Interview – New York singer-songwriter Amelia Jackie: “I’m Raw”

To speak with Amelia Jackie is the opposite of a one-sided conversation. Ask the Brooklyn singer-songwriter a question, and she’ll consider it thoroughly, answer it, and then ask for your thoughts. You may forget where your questions end and where hers starts, but there’s never a lull, and it maintains perhaps the most prominent through-line of Jackie’s music: her obsession with the “you.”

Fittingly, her debut album is titled You Can’t Fuck the Internet. But while that might suggest something glitched-out into oblivion, Jackie’s music is much-less outwardly provocative. Her close-miked vocals and lyrics caught between forlorn and hopeful recall Sharon van Etten or a less-gothic Marissa Nadler. And she can seamlessly blend the first and second-person perspectives in one simple but show-stopping line. (“Can’t always protect you, but damn, I’m gonna try.”)

Jackie is more closely connected to another prominent New York singer-songwriter, her longtime friend Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, and will be opening for dates on their tour with Anjimile, as well as for Mirah at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory in May. On the basis of her debut, we can expect to see Jackie’s name at the top of many bills to come.

Read my interview with Jackie below.

How does it feel to have your album coming out? This has been in the works for a while, right?

I’m really excited. It’s been done for a little bit, and I was kind of ready to release it sort of at the beginning of the pandemic. So, I think a lot of people had to make a choice right then. And in some ways, it was a great time to release music, right? Like, Fiona Apple’s record came out and it was like everyone was just ready to listen to that right then, you know? But I waited, and that was hard. I didn’t realize how happy it would make me, ‘cause I’ve just been so stressed, like I haven’t been able to sleep. But I’m excited [laughs]. And I get to go on tour with my friend [Hurray for the Riff Raff’s] Alynda [Segarra] right when it comes out. So, the timing’s kind of perfect. 

With that time in between you finishing it and releasing it, did you make any decisions about the final product?

Well, the title came after, the title of the record. And it’s actually the title of a single that will come out later, which is kind of a funny choice, but it just felt right. I think giving it a new title and a new context just sort of made it all make sense. It was in a way, it was kind of like a reference to my feeling of all the songs, like being trapped. It was like I had this thing that was sort of trapped inside my computer that I couldn’t share. And so there was something about the sort of immateriality of that, that made me feel isolated. And it was also just about those feelings of isolation and not being able to connect with people.

 I don’t know if you feel this, but especially during the pandemic, I felt people were just ripe for resentments because we were kind of having a social war about each other’s behavior and ethics. And things would happen that we would judge people for that we might not totally understand. I don’t know, that’s all kind of in there. 

What are some things you can tell us about your musical background?

I first started playing the bass. And I didn’t really know what the bass was, in a sense. Like, I didn’t know what the bass did. And I don’t know if I should say this, but there was just like an older girl who played it who I thought was really hot. So, I was like, “The bass! Maybe I’ll play the bass.”

So, I got a bass. I was, like, in eighth grade, And I got a bass instructor, and he would come over, and I think he was confused. He was like, “What? What do you want to do with the bass?” I don’t know how long it took me to figure out what bass notes are. But I definitely didn’t learn it then. And he was like, “Do you think you might want to play the guitar because you wanna sing? And I was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna play the bass and sing. Which you can do. But it’s not the easiest thing to do alone.

So, he helped me figure that out. Then, I started taking guitar lessons with this woman named Laurie Geltman, who is a singer-songwriter. I think she lives in Boston now, but this was in Maine when I was in high school. We lived in a town called Lincolnville, which is a rural area in midcoast Maine. And I would sometimes get a ride with my mom, but I would often have to hitchhike to my lessons, and I was always late. That’s kind of the beginning. And I started writing songs, and a lot of my friends in high school were writing songs too. And we would go to this open mic in Belfast and play our songs for people.  

