One of my musical highlights of 2018 was Jaime Wyatt’s gig at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville. Wyatt has had to cope with some serious personal issues over the years, from substance abuse to incarceration, following a troubled childhood. What has never been in doubt is her talent as a songwriter and performer, evidenced by the release of her terrific album Felony Blues in 2017. She’s in a good place at present and you get the impression she has only scratched the surface of her talent bank with that album and possesses the skill set to generate much more intoxicating music going forward. She spoke frankly with Lonesome Highway about her career to date, as she continues to navigate her way along an industry that often provides setbacks and highlights in equal measures.
I loved your recent comment about your mother’s positive response when you put a Hank 111 album on your player! I had the pleasure of meeting her in Nashville recently and its obvious how immensely proud she is of you. How critical is her support for you as your career develops?
My mother and I are very close, as she mostly raised me on her own. She has always been a “seamstress for the band,” as she supported my father in his career in the 1980’s. She’s actually a seamstress and singer/songwriter, so I’m very fortunate that’s something we get to do together.
You’re following in her footsteps as I believe she also has performed on stage with some big hitters?
My mother and father sang and wrote songs in the 1980’s in Los Angeles. My mother sang backups on the Porky’s movie soundtrack and sang on Skunk Baxter’s solo record. She could have had more credits as a singer, if she had an easier life.
One of the first things she said to me was ‘You know Jaime is Irish’, which I loved. Tell me about your Irish ancestry and what it means to you?
My last name is O’Neill, my father was born into a large Catholic family of Irish descent. My great grandmother came from Dublin and her family from Cork. I identify greatly with my Irish roots. Their passionate love of poetry, song and emotion is something I feel fortunate to have inherited, by my Irish bloodlines.
Your songwriting is acutely personal and soul bearing, giving the impression of a writer who is more content writing in the first person. Tell me about your writing process, is it a case of noting every day experiences and encounters and developing them into songs over a dedicated period of time, or are you constantly writing songs even when touring?
I am constantly writing phrases on the road, noting ordinary experiences which could possibly convey an emotional story or carry a more complex meaning. I write things down in a journal and take voice memos of how those phrases would be sung, or they might just get catalogued until my sub conscience processes them into a melody or hook phrase. Once I am anchored, I get into song construction and start recording and playing back, going through several edits. I am obsessed with the melody flow and fitting the right word into the puzzle, while staying true to the story. The song and melody usually leads the story, though sometimes I think I get to lead the story.
You were exposed to lots of rock music by your parents growing up attending concerts by Grateful Dead and the like. Like many artists of your generation you embraced the Grunge scene as a young woman, subsequently progressing to blues. Explain the progression to where you are at musically today?
I grew up on a lot of rock ‘n’ roll & folk singer/songwriters like Dylan, Stones, Prine, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty and I got to see concerts with my parents, as they always knew someone in the band or crew. Some shows I saw as a child were: The Grateful Dead, Booker T & The MGs, Neil Young, Bonnie Rait. My mother was always singing old Hank Williams songs around the house. I was raised in Washington State, about two hours south of Seattle, where grunge originated. My sister and cousin were attending shows and buying that music, which they shared with me. It was a very exciting time and that music was so expressive, it was certainly inspiring to my, as I was just picking up the guitar. When I started playing guitar, I was learning Nirvana songs like everyone else, then I started studying music, dissecting it, and eventually got back to the origins of rock, which was blues music.
I should note that as a child I worked at the neighbour’s horse barn, where the local modern country music station was always playing and I became versed in 90s country. I was running around the woods singing Patty Loveless, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Alan Jackson and more. Then shortly after that I discovered Jeff Buckley and Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, so really, the only common thread of all my musical taste is passion.
You’re on record as describing yourself as quite a shy individual yet on stage you exude confidence. Rather than suffer from stage fright does your stage persona actually allow you to let yourself go?
Yes, most the time. The stage is a place of freedom- it’s a place safe to be outgoing and present my art for others. Something I’ve noticed over time, is that the more involved and excited the audience is, the better I can entertain. I feel like it’s such a collective thing, I can’t do it on my own, I sing higher and louder with better runs when I am performing for others, then what I can dream up alone in my bedroom. It’s quite a magical thing.
You signed two record deals when still in your teens just before the bottom fell out of the music industry music. How traumatic was this for someone at that age presumably with expectations of a career breakthrough?
