Shop Talk Volume 2 with Jessica Vines “Nobody is perfect and you can only offer what you have.”
This week we sit down in the shop with Jessica Vines of Jessica Vines (it’s not called “Jessica Vines Band”) and talk about songwriting, teaching, being a working musician, and not being able to whistle. Jessica has been blowing up the Fargo music scene for the last year following the release of her EP “For a Night.” Her band is comprised of some of the best players in town, including Conor Lee on guitar, Jack Anderson on tenor sax, Evan Geiger on bass, and Alex Van Eeckhout on drums. Together, they perform a compelling mix of Jessica’s original songs, vintage classics, and contemporary bangers, all with a strong neo-soul vibe.
Jessica: Fine. It was fine. Pretty chill. There was a fair crowd, which was nice. They actually started clapping after each song which is a big ego boost.
Nik: Sometimes that is the hard part with some gigs where the crowd is moving by all the time. There’s not a lot of feedback.
Nik: Like, “Why am I here? Just because. Cool. Well here’s another one.”
Jessica: The first time we played there it wasn’t until halfway through the first set that I even said anything. Like, no one is even looking at us, so who do I address?
Nik: Less banter for sure. What are some of the weirdest gig situations you’ve been on?
Jessica: Maybe one of the weirdest sound-wise was a recent gig where we were told production would be provided. I asked if they needed a stage plot and input list and they were like, “No we’ll just figure it out when you get here.” We arrived and they just had a single microphone attached to all the speakers in the building.
Nik: Like a grocery store P.A.?
Jessica: Exactly. And there were no other inputs so it was just my voice carrying through the whole building.
Nik: And the band was just stage sound?
Jessica: So people were in the bathroom peeing and all they could hear is me taking a breath before the tune and we’re playing “If You Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart and it’s just uncomfortable. I made them turn it off in the bathrooms.
Jessica: They were like, “We were gonna have it on, but…”
Jessica: It ended up being really fun. The people were great. Just a miscommunication on sound.
Nik: When you ask a place if they have a P.A. we generally assume a music P.A., not like a department store.
Jessica: Or like something literally attached to a podium.
Nik: I did a DJ gig like that once. I was playing with a turntable artist. This is probably like 16 years ago. It might have been edgy then. But he was through the P.A. which was pumping out the other side of the room. I’m next to him with an amp. There was sound from two places. It sounded like two different bands happening. Like here’s a guy playing solo guitar and then there’s someone playing a record.
Jessica: Like, “Do they even know each other?”
Nik: So how long have you been doing this Jessica Vines Band thing? Like how long has that been your stage name?
Jessica: Ooooohhh. Well, I think it’s been a year and a half almost two. We’re still trying to figure out the name because it just sort of happened that people started saying “Jessica Vines Band”
Nik: Oh really?
Jessica: Whereas I was like, “I do not want to be called ‘Jessica Vines Band’.”
Nik: Why not?
Jessica: There are bands that do that and are so iconic and I just wanted something different, not like The Dave Matthews Band or even locally The Gina Powers Band. They’re awesome, but I just wanted something different. We’re trying to get Evan on board with Jessica Vines and the Storm, but it’s not happening. He’s a hard pass on that.
Nik: I could see that. I mean simplicity is kind of nice that way. It is your band and you write all the music so…
Jessica: Right now we go by “Jessica Vines,” that’s like the online name.
Nik: Oh it’s not even called Jessica Vines Band? I guess maybe I said that to distinguish from just you and Conor Lee as a duo. Was the band kind of born out of the duo stuff? Were you doing that first?
Jessica: Yes. We’ve been doing duo gigs for three years now. So the full band must be a year and a half old. First it was just Conor and I and that was always The JVCL duo. Then as soon as I started writing everything it was just “Jessica Vines” because we didn’t really do the originals as a duo, mostly covers. And also the members changed so much the first year. The only ones who stayed the same were Conor and I.
Nik: Lots of personal changes?