I just feel like there’s a lot of pressure to move away from guitar, you know? But then, at the same time, the trends are always tricking you into whatever design that they have. And then it’s like, this Big Thief record. There’s still great guitar music that’s being released, and it’s extremely popular. The pressure to move away from guitar is stressful [laughs]. Because I don’t know how to use the little machines and stuff. It’s fun, but it’s definitely just a totally different skillset, right? 

How did you figure out your sound, in terms of music and lyrics?

I think I was first a writer. I started being drawn to writing at a really young age and writing my story and writing poetry. So, I think my music’s definitely lyric-driven. And I also like when you can hear the lyrics. There’s a few interesting things about the record that I just made. One of them is that I had written a lot of the songs in a different key. And then when we were in the studio, the person that I was working with, my friend Robin, we were having the realization that my voice sounded better lower. And so we just tuned down the guitar two whole steps. So, a lot of the songs that I wrote in one key, are down two whole steps. So, that was a big part of kind of the low tones of the record and kind of the darkness of the mood. 

I always played acoustic guitar. And I always played it like, kinda hard? And so transitioning from playing really hard acoustic guitar to electric guitar, it’s such a delicate thing, the electric guitar, which is so not what one would expect from the sound of the electric guitar. There is some acoustic guitar on the record for sure. But then, I’m also playing electric, so kind of transitioning from that really intense playing, wailing [laughs], which I still love. 

One of my favorite musicians is Natalie Merchant. She has a really interesting sound, and I think I was imitating her a lot, even though I don’t think you would, listening to the record, think of Natalie Merchant at all. But when I was young, I definitely learned all her songs, and I would sing them acapella in the talent show, which is a ridiculous thing to do. But I think kind of learning her songs, which are super lyric-driven was a big influence on me. 

I also am very interested in imagery. It’s technically like a debut record, and I think that I was really trying to tell my story. So, a lot of the imagery really comes from my childhood and the imagery around my childhood, so, a lot of the metaphors and the words, the sounds, comes from growing up between Georgia and Florida. It does have kind of a country…do you think it’s like a country record? What do you think? I can’t figure out the branding of the record [laughs].

I definitely hear country, also that kind of folk/country, singer-songwriter style.

I feel most comfortable being like “singer-songwriter.” That’s like my default way to answer. I’ve always been bad about answering questions about myself. So, I’m always just like “singer.” And they’re like, “Well what kind?” So, I was hoping, maybe… [laughs].

I did notice sometimes your voice gets twangier. Is that an intentional thing?

I don’t think anything is intentional. I definitely grew up playing folk music. I think I probably learned a lot of folk songs, and those have some twang. I used to play really differently. I used to play with a lot of alternate tunings and lots of finger-style picking. But I kind of just went more straightforward with most of these songs, ‘cause there’s kind of like a “band sound.” So, the part I’m actually playing on the guitar is really simple. I don’t think it’s intentional, exactly, except that I’m probably referencing some folk songs that I’ve learned or something like that. And I am drawn to that country lilt, especially with singing style.

[Discussion involving hitchhiking ensues]

What is it that drew you to hitchhiking so much?

Well, I don’t think it was exactly a choice. I just kinda wanted to get around, and I was interested in everyone that I met. When I was in high school, I fell in with some kind of green anarchists. So, really, everyone that I knew was hitchhiking and riding trains. So, it was just like a very normal thing to do. And it was just always in big groups and wanting to city or wanting to see the country. It was just a way to get around. In a way, it feels so far away at this point. But at the time it was just very normal.

Something that I find really interesting is that this is an album that’s primarily outwardly focused, like, referring to another person throughout it. Is this all addressed to the same person?

Definitely the “you,” even in one song, often slips to another “you” in my mind, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to know that to understand the song. There’s definitely at least one that’s talking to my little sister, which is kind of an ode to someone who was in a really hard place. That’s the song “Terribly Blue.”

It’s always hard to talk about the meaning of songs, you know? There’s definitely addiction in there, and there’s definitely the law and someone who goes to jail. I can never find the right way to say this without it saying overwrought, but maybe some people kind of relate to this, but your vulnerable child self. I think a lot about being a lonely child, like in my bedroom, or in a precarious circumstance or a precarious family., and a song coming on that is meant to say that “things will be okay.” 

