Toledo-based artist Jessica Bailiff released her debut album Even In Silence in 1998. Since then - as a solo artist and in collaboration with the likes of Flying Saucer Attack’s David Pearce (as Clear Horizon), Odd Nosdam, Rivulets, Boduf Songs, Rachel Staggs (as Eau Claire) and Annelies Monseré - she has continued to develop a signature style in which effects such as distortion and reverb are integral to the compositional process. The Outer Church spoke to Bailiff shortly after the completion of her new album At The Down-Turned Jagged Rim Of The Sky which will be released by Kranky on Oct 1st.
Your music seems to gesture outside of the everyday - whether toward dreamlike states, psychedelic experiences or some form of spiritual epiphany. Do you recognise any of these qualities in your work?
"The songs do stem from real events or feelings, but they’re delivered through metaphorical lyrics and music that has psychedelic elements. The act of playing can be somewhat trance-like, meditative, borderline hallucinatory, especially in repetitive moments; but I’m not a spiritual person, really."
Have ever experienced anything that could be described as supernatural, paranormal or otherwise inexplicable?
"I looked for that sort of thing in my youth. I wanted to experience something paranormal. I was obsessed with the supernatural as a child, thanks in part to a TV show called ‘In Search Of…’ hosted by Leonard Nimoy. I now lean more toward there being an explanation for seemingly otherworldly occurrences. I’m a big fan of Derren Brown, who has skillfully and playfully demonstrated that people are often easily persuaded into believing in things that aren’t real (faith healing, psychic readings, ghosts, etc)."
Do you recall when you first became interested in music?
"It seems like I was always interested, ever since I can remember. The radio was often on at home or in the car growing up, and I loved it. I remember being excited to get a Beatles record for Christmas when I was five. I was really into Top 40 before age 11, then MTV began broadcasting in our area, and I discovered all sorts of new music that wasn’t being played on the radio in Northwest Ohio. My parents’ record collection held hours of fascination for me. I distinctly remember poring over the artwork, inside and out, as well as listening to the recordings. They let me put records on the turntable myself as a kid, which didn’t leave them in very good condition! John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy took a beating, because at the time I wasn’t interested in Yoko, so I picked the needle up after every John song, skipped hers (they alternate throughout the album), then put it down again on the next John song. My grandmother’s piano playing intrigued me from a very young age. She taught me the notes on the keys and basic music reading, but I often played by ear. My cousin and I liked to pick out TV theme songs. And like many children of the 70s with access to a piano, we covered the theme from Jaws - the first few notes, anyway. The fact that my grandmother let me explore the piano on my own probably nurtured my interest in making music more than anything."
How would you define the sound, mood and style of your new album? Do you feel it’s a departure from previous work?
"It is always difficult to describe my own music. Every new album is a departure of sorts, but there’s a continuation, maybe even a honing, of style. It’s been 15 years since my first album, and there’s been years to explore and try different things. I hope that it’s all led to something good, something that makes sense. Each new record is a sort of culmination of everything I’ve ever done or listened to up to that point. What has been left out says almost as much as for what has been included."
Do you prefer recording at home to working in the studio?
"I like both for different reasons. There are different limitations with each. It would be great to be in a studio and have someone else running the gear while I create and play. But to make the most of studio time, I’d have to have the bulk of the tracks planned out before going in, and I’m not the sort to do that. At home, I begin to record shortly after I’ve begun writing, tracking as I go. For now, I’m happy to work this way. The recording and songwriting processes rely heavily upon each other for me, and it’s easier to do in my own space and time."
The title of the album is gorgeously evocative. What inspired it?
"I read an autobiographical book by Elizabeth Gilbert called Committed, in which she writes about traveling around the world to research the institution of marriage and what it means to be committed to someone. She quotes an English translation of a Native American love song/lyric/poem that goes something like: “Where will we sleep tonight, my love? Where will we sleep? At the down-turned jagged rim of the sky.” I won’t attempt to paraphrase the context in which it appears, for fear of getting it wrong. I thought the phrase was beautiful and inspiring, so I took it. Steal like an artist, as Austin Kleon would say (he who wrote a great book, Steal Like An Artist, for creative sorts looking for motivation)."
What is it that makes you want to sing?
"It’s an element I want in the songs I create, so I have to do it. I used to hate the sound of my own voice. I would beat myself up all the time for not being able to sing “properly.” It’s an instrument that I wish I played better, but I do the absolute best I can with what I have. I feel I can sing better now that I’m not so hard on myself about it."
Is there a particular creative ‘mood’ you have to be in to make music?
"Not really, no. Stress-free is about the only requirement, so that leaves it to an occasional weekend, mainly because I have a job during the week that takes all my energy."
Have you ever considered working in other media besides music? Film or writing, for example?