Jessica: Yep. Since we started as college students, people move, get jobs, or get busy. I’m sorry, I’m sure you didn’t want to talk about the name.
Nik: Actually this is the fun part where I don’t plan a question and we have a conversation organically.
Jessica: And I get triggered and go off about the name.
Nik: So now here we are talking about something that doesn’t even exist, “The Jessica Vines Band,” and maybe I can clear that up. Should that be the focus?
Jessica: “Jessica Vines is pissed!”
Nik: Yeah, the title could be, “Say my fucking name!”
Jessica: Then whenever we do a trio thing we call it that (Jessica Vines Trio), so at this point, it distinguishes what people are getting: duo, trio, full band.
Nik: And if it’s you, Con, and Jack…
Jessica: Yeah, is that the same as me, Conor, and Evan? We could offer anything at this point.
Nik: Call one of them JV3. JV5 for the whole band maybe. So you made the name change and transitioned into the full band because of the songwriting? And you wrote a bunch of awesome songs and put out an EP this year. Your original music seems to be the focus right now.
Jessica: It is. It’s a different gig from the duo and it is focused on my tunes.
Nik: Who are your favorite artists and songwriters? People you’re listening to and trying to make music like?
Jessica: My favorite band is Lake Street Dive. I’m a huge fun. So the first JV band was all people I met in college and that’s how they started too. They were all jazz majors. We were all jazz majors and I love their lead vocalist (Rachael Price). I’m also crazy about the new Brittany Howard album. I’ve been listening to that a lot for inspiration. Who else? Anderson Paak. Lizzo. Anything that has a Tiny Desk Concert.
Nik: NPR does have a certain gift for selection. Sounds like you dig R&B like Amy Winehouse and such.
Jessica: I get that one a lot. Or Norah Jones. Conor and I had to learn a tune for a wedding and we were like, “I don’t sound anything like her.” Maybe it’s because I’m a girl who sometimes sings standards.
Nik: Have you listened to her more rock-style albums or Little Willies?
Jessica: I haven’t dug into that no.
Nik: Might be a more reasonable comparison. Fun music, too.
Jessica: I used to be a lot more breathy in college, so that’s part of it, too.
Nik: I suppose if you sang “Come away with me” you’d sound like Norah Jones. Like isn’t that how affectation works. Do you try to sound like other singers when you do their songs?
Jessica: No, any time I learn a cover I try to do my best to learn the bare minimum so people know it’s the song, but then I don’t listen to it too much because it’s difficult to make my own choices. Especially as a duo where we’re taking a nine-piece band arrangement and condensing it down to two players. It’s going to be its own thing, so we don’t try to sound exactly like the record per se.
Nik: What kind of stuff do you like to write about?
Jessica: I like to keep it broad and relatable. That’s the challenge. The whole point of music for me is unifying. Sometimes you hear someone do a song and wonder, “How does that perfectly explain what I’m going through right now?” Sometimes it grows and the song isn’t really about what it started out to be about. I have a weird style where I start with the melody and whatever lyrics come out right away I keep that. That’s what’s on my mind.
Nik: The hook is the first thing?
Jessica: Yeah, an idea or a feeling.
Nik: Autobiographical stuff?
Jessica: Pretty autobiographical. A lot of it is me sorting through my issues by thinking of what someone else would say. It’s a weird way to sort through your feelings but it helps me realize, that’s what they meant or felt and that’s valid and ok.
Nik: I’m gonna leave this mic running and pee. Just talk into it for a while.
Jessica: (protracted silence) We are proud to present Kelly Ward as one of the winners of the 2019 Pabst Blue Ribbon can art contest. To find out how you can enter, visit pabstblueribbon.com/art. We are supported by Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Nik: (Returning) Better hydrate too. Stack the beers and waters.
Jessica: Holding it isn’t healthy.
Nik: I cannot have kidney stones.
Jessica: “I cannot have kidney stones!”
Nik: I don’t have the time.
