. Joe and Ellie brought Emily and Johnny over to the Golden Bowl, which would have been December 2007. After we finished eating, and Julia and I had cleaned up the kitchen and everything, I walked outside and Johnny was sitting there with the guitar, playing some music, and I went and got my mandolin and then we sat there and just played for like awhile, I don’t even know how long…
Laurel: So you just fell right into it easily?
Jamie: Yeah, we just fell right in. We just had a blast playing together and then over the next few months we would see each other. I guess he was working at Rainbow, and we’d see each other here and there. Then he emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m getting ready to record this album.” It was when he was working on Days That Passed and then he released that and another one at the same time because we recorded all these songs together. So, he called me and we kind of went back and forth and set up a time, and he asked me to play on some of the tracks.
Laurel: And was that as natural as the jamming after the Golden Bowl?
Jamie: Absolutely. And right around that time, either before I’d laid down some stuff for the recording or just after that, he and Tyler Tadlock and I started doing a trio. So it was guitar, mandolin, and drums. And we did some gigs around town. And so I think that was the spring of 2008. It just fit. We really enjoyed hanging out and playing together so it just kind of fit.
Laurel: So, as far as Neon City, that’s not a project you were necessarily involved in a lot…were you around?
Jamie: I recorded on, I think, two or three of the tracks. At the time my day job was taking me to Austin and I was out of town a lot during that so I missed a lot of the recording process. And he was moving to Portland, so he was trying to get it done while he was still here, so we were just kind of heading in different directions.
Laurel: What would you say about working with Johnny that made the strongest impression on you?
Jamie: We just became good friends, is the first thing I would say. A lot of people I make music with, that’s at the core of it, the kind of fellowship part of it. When you put the instruments in the cases, that you enjoy hanging out with people. That’s probably number one.
Number two, he’s just a great songwriter. He had a great way of writing good, solid, clever songs that were also very easy to like. He had a good sense of how to make a pop song, but not a one-dimensional pop song. That was great because from right away when he would bring new songs to rehearsal – I think we played together for four years or more, maybe more – bring new songs to rehearsal and instantly you’d like them. You’d find parts to them easily because they were just well written, and you knew that people were going to like them, so it was just easy. Everybody always fell right in and they were eager to get with what he was doing.
Another reason that I really felt like I meshed well with him is that I had studied Latin American guitar styles, and also bluegrass mandolin, then Bach, and Celtic and old-time music, and jazz and improvisational music. I was playing a lot of old time music and then I was playing with Wooden Finger as well. And I had gotten some stuff to play electric music, and then I met Johnny and we started playing. And I felt like Johnny, what I heard and what I was able to add to his music was a great synergizing of everything I had done up to that point.
It was one of those things where I met this person at the time when I had done a lot of different things and become well-versed in some things and I hadn’t had a chance to put a lot of it together in the same place and it work, and really fit with something else. Johnny could craft these great pop songs….it could be rock oriented but then it was folk-like, too. It had this folk quality to it. So it was real easy to put all that together.
Plus he was a West coast kind of guy who was living in the south, so his music definitely had that Pacific North-west feel but it had something real honest, like an honest “southern” kind of thing even though he’s not from here or been here enough to where…he had some real local kind of flavor to his music. And because you and I share the Grateful Dead thing, so like, part of me is always like feeling like I should be on the West coast.
It was like, here’s all these different things that were going on in my head musically, and all of them fit a little bit with what Johnny’s doing, so it was real comfortable for me to play real honestly and not feel like I was trying to do any one thing. It was real easy to let stuff kinda come out.
Laurel: Do you think that when Johnny Bertram left, that he left a gap or a hole in the music scene in the city of Jackson?
