Jess Nolan is releasing her EP today. It’s called Strike a Match. Jess is a New Jersey native who studied music in Miami before setting her sights on Nashville. Today marks the culmination of a year’s worth of writing, rehearsing, and recording and Jess is ready to celebrate tonight at Soulshine Pizza Factory where she’s performing as the Lightning 100 Artist of the Week. (7pm, free)
We met up at Cafe Coco where we talked about everything from growing up in New Jersey to making it in Nashville. Jess has the ability to see a clear path for herself and isn’t afraid to do what needs to be done to get there. “I’m strictly independent. It’s overwhelming, making all these decisions,” she said.
You can hear the result for yourselves right here. Cue up the EP and listen while you read about how and why it was made.
LLN: How long have you been here?
JN: A year.
LLN: New Jersey by way of Miami, right?
JN: Yeah. I grew up in New Jersey, went to school at University of Miami.
LLN: How did you like Miami?
JN: I loved it. The music school was an amazing place to learn and develop. But when I graduated, it was time to go somewhere where I can actually do what I want to do.
I was deciding between here and New York. I started looking at places in New York and realized very quickly that it wasn't going to work. Nashville is affordable, the scene here is growing, and honestly I think it's the best decision I could have made.
LLN: It's a good place.
JN: I love it so far. I wasn't sure, because I'm a northeastern girl, and I've just never been around southern culture, ever. I was a little worried about it at first. But this is a good mix of people.
LLN: A place like this, you get to choose. You can keep the parts you like and ignore the rest.
LLN: So growing up in Jersey—what part of Jersey, by the way?
JN: Central, near Rutgers. A small town called Highland Park. It's right next to New Brunswick.
LLN: What were you listening to?
JN: I listened to a lot of pop music. I was listening to Alicia Keys. Her album The Diary of Alicia Keys was a turning point for me. I was taking classical piano lessons at the time and I hated it. My mom switched piano teachers for me, and my new teacher was like, "Let's do what you want to do," and so I started writing when I was 13.
I actually never performed my original music until I went to college. I had never played with a band. I didn't have any experience with performing until I was 18.
LLN: You were focused on learning and writing.
JN: I was locked away in my room, writing. I had no idea if it was something I could do full time. For me it was a hobby and a dream. And then I got into music school, and everything started becoming real. And here we are now.
LLN: As you went through college, how did that shape your experience?
JN: I was in the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music program at Miami. It's all contemporary, original music. So for four years I was writing songs in a classroom setting, learning how to chart, playing with bands, and figuring out how to bring a song to life. Miami was an amazing place for me. I don't know where I would be without that school.
LLN: It's musically diverse, right?
JN: Totally. I was around jazz kids, classical kids...there was a lot of different music going on. Playing with jazz musicians is so elevating, musically. Some of them, the skill level they have on their instruments is intimidating. It motivated me to try and keep up. It was a good environment.
LLN: This EP is your first recorded project. How did that come about?
JN: I had been writing and playing with a backing band in Miami, and I was doing little gigs here and there. I met these two producers in Brooklyn and we did a single together.
LLN: The one that's on Soundcloud?
JN: Yeah. That was my song that they produced. I was going to do more with them, I almost signed an EP deal, but then I reconsidered because while electronic music is great, it's not what I do in my live shows. I like writing horn parts, I like doing live arrangements. So I regrouped, spent this year figuring out what my sound is and what songs I wanted on the record, and then—I don't know if you know the band Dynamo? They're a funk-soul group in town. Their musical director heard me and encouraged me to make an EP. So together we co-produced this record and it's awesome. I think it fully represents what I do in a live show. It feels closer to who I am as a writer and artist. It's a good start.
LLN: Where did you record?
JN: Sound Emporium—Alabama Shakes did their record there. At first I thought I should wait for a while. I wasn’t in a hurry to record. But people kept coming up to me at shows and asking where they could get my music. So I took a chance, and used my savings to make the EP.
LLN: Now—especially here—you can do it any way you want to do it. You can go to a huge place, or a little place, or somebody's house, or whatever. There's a ton of choices.
JN: I’m strictly independent. It’s overwhelming, making all these decisions. I don't have a manager right now. But BMI has helped me a lot, and Lightning 100 is featuring me as Artist of the Week, so their showcase will also be my release party. There's a lot of people supporting me. I just don't have a deal signed.
LLN: That's good. It puts you in a place where you don't have to settle.
JN: I'm hoping that more opportunities will come from this. I have a lot of songs that are ready to go.
LLN: How would you describe your music?
JN: When people ask me what my sound is, I tend to use the term "soul-pop"...a lot of my melodies are pentatonic. I like catchy melodies. But I also really love lyrics, and I feel like I'm a poet first. I listened to Joni Mitchell and Carole King growing up. I think of writing as storytelling.
But then in music school, I was listening to a lot of jazz. And I love Alicia Keys and Corinne Bailey Rae and a lot of R&B singers. I think what I do is a mix of all those elements.
LLN: It's not something you typically hear in Nashville.
JN: I was worried when I first moved here that my sound was going to be too different, but I think it's played to my advantage. I just try to be myself as much as possible. My songs are real and personal and come from personal experiences. I don't try to be anything I'm not.
LLN: Your video [for the song “Your Gravity”] was shot at The End, right?
JN: When I moved here, that was the first venue that I had a show at.
LLN: It's a really good first venue.
JN: It is! I played there probably 4 times in the first 3 months I was here. That's how I met people. So The End was my start.
LLN: It's got a history to it.
JN: I remember when I was playing there, looking across the street at Exit/In and thinking, "One day!" Then back in March I got to play there, and it was awesome. I love how accessible the venues are here. The people who book the venues, they just want good music. It doesn't matter to them if you have a label deal or whatever.
It was really hard to get gigs in Miami. At least for original music. I was gigging there a lot, but it was all cover gigs. Restaurants, hotels. I was having a hard time getting my original music off the ground there and that's one of the reasons I came here.
LLN: It's definitely easy to play original music here. It's a little hard to get paid for it.
JN: That's the main difference. In Miami, I had steady gigs, I was making money. Here, I have steady gigs but I also have to have three part-time jobs.
LLN: What are you planning to do after your EP comes out? Will you tour?
JN: I was planning a tour for late September, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen. I’m going on tour with Dynamo in early December, opening for them. I think we're going down to Florida. I'm hoping to tour next year as well, to really start getting my music out there, because I've never toured. So that's the next step.
Stephanie Adlington is a singer and voice instructor here in Nashville. You can catch her around town singing jazz and pop standards backed sparsely by excellent musicians in intimate venues. Her next show is at City Winery on Monday, June 22nd and comes highly recommended for fans of vocal music.