jess mcintosh of joybird
Jess McIntosh is a singer/songwriter and accomplished fiddle player who heads up a project known as Joybird.
She welcomed us into her home recently for a short conversation about her work, Chicago bands she loves, and Maypole Fest which is this Saturday at the Empty Bottle from 2pm to close. It’s only $15 dollars and the lineup of eight local acts runs the gamut of what the folk genre has to offer.
JM: Jess McIntosh of Joybird
CCS: Can you tell me a bit about Maypole Festival?
JM: Maypole is a folk fest in the heart of the city - it was founded a few years back. I'm not positive how many, but started with a committee of young people. Now I think it's run by a lot of the same people. John Huber, Sara Leginsky, and Rob Jenson, with help from Dan MacDonald and Heather Malyuk.
CCS: Have you played the fest before?
JM: This is my first actually. I’ve been to it a couple times, but this year I’m playing in two bands. Joybird is playing at 3 (pm) and Al (Al Scorch and the Country Soul Ensemble) is playing second to last. (Jess plays fiddle in the Country Soul Ensemble.)
CCS: It’s an eclectic lineup.
JM: Yeah, it seems like it’s really important to them to not just represent white dudes playing folk music. Chicago has so many amazing different folk music scenes. The term "folk" these days can mislead people to think folk music is less than what has always been the music of the real people...everywhere. And we all live here, so that's something to get together behind.
CCS: You said you moved here in ‘13. What brought you to Chicago?
JM: Teaching at the Old Town School. I got the job while I was still living in Wisconsin - a mutual friend had recommended me for a teaching job, and knew I was thinking about moving to Chicago. The program manager called and asked if I would come and audition and interview and I got this super part time job teaching at Old Town School. And I was, like...that place is awesome. Like, how do I get to work there? So I took the job and then was like, cool, okay now I've gotta find another job. So I full time nannied and did all the hustles for a bunch of years. But now I’m at a point where I can teach there minimally and play the rest of the time for my living.
That whole community (Old Town) is amazing, and the reason I have any work as an artist. That core, and being able to walk into that place...those people are your friends? That’s a pretty good start in a big city.
CCS: So you said Wisconsin, are you from there?
JM: Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee and went to school in Eau Claire before I moved here. But I went to school for a year in Tennessee too, at East Tennessee State and studied Bluegrass and Appalachian history and the history of American pop music. Learned how to be in a band and take bluegrass solos, sing in harmony and shit like that. Of course I wasn’t really absorbing it all while I was there at 19 or 20 years old. Some of it stuck around though! I still have all the textbooks and I still look through them every once in awhile. It’s amazing stuff. I was living a lot of it, getting to sit in at jams with people who really knew the traditional tunes, figuring out what and where the music was outside of my midwest understanding of it.
CCS: You had mentioned that Old Town is a great support system. I know there is a rather large roots / bluegrass / americana scene in Chicago. But it stays under the surface and a lot of people don’t know about it. Can you speak a little about how the scene is and where a lot of these shows take place outside of Old Town?
JM: Yeah, from the outside looking in at the city of Chicago you might not see that, but it's lurking. It isn't huge, but definitely the people I have gotten to know who make music, from the Old Town School and outside of it, it’s all been so welcoming and loving. People just want to share it. There is a folk music collective called Old Lazarus Harp, a younger group of people all around my age who have become some of my deepest friends. Some of them ran into me at a fiddle contest the first year I lived here, and one came up to me afterwards and was like, Who are you? (Laughs) They exist because they are just interested in playing this music as much as they can, together and with others - we all gig together often. There is a wide and murky circle but there are smaller scenes, too, like Cajun or Irish. Like a lot of the Irish circles take place at the Galway Arms, but as far as the places that support folk music: Beat Kitchen has been really supportive recently, definitely. The Hideout...there are quite a lot of house shows, living room shows, but I guess that doesn’t help people that aren’t part of it. That is my favorite kind of show to play, a living room show. The Empty Bottle obviously. There is a huge country dance / Honky Tonk scene that's kind of rooted at The Empty Bottle. The Inner Town Pub, every other Tuesday, Old Lazarus Harp hosts a traditional jam there. People can go and it’s somewhat open if you want to bring an instrument. It’s a half curated, half not, jam situation. And Lilly’s Pub also hosts some jams and the Grafton Pub near the Old Town School has jams almost every night of the week. Hungry Brain also.
CCS: Oh, I love Hungry Brain.
JM: They got really good stuff going on there.
CCS: Yeah I’ve been looking at their calendar.
JM: Yeah, I may want to release my new album there.
