When Innocent Words Magazine was born in 2002 one of the first promotional CDs we received was Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter debut album Reckless Burning. With her sultry voice backed with a soaring indie rock/alt-country hybrid sound it was easy to like this singer from Seattle.
Now nearly 10 years and a few albums later Sykes and her backing band returns with another fantastic record entitled Marble Son released on Station Grey Records.
The singer/guitarist, who is a former member of Hominy, formed Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter when she met up with Whiskeytwn guitarist Phil Wandscher in 1999 in Seattle’s Hattie Hat bar. The duo played around town before they started the collective “Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter” in 2002. Due to the musical history they both came out of rather then their actual aesthetic, the band was often tagged as alt country….. Sykes and company have shed most of their “alt-country” skin as they have evolved a lot over the years. This is none more evident than on Marble Son, her first album in four years.
”Well, let’s see…. it was recorded and mixed over the course of a year…the songs were written over a year’s time as well…so there you have two years. Before that we were touring the last record–squeezing out as much juice as possible, so there’s another two years,” Sykes said of the time between studio albums.
“This one took longer than usual to make, because a lot was going on in our personal lives. Phil and I broke up after being a couple for 10 years and I needed some time to triage and convalesce a bit, then see if we could carry on together musically. Also in that window; babies were born, people died, and I got engaged to my new love…it was a heavy, but exciting four years! There was a lot of emotional evolution happening that was necessary for this album to come to fruition.”
All those emotions bleed on Marble Son with multifaceted, duskier sound. As a result, the songs reverberate between several different genres of sound. With Sykes’ haunting characteristic vocal delivering her much-admired song writing, Marble Son is arguably the best album Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter have created.
Right away the album grabs you with the opening track “Hushed by Devotion.” It is clear Sykes is forging new territory on her sound. The 8-minute track has a distinct 1960’s San Francisco psychedelic feel with its haunting, yet atmospheric sound over whispered layered vocals.
“We put that first because it was the first one written for the album and it was such a “piece,” such a statement, that it needed to come right out of the gates in order to be received with the level of urgency that I feel it depicts,” Sykes said of the opening track. “Everything else on the album had to live up to that one as well. I wanted it to mirror the frenetic energy of our lives at that time and have people enter a portal into the underworld from the minute they put the album on. I didn’t want it to feel like a song, but more like an emotional tidal wave.”
Sykes’ songs take a life of their own because she is inspired to write these songs by just being alive. Even though her words might be thinly veiled in mystery, they are still accessible to her fans, which return to the singer giving her inspirational energy.
“I get my inspiration from being alive, from being human…from observing and taking things in… There is so much beauty out there, but also a lot of opposition, friction and a darkness that we all know exists but so often choose to not acknowledge. I see a broad spectrum of emotion, the bad and the good equally, and I feel it all the time. For me to exist and be sane I turn it into something that makes sense to me, so I can incorporate it all into my day to day–try to find grace in all the chaos.”
Despite the breakup of their long-term relationship there is a definite bond between Sykes and Wandscher’s songwriting on Marble Son. These adventures through Sykes lyrics wouldn’t be complete without Wandscher’s stylistic mixed of arpeggio guitar picking mixed with distorted feedback.
“We have always had that sort of telepathic connection most of the time. We also have a deep trust in each other’s ideas. I feel very fortunate to work with him. There are times we fight and I can feel crushed if he doesn’t seem to understand an idea I think is valid. But, if I believe in it enough and show a certain level of conviction he usually ends up getting it. It just needs to percolate and filter a bit through his internal lens…and vice versa of course.”
Whatever their methods are it is working very well. Their new songs are perfectly balanced seamlessly weave in and out of the darkness searching for light. Even with the evolving sounds on Marble Son, there are still a few tracks based in the folky alt-country sound the band built their fan base on.
“I mean, if you think of it…look at all the great old classic albums from the Stones for example, or the Beatles, Zeppelin, etc…They all had the full spectrum represented. They had heavy songs, modern groundbreaking songs, ballads, and folky songs…even country-tinged songs. I think because our first record had a few “country-esque” songs we got tagged “alt country”….but that tag doesn’t fit our body of work. I love to incorporate all genres of music; to stretch, reach and grab. I never want to be pigeon-holed…to me that is a kind of death!
Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter’s Marble Son is evolutionary and timeless — personally and sonically just the type of rock the album is named for.
“I liked the idea of something beautiful that may or may not be appreciated in its own time…of course, a statue comes to mind. They seem to last forever and are beautiful and viable even as they disintegrate. Some were built so well that their dissolution is almost more powerful because it exposes the process and the bare essentials are revealed – we are left with an arm, a torso – and sometimes those parts say enough,” Sykes said.
“There’s a line in the song “Marble Son” that goes – ‘Oh marble son why can’t I love you more? I wish I’d found you beautiful before.’ Many things I didn’t see beauty in when I was young, I find beautiful now, and visa-versa. I think about relationships and how some “miss the boat” in their own lifetime and if we need to wait another lifetime (metaphorically or not) to understand true love, then so be it. Some will never find it, but a few will luck out and experience a love that lasts through many lifetimes! We all have our own evolutionary path to understanding beauty and our capacity to love. The image of a marble son spoke to me on all these levels – strong, forgotten, loved, beautiful, and sad. Eternal.”