A LOT'S HAPPENED to Jessie Baylin since her last album, 2008's Firesight. She fired her manager, walked away from a major-label record deal with Verve, and married a King of Leon. Oh, and she recorded an extraordinary album and EP that both stand favorably alongside the best records from the '60s—or any era.
The album, Little Spark, is a lengthy labor of love for Baylin, who says the goal was simply "to make an album that I would want to listen to." She continues, "I just spent a lot of time soul searching and listening to music and just kind of figuring out who I wanted to be. This was my opportunity to do that. I couldn't wait any longer and fall in a direction any deeper that I didn't want to go. I listened to Dusty in Memphis and I was like, 'I wanna make that, but now.' And make it really big and epic but yet at the same time intimate, because that's what I feel when she's singing those songs."
Little Spark's producer Kevin Augunas suggested they enlist a conspirator in musician Richard Swift, who'd then just broken a finger and was beginning to work more as a producer and arranger. Baylin went up to Swift's home studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon, to work on the demos she'd been carefully honing. Swift took on the role of arranger, playing multiple instruments on each track.
"I really didn't know anything about Jessie when I was asked to work on her record," says Swift. "As soon as I heard the demo for 'Yuma' I was sold, and knew immediately how it should sound. The songs that we recorded at my place had me playing all the instruments with a cast on my left hand. Making Jessie's record gave me hope that I could make records despite permanently losing the use of a digit."
Work continued with Augunas and Swift in LA, and soon Little Spark grew into a record with the scope Baylin was hoping for. They explored the boundaries of the pop-song format via a vintage approach to record-making, hearkening back to an era when pop, rock, soul, and country could all be heard at the same place on the AM dial. Despite its ambition, it feels in no way calculated. "We definitely wanted to make it believable," says Baylin. "I figured if Richard believed me then others would."
Little Spark has been done for over a year, but is just now coming out on the Thirty Tigers label. "All that patience was worth it even if it was painful," Baylin says. While waiting for it to see the light of day, Baylin and Swift got together for five days in November to record an absolutely marvelous EP in Baylin's Nashville living room on four-track cassette. Consisting of covers like Thin Lizzy's "A Song for While I'm Away" and Arthur Russell's "I Couldn't Say It to Your Face," plus Baylin's own "White Noise," the outstanding Pleasure Center—available for free on Baylin's SoundCloud page—is one of the most purely enjoyable recordings in recent memory.
"I think it's an extension of the album," says Baylin, who's currently rehearsing here in Portland with a live band that includes members of Pure Bathing Culture and Vetiver. "I think the next album will be a bridge between Little Spark and that. Just a little more hi-fi."