Jodie Marie’s debut album Mountain Echo garnered widespread critical acclaim upon its release in 2012, with many predicting a bright future for the teenager from Narbeth. Following the release, last month, of her intensely soulful sophomore album Trouble in Mind, the singer–songwriter joined Kevin McGrath for a cup of coffee and the chance to reflect on the making of a career-defining record.
Kevin McGrath: Was music ever present in your home when you were growing up?
Jodie Marie: Definitely! My dad played bass in bands and he would always be playing the blues on the guitar at home. I’d sneak downstairs, when I should have been in bed, and harmonise with him. My bampi, my mum’s dad, was in Côr Meibion De Cymru Male Voice Choir and my sister played the piano. I started having classical singing lessons when I was six. And my mum always did the hoovering each morning to B.B. King.
Brittany Howard, lead singer with the Alabama Shakes, says ‘music is everything that ever is and ever was’. Does she speak for you too?
I couldn’t agree more! Music’s always been around me and I don’t think about anything else. Even turns of phrase, when I’m walking down the street, and you hear somebody say something – it’s instantly a lyric. It’s always there.
I’m interested in when you took those first steps toward being a songwriter. Did it start with a love of language? Had you always scribbled down bits and pieces of poetry, jottings that turned into stories and then songs over time?
I was always writing stories and bits of poetry. I started writing songs when I started playing guitar a bit, it just sort of happened naturally.
You were just sixteen years of age when you signed with Transgressive Management and began to work on the songs that would eventually become Mountain Echo. The record, though, took a full four years to reach the shops. Were you under pressure from Decca to release the album more quickly?
I’m a perfectionist and I wanted my debut album to be as good as it could be. I didn’t want it to come across as naïve. I was so young when I started to write that album. Decca were brilliant though. You hear these horror stories about major labels, I couldn’t have asked for better with them. They were really for what I wanted to do.
You were in good hands, then, with Bernard Butler producing?
It’s quite endearing in a way that somebody so young was allowed so much control! Bernard was fantastic to work with and I’d love to work with him again in the future. He was the first person I showed one of my songs to!
It’s been three years since Mountain Echo, why has it taken you so long to get back into the studio?
When I wasn’t with Decca anymore it was a lot harder to create an album. I had so much exposure on the radio, especially in Wales, that it would have been good to put something out quite quickly to capitalise on that. I would have resented myself, though, for doing that. The perfectionist in me would want it to be just right. I’m so pleased with the album, and I’m glad that it took so long! It’s a more gutsy album than Mountain Echo, which I’m still very proud of, but I’ve lived a lot since that time.
As a singer, you’ve been compared with everyone from Duffy to the legendary Carole King. You’re always keen, though, to single out Bonnie Raitt when talking about your work? What is it about her music that resonates with you?
I first discovered Bonnie Raitt on a Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute video, doing a cover of ‘Pride and Joy’. It’s the truthfulness of her voice, even on cover’s, she’d make them her own! You could hear her heart crying. She’s like a comfort blanket for me. When I first started making music I wanted to be that for somebody else, because she had such a massive influence on me. I wanted somebody to listen to me and feel that they had this friend inside the speakers.
Did she have an influence, then, on the way you approached the new album, Trouble in Mind?
There are a lot of influences, but she’s definitely one. I constantly listen to her and it did carry through. I also wanted to go back to more of the blues and soul stuff I listened to growing up, I wasn’t quite so scared to bring those out on Trouble in Mind as I maybe was with Mountain Echo. I just thought why not. I’m going to go for it!
How much of your songwriting is observational? Do you people watch, I-Phone in hand? Shelby Lynne talks about her I-Phone being an electronic napkin?
When you hear bits of people’s conversations out of context and you don’t really know what they’re talking about, then it can make for really good phrases. I always have pen and paper on me.
How easy is it to know when a song is finished? Do you subject your songs to endless revision?
I don’t like to go back too much. I’m not a songwriter who nit-picks. When I’m writing, I don’t want to lose what made me write a song in the first place. With ‘Everyone Makes Mistakes’ it was that sick in the stomach feeling. I’m very conscious, when doing demos or recordings, that I don’t over- analyse everything. It’s just got to be honest.
Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Does the same rule apply to song-writing?
‘Trouble in Mind’, the title track of the new album, was written with Dan Smith within half an hour, but sometimes you’re pulling teeth trying to write a song. I won’t sit there and say I have to finish a song, because I believe, then, that it’s not ready. A song like ‘Everyone Makes Mistakes’ I wrote the chorus and the first verse, but I was too emotionally into it, and I had to give it some space. It took a couple of months and I wouldn’t try it every day, but I got there in the end.
That leads me to a question that’s invariably asked of singer-songwriters. Are you singing the stories of your life?
Does that leave you in a vulnerable position?
When I’m writing, I write for myself, because it helps me through and that’s why the songs come over honestly. This time around, though, I did have a little bit of a freak out, thinking I can’t tell everyone all this stuff. What have I done? There’s one song on the album, ‘I Miss You’, every time I play it I kind of have to hold back so I don’t fall to pieces! It is a vulnerable thing. I don’t know why I do it to myself, but I can’t help but do it. If you’ve been through it and telling it from your own heart people can relate to it.
Some songs for Trouble in mind were recorded in a series of late night sessions. Presumably the nature of the material demanded that approach?
