Q&A: Caitlin Jemma

Photo Credit: Giant Eye

Virginia City, Nevada has always been a place of hardtack women. Found in the desert mountains just to the east of Reno it was the site of the first large deposit of silver ore the Comstock Lode and became one of the biggest silver boom towns of the era, a swelling zeitgeist of danger, excitement and opportunity in the middle of nowhere. It was a rough, brutal existence of blasting and hacking through rock and blackness for the crumbs of a fortune that would probably never come.

Mining was an overwhelmingly male endeavor and the women who found themselves building a life in that environment as wives, business owners and laborers had a toughness, resilience and fierceness that was essential for survival. Every opportunity was scraped together in bits in pieces, a victory just to make it to the next day.

This is where singer and songwriter Caitlin Jemma was born. Like the women who found themselves there before her, Jemma just “wants to put a little mark on this planet” with her own two hands, albeit with her pen, paper and guitar rather than a pick axe (she keeps to her Virginia City roots by making western wear and jewelry).

Her version of striking out for opportunity has been traveling the western landscapes of California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada for years sharing her personal stories in song for anyone who will listen, from bars to backyards to festivals in the woods, many times with her band The Goodness. It’s a tenuous life scrapping together a living one show, one song, one connection at a time but it has been a fulfilling one for Jemma. Her talent and resilience has given her the opportunity to really shine for a wide audience with the release of her latest album True Meaning this Friday.

Out on American Standard Time Records True Meaning is the best album in her career and really has Jemma coming into her own as an artist. She’s always had this affable, inviting mix of Joni Mitchell’s poetic wistfulness with the hearts and rainbows flare of summertime soul and this album finds these elements as fluid and potent as ever.

There’s the moonlit highway reflections of “One Little Feeling,” the bubbly pop of “Color,” to the transcendent cosmic ripples of “Constellation in the Sky.” Her vibrant sound on True Meaning is supported by her current iteration of The Goodness, Michael James on guitar, Nevada Sowle on bass, Cooper Trail on drums and John Craigie on harmonica, with background vocal features from her friends The Rainbow Girls and the steady sonic hand of engineer Sacha Müller.

In Caitlin Jemma you’ll see an artist coming into their own after years of building a life for herself with every scrap of talent and charisma she has. She’s poured into her life into sharing stories with songs and True Meaning will give a growing audience a pleasant and reassuring cup of cosmic tea to drink and enjoy. Opportunity feels right at her fingertips, and like the women before her from Virginia City, she’ll keep digging until its hers. One day at a time.

The following is a conversation with Caitlin Jemma. It has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said your single “One Little Feeling” is about gratitude towards your feelings? What are you grateful for?

The song is about me healing from heartbreak and going through a big transition of not living with a partner and being single again after six years. The gratitude comes from knowing you are ok even when you are in a lot of sorrow and you are in a lot of grief. The tool for me was literally the road and traveling and going through that process out there. 

There’s this book I found when I was in college called The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and he asks you to invite your feelings over like their friends for a cup of tea. If you are feeling anxious or depressed or these negative feelings we don’t have to beat ourselves up about them, we can be kind with them. I think about that all the time because there is a lot of shame in our culture about these “negative” feelings and there isn’t much of a grief process. The gratitude comes from the wisdom in that book and feeling my feelings and not pushing away or numbing. 

During that time I was traveling I didn’t drink much because I felt like I’d go down in an alcoholic spiral (chuckles). I learned to fully ride the wave of this lost feeling and separation feeling. It was not fun but it felt really real, it was a spiritual time for me. 

“Constellation in the Sky” is the song that struck me as new territory for you. You just float in this one little coda of music, very moody and esoteric. Where did that evolution come from?