Jessica: I’ve got the time, but not the money
Nik: That’s part of the working musician thing. The reality of the whole thing.
Jessica: There are some of those not fun reality parts.
Nik: Is this what you thought being a working musician would be like? You’re teaching at MSUM and Amped School of Music, gigging constantly further from Fargo. That’s how you pay the bills, right? Is this what you thought it would be like?
Jessica: If you asked me when I was 14 and I wanted to be a musician–
Nik: Is that when you had that idea?
Jessica: Yeah, I wanted to be a therapist but that was a lot of school. If you told me that I’d be doing this when I was 14 I would have been like I’m pretty sure I’ll already be famous by now.
Nik: Right? I think I figured I’d be on SNL by the time I was 18.
Jessica: Twice! For sure. Then I thought I’d be past my prime at 24.
Nik: Right? Growing up when I did doing what I did, there was a pressure with Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepard doing that type of thing. I thought that if I don’t hit it as a teenager I’m fucked because who wants to see an old man play blues guitar? Where’s the novelty? Apparently a lot of people do because, you know, Buddy Guy, but some of the novelty maybe washes off.
Jessica: True, but I had a wild of idea of what success was at that point. Then I went to college and realized that if I could pay my bills with music I’d be successful. It’s changed since then. Now if I’m happy and excited for each gig I consider that success.
Nik: Because paying your bills doing any independent work is satisfying being your own boss, but also there’s a lot of work and it takes and emotional toll. Always working at night and stuff. You guys are gigging a shitload.
Jessica: One night off this week. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, it must be nice to not have a 9-5” but once 5pm rolls around, they’re done. That’s when my night is starting. Like two more hours of teaching, a rehearsal, and practicing, and writing contracts, and emailing venues ALL DAY!
Nik: So really it’s like 9am to 3 the next morning. There are a lot of misconceptions and glorifications of both being a musician and being independently employed that cross over in this exact conversational moment. Like people assume we’re rolling in it because we’re getting $600 for a few hours on a gig. But yeah, we bought all this equipment and it took us an hour to get out here and back, set up for an hour, rehearsal for the event. It turns into a seven hour setup/tear down/travel gig. So pay by the hour is deceptive. And then the fucking cost of the degree. The training.
Jessica: Right, like with teaching it’s great money, but people forget about the time I spend prepping for teaching 10-20 hours a week. It’s a lot of work.
Nik: Talk about teaching. You’ve been doing this for a year and a half?
Jessica: Yeah, I started at Elevate then came here to Amped School of Music.
Nik: That’s where we are now right now!
Jessica: It’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to have control over my curriculum and meet people where they’re at. And then teaching at MSUM now, too, the expectations are different. It’s fun to see how each type of student reacts to different things.
Nik: Do your college students react differently to things?
Jessica: They do. They’re very motivated.
Nik: Yeah, I don’t have trouble getting them to practice. They’re all there because they’re on a career path. Trying to be the next Jessica Vines.
Jessica: Oooo. Good luck! Or the next Nik Gruber.
Nik: There are probably some kids who think that, but I do my best to disabuse them of the absolute fairy tale that my life is magical.
Jessica: Isn’t that what being a musician is? Is making it seem like you’re doing a lot more than it sometimes feels. Like this week I only night I had off was Thursday. But I also had fun at rehearsal and after on Monday and got food so it’s not like it’s necessarily awful.
Nik: This gets back to your point that success for you is being happy. Playing music is a fun job. In college there was a certain standard and it was a little like homework to play music. I don’t think I started making music for fun until my thirties. It caused a lot of frustration with people who weren’t serious about it and I’d get drunker to level the playing field. Then I’d be like that’s fine, this is your thing.
Jessica: That’s a struggle for a lot of college-educated musicians. That’s a big reason why the “Jessica Vines Band” wasn’t ever the “Jessica Vines Band,” it was just “Jessica Vines.” It was clear from the beginning that it was my stuff and I was going to hand them a chart and they’d read it how I wrote it. I learned a lot from that and it was great, but I think if I asked the same people to do that now it would be different because it’s not a college ensemble.
