I had the good fortune of seeing Jackson Vincent perform when we were both on the bill with our good friend Scoopski at the Rusty Nail in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a few weeks back. Haunting and moody, his EPs Foxtrot and Normal Tension have a dreamy, cinematic quality in terms of both sonic atmosphere and lyrical arc that he adapts to the stage with a single electric guitar and a handful of effects. Both live and on the record, as it were, listening to Jackson Vincent is like keeping an ear open for ghosts in the early, misty predawn hours of a long night in a long-abandoned ancestral home.
First, great show at the Nail! I know you also had a show the next night at City Winery in Philadelphia. How did that show go?
Thank you! You did great too! City Winery was a great time. It’s always fun playing here in Philly. It was a much different show from the Nail. Two hours of acoustic jams, so I covered the majority of my discography and threw in some fun covers. Lots of people came up to meet me after the set, which is always a nice time!
Your live set is pretty spare, at least in terms of instrumentation—just you and a guitar and a couple of effects. What gear are you using? What led you to those particular effects, and how do they contribute to the sound you’re going for?
My main guitar is a 1966 Epiphone Century. I love that thing so much. It’s such a unique sounding guitar and it feels just as special. It really tells you how to play it, like that specific guitar demands that you hold and strum it a certain way. It’s become my best friend over the years. I’m playing through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp now which is a classic. I was using a Vox AC15 for the past few years but it was just so heavy and the tubes got really hot sounding really fast during a set so I traded it for the Deluxe Reverb. You just can’t go wrong with a Fender amp. At the moment I’m just using three guitar effects on my live board; a Deadbeat Sound Reverberation Station, a TC Electronic Nether Octaver, and an EHX Crayon. That’s really all I need at the moment. At the time I got them, at least, they were all super accessible and cheap enough that I didn’t mind throwing them around on stage. They’ve really taken a beating lately! Most of my reverb comes from the amp, so the Reverberation Station is usually kept pretty low just to add a little extra layering in the mix. I usually only have it on for my old stuff, like Foxtrot. The Crayon just adds a little dirt here and there, this one is also kept pretty minimal. I use the Nether to add a lower octave under my regular guitar tone. I pretty much only use that for Happiest right now.
My vocal effects are the real thing that people go crazy for at my shows. All those harmonies, vocoders, autotune, and formant shifting are happening in real time through a Roland VT-4. I usually keep the unit on a stand to my right on stage and control it throughout the set. That thing gets a ton of usage. It’s super versatile and once I got around the learning curve for it it became really fun to play with live.
Listening to your two EPs, I’m struck by the evocative soundscapes you create. Often, your voice takes on a ghostly quality. It’s a little like being in a dream—walking through an old, empty house and disembodied voice from the next room over. Incredibly haunting! How did you achieve that sound—not just on your voice, but on the recordings as a whole? What’s your recording setup like?
For starters, there’s lots of delays and reverbs stacked up on everything. If it’s not drowning in a pool of reverb, I don’t want it. I try to keep my recording setup as simple as possible. I typically record using the exact setup I bring out on stage so that my records and performances sound similar. For both of my EPs I mostly bypassed a traditional recording studio; Foxtrot was recorded alone in the living room of my parents’ house and the final recordings that made it onto Normal Tension were all made in my producer’s home studio. It gave both recording experiences a more comfortable and cozy feeling that I think definitely transferred into the masters.
You mentioned during your set at the Nail that the first EP came together much more quickly than the second. Can you talk more about that?
Absolutely! Foxtrot was written in the span of just a few days, really. Recording it took a few weeks on and off but it was all written pretty quickly. That record was made in the middle of a really tough time in my life. Everything seemed to be going wrong, I was losing passion for almost everything I once loved, the relationship that I had worked tirelessly for years to maintain was falling apart in front of me. It was a steady flow of getting kicked while I was down and I had a lot to say about that. Normal Tension is more like the aftermath of how my life was for Foxtrot. It’s a lot like me looking back at that period after living through it. At the time I was writing this new record I wasn’t entirely sure just how I felt about things still. Normal Tension was a therapeutic experience for me. I was finding myself more as I was writing these tracks, so naturally it was a lot harder to get those thoughts out. From start to finish it took me just under a year to make, which is a big switch from the few weeks the first record took.
Each EP also has a narrative arc, with Normal Tension building on the story you started telling in Foxtrot. How does storytelling fit into your songwriting? Or, to put it another way, what do you see as the relationship between story and song?
Both EPs were always concept records to me. I wrote them with the intention of forming this story through sound. There’s a single narrator that is sharing their world in these songs and crosses over from Foxtrot to Normal Tension. There’s that ambiguity though, too. There’s rarely a time where I’ll provide a name or any other type of conforming detail. These songs are part of a whole, but each their own mysterious little story that the listeners have the ability to find themselves in. There’s a theme and a storyline in my mind while I write, but I’m not necessarily going to say what that is. That’s for the listener to decide. There’s really no wrong answer, just different connections to be made.
Is there a confessional aspect to your storytelling?
For sure. I always used the narrator of the songs as a loose reflection of myself. These songs say the things that I can’t say in person. Hidden in the lyrics are truths I’ve denied, apologies I could never give, and certainly some confessions. Songwriting is a real outlet for me. If there’s something on my mind that I need to let out, it’ll find its way into lyrics.
You produced Foxtrot on your own and worked with a producer, Mekhi Jackson, for Normal Tension. What was the difference between the two experiences? What did working with a producer bring to the process?
The processes behind the two records were wildly different in the most beautiful way. Foxtrot, both in themes and sound, is very dark and almost miserable. The recording process was very representative of the record as a whole. I made Foxtrot alone in a dark room in the middle of the night with nobody listening or watching me. Normal Tension, still not the happiest of records, certainly shows a vague sense of optimism hidden underneath its misery. There’s a little bit of positivity to be found there. It was wonderful to not be alone while making it. Mekhi is a master at his craft and brought a lot to the record that I may have never even thought of. I arrived at his studio with six skeletons of songs and he helped mold them into the best work of my career so far. We almost always were thinking on the same wavelength so the sessions really just felt like two guys hanging out and having fun doing what they do best. I’d record a guitar track and all of a sudden he’s adding the most beautiful orchestral arrangements I’ve ever heard.
How do you see your music evolving from one project to the next?
I don’t really think about it until it happens. Like from Foxtrot to Normal Tension I didn’t really think about changing the sound until I looked back at the demos for NT and realized how different it had become. That’s good though. It’s nice to switch things up but I feel like if I sat down and told myself to find a new sound I would just fall flat or hate the result. I’m sure my sound will continue to evolve with each new project I create. I’m just having fun doing what I do and playing with new sounds as much as I can.
I know that you’ve studied photography. Is there any overlap? Does photography inform your approach to music? Or, from the other side of the equation, does music inform your approach to photography? Do you ever carry concepts, ideas, or techniques from one medium to the other?
My professors often point out the similarities in my approaches to the two art forms. My music has become known for being dark and almost depressing at times. My photographs, like my music, are purposely dark and underexposed. Professors tend to show a distaste for it, but there’s certainly an audience for it. I know the rules for photography and making “correct” exposures, I just choose not to follow them. If I followed the rules that everyone else follows then my photos would look just like everyone else’s. I suppose the same can be said about my music.
Something big! I can’t be sure what that is yet, but I can feel it coming. I’ve had a constant thought of Foxtrot and Normal Tension being the first two installments in a trilogy of EPs telling this story, so it’s pretty safe to say a third EP will be in the works in the near future. And as many gigs as I can possibly get!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!
Thanks for having me!