Delays and Reverbs Stacked Up on Everything: An Interview with Jackson Vincent

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.

What’s next?

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!

Loose and Free: An Interview with Brian Lambert

When I spoke to Brian Lambert back in December, he was well into his 52-week song challenge. Designed to showcase his skills as a songwriter, the challenge has also given Lambert a showcase for his ever-increasing skill as a music producer. Songs like “We Are OK” and the more recent “Heroes at the Dawn of Time,” “In Your Face,” “Kids,” “Hang Out with You,” and Lambert’s cover of the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” reflect a wide range of influences while allowing his craftsmanship to shine. As he nears the finish line, I thought I’d drop him a line to see what the year-long experience has meant to him.

Fifty-two songs in fifty-two weeks! How does it feel?

Thank you, Marc, for this opportunity to talk about what was a pretty epic adventure in music making.   As you can imagine there is quite the range of emotions: relief, excitement, a bit of sadness.  Overall, I‘m very proud of climbing this mountain I set out to climb.  In some sense, though, I’m really still so close to it that it’s hard to really put into words what the whole experience means.  I don’t know if I can until it’s a bit further in the rear view mirror.

Yeah, I guess it’s hard to have perspective when you’re still so close… Were you ever tempted to give up? What kept you going?

I don’t know if I was ever tempted to give up per se.  There were some outside pressures with money that made me question whether finishing this was the right thing to do, but by that point I was almost at the end and people were cheering me on.  It didn’t make sense to stop then.  More than that was the question of whether I could get the music done in time to keep on the song-a-week schedule.  I took a fall and injured myself which caused me to get behind.  The music takes the amount of time it takes to make and it created some anxiety around being able to complete it in the time I had set out for myself. It  was important to finish though, and working on music is the one thing I can do regardless of my mood or disposition.

I’m curious as to whether the parameters or even the purpose of the challenge changed for you over the course of the year. Did you go in expecting one thing and getting another?

I was intentional at the beginning about being loose with the parameters. It was such a huge undertaking I wanted to give myself as much grace as possible.  The purpose was to realize my potential in terms of songwriting, performance on a recording, and my production/mixing mastering skills.  I knew I wanted to write new songs in new ways, I knew I wanted to do some cover tunes and write a couple of instrumentals, but besides that it was really get a song a week out to the world every week for 52 weeks straight.   I view things a bit differently now, but do feel confident about my ability to express myself in the studio.

What did you learn about yourself as a result of this challenge? 

One, I love music.  There were times where I had to sit down and play when I wasn’t feeling it but afterwards I was almost always glad I did.  I’m not tired of music and am ready to start working on new music. I suppose the biggest thing is that I don’t have to be perfect, that I’m perfectly alright just the way I am.  Not sure how I came about that realization in the process, but I do feel that way now.   The other part is becoming less cerebral about the whole process.  Thinking doesn’t make good music, it’s more of a feel thing.  I honestly don’t remember how I did much of the last part of the challenge. There was a lot of just hitting record and letting it rip.  I think that’s how you get the right feel, loose and free.

What about your evolution as a songwriter?

I’m definitely more of a melody/music first songwriter now than I was before.  There were lots of times during the process later on when I would have all the music but no vocals or lyrics and then come up with them listening to the track.  Before this I would need a fully composed song on the guitar before starting.  This has been freeing in a lot of ways and allows me to kind of compose lyrics to the overall vibe of the track as opposed to feeling like I have to be able to sit down with a guitar and play the whole thing out.

Listening to your most recent tracks, I’m struck by your exponential growth as a music producer. What are some ways you’ve evolved in that regard? Any tricks or tips you can share with readers? 

 I think that is a result of listening with the mindset of an objective listener. After doing so many tracks, it gets easier to notice when you start to get bored with the song.  Like a more passive than active listening where if I start to lose interest, I think about what I can do to keep my attention. So much is about what you take out at certain parts than what you put in.  Creating subtle dynamics with volume or eq is one way to do that, but I’ve found arrangement is probably the most effective way to keep listeners interested over the course of a song.

I’m also thinking about the sheer number of songs you’ve released. Do you think of them all as being of a single piece—like one massive album—or do different songs fit into different categories and represent different sides of who you are as an artist? 