That song is about a friend of mine who passed away in high school. I wrote that song in quarantine. I had wanted to write a song about Justin for years but it wasn’t until I was back home with my parents that the song came. I just wrote the chords and lyrics and I had no real vision for it. Then my guitarist Michael (James) turned it into that Radiohead-like thing. I speak more in feelings (laughs), I’m not a technical musician, so I wanted the part to feel like it was my friend’s spirit. Those ideas came from when we were in the studio and rehearsing with each other. 

It was fun with this album because I feel like a lot of my influences came together, rather than just focusing on country and soul. There’s rock, pop and even that kind of Radiohead. There’s bands in high school I’m listening to again and it’s cool to see that the influence is still there with me even though I haven’t listened in a while. 

What songs feel the most collaborative or impacted by someone that was involved in the process that influenced the core of the song? 

“Color” is one of those. It got that disco-folk and that little MIDI keyboard at the end. That would have never come from my brain, but Alex was just messing around and was like, “How about this?” (laughs). It was another song I wrote in quarantine and a lot of the songs I wrote then I didn’t play them with a band because I couldn’t be with my band so there wasn’t any real pre-production on them. We got together a couple days in Portland before the session and just jammed at an AirBnB. What I love about the band on this record — which was also on my last record — is they are really good at playing each other’s instruments. So if anyone was stuck, there were a lot of suggestions to go around and get somewhere.

What were you ambitious for on this record? What feels like an active, engaging evolution? 

I really believe in the community of fans. It’s exciting to get on a playlist because there will be more ears on it. I think this album is really special and touches on these bigger feelings that are deep (chuckles) and it would mean a lot to me to have more ears on it because I think it’s a special record. It’s on American Standard and some of my bandmates are on that label and it’s really nice to be a part of this. 

There was an Instagram post I saw where you wrote about being grateful to be a part of an artistic community and that it makes the sacrifices worth it. What is a specific sacrifice you feel you grapple with and how does your artistic community help give you resolve and perspective? 

For a lot of people, like me, it’s stability. The artistic path is very winding (chuckles) and it’s helpful to have a group of people along for the ride with me. You have to really trust and believe in yourself and your fans. Stuff like metrics can feel disempowering. 

I raised this album on Kickstarter and raised $16,000. It showed a stability in my fans after having done this for so many years. The old music paradigm of doing things is falling away and it’s more important than ever for artists to develop more personal relationships with their fans. I know that there are real people feeling my music. 

I understand you put together a writing workshop on folklore and finding yourself within it. In what ways have you found yourself via folklore? What was it and what did it reveal?

I started doing those classes in the pandemic because I needed to do something artistic and the first writing workshop was a six-week course on the stages of grief. I really wanted to bring people to the writing part of music because not everyone is a musician but everyone has a story. I’m primarily a writer and have always been that way since I was young, poetry and stuff way before I was songwriting. I was inspired by the fact these fairytales are symbolic of the human experience and they are helpful to see our experiences outside our own minds. 

Folklore is interesting because of how everything has a meaning and it’s good for the mind to be searching for those meanings. I was in my garden today for example, and I had started these snap peas from seed. You are supposed to start them ‘till mid March and I started them too late and they weren’t blooming. I was going to pull them out and my friend told me to wait until they might turn into peas. Sure enough, they are becoming peas! I see a symbol in that towards my artistic path. During the pandemic I was ready to pull the plug on this stuff, I couldn’t play music. I didn’t see anything happening (laughs). But now I’m starting to flower. 

Are there any aspects of folklore that you think play into the “cosmic cowgirl” aesthetic and character that you have intertwined into your music and public persona? 

I think of the tales of wild west women. I’m from Virginia City, Nevada. There’s this history there and you always hear about the men, every now and again you’ll hear about the women. I’m attracted to the image of this badass wild west woman (laughs). There is this strength and resilience in them and I’m trying to add a psychedelic flair. I think the more in touch I am with “the universe” (chuckles) and in touch with the fact I am on a ball floating through space and in touch with my impending death the more grateful I am to be alive and cherish every day. It’s the combination of someone on earth doing earthly things while still being connected to the bigger picture.

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