"There are other things I’d like to do, but music seems to be the only thing I can make work. I’ve written two novels as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), just first drafts. I’d like to take the best elements of both and rewrite one good, finished novel. In art school I focused on ceramics and photography, and dabbled in just about everything else. I’m smitten with architecture and interior design, and lately fashion as well, though you’d never guess from my attire. I design dresses in my mind all the time, but I’m not good at drawing, so they remain in my head."
Are you inspired by art in other media?
"Books, film, theater, or visual art inspire me to make music more often than listening to other people’s music. However there are exceptions, and I’m always motivated to book a tour after seeing a concert. There’s a show on National Public Radio called Radiolab, and I recently listened to an old episode where they interviewed Ann Druyan, wife of Carl Sagan. Ann’s story about she and Carl falling in love made me want to immediately make art, specifically something about outer space."
What qualities do you look for in music, as a listener and a creator?
"It has to be engaging somehow, both as listener and creator, even if I’m not sure that I like it. I prefer song-based music, but there’s definitely some instrumental music that I hold close to my heart. There’s something powerful about strong melody and lyrics. I like a solid and somewhat traditional song structure, but something unexpected within that - unconventional sounds or instruments, playing with the stereo field, unusual layering of vocals, anything out of the ordinary."
There’s a heavily textural element to a lot of your music. Can you explain the importance of processing sound via effects etc? What’s the intention behind the use of distortion, reverb, delay and the like?
"It’s part of the process for me, using effects. I consider myself a recording artist more than a musician or performer. The sounds applied to the vocals or instruments, they way in which the sound is recorded, the way the tracks are mixed - I just view it as ‘the song’ or ‘the track’. If I took one of my songs and stripped all the individual tracks of their color, or effects, it would sound terrible. Each song is shaped by how I finish the recording. I like visual art with texture, a painting that begs me to touch it, so maybe that’s part of it."
How important are lyrics to you as a songwriter? Are they a means of communication or an additional texture? Or both? Or neither?
"Lyrics have always been very important to me as a songwriter, and as a listener. There is intention in every word I’ve written, it’s never been just a texture. I remember hearing ‘Michelle’ by the Beatles when I was maybe six or seven and thinking Paul was singing gibberish half the time. Then when I was thirteen and beginning to learn French at school, it was a revelation to realize Paul was singing in French half the time in that song. Discovering what is being sung by my favorite artists, bit by bit with each new listen, has been a favorite pastime for a long while."
Do you find inspiration in your physical surroundings? Do you view your music as rural or urban?
"I view my music as very internal, not really directly inspired by my surroundings. I feel very displaced, and relate to neither rural or urban surroundings. I live in a city that is an economic disaster, and some parts are downright depressing. My apartment is in an historic district that is very eclectic, and many artists and musicians live here, but it is surrounded by the worst parts of town. I cannot walk alone here safely, or ride a bike. I work in a smaller town twenty minutes away by car that is a lot nicer but in a strange way almost too comfortable. In my heart, I am living in a small city in Europe. It’s very walkable. There is water somewhere nearby - a river or the sea. And I am tri-lingual (at least). Hopefully one day this will be my reality."
How do you feel about the travel involved in being a musician and performer?
"I adore it, and would do it more often if I had the means. The hassle at the airport still seems worth it to me, at least for now. I enjoy driving from one place to the next, as long as it’s not such a long drive that it makes playing a show stressful or tiring. I feel happy and most alive when touring, or recording with someone in another city, especially somewhere in Europe."
I first encountered your music on the Kranky Kompilation released in 1998. ‘Failing Yesterday’ was my favourite track. The new album is also out on Kranky - what’s so special about that label?
"They like my songs. They also let me do what I want artistically, for the most part. I don’t ask for much, and they are reasonable in return. We seem to have a mutual respect, and we get along very well. And Kranky is a great name for a label."
You’ve also established a fruitful relationship with the Belgian label Morc Tapes. How did that come about?
"Wim and his wife, Annelies (Monsere), booked a few shows in Belgium for my first European tour in 2002 (with dREKKA and Rivulets), and we’ve been friends ever since. At this point, we are friends first, business partners (for lack of a better description) second. Wim was kind enough to release a compilation of B-sides and rarities for me in 2007. And Annelies and I have been performing and recording together since 2005. We released an EP with Morc, and we finished an album last year that needs a home."
Odd Nosdam was involved in the creation of the new album. I believe your first collaboration with him was on the track ‘Untitled 3’ (a huge favourite here at the OC). What do you like about working with him?