I think of the project of going through some distinct phases.  Phase one was just getting a sense of things and experimenting, I’d say up to about up to “On Your Side,” which was song 16.  I really just kind of played around with different approaches and ways of doing things.  Phase two was definitely an indie pop/rock stage which is most encapsulated in the We Are Ok album that I released only on Bandcamp.  By that time I felt like I had a specific method and was going for more or less a unified sound with an album in mind.  Next I decided to explore one-mic recordings and getting a great performance without hiding behind production.  It seemed to me that was the element that was still lacking for me.  I had always been told I was way better live than on recordings and I wanted to finally get over that hump. So I basically just sang take after take until I got it right.  The last phase was the last 12 songs which to me make up an album and was really me taking everything I had learned and putting it all together.  There is a bit of a grungy aspect to some of the songs because I was just feeling that. The last 12 saw me do a collaboration, wink, a co-write, and three of the songs were inspired by Twitter friends.  I was really happy with how all of them came out and really feel like the best work was right there at the end.

What do you think about this body of work that didn’t exist a year ago?

I feel great about it and, ironically enough, about the work I released prior to it as well.  This process was about growth and learning to accept myself, and I accomplished that.   It’s still really a ton to process.  I wish I had some really great insight that I could share about the whole experience, but I think whenever you do something this big, the scale of what you’ve done won’t make sense until a little further down the road.  I guess in a rambling way I’m saying I’m still too close to it to have perspective.  I know that for the first time I listen to my own work and really enjoy it and for me that’s a huge win.

Definitely a huge win! What’s the plan now that you’ve met the challenge? 

Gosh, I need to figure out the whole how do I make a living thing.   I’m looking at ways to do it from art but the reality that I need to add some dollars to the bottom line is ever present, so figuring that out is a priority.   Artistically, I have a remix that I did for Scoopski coming out soon and then another collaboration with Marc Schuster* that I am super excited about.  I need to release some of the songs in album form.  I’d like to do more collaborations and just contribute to other projects and help people realize a bit more of their own visions, but nothing concrete as of the moment.

Do you think you’ll do it again?

No, not intentionally in any case.  I’ve proven what I need to myself in terms of my ability to write and produce quality work.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in time working with other people that I surpassed that output but as for creating challenges that have to do with a volume of work in a set amount of time that challenge has been met.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Brian! 

It was my pleasure Marc, thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the huge journey that I just completed.

*Hey! That’s me!

Catching Up…

I love interviewing indie musicians on this blog, but I’m always wondering what my previous guests are up to. Here’s what a handful of them had to say when I dropped them a line to find out…

Saves the Witch: We recently decided to turn all profits from merch to benefit Ukraine.

The Smashing Times: We’ve been busy gearing up for the CA tour and we have a couple gigs coming up in the area. Between that and getting the LP ready we are pretty much living the dream. Not too much has changed since we last spoke, we are just putting those things into action. Zelda and I recorded some tracks last summer and I am considering releasing that. I also need to master the Midden Heap EP so we can have those cassettes when we get to the sunshine state. Everyone who has helped us out so far has been sooo amazing! Shout out to Brenden from Semitrucks and Britta and Stanley from Children Maybe Later. See you soon!

Megazillion: I just finished Megazillion’s debut album “Triple Phoenix” which now needs to be mastered. I spent a year and a half making it with the Secret Weapon on drums. Very excited!! You can expect a mix of rock, shoegaze, punk, doom, post punk, even a little electro. Hoping for a late spring release!   I will be making a few music videos for it as well. Not long after that I will be releasing an EP of acoustic guitar based ambient music. Very pretty, hypnotic and chill. Then a remix EP of my song “The Sea and We.”

Also, I am starting a series called “Low-fi High” which is going to be releases of experimental music I used to make with my old 4-track. I never really put any of it out besides one release and it’s a huge archive. Also, we will start tracking the follow up full length album with the more “song” related material ASAP, the drummer and I have about seven tunes we already play, plus a bunch of songs that need to have the layout finished and I got some beats that need vocals, might end up being enough for two albums. Find me on Twitter, IG, Bandcamp and YouTube! I have a bunch of videos and singles already available from 2020! Please check it out!

Eric Linden: I’ve got a new song called “All and Everything.” It’s a song about that thrilling feeling of finally having a breakthrough after years of searching. This is a really personal song for me. It was inspired by my wife, Jenner. I overheard her talking to her sister on the phone and she was so excited that her business was starting to take off that she could hardly get the words out. She told her sister “It’s all… It’s everything I’ve been working for all these years.” About two hours later I brought my acoustic guitar upstairs and played her this song. I could hardly get through it I was so emotional. I was so happy for her time to shine.

Jeff Willet of Table for 26: I’ve been busy planning for the next Table for 26 release! We’re recording (and filming) nine cover songs this time with an even larger string section, so it’s a huge endeavor but we’re already seeing some great results! I’m also anxiously awaiting the late-April release of a film by filmmaker John Welsh (Rare Light Media) that I scored, wrapping up the recording of drums and percussion for a video game, as well as continuing to make great progress mixing my own solo album!

Photo courtesy of The Smashing Times.