Smile Politely

Jessie Torrisi: Speakeasy pop

Singer/songwriter Jessie Torrisi swings by Mike ‘n Molly’s tonight on her very first tour of the Midwest. It’s the culmination of years of hard work and dedication to music. Torrisi began her musical career as a jazz drummer, playing in different bands around New York City for nearly ten years.  But she decided to follow her muse by moving to Austin and recording her debut album as a singer, Brûler Brûler, last year. The music on her the album is recognizable, but not easy to categorize. Her voice is breezy without being overly loungey; the music is Texas without too much twang; the songs are rock ‘n roll without piles of distortion.

At what point did you decide to make the switch from drummer to singer/songwriter?

Well funny enough, for this tour, it’s like I’ve decided to make the switch from singer-songwriter to drummer — lead singing from behind the kit for half the songs like a female Levon Helm. In late 2008, after spending a few months in New Orleans (the city where everyone indulges in their whims and dreams) and just before moving to Austin, I decided I would record an album. Just to see….I’d been a closet songwriter for a while. It seemed like a good closing statement to my ten years in New York. My closing statement turned out way better than I thought — I just loved being in the studio and the final project seemed like something I might listen to and love if some other girl had written it. So I started thinking, I should give it a go — for real. I’d played drums in a dozen bands in New York City, but someone else was always calling the shots and I always had a career B plan I was pursuing. Now I’m all in.

From the sound of your voice, it doesn’t sound like you just stumbled into this recently. Were you always intending to be a singer? How long ago did you start writing songs?

Actually, I haven’t been singing very long at all. A few years. I probably always wanted to be a singer, but my voice was very raw — too raw. Smokey and cool without the ability to control it, sing on pitch, convey different emotions. I started writing songs right out of college. I instantly felt like it was what I was meant to do. I felt that even when I was writing terrible songs. One day, I realized if I didn’t sing ’em, no one would ever hear my songs. So I found a voice teacher, a zany Buddhist Italian New Yorker who could shake me out of being embarrassed and self-serious. Step by step, she helped me break down the physical barriers. But I was not a natural born singer by any means. Maybe a natural expressionist or exhibitionist — but it was a leap of faith to think I could ever really sing. Writing’s always been in my blood.

How long ago did you move to Texas? From your sound on some of the songs it appears you’ve been influenced by Austin. Did you move there because you felt like you would fit into the music scene there?

I moved to Austin a year and a half ago. But with touring and traveling, I’ve probably only been there for nine months. As many people do, I fell in love with the city the first time I came for South by Southwest. It had a chill cool to it — outdoor bars, musicians and bulldogs and tattooed dads and lesbian moms all hanging out at Jo’s Coffee. I moved there because I slowly came to the realization that if I was going to really make music my life, it would not be in New York. I needed somewhere where I could set up the drums in my living room, where I could say I was a musician without someone asking if I’d recorded anything they’d heard, where I could start from the beginning without feeling inadequate. Austin offers that. And while it may not be perfect, it’s friendly, it’s beautiful, and they seriously respect their musicians.

What was the process like in recording Brûler Brûler
? As a former drummer, did you play the drums on the album? If not, was it tough to let go?

I didn’t play drums on the album. A very talented Brooklynite named Tlacael Esparza did. (He and the upright bassist, Ryland Kelly, along with the producer, William Berlind, were the heart of the recording process.) It was not hard to let go, actually. I played in many bands where people were bossy and over-dramatic, and they would try to micro-manage you without really understanding what they wanted or how to articulate it in drum talk. I resolved that if I were to lead a band, I’d play with people I really admired — in terms of their style and personality — and let them play by instinct. Not total creative free reign, but I let them explore and try their ideas first. I can always explain what I need more of or less of if need be.

In quickly scanning some of your press, it seems like you’ve gotten compared to just about every woman singer/songwriter of the last 30 years. Some of the comparisons make sense to me, but you couldn’t possibly sound like all of them. What do you think of this – comes with the territory or do you kind of get sick of it? How would you describe your sound?

Well, you know comparisons are a back-handed compliment. They’re a way to say, I like you but I’m too lazy to find the words to describe it myself. I take the wild range of comparisons to mean I’m unique and don’t sound too much like anybody else, though there are elements of lots of different styles. Which makes sense, given that I started studying music via jazz drums, and have lived in Brazil, New Orleans, New York City. I don’t mind the comparisons. 

Every musician struggles to describe their sound — Speakeasy pop is what I’ve come up with. It’s indie rock, but not your typical four guys in skinny jeans with lots of guitars and synth sound. And it has an undercurrent of old black music — be it jazz or Motown — with that air of seduction and being slightly risque. A speakeasy’s all about the things you’re not supposed to do or say in the light of day. But it’s not dark exactly. It’s just pushing the normal boundaries of how we can provoke, delight, indulge in our desires.

This is your fist tour of the Midwest. How’s it been going so far?

The Midpoint Festival in Cincinnati was absolutely amazing. We played to a packed room in the city’s oldest bar on an outdoor stage. No one really knew where we’d come from, but many people told us we were their favorite band they’d seen. Other shows have been less climactic. But I must say, at every stop, people have really opened their doors, couches, homes, hearts, ovens… quite literally. I’m astounded by how people have been excited to support what we’re doing and just forge a connection. Making a go of music has been so fucking hard. This tour has made me think, “Right now I remember why I do this.”

The kazoo has been known to make appearances at your shows. Care to elaborate?

No, can’t ruin the surprise. But if people want to scan YouTube videos, they might get a glimpse… or have a chance to practice their part in case someone thrusts a kazoo into their hand and drags them onstage.

Jessie Torrisi & the Please Please Me play tonight at Mike ‘n Molly’s with Bob & Pricilla and Don’t Ask.  (8 p.m. $5)

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