Destined: Essie Jain
originally published at Dusted Magazine, January 2007
There are, as of this writing, four photographs in the “images” section of Essie Jain Wilkinson’s website. The first is a study of a pretty young blonde woman in a sober striped dress, reclined on a crate of books in an otherwise barren room. The second is the same woman with only the pebbly white wall behind her, her gaze shyly diverted from the camera. The third is a close-up of a butterfly made of leather, and also the cover of her enchantingly consumptive debut album, We Made This Ourselves, minus text. The fourth, explained only by the heading “a little bit of everything,” is a stark mugshot of a can of Heinz Baked Beanz. The fourth, for the sake of adventure, is where we will begin.
“It’s one of my all-time favorite British comfort foods,” explains Wilkinson, 28. “Beans on toast. That involves making toast, covering it in butter, adding cheese if you feel like it, salt and pepper. And tea. PG Tips tea, tons of milk and sugar. That meal alone can make anything better.” Short reflective pause. “I’m firmly grounded in a belief in that,” she concludes, not without irony. “It’s been a very large part of my life.”
The import, so to speak, of her devotion to something so canonically British (for the record, The Who Sell Out is 12 years older than she is) comes to light when you consider the operative displacement of her life and career. Raised in London, where she studied a handful of instruments and trained briefly as an opera singer, she moved to Brooklyn at 23 to pursue a development deal with the American arm of Carlin Music, and to Manhattan soon after. “I thought New York would be a lot like London, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth,” she says. “People are a little more closed off here, and it took me a long time to find healthy friendships. If I were honest I would say it’s more isolating than I would have wanted.”
Which brings us to the second photograph, the fair-haired maiden lit from the left and facing the right, looking down toward the place where she becomes indistinguishable from her shadow. Wilkinson’s New York songs, as We Made This Ourselves could faithfully but incompletely be described, blur the line between the pallor of the writer and the darkness of her work with disquieting expertise, plumb the depths of what it means to make music organically. “The record is the last three years of my life,” she says. “Every single thing, every year of being in New York and every strange thing that my dad has sent me in the mail, went into it.” Even the decision to record as simply “Essie Jain” was less a decision than a default: “I didn’t think I had to find a band name, because I didn’t ever think I would be, like, a band. The name is as personal as the music, that’s all there is to it.”
The album’s genesis stayed accordingly close to home – at home, in fact, excepting the piano tracks recorded at four different studios – produced by Wilkinson and guitarist Patrick Glynn. “I learnt a tremendous amount, because I’d never engineered before,” Wilkinson recalls. “Half of it was sheer blind luck; both of us were absolutely winging it.” She had sketched out more than half the record in this fashion – and played at New York venues from the Rockwood Music Hall to the Mercury Lounge (so much for staying cloistered) – by last August, when she was invited to play a session on WNYU and left some recordings that got quickly passed along to Ben Goldberg of Ba Da Bing! Records. Goldberg offered to release the songs as they were or to let Wilkinson develop them further; she opted for the latter, completing the writing process and enlisting a handful of friends and acquaintances to embroider her sparse arrangements. “Jim White came in at the very end and did this incredible job of drumming over tracks that were devoid of conceivable time,” she says (White, officially of Dirty Three, has lent tasteful percussive whispers to a number of kindred spirits, from Nina Nastasia to Cat Power to Nick Cave).
Indeed there is a ragtag, faintly communal feeling to the album (“a lot of people were involved,” Wilkinson explains, “that’s why it’s not I Made This Myself.”) that offers a key counterpoint to its bare-bones composition. Its parts coalesce almost, but never entirely: the seams of each song are exposed, the transitions supremely tentative. One seems to recognize the clinking of flatware in the background of a wistful waltz, the shortest and probably cheeriest number on the album, called “Disgrace.” There is warmth in these moments of imprecision, but it hardly tempers the cold baroque sadness, the deafening stillness, that envelops them.
Still, the simplicity audible in early listens – underscored by reticent titles like “Indefinable” and “Understand” (only one track has a two-word name, the lovely “No Mistake,” and it surpasses the others in muteness) – is deceptive. Songs like “Haze” build themselves in front of you out of the smallest, most basic ideas, slowly gaining certainty and color until suddenly, sometimes scarily, they tower with immediacy. The power of this duplicity lies in Wilkinson’s endlessly nuanced voice, by turns velvety and wispy, mournful and lusty, operatic and girlish; it reins in its oft-swerving accompaniment and reaches out to the listener in lyrical snatches, all while drawing itself, and the whole undertaking, inward and away.
“That record is its own person now,” Wilkinson says. “It’s gone, out of my hands. I think it has an elegance about it that I didn’t really anticipate; you’re prepared for a messy homegrown kind of feeling with something like this, but it’s very warm and close, very sitting-in-room-with-rainstorms. For me it’s definitely that feeling of not being able to go outside for” – pause – “some reason.” This, in all its cold comfort, is what she means when she describes her music as “intimate”: safe, personal, perhaps even palliative, but inseparable from the isolation that created it.
“I’ve had a hard time working out what my place is in this city,” she reflects. “I’ve always felt a bit larger than it – not in the sense that I’m amazing, but in that I haven’t been involved in a scene here, I’ve never found where I am.” And that unfixed feeling – due to lack of easily pigeonholed contemporaries rather than lack of exposure or talent, one supposes – will be where the third photograph comes in. “I’ve had that leather butterfly for a really long time,” she explains. “For me it’s the idea that if you’re broken or in trouble, you can become something else, attach onto things that will heal you. There’s a place for anyone anywhere.”
And Wilkinson seems fairly certain that New York will not always be her particular place, though she’s already “knee-deep” in songs for her next album. “I don’t want to be one of those artists that goes on forever,” she says. “I don’t want to keep making records when my time is up. New York will serve its purpose for me as long as it serves its purpose, but that purpose is going to stop. It either becomes the center of your world or it doesn’t. Sooner or later I’ll need wide open space and better air. Wanting to get out of here is a heavy weight on your shoulders.”
Which brings us finally to the first photograph, the figure between the open window and the open door, considering the light from outside but blending into her own shadow with the smallest hint of satisfaction on her face. “Maybe if I moved and lived on a nice farm with some cows, the music wouldn’t be as dark as it is,” she says. “Living in New York has contributed to the darkness, the intensity. But I think if I drove into the mountains of Portland I’d find that quiet little spot, that dark pocket of the jacket, and jump in it, too.”back