CCS: Oh yeah?
JM: It’s a little smaller than the Hideout and I like the idea of it just feeling packed, you know. It is good vibes there.
CCS: How long have you been going under Joybird?
JM: Not even a year. I sort of put heads together with one of my number one collaborators Aaron, and we did a little fall tour. It was my first time putting a tour together and I knew we couldn’t just book ourselves as Jess McIntosh and Aaron Smith. I thought, if I’m going to the trouble to book this shit we should have a band name. So last September we started the change over to Joybird to kind of simplify things.
CCS: You do play in a lot of bands.
JM: Yeah, I’m like ten handed. Not that that means anything about me personally, I feel super lucky. I think it’s more fun, in some ways, to just play in someone else's band than to lead a band. But there is something really special about writing a song and sharing it. That power of giving people the opportunity to relate to an experience and process their own through it has been a cool new thing in being confident enough to play out my own stuff. It’s only been a year and a half or two that I’ve been playing shows of my own, compared to ten playing other peoples music. I kind of feel like a toddler about it.
CCS: Speaking of writing a song. Do you normally come up with the lyrics first or the tune or is it a mix?
JM: I just had a breakthrough yesterday, I hadn’t written in a long time and I wrote a whole song yesterday. It was rejuvenating and it helped me to remember the way all that falls into place. I mean, I was so amped afterward my legs wouldn't stop shaking, but usually it starts with a word idea that comes to me first. Or often it’s one little phrase of melody and some mumbo jumbo, just a word that sounds like something that feels good to say. And maybe I’ll accidentally say a word that triggers something that I was writing about, but usually there has to be at least a little bit of a melody for me to feel inspired. I have to pick up an instrument. And it’s usually the guitar - violin is my first instrument but I think guitar feels like the thing you’re going to grab if you’re going to write some words. It requires less thinking. Then that leads me to more words and then that leads me back to the music. So I guess it is simultaneous.
I don’t think I could write a whole song without having some sort of instrument in my hand. To me, I write poems and that is what that would feel like. Because when you write a poem, it can read very well, but you try singing it and it’s like cheesy as fuck. Or the words you write for a song, if you read them without music, it feels like something is missing.
CCS: So, say one of my favorite tunes of yours is “Clarity” So that tune, for instance, feels like a poem. And I was just wondering on that one in particular, what was the process?
JM: That was such a fluke of a song. Until the last second it wasn’t going to be on the record. And we recorded it at the last second, too. I was like “Bill I got this one other thing, I woke up the other day singing it” and I was kind of in the throes of a breakup and had smoked half a pack of cigarettes the night before and so I had this really gravelly voice. I had just killed my lungs and I woke up and recorded it on my iphone and it came out exactly like that. I didn’t write any of it down, I just had this iphone recording and I listened to it for a few days and I was like “this is sad as hell, but I like it.” And I showed it to Bill (Harris, her audio engineer and drummer) and he said we should record that. It was a last minute addition. It’s just a little meditation, a poem about feeling stuck in that moment. It was a total word salad. It just spewed out. I think that’s so cool that it’s your favorite. We have never played that song out. We have never even arranged it. I think the band has played it with me once, at a practice.
CCS: Yeah, there is something about just your voice and the spare guitar . . .
JM: It felt super revealing to me.
CCS: So, wrapping up, I ask all of our interviews: What are some Chicago acts that you are really excited about right now?
JM: I feel really excited about this duo I met at this festival called Postock. They are called Date Stuff. It’s some sort of delightfully complex math rock, with raw and unafraid voices. They are hitting it really hard right now, traveling a lot and playing all over.
There are some fantastic songwriters. My friend Gia Margaret blossomed this year. She just got signed by a small label and she is touring with The Weepies right now. She just played Thalia Hall with them.
We used to play together, I played fiddle on her songs a couple times and we worked together at the school. She is a great human and is writing some really evocative, cool shit.
All the people I collaborate with, I wish there were more band names for people to follow, but there are some amazing traditional artists. People who are interested in Maypole should also check out the Midwest Sing and Stomp that happens in the fall. Last year it was at Beat Kitchen. They took over both floors, it was great. It’s music made for dancing. That’s definitely a cool Chicago thing to check out.
CCS: You got anything else?
JM: Support my GoFundMe. We just recorded our second album and we are in the middle of mixing. We are hoping to achieve our goal of $6000 by June 1st. (Click here to support Joybird’s GoFundMe!)
CCS: Well good luck and it was wonderful to see you. Thanks for talking with us.
JM: Was great to see you too. See you next Saturday at Maypole!