I remember being in my room and “Silent All These Years” coming on. I probably was 11, maybe, and just the comfort that that song gave me and the story and the context. So, I think I kind of am singing to that child a lot of times. 

When I’m listening to this album, a lot of what I’m assuming is that it’s a concept album that’s addressed towards a toxic influence.

That’s so interesting! Was there any song in particular where you really felt that?

I would say “All Around Town” because it has that kind of connotation of a manipulator.

I think that songs are magic. And I think that I just wouldn’t want to say that it’s not about that, you know? The song has a lot of darkness. For me, songs often take so many different meanings, and like I said, the “you” often trips and slips over it. But you’re right. I think you’re actually right [laughs], as far as my personal experience goes. I wouldn’t have described it that because you’re not really thinking sometimes when you’re writing. You’re just singing, and then the words make you sense, and you can’t really explain why. 

Did you have a specific idea of how you wanted the album to sound, and did it meet your expectations?

I think the songs were executed in the way they should’ve been. I worked really closely with the producer, and I think we made it exactly how we both wanted it to be, you know? 

One of the things that we talked about was Justin Bieber. Some of the songs, he’s whispering into the microphone. These songs are deeply not acoustic songs. When I try to sing them with an acoustic guitar, you can’t hear my voice. A lot of the record I’m really whispering. I’m not wailing. And I’m kind of a wailer. But then, eventually, I was like, “That feels good to me, but does it sound good to me after?” I don’t mean that I wanted it sound like a whisper. But we did want it to sound like it was really close to your ear. 

This isn’t like a judgment, but I don’t love pop music. [laughs]. I love people who love pop music. I like Tori Amos; I like some pop musicians; But what I like is more like that kind of 90s sound. But I think we referenced pop music and that style of not really giving it all away. 

And there’s a lot of synth, synth pads, which really kind of filled up the atmosphere in the song. And my friend, who I made the record with, is a drummer; he’s a really amazing drummer. Songs are recorded all different ways, right? But I think it’s pretty common, you play the song with the acoustic guitar, singing it, and then Robin’s playing drums in the other room, and that’s recorded live, basically. And then you record on top of that. So, you record another vocal, not always. A vocal track where you’re not playing at the same time. And I think that allowed me to really dial back the intensity. ‘Cause I have to dial back [laughs]. Often Robin, he’s like, ‘You’re at like a 10, and we need you at like a 6.” I’m just very emphatic and dramatic. And we both knew that I just hard to be sort of reined-in. 

‘Cause it’s good for live shows sometimes, but it’s just always going to be different. Because learning how to record is really hard, because you want that live intensity, but you can’t exactly have that. So, you have to find some place in-between, which I think we did.

I read this article recently about how, a lot of times, women are made to characterize their music as “raw.” And I thought that was really interesting, and I was also like “But mine is?” So authenticity and rawness and stuff like that, you know? I think the point was that they refer to some musicians that aren’t raw because they’re women. And I’m like, “I’m raw.” 

You Can’t Fuck the Internet Album Cover

You talk about using synths on the album. Was that something you were always open to?

I didn’t really know about synths. I didn’t really know to listen for them. When you listen to Lana Del Rey, that huge atmosphere is from that. And I think Robin was like, “Are you scared at all of how far we’re gonna take this?” Because it’s a little dissonant with the style. Once I realized what they were, I was like, “This makes so much sense for creating the environment of the song.” 

It’s not like the song all of a sudden becomes a synth-pop song.

Right, right. It’s just this thing that maybe you might not know exactly what it is. And I think that’s really cool. It’s like otherworldly. But it’s also very of the world.

Do you see yourself staying with guitar as your primary instrument?