Nik: Yeah, professional expectations. In a sense that’s how it should be, but it is rare in my music-making experience. Not a lot of rock or blues bands are reading bands. They might just give you a song list. Learn these by Tuesday and you just do it by ear. There is a lack of reading gigs in a sense. Not everyone works that way. There are a lot of ways to communicate music.
Jessica: That’s how each tune starts. We start with a chart and gradually develop from that.
Nik: Yeah, sometimes someone is just showing you a part or singing it and that’s a different way to communicate music that is just as valid. I’m always impressed by and respect people who can easily communicate music. Why do I need everything charted out?
Jessica: Sometimes it’s cooler to try to hear something and sound it out. I don’t like operating in a situation where I have to find cool stuff that way all the time. Those moments happen. Some people love the spur of the moment, but not for me or my bandmates. But that’s ok. It’s totally valid.
Nik: I think the further you get removed from the college thing that’s how it goes. Unless you’re subbing in PTFS or something. I still chart out stuff as I’m learning it because that’s how I know the form. So you’ve got a big MSUM Commercial Ensemble concert this Wednesday, November 6th, right?
Jessica: Yeah, with your group. Groups! Emphasis on the ‘s.’
Nik: Yeah Guitar ensemble I AND II. Tell me about the tunes you’re doing?
Jessica: We’re doing some Fleetwood Mac. A little bit of everything. Some more contemporary things like Jonas Brothers.
Nik: I love J Bros.
Jessica: Yeah, we’re doing “Sucker.” We’re doing some Matchbox 20. Some Stevie Wonder.
Nik: How do you pick tunes for that? Do they have input?
Jessica: It’s almost all their input. The only one we forced them to do was “Sucker” because they all knew it from auditions, but they were into it anyway. It’s going to be a really fun night!
Nik: Teaching is going well at MSUM?
Jessica: It’s been really good and it’s been a learning experience. I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester because we’ll focus on music industry stuff like how do I book a gig. Things that don’t get a lot of classroom time.
Nik: Cool. Instruction on knowing the business side is important and often overlooked. MSUM does a great job of that. Playing is I’d say half the battle but it’s maybe only like 10%. The business part is huge. What are the good parts of the business?
Jessica: It’s very fulfilling.
Nik: Fun playing, being your own boss. There is a lot of positive feedback that most people don’t get at work. Like no one is doing taxes for a living and having a drunk guy run up and scream, “Fuck ya, do one more!”
Jessica: One more song! Or Tax return.
Nik: Or to hear your name chanted. Like, “Jack! Jack! Jack!”
Jessica: I mean all musicians are pretty self-absorbed. In the nicest way.
Nik: It is kind of addicting though isn’t it? Having crowds root for you.
Jessica: That’s a good way of putting it. Performing is kind of addicting, but in a good way in that it makes me want to constantly improve so people keep responding positively.
Nik: By adding new material and such?
Nik: Do you think teaching helps with your growth as a musician?
Jessica: Yes, I do. Maybe less than I thought, and maybe I’m not doing it right. I already have my practice routine down. Now I think of it differently, like, “What am I working on that I can share?”
Nik: Right? If I’m working on triad pairs, guess what everyone’s learning this month? I started teaching at 14 so I felt like I learned a lot the first few years just trying to stay ahead of the students.
Jessica: Did you have imposter syndrome?
Nik: Still actually.
Jessica: That’s comforting.
Nik: I mean I work at a college I’m terrified they’ll find out I can’t do this. But I’m either conning them or I don’t care. But yeah I have those feelings sometimes. Do they know that I can’t do this shit?
Jessica: Or that I’m also trying just as much as they are.