It was my first encounter with disappointment in the music business and therefore the most earth shattering. In my mind, this music career was supposed to fix all the neglect, abandonment and confusion of my childhood. I inherited the addiction gene and had a hard childhood, so my career was the only thing keeping me responsible. When the career fell through, it made for the perfect storm of drug addiction.
Your descent into drug abuse and subsequent sentencing to eight months in the L.A. County Jail has been well documented and I’ve no intention in dwelling too much on what is now history, particularly as you’ve moved on and put that all behind you. Stone Hoteland Wasco, are both based on that experience. Did that whole struggle at that time inspire your song writing or is that an over simplification?
I started writing Stone Hotel in jail. I was inspired by some fiercely resilient people I met while incarcerated. People who came from dirt poor neighbourhoods ridden with drugs, prostitution and violence and society told them they’d never amount to anything. They responded to our mistreatment in jail with this attitude of “the cops work for me,” which I found thoroughly entertaining and noteworthy. I didn’t have a guitar for a couple years, so I finished that song a few years later.
It’s a similar story with Wasco. My cellmate was writing to a dude in Wasco State Prison, whom she saw in court and they started planning their wedding through these letters. I tried to include deeper meanings for universal human truths in each song, but I think they came off as dumb as they sound! Also, it took me years to finish and perfect these songs, as long as it took to put together the pieces of my life and spirit. I’m still working on the latter.
I’ve been loving every minute of Felony Blues since its release. It’s branded you an ‘Outlaw’ artist which is quite understandable. What steered you in the ‘country’ direction and away from a more indie sound and what artists music pointed you in that direction?
Well it’s funny, because my first band was very country-folk and I always wanted to make a country record. I always heard twangy guitar or steel licks, but I was making music on the west coast and indie rock was big, so my songs were produced that way. When I learned how hard it was going to be to get another record deal, I gave up on trying to please everyone and decided I would dive deeper into studying country. Probably because my mother reminded me of the many country songwriters who struggle with drugs and incarceration, but found an audience in Americana, embracing these stories of hard-luck and ruff ways.
Your cover of Merle Haggard’s Misery and Gin is to die for, invariably I have to play it at a second or third time when I get to the end of the album. How did you come about selecting it for the album?
Thank you. I met a gentleman named John Durill, though my dear friend Abby North and John wrote tons of songs for Cher, Haggard and Nancy Sinatra. We hung out and I listened to his songs as he told me stories of the music business in the 70s and 80s. He said he had the perfect song for me, that he’d written for Merle Haggard for the movie Bronco Billy and it was called Misery & Gin. Being that I am an addict/alcoholic, it proved to be the perfect song for me. He taught it to me at his house in LA and the rest is history.
Did his real-life experience of turning his life around having witnessed Johnny Cash play San Quentin strike a chord with you?
Yes, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard, and one that changed my life, Merle Haggard being incarcerated, when Johnny came to perform for inmates at San Quentin prison.
Comparisons have been made, certainly by myself, with your album and the early Lucinda Williams work. For me the similarities go even deeper than that, I see likenesses also in your fragility, perfectionism and stage presence. Coincidence or is/was she a role model?
Lucinda Williams has been an influence from the time I first heard her, when I was a young child and my mother played me “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” I never knew much about her stage presence or personal life, so I can’t say why we are similar, but I agree and would suspect that people who long to be close to the flame of inspiration, inevitably get burned in the process.
Many artists of your vintage record a ‘country’ album, get industry recognition and proceed to take a complete detour with their next recording, invariably developing a more indie sound. Are you tempted to try something different next time around or continue with your present sound?
I’m still moved by country music, so I’m still studying it and going deeper. That buzz isn’t gonna wear off for a couple more albums. But rock n roll, folk and soul music always surfaces throughout my recordings.
Is your early career side project with band American Bloomers in hiatus to be revisited or history at this stage?
History for now. They are super talented, I’m just coordinating tours with my band and writing for this new album.
So, you’re working towards another solo album at present?
Yes, right now, tracking in April.
Finally, I believe you tell a charming ‘cowboy boots’ story about meeting Bonnie Raitt which I’d love to hear?
I was 4 or 5 years old and my parents took me to see Bonnie Raitt at the forum in LA. This is one of my only memories of living in California. I was extremely moved by her performance, then I was backstage and got to meet her. I had cowboy boots on and I noticed she did too. Maybe it was the boots, but it was in that moment that I wanted to write sing and play guitar like her.
We are dearly hoping for dates in Ireland from you in the coming year. Is it likely to happen?
I sure hope that can happen very soon, as it would be a dream for me as well.
Interview by Declan Culliton