"He refined what I had done, did some polishing, made some thoughtful and expert improvements. I’d sent the album to him when I’d finished it last year so he could have a listen, and he offered to clean up the mixes. He truly understands me musically and artistically. We share a fondness for British folk and psych from the 60s and 70s, and a love of Flying Saucer Attack, and I think that is a big part of it. He’s someone I can trust in a professional capacity with my art, and it’s nice to have people like that in your life when you’re a creative sort. He’ll always be honest with me about what he hears, and he’ll never take offense if I disagree with a suggestion he’s made - and vice versa. Contributing to his songs has been a joy for many reasons. It’s exciting to work with someone doing something so different from what I normally do, someone who’s output I truly enjoy. It was a lot of fun writing the lyrics and singing ‘Untitled 3’, as well as the others. There’s often something very physical about his music. It makes me want to move."
You worked with Flying Saucer Attack’s Dave Pearce on the Clear Horizon album a few years back. Can you explain what you feel is significant about Dave and FSA? What was it like to work with him?
"Dave is a true artist; there is nothing contrived about Flying Saucer Attack. He had no idea the following FSA was amassing back in the early 1990s as it was beginning. His take on the combination of beautiful melodies and noisy guitars is very fresh. It was and still is very exciting music, so honest and raw and pure. Working with Dave was both terrifying and wonderful. Imagine being in the living room of your favorite songwriter/guitarist/singer, and improvising to tape with him. I was nervous and afraid. He felt that was nonsense and knocked me into shape a bit. Somehow I managed to sing and play guitar with this awe-inspiring person. But most of the work we did together as Clear Horizon was tape and CD-R trading via post. It was a huge thrill to be able to take discarded FSA material and transform it and for Dave to be adulatory with the results, and equally thrilling that he turned something mediocre I’d done into something quite magical."
Do you have memorable experiences of the UK?
"Definitely. I wandered around England and Scotland for a few weeks on my own in my mid-twenties and fell in love with the UK, especially England. And the times I visited with Dave over there were incredibly special. I look forward to returning one day and spending some time. It’s been too long since I’ve experienced London, and I’d like to visit some places I’ve not yet seen as well."
You’re a persistent collaborator. What do you find enjoyable about working with other musicians, and how does it compare to working solo?
"Well, I’d say I was persistent in a few cases. Sometimes I’m invited by strangers to participate in something. These situations are a bit more difficult, but rewarding when they work. It’s usually easier with friends or people I know. I’ve worked the most with Annelies Monsere. She’s one of my best and closest friends, so sometimes it’s a good excuse to see each other. But I truly love her music, so it is inspiring to work on new material with her, or to play live together. I come up with things that I wouldn’t on my own. Working alone is often easier, because I don’t have to consider anyone else’s opinion. It can be less confining. But sometimes it’s better to have someone else to tell me an idea isn’t good if it truly isn’t, or to say something has potential that I might otherwise discard."
Are there any artists you would still love to collaborate with?
"I don’t aspire to work with others, honestly. If I happen to cross paths with someone and there’s something that makes us want to explore music together, then I’m all for it. Or if I’m approached by someone, I will always give it careful and thoughtful consideration."
Are there any collaborations that you’ve taken part in, that you’d like to revisit?
"I’d like to see Clear Horizon 2 finished one day."
Do you have a particular favourite out of all your records?
"The latest, At The Down-Turned Jagged Rim Of The Sky."
How has the reality of being a musician changed since you started out?
"I signed a contract with Kranky in 1997. I had a lot of opportunities after that over the years that I wasn’t able to take, and some that I did take but wasn’t ready for. There was that youthful optimism at the beginning: I imagined I would one day be able to write and record music and tour instead of having a job I wasn’t passionate about in order to survive. This is not my current reality. Still, I think just about anyone who works hard enough, focuses enough, and sacrifices enough can live life as a musician, whether they are signed to a label, release their own material, or do no recordings at all and just play wherever and whenever they can. It’s all about how you think about it. If you’re in a band because you want to be famous, make a lot of money, and get laid, well - good luck and have fun. But if it’s something you can’t help, if you live and breathe it and it’s just part of who you are, you find a way to live with that happily. Either you make a lot of sacrifices so it can be your bread and butter, or you so something else to keep a roof over your head and your belly full, and you simply make time in between for playing and creating. One might make you happier than the other, depending on who you are."
Is there any music that are you currently finding interesting or inspirational? And if so, why?
"I’ve been heavily into Radiohead for the last few years. Their last three albums are amazing. I was obsessed with King of Limbs and Thom Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser, while making At The Down-Turned Jagged Rim Of The Sky. I’m often most inspired by and interested in the music my friends make (no, I do not know anyone in Radiohead). There’s something really amazing about listening to a really great record, and connecting that person (or people) I hold dear with the art they make. They are these spectacular rays of light that come into my life, my friends that make music (or write or paint or draw or etc). Any friend I have that has woven their creativity into their everyday life is inspiring beyond measure."