Nik: Yeah, I had this conversation with Conor the other day and I think that’s a big difference in teaching style for me: I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I want to play to my highest ability, but I don’t have an ego problem with students. So we’ll sight-read at the start of lessons and if I fuck up that’s fine. I’m sight-reading it even more than them if they did their homework. I guess I never felt that bad about that. Like I have to perform in lessons. I’m not intimidated by having students outgrow me and become better than me. They should all get there if I’m a good teacher.
Jessica: That’s why I started to take lessons again.
Nik: From Julie Adams?
Jessica: Yeah, and it’s so cool. I’ve come to realize that as a teacher nobody is perfect and you can only offer what you have. I’m excited to learn more so I can bring that.
Nik: Do you think it’s different being a female musician? Is it harder? Are there impediments to being part of a scene like jazz music that can be a boys’ club?
Jessica: That’s a good question, but I also don’t like that question, because as soon as it becomes a thing of “I’m a girl and this is why it is the way it is,” then it just furthers the separation. I’m not a huge fan of girls-only things. If I’m on a night of all bad-ass female artists, that’s awesome. But I don’t want that to be the reason someone comes to the show. I have had people disbelieve that I wrote the riffs on the album. But as soon as I take pity on myself then it becomes a negative thing. As soon as I stop acknowledging the obvious difference between us (gender) we can just focus on the music.
Nik: I’m reminded of the thought, “Female-fronted isn’t a genre.” I think I sometimes cringe at those expressions. Like why is it a female-fronted rock band instead of just a rock band?
Jessica: Right? Like, “Oh she writes everything? That’s great… for a woman.” It can’t just be a good riff or a good song. It’s good that you’re asking that and I think that you should be asking that. For me, I’ve found that I don’t really see the lines disappear between male and female categories or societal expectations until I sort of stop acknowledging the fact that I’m a woman. Or a female musician anyway. I know that it makes us unique in Fargo-Moorhead that we’re female-fronted and that I write everything. But as soon as I start paying attention to those things it only further divides us. There are things that are harder or easier. But I don’t think that’s any excuse why any female can’t do anything that she wants in Fargo-Moorhead. It’s an incredibly supportive community.
Nik: Part of the reason I ask is because you were part of the Celebration of Women and their Music this past winter, and this community has some incredibly strong women like Diane Miller and Deb Jenkins and Gina Powers. There is a lot of support here and a place for it. But maybe there almost shouldn’t have to be a “place for it.” it should be in all places.
Nik: It’s great to have a celebration of women in music and I in no way intend to criticize that. But it sounds like you’re advocating for the idea that we could just have music, not women’s music. It’s problematic sometimes when people think, “This type of person made this thing so we have to treat this differently.”
Jessica: And yeah, I don’t want to criticize that either. It was a great event. I think events like that give women the confidence they need to be in the position I’m at now to be able to say, “I don’t need to be billed as a female-fronted band.” But maybe when I was younger I wouldn’t have had that confidence. So those things are necessary and important. And if it makes another woman feel empowered to do it, great. I hope it gets to the point where we don’t need to have a celebration of women. We don’t need to have these things that make us separate because everyone is just loved and accepted for who they are every day of the year. That’s the goal.
Nik: Sometimes I’m at a show and there’s a female bassist or something and someone finds that remarkable. Like, it totally shouldn’t be.
Jessica: There are more women in those roles. Hopefully, more and more women see them doing it and want to do it, too. They can think, “That looks like me. I could do that.”
Nik: There’s a generational shift, too, with people like Esperanza Spalding or Terri Lynne Carrington. You could grow up and think about doing that because there are visible artists doing it now, whereas maybe that wasn’t as true decades ago.
Jessica: The bottom line is this: don’t hire a band because it’s female-fronted. Just hire the best band. The female part is a coincidence, not a focus. We’re all people making music. The music is the focus, hopefully.
And hopefully, we can create a scene and a world where everyone’s contributions are seen equally regardless of gender or race or anything else. Until then, Jessica Vines will keep bringing her message to Fargo. Check out jessicavines.com for a complete schedule and click the video to hear us perform some of my favorite Jessica Vines songs here in the studio as part of this interview.