I definitely have a love-hate relationship with the guitar. I’m becoming more interested in pedals which kind of create that environment. Some days I feel so connected to the guitar, especially to the acoustic guitar, and then some days, I’m like, “This is so physical that it’s stressful.” It’s like, what would it feel like to not be so physical when you’re performing and just using your voice, or something like that.

Had you been playing these songs live before recording them?

Yeah, I did a little tour with a band, and that was really cool. I’ve played a lot of shows with my friend Carly, who plays lead guitar, and I played a lot solo. But right now, these four shows that I’m playing with Anjimile and Hurry for the Riff Raff are gonna be solo. But I think I will tour the record as a band. 

How do you feel about performing these songs live versus in the studio?

I’m always more intense live [laughs]. In some ways, it’s less polished. And in some ways, I think that creates more a connection with the audience. I definitely like want there to be some magic. There’s a lot of live-ness in the recording too. 

I assume you have a knack for banter.

[Laughs] Why would you assume that?

Well, your lyrics and the fact that we’ve had a very lively conservation, with lots of great backstory.

I had this memory the other day. When I was in college, I would go every Monday to this open mic, which is at the Sidewalk Café. It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a wild open mic. Like, the Moldy Peaches came out of that open mic. I kind of think Regina Spektor, Beck, all these people would perform there. It’s like the anti-folk scene. And so, the anti-folk scene was a reaction to folk becoming too pompous. But, obviously, my music I think is pretty…sincere? Or it’s also sincere. But it’s kinda slow and intense. And back then, it was probably even more. I went to use the bathroom after I had played. And I was in the stall. I guess the person next to me had seen me enter the restroom. And she started talking to me – she must’ve have been drunk – underneath the stall. And she goes, “So, sadness. Is that like your shtick?” [laughs]. And I was like, “Um, okay.” [laughs]

The songs, I guess, have a lot of sadness. But as a writer, that’s not my experience of writing. It’s just part of life that I connect to. But I do think that my sets are often like, 15 percent stand-up comedy. And so that’s balancing, inadvertently, not in a calculating way. And that’s who I am. [laughs].

Do you find yourself to be naturally a performer?

I was when I was a child. And then, as life goes on, you become more self-conscious, some of us. And I feel like I’m always trying to figure that out, to what extent the performance is a performance and to what extent I’m representing my authentic self or something. There’s a lot of advice that people give about not giving too much of yourself, because it’s so exhausting. And I think when I heard that, I think when I was young and I was performing all the time when I was 16 and 17 and 18 in New York City, I think I would kind of make myself – it was too much [laughs]. It was too much of me, and it was too much for everyone else. And I would play so hard, that there would be blood all over the guitar. [laughs]. 

So, I think I had to sublimate. And I’m always trying to figure out how to manage what’s supposed to be given and how it should be received and all that. But mostly, I think I’m trying to put it out there and care less about it at all, if that makes any sense.

How did you get to know Alynda Segarra?

We met for the first time in a squat in the South Bronx. It was a huge squat, and it was an organizing center for the protests that were happening against the RNC in New York City. But the first time I ever laid eyes on them was at C-Squat. I was in the rafters, and they were in band where they would sing these crazy songs. There were three people in the band. They were all, like, 16. And the songs were like called “Jailbait,” which is hilarious at C-Squat, where there’s all these creepy older dudes, and they’re singing a song called “Jailbait.” And the band was called “Hotdog is My Hero,” which is the name of a woman who was always in Tompkins Square Park, like this character, and her name was Hotdog. 

I lived in the Lower East Side on Stanton and Ludlow in probably the last cheap apartment on the Lower East Side. It was like a five-bedroom tenement, like tiny bedrooms, old tenement. And it had a clawfoot bathtub in the front room, and they were arrested with a big group of people for protesting, and they all came to my house afterwards. And we shared some songs. And then, we were kind of best friends ever since. 

Are there are any things you’ve taken away from your relationship with them for your songwriting?