Jamie: Yeah, you know, it’s hard for me to answer that from a perspective of “the scene,” you know. The easiest way for me to answer is that he left a big gap for me. Because I kind of play a few different styles and a few different things musically in Jackson, and there was something I did with Johnny that was unique for me and I feel like I haven’t really – that’s not there anymore…
Laurel: You can’t replace that…it’s not replaceable…
Jamie: That’s right, exactly. So for me there’s definitely a gap there. As kind of a – thinking about outside – looking at the scene. I would say, probably so, to an extent. I think that there’s …I don’t know if I can think of anybody at this point who is coming at the rock and roll scene from that kind of “honest folk” angle. It seems like…
Laurel: like the “Neil Young” kind of approach?
Jamie: Yeah, exactly…
Laurel: I hear that in his singing, too.
Jamie: Neil Young is a great reference. He’s a huge Neil Young fan. Matthew McGee and I have talked about that. We both loved playing with Johnny and I think one of the reasons was that we both loved Neil Young. It seemed to fit really well.
I think another reason it’s hard to answer that is that the scene in Jackson is so great right now. I’ve been living here for twelve years and it’s just this constant, continual evolution, and it’s hard for me to think, like, I wish we could go back a few years because it’s evolving in such a great way.
But, I don’t think that there’s anybody doing what he was doing. And things are coming from a little more, heavier rock kind of thing and a little more…not necessarily punk driven, but kind of like, more simplified songwriting…from a harmonic perspective…the word craft, not really commenting on that, just the textures and the harmonic language is more stripped down, direct, and to the point.
That’s another great thing about Johnny’s music is, he made some atypical decisions about chord progressions and harmonic movement that I love. I’m all about that. There’s some little surprises in there, and I don’t hear anybody doing as much with that.
Laurel: So do you yourself have any connections to Portland, Oregon? Is it a special place to you?
Jamie: I’ve never been there. I’ve got a couple friends there. It’s always been one of those places I wanted to go to. In fact, I’d say the first four or five years after I moved to Jackson one part of me was always headed toward Portland, the other part always toward Asheville, North Carolina.
Laurel: Oh really?
Jamie: Yeah…maybe because they are in opposite directions I never left? (laughs) I couldn’t figure out which way to go, and then, the next thing I knew I really loved Jackson and had so much great community here, that I stopped thinking that I wanted to leave because all I could that was that I want d to keep creating something here, you know?
Laurel: Yes, I do. Is there anything else you want to add?
Jamie: I was going to say that you asked me if having worked with Johnny influenced my own creative strands, and I was going to expound on that a little bit…
Laurel: Sure, that would be good…
Jamie: I would say this about both he and Taylor (Hildebrand) who I’ve played with a lot, and like I was saying earlier…I’ve done a lot of folk music stuff, I’ve done a lot of improv, jazz, modern classical music, that kind of stuff. So, I tend to kind of think of things in a real expansive way that maybe doesn’t communicate that great to an average listener, you know what I mean? More exploratory…for some people maybe it’s harder to follow, you know?
Laurel: Maybe they would like it if they had time, but maybe they don’t grab onto it as quickly?
Jamie: Yeah. So when I started playing with Taylor and also with Johnny, both of those guys are so good at song craft that it made me realize that even though when I write music I want it to be more exploratory, that there’s a certain need to really spend some additional time to try to craft a little more direct message. Even if it is a more expansive or dense kind of thing, there’s this need to have the discipline to craft things a little better and try to communicate things a little more clearly with what you are creating. So, I think that has shaped the way I think about writing instrumental music, too, because I’ve been inside of the songwriter and pop song kind of thing with those two guys, and particularly Johnny. Since I’ve been inside that and see how it works and how things get put together, I think a little more like that than I used to.
Laurel: Do you find that you are getting some traction as you apply that goal, or is it still eluding you?
Jamie: I don’t know, that’s a good question.
Laurel: I think it’s good to have those qualities to strive for, I mean, it keeps you challenged to grow…
Jamie: That’s the great thing about music is that you always learn something from the people you collaborate with. Nobody’s got all the answers. Everybody’s got something to teach and something to learn, so if you are open to that then you are always picking up something.
This interview is the first in a series of interviews connected to the making of the record “Neon City” by Johnny Bertram. The next interview forthcoming will be with Matthew McGee.
Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons