In Conversation with… JESSE JO STARK

Far flung from the Hollywood veneer of excess and superficiality, this Los Angeles native has an earthiness of spirit that warms the soul, a soft demeanour hiding a fire within, a strength of character that inspires rather than simply attracts: Jesse Jo Stark is a musician of the next generation with respect for the past and a keen self-governing attitude. Her music is versatile, sometimes chic and sassy, urgent and powerful, but then, soothing and tender—her influences are her own, her story is how she envisions it, her design is fulfilling.

Reuniting with Sunflower Bean, this time for a UK run of tour dates, Stark brings her mesmeric melancholics and heady rock show to stages big and small (for many it’s first chance to see Stark in the UK). These shows gift an introductory platform and foundation for Stark to launch her artistry further afield, her music—for now—lingers in the underground, building a cult following and gaining momentum from each noteworthy success.

She’s already earned esteem amongst industry veterans, playing shows with Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction and The Heavy. Now she rallies new audiences with back-to-back appearances on both The Vaccines’ US tour and Sunflower Bean’s UK tour. Honouring Stark’s musical versatility and overall appeal, it would seem that she’s likely enough to hook crowds from a wide range of demographics given her recent placements on prominent tours, so indeed, her future as an artist looks prosperous.

Meeting in Manchester we talk about her creative vision, Stark’s love for the UK, why her sound can’t be placed into one box and her goals for the future.

Hi Jesse, first off thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. How’s your experience of the UK been so far?

Jesse Jo Stark: “It’s been amazing. I mean, we don’t get very long in each place we go to but I could say we’ve been walking a lot and eating a lot. I finally got an English breakfast and we went to a Cathedral yesterday… I’ve definitely stumbled upon some beautiful sites so that’s been great, that we’ve had at least some time to do that, but not too long. But it’s been really fun.”

Charlotte, BSS: “I know I read that you came over to Bath, maybe last summer, for a writing session?”

JJS: “Yeah, I’ve actually been to London a lot but I write in Bath. I think I’ve written twice there—and we’re actually finishing the tour with a week in Bath. So I love it, yeah.”

2018 has been a pretty significant year for you as an artist, releasing tracks like ‘Fire of Love’ and ‘Wish I Was Dead’, and also the ‘Dandelion EP’. If you were to describe the past eleven months in a definitive emotion, what would that be and why?

JJS: “I would say sexy and giving. [She takes a long pause, as if she’s trying to find a more intensive or targeted way of explaining her thoughts] Yeah, I don’t know, those are just the words that come to mind.

“But pretty important to me, this past year has been important to me. I haven’t had any limitations on what I’ve wanted to share with everyone.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Yeah, especially being an independent artist it allows you to do whatever you want…”

JJS: “Freeing, for sure. Yeah.”

You have a strong creative vision and presence that is shown through your music and continues in the art direction, promotional photography, and on stage. What is the motivation behind the visual aspect, and what inspires it?

JJS: “I just go with my gut on a lot of things. I’m drawn to certain textures and certain visuals—I’ve always been—I love old movies and old horror films, and the ‘50s and the ‘70s, and I feel like those types of vignettes that those old movies create… this not too in-your-face sexiness but definitely there, but strong, like a strong female take on myself, I guess. Me, being the front character in what I present, you know, there’s always this thing of love. For me, I’ve always been inspired by the same kind of thing, it’s just now I’ve taken it to another level of what I wanna release and show other people. Old movies and horror, I think they all stem from that.”

Charlotte, BSS: “The way I look at it, it’s like a dark romance in a way. There’s film noir in there…”

JJS: “I also love incorporating art. I’ve been heavy on the visuals of me but I really do love collaborating with artists, I can’t paint myself, so I love to show this kind of non-existent world through mine… and embody, yeah I just continue to embody, or to just show this kind of re-occurring character that lends to this romantic journey that I have chosen to show everybody.”

Well, how does femininity play into what you do, because it feels like sometimes in the visuals it comes through quite strongly…

JJS: “That’s what I was trying to say, it’s not any sort of crazy message even though there’s a love interest implied or there’s a monster or something, like this woman has full authority, she’s in control, she’s comfortable in her skin, this is what she’s doing, it’s not for anybody. I feel I make the character more like, a joke sometimes because love to me has to be funny as well. And I always love to put my friends in my videos and just kind of empower the group that I stand behind and the people who make up my life, there being a lot of women but also men, I don’t humiliate the men in my videos, they’re just not the main character.”

Charlotte, BSS: “It’s clearly not feminising anything of what you do, it’s just the power of strength…”

JJS: “Basically just having the balls to… having your own balls. Your own sort of balls. [Jesse laughs]”

Having a background in fashion design, does this feed into other parts of your personality and art? If so, how?

JJS: “I mean, yeah, if I feel good on stage with what I’m wearing, I love it. Especially if I get to wear something that I’ve designed or my friends have designed or that I’ve found, it’s so crazy what something can do because it doesn’t have to be sexy it can be me in a big comfy sweater but if I have my boot on, I feel empowered and I feel good in my skin so I think it’s not about who made it it’s just about it makes you feel. So I do think that they co-inside, yeah.”

Your musical style is pretty diverse and your influences are too, but you always go back to rock music. What was it that first drew you in?

JJS: “It’s interesting because I feel like, though, I am considered rock there is so many beautiful melodies and long, jazzy riffs [in the music], but you know, I started off playing punk music or what I thought was punk when I was a teenager and covering other bands, that lends to the question where it’s like, what do you take from because I just feel like you kinda always circle back to what you started with. It’s like, that’s what’s in you, that’s your blood, that’s where your strength would be. So, I mean, I just love rock’n’roll but I don’t think I’m too rock’n’roll.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Yeah, it’s not purely rock’n’roll. There’s a lot of different influences in there.”