There have been several songs, maybe not on this record, that haven’t made it on a record, where Alynda was the “you” for sure. I think that our relationship, I think that just happens. It’s like a dialogue in this way. There’s an old song, maybe from the second record, which is so long ago. And it’s a song for me, like explicitly; it’s called “Amelia’s Song.” I used to have a venue that was a loft in Bushwick, and they came and played there several times. And the first time I ever heard that song, they played it in front of a big audience, and I was like, “Oh, God.” It was so intense, you know? And I think that really felt an invitation to lead up to. And maybe I didn’t ever explicitly write a song that was Alynda’s song. But they’re definitely always a part of my internal dialogue, and they definitely show up as a character in the songs.

How is it seeing somebody you’ve known for so long get so big?

Oh, it’s amazing. Alynda is so hard-working. Most people who we know are in that circumstance were kind of born into this golden circle of wealth, fame, and they didn’t even have to try, and Alynda had to try. And that’s cool. I’m just so proud. And Alynda’s music is so meaningful to me, and the lyrics are so meaningful, and it’s so thoughtful, and talk about a concept album! They really have a vision and execute that vision. And it feels very different than the way I do things, and it’s just an amazing thing to see.

We’re just really different. I think that a lot of times when people are making music next to each other, they end up being similar. And that never happens for me. And that’s just really cool. We just have different voices, different stories to tell, different perspectives. And I think that has made it really enduring and interesting. 

Going back to genre, I should’ve mentioned that your music has been tagged as “lesbian Americana.Do you find that to be a fitting description?

[Laughs] Well, someone that I love very much created that tagline. And I think that there’s kind of this resurgence and using the word “lesbian,” and I think that’s cool. It’s not exactly what I would say, even though I was charmed. I definitely like, love lesbians [laughs]. I think it was kind of a reference to Dorothy Allison when she said that. That’s deeply a part of my, not sexual root, but creative root, definitely was extremely influenced by “Bastard Out of Carolina” and her, generally. 

There’s a lot of people who make a choice to not be explicit. People don’t want to admit this, but it really does help your career to pretend to be straight. People are so quick to be like, “Oh, you’re playing the queer card.” But the reality is you’re gonna have a wider net if you’re straight. I’ve never exactly made a decision as far as that goes. I just feel like I’m explicitly queer. Like, I’m not closeted [laughs]. That’s all! But I see a lot of people being closeted, some people I know very well and that I love and respect, and I see them in the public eye, and I’m like “Oh, you’re making that choice for a reason.” I never thought about that or did. I don’t have judgement on it, to be honest. I understand the need to trick the audience for whatever reasons that you have. But it never made sense for me. 

What does having this album done mean for you?

It means I can make another album [laugh]. It’s a relief; it’s a huge relief. It’s kind of just these stories that I have needed to tell for a long time that are kind of released, you know? And they’re really like the building blocks for who I am. There’s so much pressure to get everything right at the right time. And the reality is, I’m just slower than other people, and that’s okay. And that might not ever really link up to the vision of success that some people have in the music industry now. I just feel kind of liberated from all that, from that concept of success. And the thing I always say to myself is it’s so meaningful for literally one person to connect to it. 

What keeps you busy outside of music?

I cook a lot. I like to spend time with my friends. I like to drive in my car to see my friends all over the country, and today, I was babysitting, and that was really fun. [laughs] I think that my goal is really to try to figure out how to make money without causing harm to the world. And I feel like so many people in the world are trying to do that. I know that’s not your question, but I’m definitely in a place where I’m thinking about that a lot.

You Can’t Fuck the Internet is out now. Follow Amelia Jackie on her website, Bandcamp, Facebook, and Instagram.

Amelia Jackie Tour Dates

April 13 – Paradise Rock Club (Boston, MA)*
April 15 – Elsewhere (Brooklyn, NY)*
April 16 – Underground Arts (Philadelphia, PA)*
April 17 – Union Stage (Washington, DC)*
May 1 – Knitting Factory Brooklyn, NY^

*With Anjimile and Hurray for the Riff Raff

^With Mirah and Poise