I felt that some of the songs, the vocals in particular, needed to be recorded late at night. I think there’s an amazing feel, a sort of peace, in recording at night that helps me to perform. Even where we had to record during the day I would block up the windows to shut the light out. It’s about getting into the song more, going back to how I was feeling when I wrote it, so that all the emotions come back to the surface again. We were fortunate in that we could record around the clock at StudiOwz.
How many songs did you write in preparation for the album?
I wrote and wrote and wrote. I couldn’t even guess how many songs! Then I stripped them back to decide which songs would make the album.
Did you have to leave songs out that you really wanted to include because they wouldn’t have fitted thematically?
There was one that I was adamant that I was keeping on the album, but when it came to listening to it the actual lyrical content didn’t make sense in the context of the rest of the record. It didn’t have the same depth to it that the others did. I’m glad that it didn’t go on now, but it will surface at some point, but in its right place.
Trouble in Mind is an intensely emotional record. Was it the album that you had in mind when you stepped into StudiOwz, or did it change radically during the recording process?
The feel is exactly what I wanted, life happened that way! I wanted it to be gritty and for the songs to come across how I was feeling inside; all that turmoil but the happiness too. I wanted it to have that euphoric feeling. As a producer, Owain did a fantastic job, we understand each other really well and it’s an absolute pleasure to work with him.
In contrast to Mountain Echo you’ve penned almost the whole of this album yourself. Was it important to you to have a greater degree of creative control this time round, even to the extent of co – producing the record?
Yes. I worked with some fantastic people on the first album and I would not change it at all. Then I disappeared and spent so much time on my own that I wrote these songs almost without trying. They just came out naturally. You know? You live, and things happen! Because I’d taken so much control over the songwriting I wanted to extend my creative input into other areas. Working alongside Tom Sinnett on the horn arrangements and co –producing the album with Daniel John Montagu Smith and Owain Fleetwood Jenkins allowed me to do just that. It’s nice to say that I’m really proud of it because I’m very self critical about my work. When you can turn round and say that I’ve put my heart and soul into this, it’s quite a momentous thing!
When you finished the album did you feel joy, relief or emptiness?
Drained and exhausted! You put so much of yourself into it. But I also felt a sense of fulfilment and excitement at the same time.
You use a revealing phrase, I think, when concluding the sleeve notes ‘I can finally let it all go’.
It was almost like shedding your skin. I felt like I was holding on to this baggage. I said what I’d needed to say and I could start afresh. It’s an incredible rollercoaster that you go through, feeling terrified of what people might think, terrified of realising what I’d said on the album, to the part where you’re feeling proud and finally calm.
Trouble in Mind includes a sole cover, Tim Hardin’s folk standard ‘Reason to Believe’. What is it about that particular track that makes it relevant to an album of very personal original compositions?
I love playing covers, but I’m a bit reluctant to include them on albums. The song is so beautiful and I could relate so much to it, I wished I’d written it. I originally heard it by Karen Dalton on the album 1966, which is wonderful, and it completely floored me!
There’s an interview you gave at the time of Mountain Echo where you say ‘I’m still living at home with the seaside and the greenery, being out in the elements is what’s always inspired me’. Mountain Echo is certainly an album, even down to its artwork, that reflects the natural beauty of Pembrokeshire. There’s not a single reference, however, to nature on the whole of Trouble in Mind. Was it a conscious decision to look elsewhere for lyrical inspiration?
I didn’t make a conscious decision, no. With nature, going for walks, going to the sea, that’s my thinking time. I’ll come back and I’ll write so it still has a massive part to play behind the scenes’. There is the tale of the Pembrokeshire curse – once you come here you can never leave, you’re always drawn to come back. It’s such a creative place, I’m really proud to be from here.
Do you see yourself as a Welsh musician? Would you take pride in that description? Or would you find that limiting in some way?
Not limiting. I’m very proud of being Welsh and I’d like to write songs in Welsh in the future. I’ve had so much support from people in Wales. Radio Wales have been incredible! They are so open to all kinds of music.
You’ve been writing, of late, with Matthew Frederick from Climbing Trees. I was lucky enough to hear a couple of those songs, when you performed them live for the first time at St John’s Church in Canton earlier in the summer. I think one was called ‘Red Dress’, and the other was still untitled at the time. I think it’s fair to say they made an immediate impression on people. What’s become of those songs?
‘Make it Better’ was the other song. We’re both very proud of those songs and we don’t want them to just disappear. We’re still writing and we’ll try to put something out together at some point, but there’s no pressure behind it.
Having recorded two albums so markedly different in style, do you have a clear idea of what your next project will be?
The difficult third album! I’m writing it now and I’m just letting it happen. I think it’s going to be very similar to Trouble in Mind, blues and soul, that’s what I love. I feel very excited as there’s a lot of ideas coming. With this album I’ve found myself, I’ve found exactly what I want to say and how to say it. I would love to write for other people too, I think there’s something quite exciting about lending your hand to a different style. With Taylor and Marie I could do the whole Country/ folk thing and I loved doing it.
Have you thought about writing film scores?
I have thought about it. There’s an incredible film score by Eddie Vedder, on Into the Wild. It’s a gorgeous soundtrack. It would be so much fun to do.
You’ve made a point in interviews of stating that ‘I don’t want to be famous I just want to be known’. What exactly is your definition of being known, and have you achieved that ambition yet?
I’m quite a private person. I want the songs to be known; I’d just love my music to get out more in the world and be heard.
You can read our review of Jodie Marie’s new album here.