JJS: “Yeah, there’s many influences in there.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Which I think is what we all love about your music.”

JJS: “Thank you.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Because one song’s this and one song’s that. Delicate moments, lighter moments, there’s heavier moments.”

JJS: “And I think it’s important to have both. And I love the delicate moments but I love to rock out on stage, the performance, the feeling I get that I just have, I can’t be too mellow the whole time I gotta spaz out.”

You have statement tracks like ‘Rot Away’ and ‘Fire of Love,’ songs that express a ruthless wall of sound quality and lyrically both are quite potent and direct, compared to songs like ‘Deadly Doll’ and ‘Mystery’ that are elegant and subtle. With each track you write, how does the personality of the song form – is it naturally or does it come around in the studio?

JJS: “I think it’s natural, obviously depending on my mood that day. They’re all kind of talking about the same thing it’s just said in a different way, you know, each story.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Giving it a different kind of skin.”

JJS: “Yeah, but I know for a fact like I’ll go in and be like, ‘this has to be hard, I want a crazy instrumental in the end, a guitar solo, and then this one I want really pretty and I want my vocals high.’ You know, it’s just depending on a mood… I think some things are like, ‘Oh we have to go in [to the studio], we have this great idea’ and some things just come to you depending on where you are and the time it is.”

You have thirty minutes tonight with the audience, how do you make the most of the time when you’re up there?

JJS: “It’s not very long, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the time it’s just, you have to snap into it really quickly and I think it’s important to have a lot of fun and know that you’re with your band and that they’re all there for you and to not take it for granted. Be present and make eye contact with the people because it doesn’t matter if there’s one or a hundred, like that set of new eyeballs is seeing you and it’s important to like, just kick ass.”

This is like an all American tour as well, how does that feel?

JJS: “I mean, it’s all women. It’s amazing. I think it’s cool that Sunflower Bean brought on acts from LA and not local bands, because even though that’s amazing too we all get to be out here, we all went out last night and it’s just great to see so many empowered, strong females together. And they have raging, amazing, beautiful voices—and it’s a cool line up.”

You have a headline gig coming up in London on the 3rd of December. Do you have anything special planned for that show?

JJS: “Yeah, it’s gonna be a 45 minute or an hour set, a different set list. I know my friends and family will be there so that’s cool. I don’t know, nothing crazy, just me and more songs. More time.”

Charlotte, BSS: “It’s also like one of the first times that London / UK audiences get to see you.”

JJS: “Yeah! I mean, I played in London with them [Sunflower Bean] but you know I think this is going to be a really cool thing and I’m excited to see who comes. This is a really cool, cool way to end this tour because I haven’t gotten that time with people in London and I’m excited to have my own show, and I’ve always wanted to play here so this is just cool to be able to that.”

From my perspective the live show is where Jesse Jo Stark comes to life, you as the artist in this sense, the recorded material is a perfect way into your artist universe but the gigs seem to capture a different essence. From your perspective, does the live show play an important role in what you do?

JJS: “I think it’s important to be good live. [Jesse laughs] You get a different feel, you get to play more, you get to be surrounded by other people that are listening. I definitely think that I come to life when I’m able to sing my songs and move my body, it’s important to me, just to let each one do its thing for me and express how they’re making me feel, so the shows are really important. And the more we play, the better we get.”

I think it’s important to note that you’re working independently, without the backing of a label or a larger institution to support you. What you’ve achieved so far is impressive and inspiring, clearly you have a solid work ethic, and the passion and drive to see it through. Where do you think the ambition and determination stems from?

JJS: “Thank you. I feel like even though it seems like I’ve got it figured out, as a kid I felt really… I didn’t know my place. And I’ve grown up with my parents and they’ve had such a big effect on me and the way I am but I think that this, this is in me, it’s in my heart and I know it. I have to be doing it, I have to be playing and when I found these guys [Jesse’s band] and I started writing with my guitar player it felt like I met that person that I was always supposed to meet and I was able to say what I needed to say. These words are mine but they’re then lent to the world and they belong to everyone else, and I think if they inspire anyone then I’m doing my job. It’s like denying that you like a colour, it’s like denying that you love blue and only wearing green, you can’t ignore that—and like with anything if you’re not driving it and you’re not working your arse off it’s not gonna get done. And if it does, it’s probably not genuine. And everything I do has to be genuine. And so I’m here to kill it.”

What do you hope to achieve in the future, do you have any goals for your music?

JJS: “Yeah, I would love to put out my record finally—I’ve just been doing singles because it’s what I feel like I need to do right now—and visuals, continuing that. But also, I mean, I’ve always wanted to play festivals: I would love to play Glastonbury, I would love to play small festivals, do a headlining tour myself. Just play in small places and meet new people, and I would say get to work on a soundtrack or a movie or something. Keep trying things, keep experimenting.”

To finish up, bringing it back to the creative statements you make. If you could choose to live in one of your music videos, which one would that be and why?

JJS: “Oooh that’s such a sick question! Probably ‘Fire of Love,’ just because I would love to live in a theatre and meet a bunch of ghosts every day, and have visitors, and parties, and dirty martinis, and walk around in a robe. And have like a skeleton boyfriend that would be nice.”

Catch Jesse Jo Stark headlining London’s Shacklewell Arms on Monday 3rd December. Doors are 8pm and it’s free entry – full details can be found here.

Find Jesse Jo Stark on Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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