Blue skies ahead for Jesse Terry
The idea of "home" has been, until recently, a bit of an abstract concept for singer-songwriter Jesse Terry. Given the ever-evolving state of the music business and the decline of album sales/royalty-generated income, Terry spent the last few years traveling and performing constantly and internationally, accompanied by his wife, Jess.
Anywhere he could play his literate and melodic songs - always distinctive but at times reminiscent of Jackson Browne, Ryan Adams and Martin Sexton - he was happy to do it. Plus, that's where a lot of the artist's income is generated; he and Jess handle the CDs, booking, merch sales, travel arrangements and on and on.
Over the course of remarkable albums like "The Runner," "Empty Seat on a Plane" and last year's "Stay Here With Me," Terry has gone from opening for artists such as Darrell Scott, Paula Cole, Marty Balin and Liz Longley to headlining his own shows.
Then, in May, he won first place in the prestigious International Songwriting Competition's Americana category, which was judged by eminent tunesters like Tom Waits, Bruce Hornsby and - one of Terry's heroes - Jason Isbell.
The winning composition is called "Let the Blue Skies Go to Your Head," and the original recording appeared on Terry's second album, "Empty Seat on a Plane." It's a lovely, mid-tempo tune with tricky and evocative verse rhythms, a lilting chorus hook, and seems to be a bit of cautionary advice to a woman who might be afraid to commit to a relationship.
It's a tremendous song with a lot of interlocking elements, and Terry says one of the interesting aspects to entering a songwriting competition is deciding which tune to submit.
"I think, to make an immediate impression on the judges, you have to give them the whole package - the lyrics, the melody and the arrangement," Terry explains. "You have one chance. On an album, where there are several songs and a momentum, you can get by with a simpler approach. Some simple songs are perfect because they're simple - but they probably wouldn't win a contest."
He cites examples such as Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" and Randy Newman's "I Miss You."
"They work because they repeat a vital sentiment over and over, and it's perfect that way," Terry says. He laughs. "Of course, they're Randy Newman and Joe Cocker, so they probably would win. But for someone like me, I have simpler songs that I love, but this time I tried to throw it all in there, the overall melody and hooks and words."
Terry says his immediate reaction, when he got the phone call that he'd won, was probably predictable - he was "utterly speechless," and he and Jess were happy just to delight in the moment. But, with time, the award takes on deeper and richer meaning.
"Winning that competition was wonderful because it validates you and keeps you going," he says. "For everyone in this business, there is rejection and there are low points. It's a constant roller coaster so I'm very, very grateful to have won - particularly when Tom Waits and Bruce Hornsby and Jason Isbell were judges."
On Wednesday, Terry headlines the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook. This time, though, it's not just another stop on the highway.
Now, Terry can drive to Old Saybrook from his home in Stonington - where he and Jess, a native of New Zealand, recently settled.
"We'd been living in the car and out on the road for nine months straight," Terry explains, "and we knew we needed a home base. One of the advantages of traveling so much is that we'd seen most of the spots you'd want to consider. We sort of automatically assumed it would be New York City or Portland, Oregon, which is a great place. Maybe Nashville, because I was there for a while. But we'd come through this area and fell in love. Stonington is our home and it will be."
Terry says he and Jess have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the area; in fact, for interview purposes, he's calling from outside the Mystic YMCA, where he's just finished a morning workout. In conversation, he's enthusiastic and kind and happy to talk about music and life - like a Little Leaguer who, out of nowhere, gets to conduct a tour of Cooperstown.
"We love the people and the area here. It's a beautiful, peaceful place," Terry says. "It's quiet but close to major markets for touring purposes. It's very easy to write here - inspiring and no distractions." He laughs. "And one of our favorite things is brunch. We love Noah's and Kitchen Little. After a few weeks on the road, to come back home and experience brunch ...? How perfect is that?"
To listen to Terry's body of work, one would think songwriting has always come easily. The tunes effortlessly spin out compelling narratives, anchored with creative chord blueprints and lavishly seasoned with an exceptional sense of melody. Interestingly, though, music as a craft came quite late to Terry.
"Before I actually started playing, music was always my refuge and comfort," he says. "But I went to art school until I was 19 and thought that was going to be my path, my outlet. Then my mom loaned me her guitar, and that was it. I was immediately hooked. I started playing and writing songs, and music totally eclipsed art as a better form of expression for me."
Newly focused, Terry studied at the Berklee School of Music and, two months after graduation, scored a publishing deal in Nashville. As the climate of the industry changed, though, and the traditional income streams from royalties rotted away, Terry realized he needed a new plan and began touring incessantly.
"I personally feel it's a very interesting time for music, but a lot of my songwriter friends in Nashville have been greatly affected," Terry says. "Admittedly, it's not fair. They were living off of royalties that aren't there - at least in the old context.
"Fortunately, I love to tour and I love to play, and it's important to keep an open mind to what the next situation will be. I'm excited, and there are a lot of new opportunities in licensing and merchandise that you can take advantage of if you're out playing."
As his fan base continues to expand and the venues get bigger, the accolades start to roll in - such as the International Songwriting award. Terry says he and Jess are excited, but they try to keep it all in perspective. He pauses and his tone becomes quiet and almost meditative.
"I'm proud of all three of my albums, and I don't get tired of the songs when I'm out there playing them every night," he says. "They become snapshots in time, and it's not a burden to go back and play them ... You know, there's a real difference between confidence and arrogance. It's okay to know you're good as long as you continue to try to get better. And, having said that, I hope I never believe in my own greatness. As long as there are albums out there by Jackson Browne or the Beatles or Jason Isbell's 'Southeastern' - my favorite record of the last five years - I won't allow myself to be satisfied."
IF YOU GO
Who: Jesse Terry with Abbie Gardner and Craig Akin. End of America opens.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook
How much: $25
For more information: thekate.org, 1-877-503-1286
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