“If you would have ever told me I’d be living in the South, I would have said you got to be freaking kidding me,” says singer/songwriter Jessie Baylin of her new Nashville home.
Baylin is a proud daughter of New Jersey and credits her love of music to her hometown of Gillette. It was there that she lived for most of her childhood above the restaurant-cum-jazz club that her parents owned. Baylin would spend every night downstairs listening to music; when there wasn’t a live act performing, classic rock and jazz would be blaring from the stereo.
“My dad tells me that by the age of two-and-a-half, I would be picking up mics and singing into them,” she says. “All that music I listened to then became part of who I am. It’s in the way I sing, it’s in my songwriting.”
But Nashville isn’t the first place Baylin left home for.
After graduating from high school, Baylin headed to Los Angeles in hopes of getting out of her comfort zone. “At home, I was always surrounded by at least 30 people,” she says. “Everyone that worked or played at the club was part of my extended family. So going to a place where I knew no one let me focus on myself and on my writing. I would go to cafes in L.A. and write in my journal for hours and hours. I was really lonely, but it was a magical time filled with possibilities. I never knew who I might meet. Everyone was a stranger.”
Baylin ended up writing her first song in L.A. and immediately felt drawn to making music. With a few more tunes under her belt, she became a fixture on the L.A. coffeehouse circuit and soon scored attention from labels and a publishing deal with Sony ATV.
Her publisher eventually put her in touch with Jesse Harris, a songwriter known for his work with Norah Jones. Baylin says she “was never one to be into doing songwriting sessions with a stranger, because you end up revealing a lot about yourself. But I instantly felt comfortable with Jesse. I don’t know if it’s because we have the same name or because he’s a goofy guy or what, but we just clicked. Within the first 20 minutes, we had a song.”
Within a matter of days, they had nine more songs and a band, including the legendary Jim Keltner on drums. Initially hoping for just a few good demos, Baylin ended up with a complete first album, called “You.”
Sony ATV paid for the album’s production, but promotion was a grassroots affair. “It was basically just me putting up songs on MySpace and posting bulletins,” Baylin recalls.
It turns out that was enough: Baylin had already built a strong fan base in L.A., and although she’d turned down several earlier offers, the labels started to circle once more. She ended up signing a deal with Verve Forecast.
“When the Verve offer came, I almost felt like I had missed my moment,” she says. “I mean, at my fifth show ever I had Capitol there wanting to sign me. But at that point I just felt like, how can you want to sign me when I don’t even know who I am yet? There was so much allure in doing that, the money and all that, but it didn’t line up with how I wanted my life to be then. I just wasn’t ready.”
But things were different by the time Verve came around. “I felt safe around them, as safe as you can with a major label,” Baylin says. “I felt like they were encouraging me to be me, even more than I myself sometimes did. I just had to go on my instinct, and [signing a deal] finally felt right.”
Less than eight months after “You” was done, Baylin was making her major-label debut for Verve Forecast. That album, named “Firesight” in honor of the club in Jersey Baylin’s parents owned, bowed at No. 34 on Top Heatseekers on July 19. Blending modern singer/songwriter folk-pop with a slight country twang and jazzy overtones, “Firesight” reflects all those years Baylin was surrounded by music in her youth.
But Baylin still finds herself far from home.
“I fell in love with boy and here I am in Nashville,” she says. “Who would’ve guessed?”
That boy is Nathan Followill, drummer for Southern rock band Kings of Leon. But according to Baylin, the pair, now engaged, lives anything but rock ‘n’ roll lives in Tennessee. “I bought a house and I have a yard and a bicycle and live right off a golf course,” she says. “I play golf now. When I’m home, I’m 65 years old. It’s pretty hilarious. But then I remember that it’s nice to have that stability in your life, because as a musician so much of your life is unstable. You’re always on the move.”
And that’s how things will remain for Baylin.
“I’ll be touring again come the fall through the rest of the year,” she says. “There’s nothing like waking up every morning not knowing where you are. It’s something to get used to, for sure.”